BMCR 2012.05.18

Alexander the Great: Myth, Genesis and Sexuality

, Alexander the Great: Myth, Genesis and Sexuality. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2011. xi, 276. ISBN 9780859898386. $37.00 (pb).

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Daniel Ogden’s book is as much about the dynamics of the appropriation and retrojection of myths and symbols as is it is about Alexander the Great. As such, it will repay the attention of a readership far broader than the community of Alexander and Hellenistic scholars to which it is obviously directed. To its principle target, in particular to those Alexander scholars keen on employing psychoanalytic or gender-driven approaches, Ogden offers a long-overdue, though not entirely new, corrective. Regardless of their specific interest and approaches, though, most readers will profit from a preliminary look at and regular referral to Ogden’s pp. 185-188, where they will find an admirably clear overview of each of the book’s chapters and of its conclusions.

The first of those chapters, “Son of the Thunderbolt,” analyzes the content and chronology of a trio of Alexander’s birth myths, one involving a lion, another a thunderbolt, and a third a serpent. In Ogden’s view, the lion myth, an early tale, allowed for the double parentage of Philip and Zeus; the second, which typically incorporated an eagle in combination with a thunderbolt—both standard symbols of Zeus and thereby associated with the lineage of the Argead dynasty—appears on some of Alexander’s coins. These, together with the same iconography on assorted Ptolemaic issues, popularized the eagle/thunderbolt version of Alexander’s parentage; the third—the serpent tale—, while it divorced Philip from the fathering of Alexander, preceded any connection between Alexander’s sire and Ammon, who was identified with the ram, not the serpent.

An investigation of Alexander’s serpent father and visualizations of his coupling with Olympias comprises Chapter Two, “Son of the Serpent.” Although P Oxy. no. 4808, col. i, lines 9-17,1 which seems to make Cleitarchus a teacher of Ptolemy IV Philopater (born ca. 244) and thereby points to a birth-date for the historian of around 310, would require some modification of Ogden’s absolute chronology (cf. Ogden, pp. 31 and 183), it does not compromise his argument that Ptolemy I initiated the merging the serpent-sire and Ammon-sire traditions, in the process facilitating subsequent associations with a wider array of deities. Of these—Agathos Daimon, Asclepius, Dionysus, Meilichios, Sabazius, and Sarapis—, Ogden makes a strong case for Meilichios as the god in earliest version of this tradition.

Chapter Three, “Son of the Ram,” reviews the Macedonian foundation myths of Macedon, Caranus, Perdiccas, Midas, and Archelaus; the imagery of rams, goats, and sheep and sirings by Zeus therein; and the impact of these stories on the Alexander tradition and on Alexander himself. With respect to the last, Ogden suggests that the ubiquity of these animals in Macedonian lore and in the iconography of Ammon prompted Alexander’s wish to visit that god’s oracle at Siwah.

Chapter 4, “Son of the Eagle”— the conclusions to which (pp. 108-110) should be read before the chapter and perhaps before the book itself—examines the presence of Alexander birth myths in the foundation myths of various Hellenistic dynasties; the claim of Ptolemy, son of Lagus, to be the illegitimate son of Philip II and offspring of Zeus; and the coincident iconography of eagles and thunderbolts—a pairing central, too, to the Seleucids. Ogden further observes that the Ptolemies and Seleucids forged additional connections to the Argead dynasty through Heracles and, by extension, Perseus, in the latter case, with implications for Egypt and Persia.

Chapter 5, “Son of the Witch,” employs Macedonian court polygamy to illuminate the circumstances of Alexander’s rearing. Much of this ground Ogden has covered previously in his Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties (London: Duckworth, 1999). Here, as he did there, Ogden convincingly counters ancient and modern claims that Alexander was at best (or worst) “restrained or even undermotivated in sex” (p. 122), though one should perhaps be wary of what a comparison of Alexander’s impregnation rate of 1 per 2.7 years from his first attested offspring to his death to Philip’s 1 to 3.1 ratio actually reveals about their respective libidos or fertility.

