I’m in the middle of reviewing Versailles, but I wanted to take a break and review something rather different. Flying Dutchman Films, who brought us the lovely I Am Henry, is back with another short film, Thessalus and Medea. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to the 17thcentury next time.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the obscure details of Greek mythology, Thessalus is one of the sons of the Greek hero Jason and his witch wife Medea. Greek mythology is a little like comic books these days—there’s no one definitive version of these characters and stories. Greek authors kept going back to the same stories and telling new versions of them, making up new details for old stories, changing the endings, and so on. The most famous version of the story of Jason and Medea is probably the rather harrowing version Euripides told in his tragedy Medea. In that story, Medea is a Thessalian witch who has helped Jason perform his greatest deed, the recovery of the Golden Fleece . They have two sons, Alcimenes and Thessalus. When they come to Corinth, Jason decides for political reasons to abandon Medea and marry Glauce, the daughter of the Corinthian King Creon.
It turns out that dumping your baby mama and your two kids for a new woman is not such a bright idea when your baby mama is the granddaughter of the Sun and a powerful sorceress. Medea wreaks havoc on the characters in the play. She sends Glauce a poisoned dress that causes her to literally catch on fire and burn up both her and Creon. Then she takes revenge on Jason by murdering their two sons and conjuring up a chariot pulled by dragons to fly off in. It’s a shocking conclusion that probably horrified the ancient Greeks even more than it horrifies us.
Medea in her dragon chariot
But as I said, these stories don’t have fixed narratives. In some versions of the story, Jason and Medea have as many as fourteen kids. Many scholars think that the child-killing was invented by Euripides because there’s no evidence for it prior to the late 5thcentury when Euripides wrote his play. In some versions, Medea finds shelter at Thebes after the killings. In another, she goes to Athens, married King Aegeus and then persuades her step-son Thesseus to kill his father. In yet another, she returns to her homeland where she murders her uncle to put her deposed father back on the throne. Still another version has her flying in her chariot to Persia. Even the ancient Greeks found this plethora of versions somewhat bewildering, sort of like Marvel comics fans after three decades of non-stop reboots.
As it happens, in some versions her son Thessalus survives and goes on to become king of Iolcus. It’s this version of the story that writer-director Jan Hendrik Verstraten has used as the foundation for his short film. In this version Thessalus (David Cotter) survived because he realized something was wrong when Medea (Emanuela Ponzano) tried to poison him and poured the drink out when she wasn’t looking. As a result, when Medea fled, she mistakenly thought she had killed him, and she has lived in Thessaly in an underground labyrinth as an oracle. Now he’s a man of about twenty, and he and a friend, Poseidonius (Rhys Howells) have been sent by the king of Iolcus to kill her. The result is a story that doesn’t exactly tell any specific story from Greek myth, but which still manages to be relatively true to the spirit of the material.
The core of the story, obviously, is the confrontation between Medea and Thessalus, who is understandably angry at his mother for trying to poison him. Medea, for her part, is shocked by this ghost from her past that has suddenly reappeared seeking vengeance. But like any oracle worth her salt, she quickly understands that there is something more going on here than just Thessalus intending to kill her. Although I generally include spoilers in my reviews, since this is a small film without wide distribution, I don’t want to give anything away about the plot twist that takes the story in a somewhat different direction than would be expected.
Medea bringing a sheep back to life
Thessalus and Medea is anchored by Ponzano’s performance as Medea. She manages to be regal, witchy, and deeply human all at the same time, and she captures the complex mixture of fury at Jason, guilt over the killing of her two sons, and shock to discover that one of them is still alive. Verstraten, like Euripides before him, is interested in humanizing this demigoddess, but whereas Euripides explored her righteous fury at being abandoned, Verstraten probes the feelings she’s lived with since her murderous rage cooled.
Medea’s labyrinth is actually a Napoleonic-era fort. Its odd angles provide a great set for the characters to operate in, and it’s effectively lit with fire and torches to create a moody, mysterious atmosphere that works well for the story.
Overall, I don’t like Thessalus and Medea as much as I liked I Am Henry. The resolution of the conflict between Thessalus and his mother leaves a little bit too much unspoken, and the film doesn’t explore Medea’s motives enough for my taste. But it’s still a nice effort to explore a forgotten corner of an ancient story.
At the moment, only the film’s trailer is available to the general public because the film is still competing at film festivals. It’s scheduled to become available for on-demand viewing on Vimeo in November. I’ve linked to the trailer below. When the film becomes available, I’ll post my interview with Verstraten.
Want to Know More?
Thessalus and Medea is will not be available until November. When it is, I’ll post my interview with Jan Hendrik Verstraten and a link to the film on Vimeo.
In my previous post, I talked about whether Troy was a real place and whether the Trojan War was a real event. Regardless of whether it was or not, the Trojan War played a central role in the two greatest works of Greek literature, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and if you were a well-educated Greek, you knew these stories as well as modern people know Shakespeare’s plays. The two Homeric epics have stood the test of time and both tell profound, powerful stories. It’s surprising that modern cinema hasn’t drawn off these well-known classics more than it has.
So I was sort of excited to see the BBC/Netflix series and how it would treat the Trojan War. Sadly, the series is pretty disappointing. The show’s pacing is simultaneously fast-paced and dull, an impressive accomplishment, but probably not one it was aiming for. The acting is nothing to write home about, the dialog feels limp, and the show offers little insight into these ancient characters nor anything to make the story feel relevant to the modern world. The scenery, with South Africa standing in for Asia Minor, is pretty though, and the show’s approach to the Greek gods is sort of interesting, albeit in a rather unsatisfying way. I want to like the show, but I just don’t.
Unlike the 2004 film version of Troy, Troy: Fall of a City makes some real effort to be faithful to the original material. It follows the broad outline of the Iliad: the taking of Chriseis by Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) triggers a plague sent by Apollo that forces him to return the girl. He soothes his wounded pride by taking Briseis (Amy Louise Wilson) from Achilles (David Gyasi), who furiously withdraws from the war effort, and so on.
And it tries to fit in as much of the back story to the Iliad as it can. At the start of the series, Paris Alexander (Louis Hunter) discovers that he’s not some rough commoner but member of the royal house of Troy, which is basically true to the myths, in which Hecuba and Priam are given prophecies that their son will destroy Troy so they order the baby killed, but the kind-hearted servant instead spares the boy. And then the gods ask Paris to decide which goddess is most beautiful. Aphrodite (Lex King) bribes him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world, and the show’s plot is set in motion.
Francis O’Connor as Hecuba
After he is reunited with his family, Paris is sent on a simple mission to Sparta to give him some experience at diplomacy but he falls in love with Helen (Bella Dayne), who basically Fed Exs herself to Troy, much to Priam’s (David Threlfall) consternation.
When the Greeks want to set sail, they discover that Artemis is angry and will not let them sail until Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphegenia to her. So throughout the show there are nods to actual Greek myths both large and small, instead of just focusing on the Iliad, which after all only covers one period 9 years into the war without either the beginning or the end. Sticking to just that material would have made a rather awkward story by modern standards.
Unlike the 2004 Troy, which tried to tell the story of Troy without the gods or anything else supernatural, this Troy does include the gods. Throughout the show, the gods intervene in small ways. For example, when Paris first sees Helen, Aphrodite slowly walks through the room.
But at the same time, the show also wants to modernize the story by making the characters more psychological and smoothing over some elements of the story that don’t play well for a modern audience. The show takes an essentially race-blind approach to casting, so that the Greeks and Trojans are played by various black or white actors; Achilles and Patroclus are both black, as is Zeus.
Gyasi (left) as Achilles, talking to Patroclus
As it happens, Chriseis bares a strong resemblance to Iphegnia, so Agamemnon’s reluctance to give her up is more about his emotional trauma from having to sacrifice his own daughter. That’s not a bad twist on the material. But things work less well with Briseis. The show doesn’t want her to just be a slave girl, so Achilles insists that he’s interested in her as a person, and he and Patroclus have a bisexual three-way with her. As a result, Achilles’ anger isn’t over his wounded pride; it’s because Agamemnon has stolen his girlfriend. The reason that’s a problem is that in the Iliad, Achilles’ rage is about his own inability to empathize with anyone else, and the poem ends when Achilles is finally able to achieve a moment of empathy with his enemy Priam. Here, not so much.
Similarly, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) is having trouble conceiving until Helen tells her about a fertility remedy she knows. That’s sort of a nice idea, given the pathos around what will eventually happen to the baby after the city is captured. (Spoiler: in the myths, baby Astynax gets thrown off the walls of Troy so that he can’t grow up to avenge his father’s death.)
But the show feels a need to insert a variety of boring sub-plots because it doesn’t find enough in the Iliad to make the mid-part of the story interesting. After a year of being sieged, the Trojans decide to dig a tunnel that will connect to one of their allied communities. But Paris and Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) have to *yawn* make a daring ride overland past the Greeks to get to that community and then the Greeks figure out what’s up and just after the tunnel gets opened the Greeks slaughter the allies and the Trojans have to close the tunnel. And then it turns out the Odysseus has a spy inside Troy *yawn* and then Achilles sneaks in and sees his old girlfriend Helen who persuades him to leave but then one of the servants sees and starts to suspect her *yawn*, and then just as the Trojans are about the attack the Greeks, the spy releases all the Trojans’ horses, and…
Yeah. Having decided to tell the story of the Trojan War, the screenwriters immediately decided that they didn’t have enough story to tell and had to come up with something else.
Paris (Louis Hunter) deciding which goddess he’s not going to piss off
Likewise, although the gods are characters in the show, they don’t actually do very much. For example, in the Iliad, Menelaus and Paris have a duel to settle the war once and for all. But when Menelaus is about to kill Paris, Aphrodite intervenes to magically carry him back to Troy, where he can be safe and have sex with Helen (she’s the goddess of love and sex, so the mortals she patronizes get to have a lot of sex). But in the show, all Aphrodite does is briefly distract everyone long enough for Paris to throw sand in Menelaus’ eyes and then run off into the wilderness where he spends an episode wondering why his parents didn’t love him.
