Persians: Trogus, Diodoros, and Curtius Rufus on Alexander of Macedon’s decline into eastern ways (first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Trogus, Diodoros, and Curtius Rufus on Alexander of Macedon’s decline into eastern ways (first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 1, 2024,

Ancient author: Pompeius Trogus as cited by Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus 12.3-4 (link; link to Latin); Diodoros, Library of History 17.77.4-17.78.1 (link); Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century CE), History of Alexander 6.6.1-13; 8.5.5-8; and 8.7.12-15 (link).

Comments: These three passages from three ancient authors portray Alexander’s supposed decline into eastern, Persian ways. Pompeius Trogus sketches out a tale about Alexander of Macedon assimilating to eastern ways (or “Medizing” – link) and, essentially, abandoning his own ancestral Macedonian customs. Diodoros supplies a similar though shorter story. Much like Curtius Rufus’ somewhat later account of this situation (link), Trogus is extremely negative about the adoption of Persian ways. Trogus emphasizes how deplorable it would be to adopt Persian customs when, the argument goes, it was these very luxurious and effeminate customs that led to the downfall of the Persians in the first place. Obviously this reveals a negative perspective on Persian ways on the part of these authors. But it also gives insights into how ancient Romans (or Greeks) might imagine scenarios of culture contact and the adoption of foreign customs.

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 Persian customs. 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.


Trogus (first century BCE)

(12.3-4) . . . Soon after [his relations with the Amazon Thalestris while in the east], Alexander assumed the attire of the Persian monarchs, as well as the diadem, which was unknown to the kings of Macedonia. It was as if he gave himself up to the customs of those whom he had conquered. To prevent such innovations being viewed with dislike, if he was the only one to adopt them, he wanted his friends to wear the long robe of gold and purple as well. In order to imitate the luxury as well as the dress of the Persians, he spent his nights among troops of the king’s concubines of eminent beauty and birth. To these extravagances he added vast magnificence in feasting. In order to prevent his entertainments from seeming simple and inexpensive, he accompanied his banquets with games according to the ostentation of eastern monarchs. He was very conscious that power is commonly lost, not gained, by such practices.

In these conditions, there arose throughout the camp a general indignation that Alexander had so degenerated from his father Philip as to renounce the very name of his country and to adopt the manners of the Persians whom he had overcome, and overcome due to the effect of just such manners [i.e. these luxurious or effeminate Persian customs were the cause of Persian downfall]. To avoid appearing to be the only person who yielded to the vices of those whom he had conquered in the field, he permitted his soldiers also to marry any female captives, if they had formed a connection with them. Alexander thought that they would feel less desire to return to their country when they had some appearance of a house and home in the camp, and that the fatigues of war would be relieved by the agreeable relations with their wives.

Alexander also saw that Macedonia would be less drained to supply the army, if the sons, as recruits, should succeed their veteran fathers, and serve within the ramparts within which they were born, and would be likely to show more courage, if they passed, not only their earliest days of service, but also their infancy, in the camp. This custom was also continued under Alexander’s successors. Maintenance was provided for the boys, and arms and horses were given them when they grew up. Rewards were assigned to the fathers in proportion to the number of their children. If the fathers of any of them were killed, the orphans nonetheless received their father’s pay. Their childhood was a sort of military service in various expeditions. Inured from their earliest years to toils and dangers, they formed an invincible army; they looked upon their camp as their country, and upon a battle as a prelude to victory. These children bore the title “descendants” (epigoni). Alexander then conquered the Parthians, and a Persian nobleman, Andragoras, was appointed to be their governor. It was from him that the Parthian kings of later times were descended.

Alexander, meanwhile, began to show a passionate temper towards those around him, not with a princely severity, but with the vindictiveness of an enemy. . . [omitted following narrative of further decline].


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Celts and the fourth century invasion of Italy, go to this link]

Diodoros (late first century BCE)

(17.77.4-78.1) It seemed to Alexander that he had accomplished his objective and now held his kingdom without contest, and he began to imitate the Persian luxury and the extravagant display of the kings of Asia.​ First he installed ushers of Asiatic race in his court, and then he ordered the most distinguished persons to act as his guards; among these was Dareius’ brother Oxathres.​ Then he put on the Persian diadem​ and dressed himself in the white robe and the Persian sash and everything else except the trousers and the long-sleeved upper garment.​ He distributed to his companions cloaks with purple borders and dressed the horses in Persian harness. In addition to all this, he added concubines to his retinue in the manner of Dareius, in number not less than the days of the year and outstanding in beauty as selected from all the women of Asia. Each night these paraded around the couch of the king so that he might select the one with whom he would lie that night.​ Alexander, as a matter of fact, employed these customs rather sparingly and kept for the most part to his accustomed routine, not wishing to offend the Macedonians. Many, it is true, did reproach him for these things, but he silenced them with gifts.

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of Indians in the time of Alexander of Macedon, go to this link]


Curtius Rufus (first century CE)

[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].

[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.


Source of the translation: J.S. Watson, Justin, Cornelius Nepos, and Eutropius (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853); 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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