Amazons: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s relationship with Thalestris (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Amazons: Curtius Rufus on Alexander’s relationship with Thalestris (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15719.

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 6.4.14-17 and 6.5.24-6.6.2 (link).

Comments: Curtius Rufus here sketches out a supposed meeting between Thalestris, queen of the Amazons living just west of the Caspian Sea, and Alexander of Macedon. Rufus interprets the encounter as coincident with the beginning of Alexander’s decline into Persian custom and lack of sexual self-control. In the process, Rufus provides his own take on the character and appearance of the Amazons. He also expounds a stereotype about “barbarians” (including the Amazons) generally that suggests they were more interested in physical presence and size as a sign of potential achievement, and Alexander comes out poorly on that count.

Source of the translation:  John C. Rolfe, Quintus Curtius [Rufus]: History of Alexander, 2 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946), public domain (Rolfe passed away in 1943), adapted by Harland.

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[Peoples in the Caspian Sea area, including Amazons]

(6.4.14-17) Nevertheless Alexander went on with his army in square formation and in good order, sending scouts ahead from time to time, to do a military survey of the country [in the Caspian Sea area]. The light-armed troops led the march, the phalanx followed them, after the foot-soldiers was the baggage. Both the war-like descent group and the nature of their position, which was difficult to access, had put the king on his guard. For there is a continuous valley extending as far as the Caspian Sea, to which arms, so to speak, just out from the land. These arms of land, bending slightly in the middle, form a curve very like the moon with its horns standing out when that heavenly body is not a full moon. The Kerketians and the Mossynians, and the Chalybians are on the left, and on the other side the fields of the Leukosyrians and the Amazons. It looks towards the latter where it slopes towards the north, to the former when it is turned towards the west. The Caspian sea, which is fresher than others, breeds serpents of huge size . . . [omitted description of Caspian Sea]. . . [omitted material].

[Amazons neighbouring Hyrkania]

(6.5.24-6.6.2) There was, as was said before [above], neighbouring on Hyrkania, a descent group (gens) of Amazons, inhabiting the plains of Themiskyra, around the river Thermodon. They had a queen, Thalestris, who ruled all who lived between the Caucasus mountains and the river Phasis [i.e. west of the Caspian Sea]. Fired with a desire to visit the king, that queen came out from the boundaries of her kingdom. When she was not far away, she sent messengers to give notice that a queen had come who was eager to meet Alexander and to become acquainted with him. She was immediately given permission to come. Having ordered the rest of her escort to stop, she came forward attended by three hundred women. As soon as the king was in sight, she herself leaped down from her horse, carrying two lances in her right hand.

[Physical description of Amazons]

The clothing of the Amazons does not wholly cover the body. The left side is nude as far as the breast, then the other parts of the body are covered. However, the fold of the robe, which they gather in a knot, does not reach below the knee. One nipple is left untouched, and with it they nourish their female children; the right nipple is seared so that they may more easily stretch their bows and hurl their spears.

[Alexander and queen Thalestris, and stereotypes about barbarians]

With fearless expression Thalestris gazed at the king, carefully surveying his body, which did not by any means match the reputation of his achievements. All the barbarians feel respect for a majestic presence, and they believe that only those who are given extraordinary physical attractiveness by Nature are capable of great achievements. However, on being asked whether she wanted to make any request, she did not hesitate to confess that she had come to share children with the king, being worthy that he should have heirs for his kingdom from her and that she would retain any female offspring but would return a male to his father. Alexander asked her whether she wished to serve in war with him. However, she gave as an excuse that she had left her realm without a guard and persisted in asking that he should not make her to go away disappointed in her hope. The passion of the woman, since she was more focussed on love than the king, forced Alexander to remain there for a few days. They spent thirteen days satisfying her desires. Then she went to her kingdom, and the king went to Parthiene.

It was in fact at this time that Alexander gave loose rein to his passions, and changed restraint and self-control, eminent virtues in every exalted fortune, to arrogance and sexual license. He considered his native customs and the discipline of the Macedonian kings, wholesomely restrained and democratic, as too low for his greatness. So he tried to rival the loftiness of the Persian court, equal to the power of the gods. . . [omitted following narrative].

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