Film Reviews

A Reader’s Reply to Victoria’s ALEXANDER Review

By • Nov 30th, 2004 •

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Dear Ms. Alexander:

I felt a need to write in order to correct several assertions made in your review of Oliver Stone’s Alexander.It wasn’t your opinions on the film that troubled me, as I keep a review site myself for
Alexander fiction called “Beyond Renault: Alexander the Great in Fiction,” so I understand how much reviews are a matter of opinion and personal perspective, and respect that.

My issues all concern matters historical — things that you stated as historical fact that aren’t, or at least are far from settled. First, this: “If I were the spokesperson for the gay community I would be
enraged that Alexander the Great has been deemed ‘bisexual,’ when even a casual reading of his life shows he was a practicing, and recognized, homosexual.” First, and as someone who’s studied this in great detail and published on the matter, I’d say that we can’t at all say he was a practicing, recognized homosexual.The matter is far more complicated.

Furthermore, the use of the term “homosexual” is highly anachronistic — there is, in fact, no such word in ancient Greek.Now, I don’t belong to those attempting to disprove homoerotic (note the term, please) activity among the ancient Greeks.I find such attempts amusing or annoying by turns.But I’m equally troubled by moderns who insist on imposing modern mindsets on ancient people.The past is a foreign country.One really cannot make the assumption that “gay is gay is gay.”It’s not.For further explanation/discussion of this,
please see my online articles: “Alexander’s Sexuality”: http://pothos.org/alexander.asp?paraID=42 “Was [Hephaistion] Really Alexander’s Lover?”:
http://myweb.unomaha.edu/~jreameszimmerman/Hephaistion/lover.html

Some other problems … “It was well known that Alexander “actively disliked ugly people.”” I’m afraid I have no idea where you got this idea.It’s not stated so in the ancient sources.Modern biographies aren’t ancient sources, please remember.All modern ATG specialists work from the ancient sources, and we often come to different opinions
based on the same ancient evidence.

This review had too much tendency to quote modern biographies as definitive (often without specific citation), rather than the original, ancient sources.Line up any 10 Alexander historians against a wall, ask them a question, and you’ll get 11 different answers.There is sometimes a “weight of opinion,” but even major Alexander historians can disagree over certain controversial issues (e.g., Waldemar Heckel and Elizabeth Carney have two different conclusions about who murdered Philip, yet both are senior scholars in ATG studies, and well-respected).You may already be aware of these disagreements, but they must always be kept in mind when reading biographies of Alexander.

For some issues, there’s rarely “the” answer, but several different possibilities. You say: “Alexander was ‘below average height, but very muscular and compact of body.’A handsome young man, his hair was blond and tousled and is said to have resembled a lion’s mane.There was a nasty rumor floating around ancient times that he was three
cubits, or four feet six inches high!And, since there was a “German myth that he was king of the dwarfs” and did in fact need a stool for his feet when on the throne of the Persian king, he probably was quite short.Which makes his leadership triumphs even more remarkable.” Again, this states as fact a number of things we simply don’t know.

Artistic representations have shown ATG with hair that ranged from dark blond to red (the Sidon Sarcophagus) to medium brown (Pompeii Mosaic).He was short, but the exaggerations you mention come from the Alexander Romance, not from biographies or histories.He probably fell somewhere between 5’2″ to 5’5″.The skeleton retrieved from
Royal Tomb II, which belongs either to Philip III Arrhidaios or Philip II was about 5’6″ to 5’7″.That’s not tall by modern standards, but was apparently average for an ancient Macedonian.It’s not known what Alexander’s build was like, although yes, I do agree with you that I think (notice the stress) he was compactly built.This is based on looking at ancient statuary, which could well be idealized.There’s a wonderful book on Alexander’s image written by the leading expert, Andrew Stewart, called Faces of Power: Alexander’s Image and Hellenistic Politics, Berkeley, 1993.