At a different point, Hera accuses Zeus of having orchestrated the whole thing, but Zeus denies it, saying that he gave Paris free will to see what he would do with it. But that rests rather awkwardly with the fact that Aphrodite got everything going by bribing Paris with Helen’s love. It also doesn’t really fit with the prophecy that Paris is going to be the cause of the destruction of Troy, or with the fact that Cassandra can see the future. In Greek literature, prophecy is a rich source of irony. Priam, like Oedipus’ father, tries to avoid the prophecy but can’t, while poor Cassandra knows the future but can’t persuade anyone to listen to her.
The Iliad was written before the Greeks had really begun to wrestle with the whole tension between divine will and human free will. The gods are constantly causing things to happen. Athena and Hera want to see Troy destroyed because they are mad at Paris for giving the golden apple to Aphrodite instead. Zeus orders all the gods to keep their hands off Troy, but Hera intentionally distracts him so the other gods can sneak down and interfere. Athena actively suckers Hector into standing and fighting Achilles precisely because she knows that Achilles can kill Hector. So the gods are often ‘Homer’s’ way of giving characters some degree of psychological interiority. Instead of characters making complex emotional decisions, the gods whisper to them to get them to do things. So the whole story is about humans trapped by divine causality because the gods are angry about things. It’s a problematic dynamic, and one that later Greek authors like Sophocles would challenge by articulating notions of free will and human responsibility for their own mistakes.
The show’s approach to costuming is not exactly faithful to Bronze Age Greece
So the show is compromising. It wants the gods to be figures in the show because they’re important to the Iliad, but it also wants the characters to be fully responsible for their own decisions and have complex interior lives because that’s how modern cinema operates. The result is muddy theology and gods that drift around getting dramatic camera shots but not really doing anything. It’s an unsatisfying solution.
So the show isn’t really that good. But if you’re looking for something that tries to tell the stories of the Greek myths, you don’t have a lot of other options, unfortunately.
Want to Know More?
There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.
In February of 2018, Netflix and the BBC released Troy: Fall of a City. Filmed in South Africa, it tells the story of the Trojan War, drawing fairly extensively off of the Iliad and other Greek myths. Before I tackle the series itself, however, I first need to discuss whether the Trojan War is actually an historical event.
While the Greeks believed that Troy was a real city and the events of the Trojan War were historical, by the 19thcentury, most scholars assumed that the story was fictional and that Troy had never existed. In the 1860s, however one of the first archaeologists of note, the German Heinrich Schliemann, became convinced that Troy was a real place (although Schliemann is sometimes described more as a treasure hunter than a genuine archaeologist). Working from information provided by another archaeologist, Frank Calvert, Schliemann eventually conducted a dig at Hisarlik in modern Turkey, on the northwest corner of Asia Minor. He discovered the ruins of a series of layered ancient cities which he declared to be Troy, although his excavations caused enormous damage to the site, to the point that one scholar declared that Schliemann had done to Troy what the Greeks had been unable to do in ten years.
Scholars agree that Schliemann’s identification of the ruins at Hisarlik with the Troy of Greek mythology is essentially correct. But Troy was not exactly one city. Instead the ruins show a whole series of cities at Hisarlik, the earliest being founded around 3000 BC and the latest being destroyed late in the Roman period. By tradition, these various cities are known as Troy I, Troy II, Troy III, and so on down through Troy IX (the highest and most recent city). One layer, termed Troy VIIa, flourished in the 13thcentury, during the Mycenaean Period of ancient Greek history.
The 13thcentury BC is sometimes called the Heroic Age, because it corresponds to the period when according to Greek mythology the major Greek heroes were active. Historians call it the Mycenaean Period, because the archaeological layer characteristic of the culture was first identified at Mycenae. The Mycenaean Period was the first flourishing of Greek culture, characterized by large citadel-palaces and a wealthy warrior aristocracy.
Mycenaean Greece was part of an international network of cultures that included Egypt, Babylon in Mesopotamia, the Hittites in Central Asia Minor, the Trojans in northwestern Asia Minor, and the Minoans on Crete. These cultures traded extensively with one another and carried on a lively diplomacy in the 14thand 13thcenturies BC. The Mycenaeans developed a form of syllabic script called Linear B that they used for simple record-keeping.
And then, for reasons that historians are still trying to piece together, it all fell apart at the end of the 13thcentury. The Hittites, the Kassite Babylonians, the Trojans, the Minoans, and the Mycenaeans all suffered a total collapse. Their societies gave out and never recovered, all within about a half-century on either side of the year 1200 BC. The New Kingdom in Egypt held together for about another century before giving way to the Third Intermediate Period.
The Bronze Age Collapse
There are numerous theories about what caused this catastrophe, which is rightly considered the worst disaster of the ancient world. There was clearly a great deal of violence; most of the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces show signs of violent destruction. Both disease and earthquakes have been pointed to as contributing factors. One of the more interesting theories is that the emergence of iron-working technology destabilized the established military systems of the era, which depended on bronze. Since bronze was inferior to iron in terms of strength and hardness, the spread of iron weaponry would have upended existing military arrangements. Among the Greeks, the collapse was so severe that they literally forgot how to write. Linear B was entirely forgotten, and the Greeks wouldn’t acquire the more familiar alphabetic script until the 9th century, with the result that for about 300 years, the Greek ‘Dark Age’ is totally undocumented. Our best sources of information for the Dark Age are archaeology and linguistics (we know a bit about what Greek was like before the Dark Age and we know what it was like afterwards, so the changes give us some clues to what’s happening in between).
Troy VIIa was destroyed around 1190 BC, although only pieces of it have been found. There is some evidence of a fire in the one part of that level of the city that has been excavated. Some partial human remains were found in buildings, and one skeleton with skull injuries and a broken jaw was found near the city’s walls. Three bronze arrowheads were found. All of that is consistent with some sort of war, although none of it is proof of war. And the city does not seem to have been completely destroyed. The Troy VIIb layer suggests that the city remained inhabited, so that whatever happened to VIIa, it was not a complete annihilation of the community.
The walls of Troy (but not Troy VIIa)
Crucially, a date around 1190 BC is loosely consistent both with the Bronze Age Collapse and with the period when later Greek legend claimed that the Greeks (or more properly the Achaeans, since the Trojans were also a branch of Greek culture) destroyed Troy. So it’s not wrong to say that we have evidence that the Trojan War actually happened. There is reasonable evidence that Troy really was at least partly destroyed in a war and that this probably happened as part of the Bronze Age Collapse.
However, having said that, I immediately have to qualify it. The fact that a war might well have overwhelmed Troy VIIa is not the same thing as saying that the Trojan War as it has come down to us is real. We have no evidence at all that any of the people named in the Greek myths actually existed. There may have been a Troy, but we can’t say that it was ruled by Priam and Hecuba and defended by Hector the Breaker of Horses. We can’t say that Troy’s calamity began when the Trojan Prince Paris stole Helen away from her husband Menelaus of Sparta, and we have no proof that the attackers were Achaean Greeks, much less that they were led by Agamemnon and Achilles.
What about the Iliad?
What about it?
Ok, it’s actually a fair question. If the Iliad tells use the names of all the major players in the Trojan War, why am I so skeptical that those were real people?
The answer to that question is kind of complicated and gets into all sorts of questions about when the poem was composed and who composed it. First, it has to be noted that the world the poem describes is filled with all sorts of historical errors in terms of Bronze Age Mycenaean culture:
The armor described sounds much more like Archaic period (9ththrough 6thcentury BC) armor than Mycenaean armor. Mycenaean helmets were made of animal tusks, not bronze.
The heroes ride to battle in chariots, which the Mycenaeans used, but use them all wrong. Instead of firing missiles at their opponents from fast-moving platforms, Achilles and company ride up to their enemies in chariots, leap out to fight hand-to-hand, and then jump back into their chariots.
The Mycenaeans buried their valued dead in vaulted beehive tombs called tholoi, but the dead heroes of the Iliad are cremated instead of buried.
The few scraps of written information surviving from the Mycenaean period describe complex distinctions of leadership that are absent from the Iliad.
The Iliad fails to mention many major Mycenaean communities.
Despite all of this, we do have some scraps of information from the Mycenaean period that point toward the Homeric tradition. Surviving Mycenaean documents do mention a number of the gods worshipped by the classical Greeks, including Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, and Athena. The name ‘Achilles’ occurs in one document as the name of a shepherd. Records from the Hittite kingdom of central Asia Minor mention a place called Wilusa, which might be Ilion (the alternative name for Troy that gave the Iliad its title), whose king was Alaksandu the son of Piyama-Radu; Alexander was the actual given name of the Trojan hero Paris, the son of Priam. Most famously, a throw-away detail in the poem known as the Catalog of Ships mentions a long list of places that existed in the Mycenaean period, some of which no longer existed by the Archaic period. So there are a few hints that a genuine historical tradition lurks under the Iliad.
This Mycenaean suit of armor looks nothing like later Greek armor
Greek tradition claims that the Iliad (and the Odyssey) were written by a blind poet named Homer who presumably composed the poem in one long act of composition. The reality was much more complicated. In the 1920s, American scholar Milman Parry proposed that the poem was composed according to what he termed Oral Formulaic Theory. To be simplistic about it, Oral Formulaic Theory holds that instead of memorizing an enormously long and complicated poem like the Iliad, what oral poets actually did was to memorize the outlines of a story that could be expanded or contracted to fit the poet’s needs during a given recitation. For example, if the poet were performing the Iliad at Ithaca, where Odysseus was from, he could greatly expand the material about Odysseus and perhaps contract the material about Menelaus of Sparta based on what he assumed would go over well with his audience. So instead of reciting the poem verbatim every time, he essentially composed a new version of the poem each time he performed it. To help him in the task of composing on the fly, the poet made use of stock phrases that bought him time to compose the next line in his head as he recited the previous one. For example, when the sea is mentioned, it is always ‘wine-dark’, when Athena appears, she is usually ‘grey-eyed’; that’s the Formula part of Oral Formulaic. Parry was able to prove that this was the way that Yugoslav poets worked when they performed, so his theory has solid evidence behind it as a system of performance.
