Curtius on Alexander the Great and Hephaestion
Last week, I posted articles about what two of the best sources on Alexander's life, Arrian and Plutarch, said about the conqueror's relationship with his friend and general, Hephaestion. There has long been speculation that the two Macedonians were more than friends, and I thought it was worth revisiting the question.
This post looks at what Quintus Curtius Rufus (aka simply Curtius) wrote about Alexander and Hephaestion. Curtius was a Roman historian who wrote The History of Alexander in the First Century AD (a few decades before both Plutarch and Arrian). The History of Alexander is considered one of the five main sources on Alexander's campaign.
The first prominent mention of Hephaestion comes in Book 3:
"Hephaestion was by far the dearest of the king's friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets. No other person was privileged to advise the king as candidly as he did, and yet he exercised that privilege in such a way that it seemed granted by Alexander rather than claimed by Hephaestion" (Penguin edition, 3.12.16).
Then Curtius recounts the story, also in Arrian's Anabasis, of the Persian Queen Sisigambis mistaking Hephaestion for Alexander after the Battle of Issus:
"While he (Hephaestion) was the king's age, in stature he was his superior, and so the queens took him to be the king and did obeisance before him after their manner. Whereupon some of the captured eunuchs pointed out the real Alexander, and Sisigambis flung herself at his feet, apologizing for not recognizing him on the ground that she had never before seen him. Raising her with his hand, Alexander said 'My lady, you made no mistake. This man is Alexander too'" (3.12.17).
In the Penguin edition, there is an asterisk next to this popular anecdote that says this story, which apparently was provided by Ptolemy or Aristobulus, is probably fictitious. Some scholars believe Cleitarchus, a resident of Alexandria in Egypt, invented it. Cleitarchus' version of Alexander's campaign was very popular in ancient times, yet modern scholars believe the writings of eyewitnesses like Ptolemy and Aristobulus were far more reliable.
Later, in Book 7, Curtius draws a comparison between Hephaestion and a young male named Euxenippus. Little is known about the identity of Euxenippus, but some have theorized he may have been Bagoas, a Persian eunuch who Alexander favored.
"Euxenippus was still very young and a favourite of Alexander's because he was in the prime of his youth, but though he rivaled Hephaestion in good looks he could not match him in charm, since he was rather effeminate" (7.9.19).
Author Andrew Chugg makes the case in his book Alexander's Lovers that this comparison only makes sense in the context of Alexander's romantic/sexual interests. In other words, Curtius is discreetly explaining why Alexander was more attracted to Hephaestion than Euxenippus.
Unfortunately, significant portions of Book 10 of Curtius' work has been lost. This probably explains why he didn't mention Hephaestion's death, which according to the other ancient historians was a very traumatic event in Alexander's life.
So how does Curtius' characterize Alexander and Hephaestion's relationship?
Firstly, he agrees with Arrian, Plutarch, and others that Hephaestion was Alexander's closest and most trusted companion. However, there is no direct mention of anything sexual or romantic between them.
I am a bit torn on what to think here. I tend to agree with Chugg that the comparison between Hephaestion and a beautiful young man whom Alexander liked makes little sense in the context of a platonic friendship. If Curtius didn't mean to imply that Alexander and Hephaestion were more than just friends, it seems he would have needed to clarify this. Otherwise, the connection makes little sense.
But, to take the other side, maybe Hephaestion was simply the standard of handsomeness for Alexander's companions and naturally drew comparisons to any good looking man they came across.
If I were making a bet, I'd say Curtius believed there was something more between Alexander and Hephaestion but, for some reason, was reluctant to explicitly comment on it. Why? Maybe he lacked any hard evidence and was therefore reluctant to speculate.
Or maybe there was a political/cultural factor behind his discretion. Sexual relations between two adult males of a similar age was not a widely accepted practice in late 4th century Greece.