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More Than a Pretty Face: a defense of the role of Hephaistion Philalexandros in the formation of the Great Alexandrian Empire

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Written for the Social History elective, Akademeia of Alexandropolis, Albion, 2314 M.A.

Naturally everyone knows how Alexandros ho Mégas, Alexander the Great, conquered the world, how the countless barbarian tribes and peoples became part of an empire united by one man’s vision. The influences of the Great Alexandrian Empire can still be felt today, from Albion to Ethiopia, from the Pillars of Hercules to India, and even further, beyond the borders of the world Alexander and his contemporaries knew. (For example in the calendar system used in the greater part of the world, including Albion, Alexander’s death is the dividing line: M.A., “Meta-Alexandros” - after Alexander - and P.A. “Pro-Alexandros” - before Alexander.)

Some people say the Basileus Basileon, the King of Kings, succeeded solely thanks to the force of his personality and his military genius, with Hephaistion barely more than a footnote, while others insist that without a strong Chiliarch in Babylon, supplying Alexander’s army with everything it needed, from food to information, the Empire could never have been built. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in between: Alexander doubtlessly was a leader like no other before or after, inspiring men to follow him when others would long have turned back, but it’s also a fact that armies need more than inspiration in order to be able to fight, and as second-in-command to the world’s most powerful man Hephaistion proved himself a very gifted administrator and diplomat in order to fill these more material needs.

In the “Histories of Alexander the Great” which he himself commissioned, Alexander made sure to commend those that helped him, and Hephaistion is mentioned many times, both during the Years of Conquest and in the Time of Expansion that followed. Boyhood companion and lover to Alexander, the records show that Hephaistion served him faithfully until his death only a year before the King of Kings’ own demise, one of the few who from the very beginning supported Alexander’s policy of integration against those Macedonians who promoted the assimilation into Hellenism. Therefore it is at least in part thanks to Hephaistion that Alexander’s legacy was an Empire where men gained status based on individual merit, abandoning the previous world view that saw Greeks as superior to all other races (for free men only, of course; it was centuries before slavery was abolished and women had the same opportunities).

This meritocracy is reflected in the men named as Diadochi when Alexander decided to organise the Empire into sub-Kingdoms after his death: Amyntor, serving as Chiliarch to Great King Alexandros the Younger and ruling Mesopotamia and Arabia; Perdiccas, who replaced Antipatros as Regent and united the city states of Greece after Kassandros’ attempt to poison Alexander; Ptolemaios, another long-time companion, who became Pharaoh of Egypt and Ethiopia and who turned Alexandria into a centre of learning and trade for the whole Empire; Crateros, going on to rule Western Europe as Kaisar where he managed to move north from Sicily to establish a foothold in Southern Albion (and named its capital after the by then dead King of Kings); Vidarna, following his father Mazaeus as Satrap of the vastness that was Persia; and Oxyartes II, brother to Queen Roxana, who ruled as Maharaja of India and pushed its border further south during his long life, discovering that the world was much greater than the Hellenes had thought. All of them are mentioned alongside Hephaistion in the Histories before they took office, and history tells us that Alexander’s choices were wise. After all, the Great Alexandrian Empire lasted for about 700 years before dissolving into independent nation states due to the Great Migrations into the Alexandrian Kingdoms by the war-like tribes of Northern Europe (Albion’s modern-day culture was probably just as influenced by them as by the Alexandrians), the many peoples of vast Hyperborea (roughly the area of today’s United Kingdom of Rus) and the Ounnoi out of Qin (who have the dubious honour of killing Philip Alexandros, supposedly the last heir of Alexander’s direct line, in 834 M.A. in the mountains of Baktria).

Taking all of this into account, is it really so far-fetched to assume that Hephaistion had a hand in formulating Alexander’s Will to ensure lasting peace after his death? In the very least the King of Kings would certainly have consulted his Chiliarch, the man he had treated as his other self since their boyhood in Mieza and whom he had named “Philalexandros”, friend of Alexander, a title he bestowed on no one else. Some later historians, using documents that have since been discredited as being almost certainly fakes, have attempted to belittle the relationship of these two men, reducing Hephaistion to a sycophantic lover who gained favour by pandering to the Great King’s whims.

Luckily we have many first-hand accounts which show that rumours of this sort were most likely slanderous lies spread by Alexander’s enemies - not only Alexander’s own Histories, which some scholars have discounted as overly biased, but also the memoirs of Alexander’s life-long companions Ptolemaios and Nearchos, the letters both Alexander and Hephaistion exchanged with their didaskalos Aristotle, and countless administrative documents from the royal courts at Babylon, Pella, Susa, Alexandria, Athens and Syracuse. The last are by their very nature less interesting to read, but it is hard to argue with their contents: dry numbers and notes recording every aspect of state craft, including trade, military, education and diplomacy.