If that’s true for the Iliad, then it’s much harder to speak of a specific author. Homer wasn’t so much the author of the poem we have today as he is a collective name for the many poets who memorized the structure of the poem and then constantly changed it as they performed it and passed it on to a new generation of poets. Perhaps the poem (or a piece of it) was first composed within a generation of 1190 BC, but by the time it got written down in the 8thcentury, it had passed through so many hands that must have undergone enormous change from its first version. Because there’s no good way to tell what has changed and what hasn’t, it’s impossible to locate whatever original nuggets of fact might still exist in the poem.
It is, however, possible that the written version of the Iliad was reworked by the final person whose hands it passed through. The structure of the poem is, in it own way, quite tight (though not as tight as the Odyssey), and the characters in it demonstrate reasonably consistent personalities. It opens with a declaration of its theme, the wrath of Achilles, and concludes when Achilles is finally able to lay aside his wrath. All of that sort of suggests that a conscious mind was at work, trying to achieve a consistent and satisfying story. So perhaps we can say that Homer is the final editor of the poem.
What’s Actually In the Iliad?
When students actually read the Iliad for the first time, they are often surprised to discover that it doesn’t tell the whole story of the Trojan War. It actually only tells the story of one important moment during the 9thyear of the 10-year campaign. It doesn’t tell us about how the war began; it makes no mention of the Golden Apple that Paris was asked to award to the loveliest goddess. It doesn’t tell us how Aphrodite, the winner of that contest, awarded Paris Helen of Sparta and how he stole her from her husband Menelaus. Nor does it tell us anything about the end of the war. The famous Trojan Horse and the Fall of Troy won’t happen for another year after the end of the poem.
Instead, the poem opens with Chryses, the priest of Apollo, seeking the return of his daughter Chryseis, whom Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, has taken as a slave. When Agamemnon refuses, Apollo strikes the Greeks with a plague that forces Agamemnon to return the girl. Butt-hurt over having to give up his war prize, Agamemnon petulantly confiscates Briseis, Achilles’ slave girl. That causes Achilles to get pissed off, so he decides he’s going to sit out the war and just sulk. Given that he’s the greatest warrior on the Greek side, the consequence is that the Trojans have the upper hand. Hector proves a greater warrior than anyone on the Greek side except Achilles.
Eventually Agamemnon swallows his pride and sends Odysseus to Achilles with an offer to return Briseis. But Achilles has built up a good head of anger and refuses. Eventually Patroclus, who is probably Achilles’ lover although the poem never makes that explicit, begs Achilles to let him borrow Achilles’ armor so he can fight. Since he’s wearing Achilles’ armor, everyone will think Achilles has changed his mind and this will boost the Greek morale. Achilles agrees but tells him that he cannot pursue the Trojans if they retreat. But you already know what’s coming. Patroclus ignores Achilles’ command and pursues the Trojans back to the gates of Troy, where Hector fights and kills him, thinking he’s just killed the greatest hero of all time.
Achilles bandaging up his boyfriend Patroclus
Achilles is furious with grief when he learns his sexy daddy Patroclus is dead. Since his mama is a goddess, he gets a new set of armor made by Hephestus himself and goes and wreaks havoc among the Trojans. Eventually Hector goes out to fight him but chickens out and instead they get into a foot-race around Troy. Athena, who is still pissed at the Trojans because she didn’t get the Golden Apple, eventually tricks Hector into standing to fight, at which point Achilles gets Mycenaean on his ass and kills him. Then, because he can’t make Hector any more dead, he ties Hector’s corpse behind his chariot and drags it around Troy a bunch of times. It’s an act of total savagery, but he’s so torn up that his lover is dead that he can’t stop himself.
Eventually, in one of several remarkably moving moments in the poem, the aged Priam goes to Achilles, kneels before him and begs for his son’s body so he can bury it properly. Achilles finally realizes that his grief isn’t any different from Priam’s, and he agrees to return Hector’s body, allowing the Trojans to bury and mourn their great hero.
Priam begging for Hector’s body
At the end of the poem, the writing is on the wall. With their greatest hero dead, it’s clear that the Trojans will lose. But it’s still going to take a year and the most famous military trick in world history to take them down.
In my next post, we’ll look at how Troy: Fall of a City handles this material.
Want to Know More?
There are lots of translations of the Iliad. The one that’s most commonly used in classrooms is probably Richard Lattimore‘s. I’m pretty partial to that one. There are also tons of books on the Iliad. If you want a really interesting and very readable analysis that views it as exploring the horrors of war, try Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles.
As I have said before, movies about the past are very often movies about the present. Screenwriters and directors often shape their stories about the past to reflect the concerns and interests of the present, either consciously or unconsciously. The 300 Spartans (1962, dir. Rudolph Maté) is a good example of this principle.
Maté made his film at the height of the Cold War. In October of that year, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world pretty much literally to the brink of nuclear war. The United States and Western Europe were deeply at odds with the Soviet Union and the states of Communist Eastern Europe, and many in the West saw the Communists as being hell-bent on conquering the West and exporting Communism around the planet. There was a sense that the Soviets possessed a nameless vast throng of troops willing to do anything for their ruthless masters.
That made the Persians an ideal stand-in for the Soviets. Xerxes (David Farrar), with his army that Herodotus claims was 2.5 million men (and which modern historians have estimated to be a more plausible 200,000) suggested the immense Soviet army. And Xerxes was launching an unprovoked invasion of Greece, exactly as Americans expected the Soviets would do to Europe.
In contrast, the Greeks are disunited at the start of the movie, with the Spartans, Athenians, Corinthians and others arguing and refusing to acknowledge the threat Xerxes poses. Leonidas (Richard Egan) and Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) are capable of seeing the situation and rising above their traditional rivalries. But back in Sparta, the ephors resist his effort to raise the Spartan army. This would seem to parallel the political debates in Europe about following the American lead, and the debates within America about being “strong on defense”. Indeed, less than a year after the film was released, France took its initial steps at withdrawing from NATO.
The McCarthite Red Scare imagined a fifth column of Communists within the United States betraying the country, just the way that the villainous Ephialtes (Kieron Moore) betrays the Spartans by showing Xerxes how to get his troops around the Spartan position.
There is constant talk in the film about how Greece needs to unify and become one people in order to deal with the threat. Themistocles dreams of a united Greece, and Leonidas seems to think it is a reasonable idea as well. While their city-states are opposed to each other, the two men show no sign of hostility. The film assumes that the unification of Greece was an obvious, almost foregone, conclusion, if only the various city-states could see it.
Greeks debating what to do about Persia
In reality, however, unification was far from obvious to the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek culture was built around shared cultural identity, not political unity. The topography of Greece made political unification from within almost impossible; no Greek city-state could build up a large enough territory to truly subjugate its neighbors, because travel by land was difficult and Greece was resource-poor compared to the great territorial states of the Ancient world, such as Egypt or Persia.
Instead, the Greeks found their unity in a shared language, the worship of common gods, the celebration of the Olympic Games, and other similar cultural features. It would be as if all English-speaking, Christian countries were one people, regardless of what government they had. So the idea of all Greek city-states achieving some sort of political union was simply alien to the way Greeks understood their society. The film makes little sense within an historical Greek context.
But as a coded plea to American society (or perhaps Western society more broadly) to unify against the Soviet threat, the film makes a good deal of sense. It highlights the need for the Republicans and Democrats to work together to oppose the Communist threat, and for the various Western countries to work more closely together. The epilogue describes Thermopylae as “a stirring example to free people throughout the world about what a few brave men can accomplish once they refuse to submit to tyranny.” Given that non-Communist society was frequently referred to as “the Free World” in this period, the message is obvious. We can end Communism’s threat if we just stay together. It will require bravery and sacrifice, but it will work.
The opulent Persian camp
Unlike 300, The 300 Spartans at least acknowledges that Thermopylae didn’t stop the Persians. Themistocles discusses his plans for winning the naval battle at Salamis, although the film doesn’t show Salamis at all (perhaps because of the challenges of depicting Greek naval combat with the film technology of the time).
The 300 Spartans offers a nice object lesson that historical movies are frequently coded messages about the period in which they were made. It was as much about the Soviet threat as science fiction films of the period such as Invaders from Mars were.
Most people assume that 300 (2007, dir. Zach Snyder) was the first movie made about the battle of Thermopylae. But in fact there is an earlier version of the story, The 300 Spartans (1962, dir. Rudolph Maté). Frank Miller was deeply impressed by the latter film when he saw it while growing up, so in some sense his 300 is an homage to Maté’s film. And from a standpoint of basic accuracy, it’s a better film.
Rather than going into the basic facts about Thermopylae, I’ll just direct you to my first blog post ever, where I discuss both the 3rd Persian War and Greek hoplite warfare.
The 300 Spartans does a fairly good job of following the facts of Thermopylae as we know it. The film opens with the Persians marching into Thrace. Xerxes (David Farrar) has a chat with the exiled Spartan king Demaratus (Ivan Triesault) in which some of the dialog is draw straight out of Herodotus. In fact, the film repeatedly uses famous Spartan comments reported by the Greek historian, which right there puts it a whole level above Snyder’s work in terms of basic accuracy. And there’s a good deal more concern to depict the Persians wearing things actual Persians wore (although there are a lot of generic Hollywood belly-dancers too).
David Farrar’s Xerxes
The various Greek city-states debate what to do about the invasion. Themistocles (Ralph Richardson) and Leonidas (Richard Egan) are both forward-looking enough to realize their two states, traditionally rivals, must work together to find a solution, and they are repeatedly thwarted by small-minded men who simply don’t want to acknowledge the scale of the problem facing them. In particular, Leonidas is opposed back home in Sparta by a group of unspecified “elders”, who seem to be the ephors, a council of five elected men who shared political authority with the two Spartan kings. (Although the film generally has only a vague sense of what life in Sparta was like, it does understand that Sparta had a dual monarchy and a governing council, which again puts it a step above 300.) The ephors insist that Sparta cannot respond to the Persian invasion until the Carnea festival is over. Leonidas, however, feels that the matter cannot wait, and departs with his bodyguard of 300 men, who are not subject to the ephors’ authority on this. Again, this is loosely following Herodotus’s account, although modern scholars are a little skeptical about this.