Chapters 6, “Alexander’s Wives,” and 7, “Alexander’s Dalliances,” nicely mesh. Among the noteworthy conclusions of the former are that almost all we know of Roxane derives from “the vigorously fictive tradition that followed her” (p. 133) and that Barsine—perhaps a childhood companion of Alexander—was, whatever their precise relationship, a woman whose “primary purpose was the production of [Alexander’s] heirs” and who “may have had a profound influence [on] Alexander’s developing ambitions for the destiny of his empire” (p. 142). The verdict of the latter chapter is that, though Alexander “is associated more with women in the extant historical sources than is any other Macedonian king” (p. 143), these accounts—mainly of courtesans or of local queens who, whether real or made-up, wished to become mothers to Alexander—“are so obviously and heavily fictionalised that they can offer us nothing in the attempt to [reconstruct] even the broader sexual codes of the Macedonian court, … let alone Alexander’s own sexuality” (p. 143).

Chapter 8, “Alexander’s Men,” focuses mainly on Hephaestion and Bagoas the eunuch, with a nod to Excipinos (cf. Curtius Rufus 7.9.19 and Ogden’s n. 34 at p. 239) and a somewhat surprising tip of hat to Hector, son of Parmenio (pp. 171-173). With respect to Hephaestion and Alexander, Ogden concludes that, if ancient traditions of a homoerotic relationship between them are not just an attempt to provide a backstory for what Alexander’s contemporaries seem to have viewed as his excessive grief over Hephaestion’s death, the most likely model for any homoerotic bond is “the training bodies for [age-peers] that are found in a number of [ancient] Greek societies” (p. 166), in Macedon most closely associated with the institution of the Royal Pages. As for Bagoas, Ogden holds that the testimony of Curtius Rufus “is simply too good, and should not be used to draw any conclusions about the nature of Alexander’s relationship with Bagoas, or about the development of it” (p. 170). Those familiar with the programmatic power of Ernst Badian’s “The Eunuch Bagoas,” Classical Quarterly 8 (1958), pp. 145-157, on that scholar’s body of work on Alexander and of the impact of those studies on modern Alexander scholarship in general will recognize that this is important stuff.2

Chapter 9, “Alexander the Gynnis,” treats Alexander’s alleged effeminacy, which Ogden rightly links to the suspect story, traceable to Theophrastus, of the courtesan Callixeina. This theme Ogden views as a reflection of a tradition in which Alexander succumbed either to the real or imagined temptations of the East and to a fatal attraction—if not Alexander’s own, then one attributed to him as early as Theophrastus—to Dionysus. Whatever its origin, this strand of our sources again “has little to tell us of the actual sexuality of Alexander the Great” (p. 184).

Ogden’s conclusion (pp. 185-189) is a succinct, chapter-by-chapter recapitulation of his argument and method, at the end of which he makes an important distinction between his own and W. W. Tarn’s take on Alexander’s sexuality. 3 Unlike Tarn’s straight and restrained conqueror, Ogden’s Alexander is heterosexually active to a degree that coincides closely with “the patterns of sex life reconstructable for Philip … and for other Macedonian kings” (p. 188) that may strike some today as promiscuous. Ample notes (pp. 189-251) and bibliography (pp. 252-270) follow. Twenty-four images, most of them helpful drawings by Eriko Ogden, enhance the text.

There are a few slips in proofreading, e.g., “relate” for “relates” (p. 30); “if it, is” for “if it is (p. 53); “on” rather than “of” (p. 142); “reconstuct” for “reconstruct” (p. 143); a redundant “in” (p. 147); “it her to” and “it him to” (p. 149); and “Theophrastus” for “Theopompus” (p. 158, with a mistaken citation of Athenaeus 595a-c as 585a-c). P. 230, n. 14, overstates Elizabeth Carney’s non-committal position on the character of Roxane’s wedding ceremony.4

