"ALEXANDER THE GREAT", a monumental bronze sculpture by Arno Breker.
It is nectar then
That his father gives him
In a gold cup.
He welcomes his son,
While the other gods
Have him sit down there.
Excerpt from the Hymn to Apollo of Delos
'Take this son of mine away,' King Philip is made to say to Aristotle in the fictitious Romance of Alexander, 'and teach him the poems of Homer,' and sure enough, that son of his went away and studied all day, so that he read through the whole of Homer's Illiad in a single sitting. In spirit, this charming fiction comes near to life, for the theme of Homer's Illiad, and especially of its hero Achilles; his first tutor Lysimachus owed part of his life-long favor to giving his pupil the nickname of Achilles; his beloved Hephaistion was compared by contemporaries with Patroclus, the intimate companion of Homer's hero; Aristotle taught him Homer's poems and at his pupil's request, helped to prepare a special text of the Illiad which Alexander valued above all his possessions; he used to sleep, said one of his officers, with a dagger and this private Illiad beneath his head, calling it his journey-book of excellence in war.
He began his Asian expedition with a pilgrimage to Troy to honor Achilles's grave, and he took sacred armour from Troy's temple to accompany him to India and back again. The court sculptor Lysippus portrayed Alexander holding a Homeric spear and on the coins of the small Thessalian town which claimed to be Achilles's birthplace the pictures of the young Achilles grew to look like Alexander's own. Homer's poems were at least three hundred years older than Alexander, and their heroic code of conduct, when men strove for personal glory and knew no greater sanction than public shame and disgrace, had probably belonged to a society at least six hundred years older than that. In this world of heroes, whose ultimate ancestors are the ruined palaces of Troy and Mycenae, no figure is more compelling than Alexander's chosen Achilles; like Alexander, Achilles is young and lordly, a man of passion as much as action with a heart which, though often merciless, can still respond to another's evident nobility.
Once, according to an old Macedonian custom, a Macedonian could not have worn a proper belt until he had killed a man in battle, and in Alexander's day single combat not only belonged to the ceremony of a royal funeral but was the recurrent business of his officers, who wrestled, jousted and speared in duels worthy of any Homeric hero. Hunting promised similar glory, and was given free rein by Alexander from the Lebanon to the hills of Afghanistan; according to custom, a Macedonian could not recline at dinner until he had killed a wild boar, another link with the world of Homer's poems.
At dinners, the king entertained his noble and personal guest friends in a ceremonial style which recalled the banquets of Homeric life. Successes in battle were toasted formally and one noble pledged another to a cup which had to be equalled on pain of honor. These royal feasts were a vital part of the loose weave of the kingdom. They brought king and nobles together in a formal relationship, governed by favor and friendship; the old Homeric traditions of kingly presents, of generosity and pious respect for ancestral friends still lived on in Alexander, who always respected past ties with the Macedonian kings, whether of long-dead Greek poets, an Athenian general or kinsmen of his mythical ancestors, even after an interval of more than a hundred years.
The nobles themselves shared a different honor, for at the court of their lowland king they served as his Companions, and to any lover of Homer, Companions are an unforgettable part of heroic life. Loosely, Companions may be partners in any unforgettable enterprise, fellow-oarsmen rowing with Odysseus or kings fighting with Agamemnon before Troy, but they also serve in a stricter sense. In Homer's Iliad, each king or hero has his own personal group of Companions, bound by respect, not kinship. Busy and steadfast, they dine in his tent or listen as he plays the lyre; they tend his bronze-rimmed chariot and drive his hoofed horses into battle, they fight by his side, hand him his spear and carry him, wounded, back to their camp. They are the men a hero loves and grieves to lose, Patroclus to the brooding Achilles. Driven thence when Alexander's conquests bring the Macedonians up to date, they retreat still further from a changing world and dodge into the swamps and forests of the Germans, only to reappear as the squires of early German kings and the retinues of counts in the tough beginnings of knighthood and chivalry.
In Macedonia, selected Companions still attended the king in battle, but their ranks had been expanded to include the nobles of highland and lowland, while foreign friends from Greece and elsewhere had increased their number to almost a hundred. Not every Companion was the king's friend; they dined with him and advised him, and they had lost none of their aristocratic pride; a festival was held yearly in their honor, and when they died they were buried in vaulted underground tombs behind a façade of tapering Greek columns and double doors studded with bronze. It was a grand style, and they took it with them to the East. Its roots were older and more in keeping with the Companions' name, for the vaulted tombs of Macedonia recall the mounded burials of royal Mycenae, ancestor of Homer's heroic world.