Richard Egan as Leonidas
Where the film digresses is with the insertion of a invented Hollywood romance. Whereas in 300, the love relationship is between Leonidas and his queen, Gorgo, in this film, it’s between Gorgo’s niece, Ellas (Diane Baker) and Demaratus’ son Phyllon (Barry Coe). They want to be married, but because Demaratus has been accused of helping the Persians, Leonidas refuses to allow Phyllon to marry or fight with the other Spartans. This sets off a tedious sub-plot in which the two lovers chase after Leonidas’ army, and then stumble across an elderly couple whose lecherous son Ephialtes falls in love with Ellas, thus providing him with a motive to betray the Spartans to the Persians by showing them how to get around the pass at Thermopylae.
Meanwhile, Xerxes is consorting with Queen Artemisia (Anne Wakefield). In contrast to Eva Green’s man-hating fury, Wakefield’s Artemisia is a fairly traditional evil woman for the period. She uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants, and Xerxes’ libidinous dalliance with her is used to demonstrate that he’s a lousy ruler who ignores the good advice of his generals. But this Artemisia isn’t that important to the plot; once the fighting starts she is almost completely forgotten.
Apparently old shower curtains are the latest thing in women’s fashion at Thermopylae
One thing The 300 Spartans shares with 300 is a general disinterest in recreating actual hoplite warfare. Both the Spartans and the Persians are dressed more accurately in The 300 Spartans (for example, the Persian Immortals are correctly shown carrying wicker shields), but when it comes to combat the film either doesn’t know how to depict a hoplite phalanx in action or it simply doesn’t care. The Spartans just stand in long lines, single file, with the next line standing 30-40 feet behind them doing nothing. Instead of showing how the Spartans successfully employed the hoplite system to maximum effect for the terrain available (and chose Thermopylae because it would maximize the power of the phalanx by negating the Persian advantage of numbers), the Spartans in this film are just better fighters.
They repeatedly repulse waves of Persians who employ ludicrous tactics. In the first attack, Xerxes orders his cavalry to advance behind the concealment of his infantry. The plan is that at the last minute the cavalry will ride through the infantry, catch the Spartans by surprise and capture them all so Xerxes can publicly execute them. None of that makes much sense, and it doesn’t fool the Spartans at all. When the cavalry charges, the Spartans just fall down and let the cavalry ride over them, and then stand up and turn around to trap them between two groups of Spartans. The fact that the front row of Spartans are now standing with their backs to the Persian infantry is just ignored. Here, see for yourself:
Then Xerxes sends in chariots, which the Spartans defeat with arrows and javelins. When the Spartans use their spears, it’s mostly to throw them, and they prefer to fight with what look to be Roman short swords instead. Then the Immortals get sent in and the Spartans trick them into advancing past a flammable pile of hay which they then light on fire, trapping the Immortals. The film exhibits absolutely no idea about how phalanxes actually worked.
But there is one nice detail I have to commend, because I complain about it in other war scenes. When the Spartans are finally outflanked and surrounded at the end of the film, refusing to surrender Leonidas’ body, Xerxes does the smart thing. He doesn’t send in his infantry to fight them. He lets his archers pick them all off, because a unit of infantry in stationary formation is vulnerable to missile fire. It’s refreshing to see a movie that actually understands this.
The 300 Spartans has not aged particularly well. The acting is the usual turgid 50s style, the female characters are good for nothing except being love objects, the soundtrack is obnoxious, and the stunt-work is thoroughly unconvincing. But in terms of its ability to recount what actually happened, it’s hands down better than 300.
Chi-Raq (2015, dir. Spike Lee) is a modernization of the classic Athenian comedy Lysistrata, first performed in 411 BC during the Peloponnesian War. When I heard about Lee’s film, I was intrigued, since it’s not every day a movie based on an ancient play gets produced, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the film, you may wish to do so before reading this post, since it discusses major plot points, including the end of the film.
Lysistrata was first performed during a war between the Athenians and the Spartans. The war began in 430 BC, and had continued ever since. By 411, the tide of the war had begun to turn against the Athenians. 4 years previously, they had opened a new front in the war with a disastrous invasion of Sicily; they had lost much of their navy and large numbers of citizen sailors had been captured. The failure of that invasion probably marked the point at which the Athenians should have decided to cut their loses and sue for peace, but the Athenians stubbornly refused to do so.
So in 411, Aristophanes, who was part of the anti-war faction at Athens, staged Lysistrata as a critique of the war. In the play, Lysistrata proposes to bring the war to an end by persuading both the Athenian and Spartan women to go on a sex strike. They vow not to have sex until the men arrange a peace. To advance their cause, Lysistrata’s followers occupy the Acropolis and seize the state treasury, which will hinder the war cause, since the city will not be able to pay its war expenses without it. During a conversation with one of the city’s magistrates, Lysistrata accuses the Athenians (who are literally sitting in the audience watching) of having made disastrous decisions in the war. Eventually a desperately tumescent Spartan herald arrives with news that the Spartans want to negotiate, and the equally desperate magistrate agrees to sit down and discuss terms with him. Lysistrata shows up with a young woman named Reconciliation and uses their lust for her as an incentive to keep the negotiations moving. The peace is celebrated with a feast. Throughout the play, choruses of Old Men and Old Women clash in bawdy ways, dramatizing the struggle between masculine lust and feminine chastity.
The play is often today read as an anti-war play, which is probably reading more into it than Aristophanes intended. The play does not condemn war in general, only this war in particular. By 411, the Athenians were clearly tired of war, but could not seem to find a way to extricate themselves from the conflict without damaging their pride. The play wittily suggests that male military aggression and male sexual desire are somehow combined.
Lysistrata is not an easy play to stage nowadays. In this period, Athenian comedy was extremely topical, and many of the play’s references no long make sense to audiences who don’t know who, for example, Hippias or Cleisthenes were. Many of the jokes are directed at men who were probably sitting in the audience, satirizing them for their personal foibles and reputation. The play also contains a lot of jokes so deeply connected to the exact situation that modern audiences won’t get them any more; during the negotiations, the herald and the magistrate treat Reconciliation’s body as a map of Greece, discussing which parts of it they want to claim, but without understanding the actual geography of the war, the double-entendres lose much of their punch.
Another challenge to staging Athenian comedy is that it is extremely bawdy, far more so than all but the most raunchy of modern comedies. This mixture of political satire and sex jokes is off-putting to most modern audiences. Imagine a Saturday Night Live political sketch crossed with American Pie and you start to get the effect. Athenian comedy is so frankly sexual that one scholar commented, “if you don’t find a dirty joke in a line of text, you’re probably not looking hard enough.” The women of Lysistrata want the war to end because it’s interfering with their ability to get laid and purchase dildoes. The Spartan herald’s erection is given almost an entire page’s worth of attention, as people try to guess what he’s got hidden under his cloak. This is not some genteel Victorian farce; this is comedy all about penises and vaginas.
Lee has transposed the action of the play to the south side of Chicago, often nicknamed Chi-raq by its inhabitants because there is enough violence for a war zone. The two warring factions are rival gangs, the Spartans, led by the rapper Demetrius ‘Chi-Raq’ Dupree (Nick Cannon), and the Trojans, led by Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). One day, Chi-Raq’s woman, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) stumbles across the scene of a gang shooting in which an 11-year old girl has become an innocent victim. She sees the girl’s mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson) grieve for her daughter and demand that something be done.
Lysistrata (center) persuading the woman to take the oath
Lysistrata gathers a bunch of her friends and arranges a meeting with some of the women who date the Trojans, including Indigo (Michelle Mitchenor), Cyclop’s woman. She persuades them to swear an oath. “I will deny all rights of access or entrance from every husband, lover, or male acquaintance who comes to my direction in erection. If he should force me to lay on that conjugal couch, I will refuse his stroke and not give up that nappy pouch. No peace, no pussy!”
From there, the movement grows as even the strippers, prostitutes, and guys on the down low take the oath. Then the women seize control of a National Guard armory, and the movement goes global, much to the frustration of Mayor McCloud (D.B. Sweeney), whose wife takes the oath. From there, the story plays out to its conclusion.
But as the story progresses, Lee inserts scenes of Father Corridan (John Cusack) performing the funeral for the murdered girl and leading an anti-gun march. Although skeptical of Lysistrata’s tactics, he plays an important role in getting Chi-Raq to come to the negotiating table. He and Irene circulate posters offering a reward for information about who shot the girl. Finally, at the end, when it looks like the negotiations between the Spartans and the Trojans will collapse because of Chi-Raq’s resistance, he tearfully acknowledges that he is the girl’s killer. Accepting the magnitude of his crime, he is led away, calling on all the gang members to admit their guilt in the situation and work to end the violence.
On paper this all sounds heavy-handed and tendentious. But Lee manages to make the material work through a combination of three contrasting elements. The film is every bit as vulgar as the source material. Jokes about dick and pussy and blue balls abound. The Old Men of the film just want to get laid again and are determined to restore their masculine pride, while the Old Women aren’t entirely happy to give up sex but see the greater goal behind the strike.
But the coarseness of the humor is off-set by the fact that most of the dialogue is in rhyming verse. Although some of the verse feels a bit clunky, and can be hard to follow, at its best, it becomes Shakespearean, elevating the vulgarity to the level of high art. Chi-Raq’s speech at the end plays as a morality tale, in which the actor is exhorting the audience to learn from his mistakes. Here’s an example, in which Lysistrata confronts the Old Men:
And then there is the profound passion of the film. The film opens with a prologue text informing us that more Americans have been killed in Chicago in the past 15 years than in both the Iraq and Afghan wars combined. “This is an emergency!” a voice declares at both the start and finish of the film. Cusack delivers the funeral sermon with an urgency that grows to fury at “this self-inflicted genocide,” and it’s clear that he is voicing Lee’s own feelings about the situation. Both Lysistrata and her friend Dr. Helen (Angela Bassett) deliver powerful speeches about how they are fighting to save the lives of their community.