Most of them stem from the Time of Expansion, because, following his habit to integrate the best of every conquered people into his growing empire, Alexander used the existing extensive bureaucracy of the Persian Empire as a template and established it everywhere he went. The Macedonians and Greeks had been considerably worse at record keeping, but even so Hephaistion’s name can be found a few times on requisition orders, proving that Alexander already entrusted him with administrative tasks during the long Years of Conquest. After his ascension to the Chiliarchy Hephaistion appears omnipresent, keeping up lines of supply and communication between the various cities as well as the ever-moving army, which by then was made up of many different nationalities, each with their own language and traditions. There are very few indicators that Alexander, on campaign with his soldiers in far-flung corners of the world, interfered with the way Hephaistion was administering the Great King’s empire. This is not to say that he was ignorant or uninterested, as a number of surviving letters regarding day-to-day issues prove, but it is more evidence that Hephaistion truly was the “Philalexandros” described in the Histories and other sources.

One of the most interesting of these letters was written in the time when Hephaistion was recovering from the fever mentioned both in the Histories and by Ptolemaios (in all probability the reason why he no longer joined Alexander and the army during the Expansion), shortly after their return from India and the mass wedding at Susa, during which Alexander and Hephaistion had both married daughters of the dead Great King Darius, “so our children will be of one blood”, as Alexander is quoted as saying. The letter is one of the few surviving written to Olympias (the Queen is said to have destroyed most of her son’s letters because of her deep distrust of Antipatros), just a short mundane note in which Alexander lists some of the supplies his mother would need for her long-awaited journey to join him, “because it is Hephaistion’s wish to see us reunited, and there is no request I will not grant after almost losing him. Therefore take care to show him every courtesy should you reach Babylon to find him on the throne and me gone to Arabia, which is my plan for the spring.”

The list shows that Alexander knew all the minutiae necessary for travel and was not removed from everyday concerns like many monarchs, but, at least in the opinion of this writer, the closing admonishment makes it impossible for any historian to dismiss Hephaistion as nothing more than a humoured lover: It is only because Hephaistion asked for a favour that couldn’t possibly have been for his own personal gain (on the contrary, the complicated relationship Alexander had with his mother, documented in several sources although unmentioned in the Histories, was likely to make things more difficult for him) that Alexander was willing to see his mother again for the first time in almost 12 years. He himself was obviously not in any hurry to do so, because he had already planned an excuse for not being there - and he planned to have Hephaistion rule in his stead during his absence, literally giving him his throne. He certainly would never have considered this extraordinary course of action if his friend had not been capable to fill the role. As mentioned before, Alexander believed in promoting by merit and not due to personal ties, otherwise Hephaistion, as most beloved of his companions, would doubtlessly have been made Strategos right after Philip’s death. The proof that Alexander himself saw Hephaistion as his equal, the equal of one of the greatest strategic minds in history, is there in Alexander’s own hand, for any historian to see.

(Side-note: As it turned out he was present when his mother arrived, the campaign postponed after Kassandros’ attempt on his life until all traitors, including Antipatros in Macedon, had been executed, mirroring what had happened years earlier with Philotas and Parmenion. Doubtlessly Olympias was delighted that her old adversary was dead, although Ptolemaios indicates she was not entirely happy with the choice of Perdiccas as new Regent, maybe because she had hoped to rule herself, using Alexander’s half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus as her puppet. History is silent on what transpired between mother and son during their reunion, but Olympias remained in Babylon until her death eight years later, while Alexander was busy expanding and consolidating his empire.)

It is a pity that Hephaistion himself did not write his memoirs, nor does much of his personal correspondence survive, specifically none of the many letters he must have exchanged with Alexander over the many years of their relationship. Some later authors speculate that Alexander burned Hephaistion’s belongings on the great funeral pyre he erected in 1 P.A., others think they were destroyed alongside Alexander’s own by their sons, Alexandros the Younger and Amyntor Hephaistion. We do know that the two lovers were worshipped together as Son of Zeus and Divine Hero well into the 500s M.A., long after their role models Achilles and Patroclus had been relegated from history to myth. (Also, had it not been for their example, our perspective on romantic relationships might be much narrower today, which can be seen among certain religious minorities like Jews or Christians, who both originated in Judah and consider monogamous heterosexuality the only proper form of romantic relationship.)

Alexander’s treasured copy of Homer’s Iliad, scraps of which were found only recently in his magnificent tomb near modern-day Babylon, still one of the greatest cities of the world, was possibly the most widely traveled book of the time. It had accompanied Alexander on all his journeys, not only during his lifetime but also after, when his Egyptian-style sarcophagus was paraded from one corner of his Empire to the other, allowing all of his subjects to mourn him according to their own beliefs and traditions. Careful examination of the chilioi-old document has revealed a mostly-complete dedication, confirming what had long been considered fact: “[Commissioned] by Aristotle for Alexander and [his] brother-soul Hephaistion, who together will [travel] further than [anyone] before them.”

Although the philosopher has been proven wrong in many things, he was certainly right on this occasion, as this writer hopes to have shown in this essay.

[Grammarian’s note: No new arguments, but not a bad first attempt. You have to learn how to stick to your outline and not get side-tracked by romantic notions. Maybe your next paper could be about traces of the Great Alexandrian Empire in modern-day Albion culture, since the topic seems to interest you. As Socrates said, keep asking questions. Also, use proper citation when referring to sources.]