The Persion Boy: A Review

Bagoas, as played by Francisco Bosch in Oliver Stone's 2004 film "Alexander"

Bagoas, as played by Francisco Bosch in Oliver Stone's 2004 film "Alexander"

At long last, I read Mary Renault’s famous historical novel The Persion Boy, the 2nd installment of her trilogy about Alexander the Great. It is certainly one of the most famous books on the subject of Alexander, due to both its overall quality as well as its treatment of Alexander's relationship with the mysterious Persian eunuch Bagoas.

According to the ancient sources, Bagoas was a beautiful youth who excelled at dancing and was kept as a lover by the Persian King Darius III before the Macedonian invasion. Bagoas serves as the narrator in Renault's novel, recounting his childhood all the way through Alexander's triumph over the Persian Empire and campaigns through Bactria and India. The story ends with Alexander's death. 

My immediate reaction to the book (I just finished it a few minutes ago) is very positive. The attention to detail, both concerning the characters and the setting, is masterful. Clearly, Renault was fluent in the ancient sources and scholarship surrounding the life of Alexander. She is also a strong storyteller and does a clever job of weaving the most well known scenes of Alexander's life into Bagoas' narration. 

Although Renault - through Bagoas' perspective - acknowledges the death and hardships that Alexander instigated, she presents a very sympathetic portrayal of the conqueror. One is left with the popular, and not necessarily incorrect, impression of Alexander as a romantic hero: a deeply passionate warrior-king with an overflowing ambition to see and claim the world. This is certainly the Alexander many want to remember, and Renault's story takes us closer to this Alexander than virtually anything else I've come across. 

It's the book's sheer believability - Renault's ability to convince us that her account is in indeed the definitive account - that is both its greatest strength and weakness. One is able to get lost in the ancient world Renault has pieced together, which surely was the experience she sought to bring to the reader (and she deserves immense credit for her success). But, while immersed in such a fully-realized world, it's easy to lose track of which pieces are firmly rooted in history and which are her own invention. 

Some historians are skeptical that Bagoas, who in Renault's telling is Alexander's closest caretaker, close friend, and lover, played a prominent role in Alexander's life at all. While interviewing experts for an episode of the Ancient Heroes podcast about Hephaestion, I asked Jeanne Reames, Director of the Ancient Mediterannean studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, what her take was on Bagoas:

"I would caution people not to make too much of Bagoas...He's a nice romantic figure. A lot of it owes to her (Renault's) novel. But Bagoas is mentioned only a few times in the sources...It's hard to put a whole lot of status, or import on this." 

According to Reames, Alexander had "an eye for a pretty face" regardless of gender and it was "entirely possible" he had an affair with Bagoas and other male pages who served him. But she also explains that, by Alexander's time, most Greeks did not view eunuchs favorably, due to their distaste for physical alterations of any kind. They believed the only appropriate marks on one's body were scars earned from battle. 

"We have to remember that Alexander was a product of his society and his culture...The notion of him lifting a eunuch that high, as has sometimes been assumed, I think is a distortion of the historical record."

Reames' skepticism about the historical role of Bagaos is merited, in my opinion. However, one can make a decent case the other way, as Renault does in the book's afterward. Bagoas is the only male figure labeled by the top sources as Alexander's eromenos, a term denoting a sexual relationship. Renault also points out that Bagoas appears to have traveled with Alexander for many years and was well-liked by the generally xenophobic Macedonian troops, which indicate he had a special status in Alexander's royal court. 

For me, Renault presents a plausible take on Alexander's personal life, even if it's not the most plausible take. Ultimately, some liberties must be taken, and some debates must be set aside, to craft a compelling story from the limited historical accounts, which are already laced with ample exaggeration and mythology.

Over the millennia, countless writers and artists have sought to bring Alexander to life. In that quest, Renault has few peers. Highly recommended.