Cusack’s Father Corridan, preaching the funeral sermon
Jennifer Hudson’s performance is particularly powerful. Her own personal tragedy, in which her brother-in-law murdered her mother, brother, and nephew in their West Chicago home, hangs over the film, a profound reminder that this is not simply an exercise in entertainment. When Hudson as Irene leads an anti-gun march, she is surrounded by dozens of extras all carrying photos of the actual relatives they lost to gun violence. And the film is not afraid to point fingers. At different moments, it accuses the NRA, the prison-industrial complex, Indiana’s gun shows, the Republican party, the media, the banks, and the adolescent gang-bangers of all playing a role in the slaughter. The mayor is a thinly-veiled satire of Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who reportedly opposed the film because it was bad for tourism.
Lee has quite masterfully managed to transpose Lysistrata for a modern audience, capturing the marriage of bawdy humor and serious intent and even much of the original’s structure. Both play and film are in verse, both make use of song and dance, and both have choruses that act to set the stage and keep the action moving; Lee’s chorus is Samuel L. Jackson.
Jackson as Dolmedes, the film’s Greek chorus
Given the challenges of reproducing Classical Athenian comedy for modern audiences, Lee has pulled off an impressive feat. While Chi-Raq is not a perfect film (the verse is not always easy to follow, and a few scenes fall flat, including one where Lysistrata seduces the general of the armory), it’s a worthy effort, both in terms of cinema and in terms of the cause it serves, and you should definitely give it a viewing.
One of the more controversial elements of Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) when it came out was the film’s suggestion that Alexander was homosexual. A group of Greek lawyers actually threatened to sue Stone over the issue, and the theatrical cut of the film largely avoided the issue (so far as I can recall, at any rate). But in the Ultimate Cut that Stone released in 2012, Alexander (Colin Farrell) is shown being attracted to men.
In the film Alexander has a favorite male slave, Bagoas (Francisco Bosch), who is presented as sharing his bed. At one point, Alexander gets into bed, and Bagoas climbs in with him and they kiss. On Alexander’s wedding night, when Alexander beds her, Bagoas briefly enters the room, sees that there is someone else in the bed, and discretely leaves. In another scene, Bagoas dances publicly for Alexander in a rather sexual fashion, and Alexander kisses him. So the film pretty clearly shows Alexander as having a male concubine.
Alexander kissing Bagoas
More significantly, his relationship with Hephaestion (Jared Leto) is shown as being more than platonic, although the two men are not directly shown having sex. In one scene, when they are being tutored by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) as boys, Aristotle starts to talk about Achilles and Patroclus. Hephaestion gives Alexander a pointed looked and asks if Achilles’ love for Patroclus was corrupting. Aristotle replies that when two men lie together in lust, it does nothing for their excellence, but when two men lie together in love, it is a pure thing. On Alexander’s wedding night, Hephaestion gives Alexander a ring and the two men embrace. Roxane walks in and gets upset, asking if her husband loves Hephaestion. Alexander replies that there are many ways to love someone, and then has rather violent sex with her. When Hephaestion dies, Alexander goes crazy and either intentionally tries to get himself poisoned or goes on a bender and falls fatally ill. As he is dying, he holds up Hephaestion’s ring. So while the film isn’t explicit, it seems pretty obvious to me that Stone wants viewers to connect the dots.
Hephaestion longing for Alexander
So, was Alexander the Great gay?
Homosexuality in Ancient Greece
First, we have to acknowledge that the ancient Greeks had no concept of ‘sexual orientation’ or the like. They had no idea that most people are only attracted to the opposite sex but that some are attracted to the same sex or to both. Instead, the ancient Greeks seem to have looked at the choice of sex partners as a matter of taste, mood, and intention. They understood that many men occasionally had sex with other men or with teenage boys, but this did not mean these men did not also have sex with women. A man could easily have a wife or concubine and a boyfriend. Such attractions were to some extent treated as an issue of taste, the way a modern man might say he prefers blondes over brunettes, or say that he’s a ‘legs man’ or a ‘boobs man’. Some authors such as Plato argued that the most meaningful forms of love could only occur between men, and that real love could not exist between a man and his wife, in part because she was likely to be uneducated and therefore could not act as an emotional companion.
When the Greeks spoke about same-sex attractions, they most commonly did so through the lens of the erastes-eromenos relationship. The erastes was an older, married man (so, at least in concept, a man in his later 20s or older) who gave affection to his eromenos; he was the ‘lover’. The eromenos, or ‘beloved’, was a younger male, somewhere between early teens to early 20s, who was the recipient of affection. The erastes was both a sexual lover and a mentor to the eromenos, someone who helped usher him into adult male society through socialization. Whereas modern Americans view one of the father’s duties as teaching his sons ‘how to be men’, the ancient Greeks felt that this duty belonged at least in part to the erastes.
An erastes kissing his eromenos
But this was a complex relationship, because in the Greek world, sex was an expression of power relationships at least as much as it was an expression of romantic feelings. A man was expected to have sex with those who were beneath him socially. His wife was beneath him because she was a woman. His slaves were beneath him because they were his property. Male and female prostitutes were beneath him because they were lower class. And his eromenos was beneath him because the eromenos was not a full adult. But the eromenos would eventually reach adulthood and become a full citizen. This made homosexual sex an awkward issue for the Greeks, because it was acceptable for a teen or young men to be sexually receptive, but a fully adult man was expected to only be sexually active. Ok, let’s be blunt, an adult man had to be the penetrative partner. To be penetrated was perceived to be unmanly. It was socially awkward for an adult man to have been sexually penetrated when he was younger, because it raised questions about his masculinity as a full adult.
So the Greeks generally avoided talking directly about exactly what happened when an erastes got busy with his eromenos; looking too closely at that made them anxious. Consequently, many earlier scholars insisted either that this was a non-sexual relationship or that it involved non-penetrative forms of sex such as frottage (which is scholar-speak for dry humping).
In theory, Greek men only had sex with younger, unmarried men. But in practice, things were probably more complicated than that. We also know that the Thebans and the Spartans expected their soldiers to form romantic and sexual relationships, because they would fight harder to impress their partners and to keep them alive. The elite Theban troops, the Sacred Band, were comprised of such partners. And modern homosexual relationships often involve an older and a younger adult partner; ‘daddies’ and their ‘boys’ are both full adults, but the older man takes a leadership role in the relationship. This suggests to me (and I think to other gay scholars who have considered this) that the eromenos may not always have been a literal ‘boy’, but merely a younger man. In other words, two adult Greek men may well have had a sexual relationship, despite the fact that such a relationship would violate the cultural norm.
Far from being a shadowy thing, same-sex love was celebrated as a cultural ideal that even the great heroes and the gods engaged in. Zeus kidnapped the mortal ‘boy’ Ganymede to be his immortal eromenos, and Apollo pursued Hyacinthus for the same reason. In fact, every major Greek god other than Ares is described as having a male lover. The greatest warrior in Greek literature, Achilles, famously fights to avenge his dead companion Patroclus in The Iliad. Homer never explicitly describes the men as lovers, but by the Classical era in Greek culture (roughly, 510-323 BC), the two men were understood be erastes and eromenos, although there was a debate about which role was played by which man.
In this image of Achilles tending the wounded Patroclus, the artist has depicted Achilles as the eromenos (the beardless one)
So what about Alexander? We know that he married three women, the Bactrian noblewoman Roxane, supposedly out of love, and the Persian princesses Stateria and Parysatis, supposedly for political reasons. Roxane gave him a son and miscarried a second child, so clearly they were having sex. He also had a son by a concubine Barsine. So it is clear that if he was attracted to men, it was not so strongly that he didn’t also have sex with at least two women. Thus in modern terms, he was not gay, but may have been bisexual.
His relationship with Bagoas is not well-detailed. Plutarch tells us that Bagoas won a dancing competition before Alexander, and the troops urged Alexander to kiss him, and another author describes Alexander as kissing Bagoas very passionately, to the applause of the troops. But whether he became Alexander’s concubine is unknown; that’s a modern idea largely created by Mary Renault in her novel The Persian Boy. (See Correction below)
Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion is more complicated to figure out. It is clear that the two of them were extremely close throughout their lives. Several ancient authors claim that Alexander described Hephaestion as his alter ego, implying for ancient audiences that the two men enjoyed the deepest friendship possible. But were they more than friends?
Only one ancient author, the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, explicitly says that the two men were lovers. A letter, supposed written by Diogenes but possibly a forgery, says that Alexander was “ruled by Hephaestion’s thighs.”
Alexander and Hephaestion
However, Arrian tells us that when Alexander first led his army from Greece into Asia Minor, he stopped at Troy, where he laid a wreath at Achilles’ tomb and Hephaestion did the same at Patroclus’ tomb. The symbolism of that gesture is powerful and a strong suggestion that they saw themselves as having the same kind of relationship. If that’s true, then they were lovers.
If that’s the case, why don’t any ancient authors explicitly say the men were lovers? One possible answer is that there was the same uncertainty about them as about Achilles and Patroclus. Which one of them was the erastes? Alexander was undoubtedly the higher status man, which means he ought to have been the lover, but Diogenes’ accusation carries the suggestion that Alexander was not the one in charge of the relationship. The idea that the greatest conqueror in the ancient world might have been the one getting penetrated would have been as shocking as it would be for a modern action hero in a film to be getting penetrated. But while Hephaestion was socially the inferior partner, he was still a full adult and a very important man, so he could not have been the receptive partner either. So perhaps ancient authors discretely passed over this question by simply talking about an intimate friendship and assuming the reader would draw the fairly obvious conclusion.
There’s no slam-dunk proof that Alexander carpe’d the diem with Hephaestion. Given the evidence, I think it makes sense to assume that he did, and that in modern terms he was bisexual. But it’s possible that he was, in modern terms, straight and merely enjoyed a very close friendship with Hephaestion. The gay community wants to reclaim as much of its history as possible, and having one of the greatest conquerors in world history in our camp carries considerable symbolism, as those Greek lawyers understood. But wanting Alexander to be gay is not proof that he actually was, and we’ll probably just have to accept that, as with so many other details of his personality, we can’t completely resolve the issue.
Correction: It’s been pointed out to me that there is some ancient authority for the claim that Bagoas was Alexander’s concubine. The 1st century AD Roman historian Curtius Rufus reports that Bagoas had a sexual relationship with Alexander and that Bagoas wielded a certain amount of power at court as a result of it. Curtius Rufus’ sources aren’t known for certain, but he may have been using Cleitarchus’ and Ptolemy’s accounts in his history. Regardless of how factually accurate his claims are (and I see no obvious reason to reject them), it’s clear that Mary Renault was not the creator of this idea, although she’s probably the popularizer of it.
