Plutarch on Alexander the Great & Hephaestion

Bust of Plutarch at his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece 

Bust of Plutarch at his hometown of Chaeronea, Greece 

As I investigate what the nature of Alexander the Great's relationship with Hephaestion, I'm reviewing what the main sources of antiquity have to say on the matter.

First, I looked at Arrian, probably the most reliable source on the details of Alexander's campaigns. Now, I am looking at Plutarch, a Greek (living within the Roman Empire) who wrote in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. His work Parallel Lives consists of 23 pairs of biographies of notable Greeks and Romans. It is one of the most important, and widely studied, work of ancient times. 

Plutarch (Parallel Lives, The Life of Alexander: 1st-2nd Centuries AD)

In Arrian's Anabasis, the first prominent mention of Hephaestion comes during the Graeco-Macedonian army's visit to the ruins of Troy at the outset of their Persian Campaign. Arrian mentions the familiar scene in which Alexander honors the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion honors the tomb of Patroclus. Plutarch, however, does not include Hephaestion at all in his retelling of this scene. Instead, he solely focuses on Alexander, writing that the young king was especially interested in achieving glory after death just as Achilles had. 

Plutarch also leaves out another famous scene in the Anabasis - of the Persian queen accidentally bowing before Hephaestion after the Battle of Issus. Plutarch remarks of Alexander's kindness toward his royal captives, but never mentions any such encounter. 

As far as I can tell, the first major insight Plutarch offers into Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion comes in Book 39, as he discusses Alexander's mother's habit of sending her son private letters from Macedon. 

"Olympias often wrote to him in this strain, but Alexander kept her letters to himself, with one exception. Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king's letters with him, and on this occasion his eye fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence" (Penguin edition, pg. 324). 

Although this anecdote is short, it shows the unparalleled degree of trust Alexander had in Hephaestion. Olympias' letters were filled with allegations of conspiracies and other highly combustible information. Clearly, Alexander had no fear that Hephaestion would ever betray him.

Then there was the tension between Hephaestion and Craterus, another one of Alexander's leading generals. According to Plutarch, Craterus had difficulty adapting to some of Alexander's Persian-inspired habits. Hephaestion, meanwhile, always supported Alexander. At one point, Craterus and Hephaestion drew swords against one another in order to settle their differences. But the fight was broken up by their comrades. 

"In general, he (Alexander) showed most affection for Hephaestion and most respect for Craterus, for he had formed the opinion and always said that Hephaestion was a friend of Alexander, while Craterus was a friend of the king" (332). 

It appears Alexander had a far more intimate relationship with Hephaestion than he did with Craterus, despite valuing the latter's importance as a warrior.

However, Alexander's dealings with Hephaestion were not always pleasant. When the fight between Hephaestion and Craterus was diffused, Alexander publicly told Hephaestion that "he must be a madman and a fool if he did not understand that without Alexander's favour he was nothing" (332). Then he swore to Zeus Ammon that even though he loved Hephaestion and Craterus more than any other men, he would not hesitate to kill the one who instigated the next quarrel. 

Alexander's reaction to this incident doesn't strike me as wholly out of character. But I can't help but think how out of sync it is with some depictions of Hephaestion as the one person who always brought out the tender, if not romantic, side of Alexander (like in Oliver Stone's film). Based on Plutarch's account, Alexander had no problem asserting his authority over Hephaestion, regardless of the nature of their relationship. 

The other important passage comes near the book's end, at Hephaestion's death. Plutarch and Arrian describe similar scenes, although some of the details are slightly different. 

"Alexander's grief was uncontrollable. As a sign of mourning, he gave orders that the manes and tails of all horses should be shorn, demolished the battlements of all the neighboring cities, crucified the unlucky physician and forbade the playing of flutes or any other kind of music for a long time, until finally an oracle came from Ammon, commanding him to honour Hephaestion and sacrifice to him as a hero" (357). 

Alexander also sought out the services of an architect named Stasicrates, who was renowned for his innovative and lavish projects. According to Plutarch, Alexander spent 10,000 talents on the funeral and tomb for Hephaestion. 

In this account, Alexander made war in order to deal with his grief. He massacred a nearby tribe's entire male population as a "sacrifice to the spirit of Hephaestion". Here, the editor of this edition includes a footnote that points out how this sacrifice may have been modeled after Achilles' sacrifice of twelve Trojan youth to honor the dead Patroclus. Although this is certainly a relevant observation, Plutarch does not explicit draw the connection. 

Plutarch's portrayal of Hephaestion is less ambiguous than Arrian's. Unlike Arrian, he does not explicitly mention any link between Hephaestion and Patroclus, the mythic companion of Achilles. So it can be safely said that Plutarch did not seek to lead his readers to believe that Alexander and Hephaestion were romantically involved. Rather, he merely includes a few short anecdotes that indicate Hephaestion's elevated place among Alexander's inner circle. If the reader interprets those anecdotes to mean that Alexander and Hephaestion were something beyond platonic friends, he is doing so without Plutarch's support one way or the other. 

Questions or constructive feedback? Feel free to respond in the comments box below.