And in a brief summary I wrote for my classes, I state: “Alexander’s physical appearance is controversial.Despite portraits in a number of mediums from statues to gems to coins, little emerges as definite. We must beware of idealizing and politicizing.Yet a few features
appear consistent:long nose, strong jaw, round chin, curved lips, and large, deep-set eyes under a prominent, heavy brow — all rendering a face too individual to be handsome.There may have been something a bit feminine in it, certainly something fierce.The anastole (cowlick) above his left eye was probably exaggerated rather than invented, and his hair color has been shown from dark blond, to red, to medium brown.The strongest tradition calls him blond, which would match a well-attested ruddy-fair complexion.He walked and
spoke fast, his voice unpleasantly harsh and perhaps rather deep (barutês).” From your article: “Hephaistion’s sudden and unexplained death left many historians to consider he was poisoned. After his death, Alexander’s “grief went beyond all normal bounds. For a day and a night he lay on the body, weeping: no one could comfort him. Hephaistion’s wretched physician was crucified.” Alexander wanted Hephaistion lawfully worshipped as a god. An oracle Alexander consulted refused this but said it was permissible to establish a hero-cult in Hephaistion’s honor. Alexander disregarded the oracle’s instructions and Hephaistion was actually worshipped as ‘God Coadjutor and Saviour.’ … What kind of love was theirs? Was Alexander planning to adopt Hephaistion and make him his legal heir? Is this why
Hephaistion was poisoned? This is my theory.”

There isn’t any thread of popular assumption among historians that Hephaistion was poisoned.Some have suggested it offhand, but really, it’s not the assumption.He may have died of typhoid, but even the ancient sources themselves can’t agree on the details, so we just can’t say.As for Alexander adopting Hephaistion and making him king — that’s legally impossible.

Only an Argead could become king of Macedon.Please see, E.N. Borza, In the Shadow of Olympus: The Emergence of Macedon, Princeton, 1990; R.M. Errington, A History of Macedonia, Berkeley, 1990; or N.G.L. Hammond, The Macedonian State: Origins, Institutions and History, Oxford, 1992. What Alexander did do, however, was appoint Hephaistion chilliarch, or hazarapatish (the old Persian term), which was the highest civil-service office in Achaemenid Persia.I suspect that he intended to leave Hephaistion in charge in Asia, but there is absolutely no way he could have adopted Hephaistion and made him his legal heir.Even Cassander couldn’t take the throne after Alexander’s death until all the Argeads were dead.

Furthermore, the difference in whether Hephaistion was worshiped as a hero or as a god owe to problems in the sources.It’s largely Diodorus who writes “god” rather than “hero.”We have later evidence of dedications made to “the hero Hephaistion.”ATG didn’t overturn the decision of Ammon’s oracle; Diodorus got it wrong.Such detail discrepancies aren’t uncommon, from source to source. Last, it is a common assumption that ATG’s mourning at Hephaistion’s death was excessive, but this reflects myths about bereavement, not human reality.I certainly don’t fault you for making that assumption because it’s a common one, but it’s false.Before I became a professional historian, I was a counsellor who specialized in bereavement, and believe me, the only difference between ATG’s mourning behavior and that of most surviving spouses was the money he had available and the authority he had to impose his whims.(See my article “The Mourning of Alexander the Great,” Syllecta Classica 12 (2001) 98-145.)

Again, I don’t normally write such a letter as this, but there were several matters in your article that you presented as historical fact (even “well known” historical fact) that I, as an Alexander historian, question.I apologize if this letter came off as unduly hostile.It wasn’t meant so, but I did want to correct these assertions.

Dr. Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman Department of History University of Nebraska at Omaha


Victoria Alexander replies:

I receive many emails from readers and answer every email (my personal email is masauu@aol.com), though this one by Dr. Reames-Zimmerman involves more than fast typing a quick reply. I am unable to respond appropriately since I am not a historian and never claimed to be one!; however, I am distressed to read that Dr. Reames-Zimmerman considers my sources (which I state at the beginning of my review) – Peter Green’s “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C., A Historical Biography” and Robin Lane Fox’s “Alexander the Great” – inadequate.