One of the most vexing questions about Alexander the Great is whether he thought he was a god or not, and Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) certainly digs into that question. In the film, Alexander’s mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie) insists that Zeus appeared to her and had sex with her and fathered Alexander (Colin Farrell). At times she seems to be saying this because of how much she hates her husband Philip (Val Kilmer), but at other times she seems genuinely convinced of it. Alexander becomes increasingly hostile to her and never accepts her story, but later in the film, he’s accused of accepting sacrifices to Zeus and compares himself to the god Heracles. So what really happened?
As I mentioned before, one of the big problems with understanding Alexander is that virtually all of our information about him comes from posthumous sources that themselves only survive as references and quotations in works written centuries later. This means that there is an enormous amount of room for later ideas about Alexander to have crept into the accounts of him, and getting back to the essential Alexander is quite challenging. After his death, Alexander was sometimes worshipped as a god, so it’s quite possible that later historians were reading that back onto his reign. Adding to the problem here is the question has several major pieces.
In the film, the primary assertions of Alexander’s godhood come from Olympias, so let’s tackle her claims first. According to the historian Plutarch, writing about four centuries after Alexander, the night before Olympias and Philip consummated their wedding, Olympias had a dream that her womb was struck by lightning and started a great fire, and Philip dreamed that he had pressed a seal upon Olympias’ womb, leaving an image of a lion. Later, after Alexander’s visit to the oracle of Siwa (which I’ll get to later), she confirmed that Alexander was the son of the god Zeus-Ammon.
But there are two reasons to be skeptical of these stories. First, as I said, they could easily have been invented long after Alexander’s death, with the retroactive knowledge that he had accomplished things no other man had ever done. 400 years is a lot of time for people to embellish Alexander’s story. And ancient historians LOVED stories about portents that occurred at the birth of boys who would become great kings. Birth portents are practically a required element of the biography of important political figures. So right there we have good reason to be skeptical of these stories.
Jolie, Kilmer, and Farrell as the unhappy family
Second, even if the stories aren’t made up after Alexander’s death, it’s pretty easy to see why they might have been made up to please Alexander after he became powerful. So far as we know, Olympias didn’t start claiming she had gotten busy with a god until Alexander raised the issue himself at Siwa. Her story was only a confirmation of his.
The second piece of the problem involves Egypt. When Alexander was conquering the Persian Empire, after his first two major victories, he swung down into Egypt, which had been ruled by the Persians for a couple centuries, and conquered it. During his visit to Egypt, he took a side trip to the western oasis of Siwa, which was home to an oracle. According to the historian Arrian, who was writing about 350 years after Alexander, “Alexander admired the site and consulted the god, and having received, as he put it, the answer which his heart desired he returned to Egypt.”
Notice that Arrian doesn’t tell us what the question was or what the answer actually said, only that it was the answer Alexander wanted to hear. Most historians believe that Alexander asked the oracle some question about whether he was a god. In order to understand this, it’s important to realize that for close to 3,000 years, the Egyptian political tradition maintained that the Pharaoh of Egypt was a living god, and by the end of independent Egypt, the official ideology was that when the current pharaoh fathered children on his wives and concubines, on some night, the pharaoh was either replaced by or inhabited by the god Ammon, who was thus the father of the next pharaoh. The ambiguity about exactly when this happened meant that any successful claimant to the Egyptian throne could be declared the son of Ammon, whom the Greeks identified with their god Zeus as Zeus-Ammon. So regardless of whether the specific question was “Am I the son of a god?” or “Am I the rightful pharaoh of Egypt?”, the answer was basically ‘yes’ to both questions, because each question implied the other.
The ruins of Siwa
The question is, why did Alexander go to Siwa in the first place? Was he seeking to find out his true parentage? Probably not. It’s much more likely that his trip to Siwa was a piece of political theater designed to legitimize his military conquest of Egypt by getting a ruling that, like previous pharaohs, he was the son of Ammon. As a military conqueror, he probably worried that unless he did this, the Egyptians would resist him after he had gone back to Persia. And he probably understood that he needed to rule Egypt according to Egyptian customs.
And consider that it was only after Alexander went to Siwa that Olympias began to claim she had done the nasty with Zeus. She was confirming what the oracle said, not asserting her own independent claim. That reinforces the sense that this was political theater, not a personal belief.
Alexander opens in in 331 at the battle of Gaugamela, after Alexander had returned from Egypt. The oracle of Siwa and what it said is never mentioned in the film.
After the death of Shah Darius III in 330, Alexander became the shah of Persia, and he began to introduce a Persian custom called proskynesis that ultimately proved quite perturbing to his Macedonian troops. Persian culture had a complex social hierarchy that was reflected in a greeting ritual known in Greek as proskynesis. The 6th century Greek historian Herodotus describes it this way.
“When the Persians meet one another in the roads, you can see whether those who meet are of equal rank. For instead of greeting by words, they kiss each other on the mouth; but if one of them is inferior to the other, they kiss one another on the cheeks, and if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and worships him.”
The ritual has three forms, depending on how far apart the two men are in social status. The third form, reflecting a sharp difference in social rank, involves the lower-status man prostrating himself on the ground in front of the higher-status man. But notice that Herodotus describes this as “worshipping him.” In Greek culture, prostration was a gesture reserved for a statue of a god. This is not what the Persians understood by the ritual; for them it was purely a statement of social status. But Greeks found the ritual loaded with religious meaning. Imagine how a Christian American might understand a social custom in which some people kneel, bow their heads, and fold their hands together.
The Persian shah was the highest figure in Persian society, far above any other man. Consequently, the proper form of proskynesis when meeting him, at least on ceremonial occasions, was full prostration. When Alexander ordered this ritual to be continued, he appears to have been embracing a Persian political tradition, much the way he seems to have done in Egypt.
King Jehu of Israel performing proskynesis before an Assyrian king
But his soldiers didn’t view it that way, at least not according to Arrian. They, like Herodotus, assumed that Alexander was demanding to be worshipped as a god. Arrian refers to proskynesis as “obesience”, and offers a story about it. Normally, when Arrian tells us something, he tells us what his source for the story is, but here he only says “there is also the following story.” This seems to be his way of telling us that he’s not really sure this story happened, but that he knows it’s a famous story, so he feels compelled to tell it. As Arrian tells the story,
“It had been agreed between Alexander, the sophists and the most distinguished of the Persians and the Medes at his court that the subject should be raised during a drinking party. Anaxarchus launched the topic, saying that Alexander had much better claims to be regarded as a god than Dionysus and Heracles […]. The Macedonians would have better reason to honor their king with divine honors; there was no doubt that once Alexander departed from men they would honor him as a god. How much more justifiable it would therefore be to honor him in his lifetime rather than wait for his death, when the honor would be of no benefit to the recipient.”
As Arrian tells the story, this ‘debate’ was staged by Alexander at the instigation of the Persians, which would seem to confirm that the issue here is that the Persians felt a need to continue this political gesture. (At least, if the story is actually true.) As the story continues, once Anaxarchus said this, those who had arranged the incident began to offer proskynesis, but the Macedonians were upset about this and one of them, Callisthenes, stood up and offered a long argument against the points Anaxarchus had made. This irritated Alexander but pleased the Macedonians, so Alexander said that the Macedonians didn’t have to perform proskynesis. Everyone was quiet for a moment, but then the Persians came forward and began to perform proskynesis.
So in this story, the Persians appear, from the Macedonian perspective, to be corrupting Alexander, offering him an honor only the gods ought to be granted. The Macedonians dislike this, either because they find the idea of worshipping a living man offensive or because they feel Alexander is being misled by non-Greeks.
As I noted, Arrian seems to find the story dubious, but there is nothing inherently implausible about the central idea that the Persians wanted a ritual that the Macedonians found offensive. This sort of cultural clash happens a lot when two cultures interact, and the Greeks already considered the Persians culturally inferior. The real question, assuming the story is based in fact, is what Alexander intended. Was he looking at proskynesis simply as a political ritual, or was he, as a Greek, seeing it as having religious implications? Was the oracle of Siwa’s statement that he was a living god beginning to go to Alexander’s head? Was he beginning to suffer from megalomania?
In Alexander, the debate over proskynesis is conflated with another incident that happened in 328 BC. In that incident, at a drinking party, Alexander’s courtiers were flattering him, calling him the son of Zeus-Ammon and belittling Philip. This offended one of Alexander’s generals, Cleitus, who started praising Philip. Furious over this, the drunken Alexander jumped up, grabbed a spear and stabbed Cleitus to death. In the film, Callesthenes is collapsed into Cleitus. The quarrel begins with Cleitus (Gary Stretch) accusing Alexander of accepting sacrifices to Zeus, and Alexander compares himself to Heracles. Things spiral out of control and Cleitus winds up with a spear in his belly. Given the enormous number of incidents that Oliver Stone was trying to include in the film, collapsing these two incidents into one is perhaps forgivable.
Here’s the whole scene, if you want to watch it. It’s a good scene.
A fourth piece of the puzzle is the revolt at Opis. According to Arrian, at Opis, an unidentified site somewhere near the Tigris river, Alexander declared that he was sending his Macedonian troops back home. He intended to please his war-weary men with this gesture, but his troops became offended, thinking that he was replacing them with Persian troops because he despised the Macedonians and had embraced Persian culture. As Arrian puts it, “They could not keep quiet any longer, but all shouted to Alexander to discharge them from service and take his father on the expedition (by this insult they meant Ammon).”
Furious at this taunt, Alexander launched into a long diatribe about how his father Philip had found the Macedonians crude hill people and had turned them into a great fighting force, and he accused them of being ungrateful for having made them so wealthy and powerful. Then he rounded up the ring-leaders and had them executed.
This incident suggests that the Macedonians disliked Alexander’s claim that he was the son of a god. It also shows that they didn’t take it seriously, because they mocked him for it, daring him to try to continue conquering using Ammon’s support instead of theirs.
