Nipissing University  -- History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Reading for January 17, 2001

Plutarch:  Life of Alexander

Introduction (Muhlberger):

Plutarch, a Greek-speaking Roman citizen of the 2nd century A.D., was a prolific biographer and is our main source for many details about important figures and events of much earlier times.

A full translation of the Life of Alexander can be found at:

What do these stories about Alexander tell us about him?   To what elements in Greek culture do they, and Alexander himself, appeal to?

      It is agreed on by all hands, that on the father's side, Alexander descended from Hercules by Caranus, and from
     Aeacus by Neoptolemus on the mother's side. His father Philip, being in Samothrace, when he was quite young,
     fell in love there with Olympias, in company with whom he was initiated in the religious ceremonies of the country,
     and her father and mother being both dead, soon after, with the consent of her brother, Arymbas, he married her.
     The night before the consummation of their marriage, she dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which
     kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. And Philip,
     some time after he was married, dreamt that he sealed up his wife's body with a seal, whose impression, as be
     fancied, was the figure of a lion. Some of the diviners interpreted this as a warning to Philip to look narrowly to his
     wife; but Aristander of Telmessus, considering how unusual it was to seal up anything that was empty, assured him
     the meaning of his dream was that the queen was with child of a boy, who would one day prove as stout and
     courageous as a lion. Once, moreover, a serpent was found lying by Olympias as she slept, which more than
     anything else, it is said, abated Philip's passion for her; and whether he feared her as an enchantress, or thought she
     had commerce with some god, and so looked on himself as excluded, he was ever after less fond of her
     conversation. Others say, that the women of this country having always been extremely addicted to the enthusiastic
     Orphic rites, and the wild worship of Bacchus (upon which account they were called Clodones, and Mimallones),
     imitated in many things the practices of the Edonian and Thracian women about Mount Haemus, from whom the
     word threskeuein seems to have been derived, as a special term for superfluous and over-curious forms of
     adoration; and that Olympias, zealously, affecting these fanatical and enthusiastic inspirations, to perform them with
     more barbaric dread, was wont in the dances proper to these ceremonies to have great tame serpents about her,
     which sometimes creeping out of the ivy in the mystic fans, sometimes winding themselves about the sacred spears,
     and the women's chaplets, made a spectacle which men could not look upon without terror.

     Philip, after this vision, sent Chaeron of Megalopolis to consult the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, by which he was
     commanded to perform sacrifice, and henceforth pay particular honour, above all other gods, to Ammon; and was
     told he should one day lose that eye with which he presumed to peep through that chink of the door, when he saw
     the god, under the form of a serpent, in the company of his wife. Eratosthenes says that Olympias, when she
     attended Alexander on his way to the army in his first expedition, told him the secret of his birth, and bade him
     behave himself with courage suitable to his divine extraction. Others again affirm that she wholly disclaimed any
     pretensions of the kind, and was wont to say, "When will Alexander leave off slandering me to Juno?"


     With such vigorous resolutions, and his mind thus disposed, he passed the Hellespont, and at Troy sacrificed to
     Minerva, and honoured the memory of the heroes who were buried there, with solemn libations; especially
     Achilles, whose gravestone he anointed, and with his friends, as the ancient custom is, ran naked about his
     sepulchre, and crowned it with garlands, declaring how happy he esteemed him, in having while he lived so faithful
     a friend, and when he was dead, so famous a poet to proclaim his actions. While he was viewing the rest of the
     antiquities and curiosities of the place, being told he might see Paris's harp, if he pleased, he said he thought it not
     worth looking on, but he should be glad to see that of Achilles, to which he used to sing the glories and great
     actions of brave men.