Fox was hired as “historical consultant” for director/co-writer Oliver Stone and his fellow writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis movie “Alexander”. (Robin Lane Fox is a Classics and ancient history teacher at Oxford University’s New College and Peter Green is the recently retired Dougherty Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin.)

I thought, reading “About the Author” in both books that Fox and Green had impeccable scholarly credentials, but apparently Reames-Zimmerman is not aware of their work. Both books have extensive references, notes, and duly credit all statements about Alexander the
Great (ATG) to ancient sources (with appropriate citations). For Reames-Zimmerman, they are just “modern” writers pounding out “fiction” for casual beach readers. In Reames-Zimmerman’s opinion, both “scholars” (heck, what do I know? The stated credentials of both men sounded impressive to me!) were not reading ancient manuscripts but using romantic gossip and popular rumors to satisfy paperback readers. Regardless of Reames-Zimmerman’s assessment, I will dutifully indicate where she can find the quotes I used in my review since she is clearly unaware of the Fox and Green books. While I have used
footnotes in film reviews before, (see “The Passion of the Christ”), I am certain that Reames-Zimmerman would not have been satisfied if I did include page numbers, footnotes, and author’s citations in”Alexander.”

I have taken the arduous task of searching out the quotes in my review and adding the source and page numbers. My comments regarding ATG’s homosexuality and Hephaistion’s death – two issues highlighted by Reames-Zimmerman – follow.

“It was said Alexander idolized Olympias and that “he never cared for any woman except his terrible mother.” “(Green, quoting some guy named W.W. Tarn, page 40)

“It was well known that Alexander “actively disliked ugly people.”” (Green, page 267)

“Alexander was “below average height, but very muscular and compact of body.” A handsome young man, his hair was blond and tousled and is said to have resembled a lion’s mane.” (Green, pages 54-55)

“There was a nasty rumor floating around ancient times that he was three cubits, or four feet six inches high! And, since there was a “German myth that he was king of the dwarfs” and did in fact need a stool for his feet when on the throne of the Persian king, he probably
was quite short. Which makes his leadership triumphs even more remarkable.” (Fox, pages 41-42)

“At the age of thirty Alexander was still Hephaistion’s lover although most young Greeks would usually have grown out of the fashion by then and an older man would have given up or turned to a young attraction. Their affair was a strong one…”. (Fox, page 30)

“Eventually Hephaistion was married to Alexander’s new wife’s sister because ‘Alexander wanted Hephaistion’s children to be his own nephews and nieces.’ It is one rare and timely insight into the bond between the two men.” (Fox, page 418)

“The king’s alter ego has not gone down to posterity as a very sympathetic figure. Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing and fundamentally stupid, he was a competent enough regimental officer, but quite incapable of supporting great authority. His most redeeming quality was his constant personal devotion to Alexander.” (Green, page 465)

“Alexander’s mother Olympias, “was violently jealous of her son’s inseparable companion” and Hephaistion sternly cautioned her about interfering.” (Green, page 465)

“After his death, Alexander’s “grief went beyond all normal bounds. For a day and a night he lay on the body, weeping: no one could comfort him. Hephaistion’s wretched physician was crucified.” (Green, page 465)

“Alexander wanted Hephaistion lawfully worshipped as a god. An oracle Alexander consulted refused this but said it was permissible to establish a hero-cult in Hephaistion’s honor. Alexander disregarded the oracle’s instructions and Hephaistion was actually worshipped as ‘God Coadjutor and Saviour.'” (Green, page 466)

“During the one month after Hephaistion’s death, Alexander’s wife became pregnant and she bore him his sole legitimate heir.” (Green, page 467)