Alexander’s response can be read two ways. First, perhaps he was offended simply because his men were being disrespectful to him. His speech about his father seems to confirm that he didn’t really believe his claims to divinity and knew that his men were just poking fun at the tools he was using to legitimize his rule. But on the other hand, his furious reaction might suggest that he was becoming mentally imbalanced by the combination of his military success and the constant flattery he was receiving and felt that the taunts were a denial of his divinity.
Stone’s film conflates the incident at Opis, which happened after Alexander returned from India, with the mutiny at Beas, which happened in India and which forced Alexander to return home. In that scene, the troops don’t mention Alexander’s claims to divinity, but he executes the ring-leaders, basically because he’s trying to force them to continue into India. Stone presents the mutiny as the lead-up to the battle of the Hydaspes River, so he’s really jumbling the facts here.
So Did Alexander Think He was a God?
I don’t think we can definitively answer the question one way or the other. Given the problematic nature of the sources, we can’t actually prove that Alexander ever made a claim to divinity at all, only that four centuries later, reliable historians like Plutarch and Arrian believed that claims to divinity were part of his campaign. But even if we accept their stories as being basically true, we’re left to two possible scenarios.
In one scenario, Alexander recognizes that he needs to claim divinity in order to rule Egypt. He does so, and has his mother confirm the claim. In Persia, he applies the same logic and maintains the Persian tradition of proskynesis for purely political reasons. But his men grow increasingly uncomfortable with these gestures because they violate Greek sensibilities, and they don’t understand that these are purely political gestures that Alexander doesn’t actually believe himself. His anger at Opis stems from the fact that his men are being disrespectful, not because he actually thinks he’s a living god.
This is a totally plausible scenario. But Alexander was deeply steeped in Greek culture, and knew how to manipulate its symbols to build support from his troops. Why was he able to view proskynesis from the Persian perspective when his troops weren’t? Why didn’t he find receiving proskynesis as uncomfortable as his men found performing it, and why didn’t he understand that the gesture was offensive to them?
Alexander as kosmokrator, “ruler of the universe”
The alternative scenario is that what started out as political gestures gradually turned into personal belief. Alexander’s truly remarkable military and political accomplishments led him to conclude that he really was a living god. The oracle said so, his mother said so, the Persians were basically worshipping him, and he was doing what no man in history had ever done. Constant Persian flattery and what was probably growing alcoholism were making him mentally unstable, and he reached a point where he could not bear to hear resistance to his claims of divinity, leading to the deaths of Cleitus and the ring-leaders at Opis.
Many of the ancient sources certainly seem to point this way. Arrian repeatedly suggests that the Persians were drawing Alexander away from Greek culture and that this had a corrosive effect on Alexander’s personality. But Greek culture loved stories about hubris, in which a remarkable person becomes arrogant and loses respect for the gods and the limits of humanity; their arrogance eventually forces the gods to punish them. The original sources for Alexander are all Greek, so it’s very plausible that his first biographers saw Alexander through this traditional lens of hubris and shaped their narratives to reflect that idea.
The second scenario is more satisfying, because it offers us a tidy moral of pride being a great man’s downfall. We like that idea almost as much as the Greeks did. We want to apply it to later historical conquerors like Napoleon and Hitler, both of whom we tend to associate with insanity, just as we like the idea of Alexander as a megalomanic.
And the seductive nature of the second scenario is why I find the first scenario more likely. The second scenario is simply too pat, too easy, for my taste. The first scenario, with its complex story about the intersection of three different cultures and their religious and political traditions, feels much more real to me, much more like the way history actually plays out.
Alexander tries to straddle these two scenarios. It presents Olympias as making her first claims for Alexander being a demi-god when he is a young boy, and constantly repeating the claim at nearly every turn. Alexander seems to hate these claims, and yet as a successful conqueror he begins to accept them, comparing himself to Heracles. Farrell’s Alexander is a man haunted by his tortured relationship with his semi-deranged parents, who are a violent, abusive drunkard and a snake-obsessed man-eating nightmare version of Mama Rose. He flees his parents but finds himself unable to escape their legacy, repeating their mistakes and falling prey to their delusions. However, he never goes to Siwa, never demands proskyness, and never actually says he’s a god. Stone is much more interested in Alexander as a human being than Alexander as a politician, and so he avoids the whole question of just what Alexander was doing with his claims to divinity.
While it’s not a very satisfying answer to the question of whether Alexander thought he was a god, it’s not a bad portrait of who the great conqueror might have been as a human being.
Alexander the Great is, of course, one of the greatest generals in history. So Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) is, naturally enough, bookended with two of Alexander’s most important battles. So let’s look at how Stone handles them.
Alexander had four major battles in his Asian Campaign: the Granicus River (334 BC), Issus (333 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), and the Hydraspes River (326 BC). Stone starts the movie in 331 BC, thus completely eliminating the first two battles. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking Alexander took down the Persians in a single battle. But I think this omission was a reasonable choice. The film is already quite long, and trying to depict those two battles would probably have added another hour or two to the film’s running time.
At Gaugamela, Alexander (Colin Farrell) confronts the forces of Darius III (Raz Degan), and I think Stone does a fair job of trying to capture what the battle looked like. During the battle, Darius’s main force clashed with Alexander’s left wing, under General Parmenion, while the Persian cavalry on the left flank tried to get around Alexander’s right flank. To prevent that, Alexander led his cavalry against Persian cavalry.
One reconstruction of the opening phase of Gaugamela
Then, when the Persian infantry had engaged the Greek infantry, Alexander led a cavalry charge against Darius’ position, forcing Darius to flee. Alexander could have pursued and perhaps captured Darius, but he received word that Parmenion’s forces had been surrounded by the Persian cavalry, and so he reluctantly broke off the attack to come to Parmenion’s rescue. As a result, he would have to pursue Darius for another year, until the Persian generals killed their own shah.
Overall, this is roughly what Stone offers us, although instead of Darius making the first moves, he has Alexander attempt a flanking maneuver and then encountering the Persian cavalry. But apart from that alteration, the battle plays out roughly according to the sources. Stone gets Alexander’s and Darius’ forces more or less right in terms of what weapon systems they were using. Someone’s posted a sort of epitome of the sequence on Youtube so you can see what the fight looks like.
And, if you jump to about the 5:30 mark, when Alexander is charging at Darius’, you’ll see that Stone has very nicely worked in an allusion to the most famous ancient image of Alexander, the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii.
The problem with the whole scene comes not with what it depicts, but how it treats the two sides. The Greeks are shown as rigidly disciplined while the Persians are shown as being a disorderly mish-mash of troops. In reality, the Persian forces were highly-disciplined, wore uniforms, and used tools like music to communicate tactics and co-ordinate movements. Alexander inspires his men with a speech in which he compares the freedom-loving Greeks, who are fighting for their homeland and averaging the assassination of Philip of Macedon, with the Persian army, whom he describes as slaves to the shah. But if you think about it, it’s hard to see how the Greeks can be fighting for their homeland when they are the ones who invaded Persia.
Alexander’s speech is not without justification, since in some ways it represents the actual propaganda Alexander used to inspire his subjects. The Greeks certainly saw themselves as a ‘free’ people and the Persians as being enslaved. And a careful viewer will realize later in the film, when we see the flashback to Philip’s murder, that the Persians had nothing to do with the assassination and therefore that Alexander must be lying to his men. But the film doesn’t ask the viewer to think of the speech as propaganda and leaves us to assume Alexander is speaking the truth, especially since his speech fits in quite well with Hollywood’s grand tradition of battle speeches praising “freedom”.
The film bookends Alexander’s campaign with the battle of the Hydaspes River, fought on the Jhelum river (which the Greeks called the Hydaspes) in modern Pakistan. Historically, Alexander decided to force a crossing of the river despite the fact that it was swollen by the monsoon rains. Alexander left a portion of his army facing King Porus across the river, with orders to General Craterus to make feints to lead Porus to think that Alexander would try to cross the river there. Then Alexander led the rest of his forces about 17 miles up-river and crossed unimpeded. He came down the right bank of the river, forcing Porus to move to intercept him while leaving some of his army to face Craterus.
Alexander was able to catch Porus between two wings of cavalry, forcing Porus to further split his forces. The ensuing battle was fought on a muddy plain during a rainstorm. Porus employed about 100 elephants who wreaked havoc among Alexander’s pikemen until Alexander’s javelin-throwers were able to rout the elephants, who then rampaged through Porus’ own troops (it was for just this same reason that the Carthaginians a few centuries later were to nickname their elephants “our mutual enemy.”) After a brutal battle that left a reported 20,000 men dead, Porus was eventually forced to surrender. A year later, after a mutiny by his troops, who were demanding to return home, Alexander reluctantly marched south to the coastline. During a siege, he was badly wounded.
Stone’s Hydaspes, however, comes after the mutiny of the troops. Alexander agrees to let his Macedonians go home, but then petulantly shames them into continuing on, saying that they will be remembered as the ones who abandoned their leader when he marched into India. Then he confronts Porus at Hydaspes. The scene completely omits the river and depicts the battle as a less successful version of Gaugamela, in which Alexander tries unsuccessfully to flank Porus (in the middle of a jungle on a sunny day) and then has to rescue his center flank because the elephants are massacring Craterus’ pikemen. Craterus is killed by an elephant, when in fact he outlived Alexander. Alexander then seeks a confrontation with Porus and comes close to killing him, only to be badly wounded and have his horse Bucephalus killed underneath him. A weakened Alexander decides to return home.
The changes do make a difference in how we understand Alexander. The historical Alexander, after a decade of getting brilliant performance from his troops, finally pushed his men too far, and they were able to force him to bring his campaign to an end. Stone’s Alexander, however, returns home out of his own sense of exhaustion and perhaps a sense of mortality. He remains the master of his troops all the way to the end. So Stone’s version of events is one in which events are shaped purely by Alexander’s personal choices. Had he chosen to continue, he would surely have found a way to get his reluctant soldiers to continue to follow him. This is a Great Man view of history, a common failing of historical biopics.
So while Stone gets the first battle roughly correct, he completely misrepresents the second battle. But at least his battles make sense, unlike some other movie about ancient Greece I could mention.