Given Ogden’s dissection of Curtius Rufus’ account of Bagoas, Lloyd Gunderson’s, “Quintus Curtius Rufus: On His Historical Methods in the Historiae Alexandri ” deserved notice.5 Exegesis of Aeschines’ Against Timarchus 166-169, our earliest mention of Alexander, then around ten, and certainly pertinent to Ogden’s themes, would have been welcome.6 Ogden’s identification of Bagoas the eunuch with a trierarch named Bagoas (pp. 244-245) will surprise many and, perhaps, convince a few.7 Problematic, too, is Ogden’s take on Il. 24.130-131 (pp. 163-164, with p. 242, n. 63), which views the particle περ as an indication of contrast between intercourse with a woman as opposed to with a male. But the subsequent γάρ and what follows it in lines 131-132 seem to support J. D. Denniston’s understanding of the passage, strengthened by his reference to Od. 20.7, as Thetis’s contrast between the opportunity Achilles has for intercourse with a woman and the looming loss of that and all other pleasures in consequence of his imminent death.8 P. 245, n. 103, misunderstands N. G. L. Hammond, Alexander the Great: King, Commander, Statesman (London: Chatto and Windus Ltd, 1981), p. 265, where Hammond’s “Hephaestion, Hector, and a Persian boy” is actually a dismissive reference to Mary Renault, The Nature of Alexander (New York: Pantheon Books, 1975), p. 113, rather than a postulation on Hammond’s part of a sexual relationship between Hector and Alexander.

Table of Contents

List of Figures.
1. Son of the Thunderbolt: Alexander’s Birth Myths and Their Dates.
The Birth Myths.
The Lion-seal.
The Thunderbolt.
The Serpent Sire and Its Tradition.
The Serpent Sire and the Debate over Alexander’s Paternity.
The Serpent Sire and Ammon.
2. Son of the Serpent: The Original Identity of Alexander’s Serpent Sire.
Alexander’s World of Serpents.
Patterns in the Alexander Serpent-lore.
The Original Identity of the Serpent Sire.
The Visualisation of the Seduction of Olympias.
3. Son of the Ram: Alexander as Heir to the Macedonian Foundation Myths.
The Interaction of Alexander’s Myths with the Foundation Myths.
4. Son of the Eagle: The Heirs to Alexander’s Birth Myths.
The Opportunities Offered by Alexander’s Myths.
Ptolemy Soter.
Seleucus Nicator: The Foundations of Antioch and Seleuceia.
Seleucus Nicator: Descent and Typologies.
Seleucus Nicator: Apollo as Sire.
Antigonus Monophthalmus and Demetrius Poliorcetes.
Other Hellenistic Dynasties and the Roman Empire.
5. Son of the Witch: Traditions of Polygamy in the Macedonian Court.
The Polygamous Structure of the Macedonian Court.
Olympias and Philinna: A War of Witches?
Alexander’s Family: Polygamy and Productivity.
6. Alexander’s Wives: Fact and Tradition.
7. Alexander’s Dalliances: Fact and Tradition.
Sons and Mothers: Encounters with Local Queens.
8. Alexander’s Men: Fact and Tradition.
The Enigma of Hephaestion.
Bagoas the Eunuch.
9. Alexander the Gynnis.
The Gynnis Tale.
What was a Gynnis ?
Alexander as a Gynnis.


1. Oxyrhynchus Papyri 71, edited by R. Hatzilambrou, P. J. Parsons, and J. Chapa (London: Egypt Exploration Society, 2007), pp. 27-36 and Plate IV, especially pp. 34-35.

2.That Ogden’s “Alexander’s Sex Life,” Alexander the Great: A New History, edited by Waldemar Heckel and Lawrence A. Tritle (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. 203-217, covers some of the same ground, makes it no less so.

3. E.g., Alexander the Great II: Sources and Studies, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), pp. 319-326.

4. Women and Monarchy in Macedonia (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), pp. 106 and 288, n. 86.

5. Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Heritage, edited by W. Lindsay Adams and Eugene Borza (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 177-196.

6. Cf. Nick Fisher’s commentary, Aeschines: Against Timarchos (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 311-315.

7. Cf. Helmut Berve, Das Alexanderreich, Vol. II (Munich: Beck, 1926), nos. 195 and 194, respectively.

8. The Greek Particles 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 482.