It was among these Companions, turbulent and nobly born, that the Macedonian king had to force respect for his will, and his methods again picked up the style of Homeric kingship. Custom and tradition supported what no law existed to define, and as in Homer's poems, superlative prowess could justify a man in going beyond convention: the kings began with the asset of noble birth, and like Homer's kings, they could claim descent from Zeus, a point of the first importance both for Alexander and his father. Noble birth needed to be buttressed by solid achievements. No riches or constitution protected the king; his government was personal, his authority as absolute as he could make it; he issued his own coins, bound his people to his treaties, led their charges into battle, dispensed the plunder and attended to suitable sacrifices and yearly rituals of purification, hoping to 'rule by might'. And to meet his duties with the proper energy of a king among lesser kings. It was a demanding position, and if age or achievement was against him, he was deposed or murdered.
In this king's world of custom and prowess, where all power was personal and government still took place among Companions, success and achievement were the means to authority, and the restless ideal of a Homeric hero was a very real claim to them both. Throughout the letters of Greek academics to Philip, the themes of personal glory in battle or contest recurs deliberately; such glory is godlike, worthy of royal ancestry and the fit reward of a Macedonian king.
Fear, profit and glory had been singled out as three basic motives of man by his most percipient Greek observer, and it was to the last of the three that a hero's life was given over; glory won by achievement was agreed to be the straightest path to heaven, and so Alexander's Homeric rivalry led, through prowess, to his free worship by contemporaries as a living god.
'Ever to be best and stand far above all others'; this was agreed to be one of Alexander's favorite lines in Homer.
The army was run from the court which always travelled with the king. This comprised a hundred or so courtiers, called "Personal Companions" or simply "Companions". Thus when we hear of a Companion being appointed to command such-and-such a unit, the man in question should be considered a Personal Companion. The term "Friends", a term for courtier current in Hellenistic times. It could refer to the highest grade of Personal Companion at court, but it could also simply mean a Personal Companion in general. In battle the Personal Companions fought alongside the king in the Royal Squadron of the Companion Calvary.
One figure on Alexander Sarcophagus wears a purple Macedonian cloak with a yellow border. In Hellenistic times the king would give his courtiers purple cloaks as a mark of their rank, so it seems that the practice was already established in Alexander's reign. Alexander sometimes wore 'fancy dress' in his battles, but he normally dressed in the uniform of an officer of the Companion Cavalry. He is dressed as such on the Alexander Mosaic, but he wears the purple cloak of a Personal Companion and not the regimental cloak.
The king ran the army from a royal tent. This seems to have been an impressive pavilion, with a large chamber where the council of war met; a vestibule beyond, which none could enter without passing Chares the royal usher; the armoury; and the king's apartments, in which he bathed, and slept, beyond the vestibule. It was court custom for all to remove their headdress when addressing the king. The tent was dug in and erected by its own work-party, commanded by a Macedonian called Proxenus. The person of the king was ministered to by his chamberlains, or 'wand-carriers', the wand being their badge of office. These men accompanied the king when bathing, dressing, etc., and were selected both for their wit and their fidelity. The royal tent itself was guarded by a watch selected from the Bodyguards on a rota basis.
It seems that this was a separate unit, numbering some 200 men. It was a unit of a very significant status; for instance, Alexander's close friend Hephaistion commanded the Bodyguard at Gaugamela, a year before being appointed a brigadier in the Companion Cavalry in 330.
The most senior rank in the army was that of 'Royal Bodyguard', the equivalent of 'staff officer' in modern armies. There were seven Royal Bodyguards, and this number was rigidly maintained. If a Royal Bodyguard were made satrap or died, another general was immediately promoted to take his place. The number seven was probably connected with the Bodyguard's original function of providing a daily watch to guard the king's tent. When Peucestas saved the king's life in India, the number of Royal Bodyguards was changed to eight, as Alexander wanted to appoint him instantly as a mark of his gratitude.
May we recommend some books?
Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox
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Copyright 2001 West-Art
PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.