“Kings knew exactly how to curry favor with Alexander, whose homosexuality must have been widely well known. After all, King Philip was stabbed to death by Pausanias, a jealous, discarded lover. Pausanias had denounced Philip’s new homosexual lover as, “among other things, a hermaphrodite and a promiscuous little tart.” (My comment, but quote from Green, page 106)

King Nabarzanes brought a number of costly offerings on an official visit to Alexander. Among these was “a eunuch of remarkable beauty and in the very flower of boyhood, who had been loved by Darius III (him too?) and was afterwards to be loved by Alexander. The name of this sinister youth was Bagoas: as time went on he acquired great influence over the king.” (Green, page 333)

Both Green and Fox liberally and often use the term “homosexual” to identify ATG completely disregarding Reames-Zimmerman’s assertion that “the use of the term “homosexual” is highly anachronistic — there is, in fact, no such word in ancient Greek.”

I happen to like the notion that ATG was a practicing, avowed homosexual and a ruthless, bloodthirsty killer and destroyer of empires.

In “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (Free Press; 295 pages) sex researcher C.A. Tripp comes to the conclusion, according to Time magazine’s reviewer Michele Orecklin (Jan. 17, 2005, page 62), that Lincoln “was a homosexual.”Or, was Lincoln just prone to using really flowery terms in his letters to male friends? Did Lincoln spend four years (as a bachelor and before becoming President) sleeping in the same bed with his friend Joshua Speed because beds were hard to come by? Should scholars rely on the common gossip at the time that President Lincoln was a practicing homosexual while in the White House? Should scholars, sex researchers, and historians use modern terms in evaluating historical figures?

Rudolph M. Bell uses the term “anorexic” to describe Saint Catherine of Siena. The clinical criteria for diagnosing the condition was published by J. P. Feighner and his associates in 1972. The term “anorexia nervosa” did not exist during Saint Catherine’s lifetime; however, Professor Bell, writing in his book “Holy Anorexia,” identifies hundreds of medieval female saints as anorexics! Is it similar to using a term like “homosexual” in regards to ATG, a term, says Reames-Zimmerman, that did not exist in ATG’s lifetime?

Does the fact that a culture did not have term for a condition (or state, practice, or disease) mean the condition (or state, practice, or disease) did not exist?

My theory on the sudden death of Hephaistion is merely my theory based on the following assumptions: He was young, a military leader, lover of the King, and probably in good physical condition. If he had been laid up in bed with a festering life-threatening wound or illness, wouldn’t ATG been prepared for his inevitable death? ATG would have been very familiar with death on the battlefield and through disease. Why would ATG have been so shocked and hysterical if his lover had caught typhoid? Clearly it was one of the common hazards that faced his men. To say ATG would have been so outrageously grieved by the
clear signs of typhoid would be silly. However, if ATG was suspicious of his lover’s sudden death, his emotional suffering would be more understandable. When a spouse dies suddenly in a car crash it is more emotionally tragic then if the spouse lingers for months with a fatal disease physicians know is certain to end in death. Or am I wrong here?

Hephaistion would have had the best physician available at the time. Why in the world would ATG crucify the doctor for not being able to treat an illness that probably killed hundreds of ATG’s soldiers? ATG knew a lot, and saw a lot, of death.

And finally, regarding my theory that ATG wanted to adopt Hephaistion and name him his heir. I have this to say to Reames-Zimmerman: ATG would never have let mere laws stand in his way. He considered himself divine. He was a living god. He did exactly whatever he wanted to do. Did ATG ever have a counsel of men he obeyed or laws he followed?

In my opinion, Alexander felt himself more important than Macedonia: I’d like to quote King Phillip to his young son Alexander, though Reames-Zimmerman would surely say quoting something from him would be apocryphal, especially since I read it in Green’s book (page
44), but here goes anyway:

‘You’ll have to find another kingdom; Macedonia isn’t going to be big enough for you.’

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