Persians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander of Macedon’s supposed decline into eastern ways (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Curtius Rufus on Alexander of Macedon’s supposed decline into eastern ways (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 4, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=15725.

Ancient author: Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 6.6.1-13; 8.5.5-8; and 8.7.12-15 (link).

Comments: Following on his account of Alexander’s sexual affairs with the queen of the Amazons (link), the Roman author Curtius Rufus tells a tale of Alexander of Macedon’s decline into foreign, Persian ways. Essentially, this is a story of assimilation to foreign and effeminate customs and the rejection of the ancestral customs of the Greco-Macedonians. Alexander is characterized as engaging in what a Greek author might call “Medizing” (link) or “barbarizing” by assuming the customs of the Persians he defeated.

Rufus pictures Alexander’s own soldiers detesting these developments (to the point of mutiny or assassination) as Alexander treats his subjects and subordinates as servile subjects, requiring that people prostrate themselves before him like a Persian king. Later in the narrative, Alexander is depicted as spiralling even further into Persian ways in having subjects prostrate themselves before him as if before a god, and this passage is included here as well. The speech put into the mouth of one of the Macedonian attendants – Hermolaos – who planned to assassinate Alexander underlines Rufus’ point about Alexander’s adoption of the most extreme Persian ways.

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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[Alexander’s initial adoption of Persian ways]

(6.6) It was in fact at this time that Alexander let loose his passions, exchanging restraint and self-control – eminent virtues in every exalted fortune – for 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. Alexander demanded that those who had been triumphant over so many descent groups, in paying their respects to him should prostrate themselves on the ground. Gradually Alexander tried to accustom them to servile duties and to treat them like captives. Accordingly, he encircled his brow with a purple diadem varied with white such as Darius had worn, and assumed a Persian outfit, not even fearing the omen of changing from the insignia of a victor to the dress of the conquered. In fact, he used to say that he was wearing the spoils of the Persians. However, with these things, he had also assumed their customs. An arrogant spirit accompanied the magnificence of his attire.

He also sealed letters sent to Europe with the device of his former ring. On letters sent to Asia, the ring of Darius was impressed, so that it appeared that one mind was not equal to the fortune of the two realms. Moreover, he forced his friends, the horsemen, and with them the leaders of the soldiers, to wear Persian clothing which was, in fact, repugnant to them but they did not dare to refuse. Three hundred and sixty-five concubines, the same number that Darius had had, filled his palace, attended by herds of eunuchs, also accustomed to prostitute themselves.

These practices, infected by luxury and foreign customs, were openly hated by the veteran soldiers of Philip, a people unfamiliar with pleasure. In the whole camp, the feeling and the talk of everyone was the same, namely that more had been lost by victory than had been gained by war, and that it was then, overall, that they themselves were conquered men when they had surrendered themselves to alien and foreign habits. With what face, I ask, would they return to their homes, as if in the clothing of prisoners?

The king was already ashamed of them since, resembling the vanquished rather than the victors, he had changed from a ruler of Macedonia to a satrap of Darius. The king, not unaware that the chief of his friends, and the army as well, were grievously offended, tried to win back their favour by liberality and by bounty. But, in my opinion, the price of slavery is hateful to free men.

Therefore, to avoid a resulting mutiny, it was necessary to put an end to their leisure by engaging in war, the materials for which was opportunely increasing. For Bessus, having assumed regal attire, had given orders that he should be called Artaxerxes, and was assembling the Scythians and the rest of the peoples dwelling by the Tanais. . . [omitted subsequent developments].

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[Alexander’s desire to be treated as an eastern king and god]

(8.5.5-8) And now, when all was ready in advance [for his campaign into India], thinking that the time was then ripe for what Alexander had long perversely planned, he began to consider how he could appropriate divine honours for himself. He not only wanted to be called but also be believed to be the son of Jupiter [i.e. Zeus in a Greek context], as if he could rule men’s minds as well as their tongues. He also ordered the Macedonians to pay their respects to him in the Persian fashion and to salute him by prostrating themselves on the ground. In his desire for such things, he did not lack pernicious adulation, the constant evil of kings, whose power is more frequently overthrown by flattery than by foes. . . [omitted sections].

[Part of Hermolaos’ speech regarding why there was a plan to assassinate Alexander]

[Hermolaos, the Macedonian attendant of Alexander:] “Yet we could have endured all these things until you [Alexander] delivered us to the barbarians and in a new way made the victors pass under the servile yoke. It is the Persians’ clothing and customs that delight you. You have come to hate the customs of your native land. Therefore it was the king of the Persians, not of the Macedonians, that we wished to kill, and by the law of war we justly pursue you as a deserter. You wished the Macedonians to bow the knee to you and to worship you as a god. You reject Philip as a father, and if any of the gods were regarded as greater than Jupiter [i.e. Zeus], you would disdain even Jupiter. Do you wonder if we, who are free men, cannot endure your arrogance? What do we hope for from you, since we must either die when innocent, or, what is more dismal than death, must live in slavery? You truly, if you can have a change of heart, owe much to me. For from me you have begun to know what honourable men cannot endure. For the rest, do not load with punishment the bereaved old age of our near of kin. Order us to be led to execution, so that we may accomplish by our death what we had sought from yours [i.e. freedom rather than servility].” Thus spoke Hermolaos.

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