Alexander the Great (d. 323 BC) is one of the most famous and successful conquerors in history, and his conquests had enormous and far-reaching effects. So it’s a little surprising that so few films have been devoted to him. Apart from two Bollywood movies about him and an Italian animated film, there have only been two films about him, 1956’s Alexander the Great, starring Richard Burton, and 2004’s Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone), starring Colin Farrell.
Writing a biography of Alexander is a challenging thing, because the earliest sources about Alexander have been completely lost. Alexander had a professional historian, Callisthenes, who served him and wrote a history of Alexander (although he did not accompany him on his campaign). Callisthenes’ work is now lost, but it was used as a source by Ptolemy and Cleitarchus (the former of whom had known Alexander well, being one of his generals) when they wrote their histories of Alexander. Another of Alexander’s officers, Aristobulus, also wrote a history of the conqueror, and his admiral, Nearchus wrote about Alexander’s exploits in India. But none of these histories have survived either.
Instead, what has survived are the works of much later historians who quoted Cleitarchus, Ptolemy, and Aristobulus in their works. For example Diodorus wrote his history around the year 30 BC, drawing off of Cleitarchus’ account. Curtius Rufus, writing about 60 years later, used Cleitarchus and Ptolemy’s histories. Arrian, writing in the early 2nd century AD, tapped Ptolemy, Aristobulus, and Nearchus but ignored Cleitarchus. Plutarch, writing about the same time as Arrian, used all but Nearchus. (Confused? Here is a page that explains it.)
So the result is that the most reliable sources can only be known through other, much later sources. These sources often disagree. The various sources mention a range of legends about Alexander, some plausible, some not. The result is a rather confusing welter of possibilities about who Alexander was, what he did and what he wanted.
A ancient Greek bust of Alexander
So perhaps it’s fitting that Oliver Stone struggled to produce a film that told the conqueror’s story. When Alexander was released in the theaters, it was as a 175-minute version, reportedly with some cuts having been made because of pressure over the films depiction of Alexander’s homosexual relationships (a group of Greek lawyers threatened to sue Warner Brothers at one point). When it was issued on DVD a year later, Stone’s Director’s Cut was 167 minutes, with footage taken out and other footage added and scenes in a different order. In 2007, Stone released Alexander Revisited: the Final Director’s Cut, which was 214 minutes long. Then, in 2012, Stone released his Ultimate Cut, a 206-minute version that Stone swore would be his last. Thus far he’s kept his word.
I saw the original theatrical release in 2004, and my memories of it are hazy, except that Val Kilmer and Angelina Jolie, playing Alexander’s parents Philip and Olympias, were involved in a scenery-chewing contest in which the winner was whomever was being paid to build replacement sets. My reaction at the time was pretty much a big ‘meh’.
But when I sat down to watch the Ultimate Cut, which is what Netflix has, I came away relatively impressed. The film has serious problems. It’s long and at time it drags. Alexander inherits his parents’ tendency toward histrionics, especially as he gets older. The film compresses various details, attributes historical actions to different people, and omits the first three years of Alexander’s campaign against the Persians. And it’s reluctant to depict Alexander’s homosexual relationships (although it does, if you listen closely, acknowledge that Alexander and Hephaestion [Jared Leto] were lovers) while dwelling at length on Alexander’s consummation of his marriage to Roxane (Rosario Dawson).
Farrell as Alexander
But it still does a very good job of telling a coherent story about who Alexander was, what motivated him, and what he did. Farrell’s Alexander is a man haunted by his awkward relationship with his drunken father and his increasingly hostile relationship with his shrewish, demanding mother, who is convinced that Alexander’s real father was the god Zeus. Convinced that Philip’s decision to take a second wife means that she and Alexander will be pushed aside, Olympias probably orchestrates Philip’s very public assassination to ensure that her son will become king. So Alexander spends his whole adult life trying to outdo his father and to get as far away from his mother as geographically possible. His father is a drunkard who violently assaults Olympias at least once, a dynamic he recreates with Roxane, who is jealous of Hephaeston, who is in turn jealous of Alexander’s relationship with the slave Bagoas (Francisco Bosch). He also struggles with the things that the philosopher Aristotle taught him, and wrestles with the question of whether he can match the deeds of Heracles and the other sons of Zeus. And his relationships with his generals and battle-companions veer from warm camaraderie to political quarrelling and jealous accusations of betrayal. This Alexander is a complicated, tormented man, pulled in many different directions at once, and in that sense he is perhaps one of the most complex characters ever put on the screen. It’s a fitting attempt to capture the personality of a man who both an historical giant and a mystery.
Stone also demonstrates that he has a keen mind for how to depict warfare on the screen. He does a good job making his two major battle scenes, Gaugamela and Hydaspes, intelligible to the viewer. At Gaugamela, he makes excellent use of a literal bird’s-eye view to help the viewer understand the overall battle while also explaining to the viewer that different portions of the army are doing different things. He smartly labels the scenes “Macedonian Center” or “Macedonian Right” so that viewers can understand how Alexander’s unit relates to the other parts of the army in the middle of the fighting. And at Hydaspes, Stone makes breath-taking use of cinematography in a scene in which Alexander, mounted on his faithful horse Bucephalus, confronts the Indian king Porus, riding in a howdah on the back of an elephant. Watch the scene for yourself and tell me that the shot isn’t breath-taking.
One of the things about the film that I like is that it purports to be the memoirs of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), now an old man, having ruled Egypt for decades. The film opens and closes with Hopkins dictating his account to a pair of scribes. The film has a complex structure; within Ptolemy’s narrative, we get the sequential account of Alexander’s adult conquests interspersed with sequential flashbacks to Alexander’s childhood, as we see the various events that shape who Alexander was to become. Ptolemy’s narration explains key background facts and provides commentary on various events. And because the whole film is Ptolemy’s reminiscences, we are always aware that the events we are seeing are history.
Ptolemy dictating to his scribe
Because of this, we know the film is not the events as they happened but Ptolemy’s version of those events (although he’s a bit of an omniscient narrator, since he knows what Alexander says to his lovers in private moments). This allows Stone to play around with the complexity of his historical sources. He shows us key moments, such as Philip’s murder, an attempt to poison Alexander, the death of Hephaistion, and Alexander’s death, without giving us a statement of exactly why those events happened. And then Ptolemy later comments about what he thinks happened.
For example, Philip’s murder takes place when he is appearing at a public spectacle. One of his bodyguards, Pausanius, walks up to him, kisses him, and then stabs him to death. Olympias watches the whole scene impassively, having already hinted to Alexander that he ought to remove his father before his father removes him. In an earlier scene, however, Philip is shown anally raping Pausanius during a drunken party. And early in the film, Alexander has repeatedly declared that the Persians were behind the murder.
Kilmer as the one-eyed Philip of Macedon
The viewer is left to decide what happened. Did Pausanius commit the murder out of a desire for revenge? Did Olympias orchestrate it? Pausanius clearly had some help, since when he flees he is trying to meet up with another man who has a spare horse, but he falls and Cleitus spears him before he can be interrogated. Was Cleitus part of the plot? The whole scene follows one in which Cleitus and Alexander have a falling out during a drinking party and Alexander spears Cleitus. Could Alexander have been part of the plot? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that Olympias was probably the one behind the murder.
What’s going here is that Stone is playing around with the contradictory sources about the incident. Diodorus, expanding on a comment made by Aristotle, claims that Pausanius committed the murder out of revenge for being raped. But other sources claim that Olympias lavished honors on the dead Pausanius, including putting a crown on his corpse, suggesting that she was behind the crime. Alexander clearly stood to gain quite a lot from the murder. And Alexander blamed the murder on Darius, using it as an excuse to invade Persia. So the film gives us at least three different perspectives on the killing before finally giving us Ptolemy’s idea of what happened.
Similarly, when Hephaeston dies, Alexander suspects poison and confronts Roxane, who denies the charge. He then throws a party in which he drinks a large amount of wine and immediately falls ill, with symptoms not unlike Hephaeston’s. Stone leaves it ambiguous just what happened. Is Alexander trying to get himself poisoned after his lover has died? Or is he distraught about the man’s death and seeking to get drunk to forget what’s happened? Is he just exhibiting his father’s alcoholism? At the end of the film, Ptolemy comments that many suspected Roxane in Hephaestion’s death and suspected one of the generals, Cassander, of poisoning Alexander. Ptolemy comments that Cassander fabricated Alexander’s diaries in an attempt to depict him as a bloated drunk, in order to make his death seem more natural.
Leto as Hephaestion
And then he drops the bombshell. “The truth is, we did kill him. By silence we consented, because… because we couldn’t go on….What did we have to look forward to in the end, but to be discarded like Cleitas?” A few moments later he turns to the scribe. “Throw all that away. It’s just an old man’s rubbish. You shall write, ‘he died of a fever in a weakened condition.’”
Once again, Stone is playing with the complex question of what actually happened. Different ancient sources offered varying claims about exactly what Alexander died of, either poison or a fever (perhaps malaria). Consequently modern historians are divided about the role that alcohol, poison, illness, or some other problem might have played in Alexander’s death.
And Ptolemy’s confession is ambiguous. Is he admitting that there was an actual plot among the generals to murder Alexander, or when he says “by silence we consented,” is he just expressing a sense of guilt that he might have saved Alexander had he acted differently? Is this just an old man’s momentary foolishness, or something true? Regardless, Ptolemy immediately rewrites his text, obscuring the truth for posterity, and reminding the audience that this is history as it is written, not history as it happened.
Stone also uses Ptolemy to explain what happened to other characters after Alexander’s death. Cassander assassinated Olympias a few years later, and a few years after that poisoned Roxane and her young son. Roxane had already poisoned one of her rivals, Stateira. Bagoas simply disappeared, perhaps wisely, given what was happening around him. Ptolemy got Alexander’s body and followed him as pharaoh of Egypt. The scene is a bit wordy, but a nice variation on the usual “what happened to the characters” epilogue.
And then, in the epilogue, Stone gives us one last twist of the sources, telling us that Ptolemy’s memoirs were lost with the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria. So what we can know about Alexander is a rewrite of a rewrite of a writing of the past, and not the past itself.