battle of chaeronea

Elisabetta Sirani - Timoclea (1659)

In this earlier piece (1659), Elisabetta Sirani paints another episode from Plutarch, set 335 BC in Thebes, that had been conquered by Alexander the Great and was now plundered by his troups:

Among the other calamities that befell the city, it happened that some Thracian soldiers, having broken into the house of a matron of high character and repute, named Timoclea, their captain, after he had used violence with her, to satisfy his avarice as well as lust, asked her, if she knew of any money concealed; to which she readily answered she did, and bade him follow her into a garden, where she showed him a well, into which, she told him, upon the taking of the city, she had thrown what she had of most value. The greedy Thracian presently stooping down to view the place where he thought the treasure lay, she came behind him and pushed him into the well, and then flung great stones in upon him, till she had killed him. After which, when the soldiers led her away bound to Alexander, her very mien and gait showed her to be a woman of dignity, and of a mind no less elevated, not betraying the least sign of fear or astonishment. And when the king asked her who she was, “I am,” said she, “the sister of Theagenes, who fought the battle of Chaeronea with your father Philip, and fell there in command for the liberty of Greece.” Alexander was so surprised, both at what she had done and what she said, that he could not choose but give her and her children their freedom to go whither they pleased.

I finished Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven today, and like…for now I’ll say it went pretty fast and firmly onto my Faves bookshelf. One of them, anyway.

Synopsis for those not in the know: Alexander, son of Philip II of Macedon (supposedly), later called ‘The Great’, is fantastically fey and extra and generally just excellent at everything except for ever having any chill, and his mum is a dreadful mum and an excellent witch and anti-heroine. This book follows him from the ages of about 3, to his dad’s death when Alexander was 19 or 20.

Some things about it:

First of all, and I cannot stress this enough, it makes the ancient world sufficiently Weird. Rather than trying desperately to assimilate ancient Greece into modern day western culture in an attempt to let us see ourselves in them, and look at ourselves as inheritors of their enlightened culture or whatever it is the West particularly loves about ancient Greece and Rome — nah, Renault confronts the reader with, essentially, the alien culture, mindset, and worldview of these people. Clannishness, vendettas, blood-feuds, petty kings and high-kings and hegemons and democracies-jim-but-not-as-we-know-them, and that’s without getting started on religion, magic, mystery cults, etc. and the sheer microscopic scale of what seemed, to these people, to be most of the world. It does ancient Hellas and beyond righter than anything else I’ve read.

It also makes everyone sufficiently gay and does a good job of emphasising that, yes, male bisexuality was pretty much the norm, but no, that doesn’t mean that this world was a sexually progressive paradise. Nah, it was plenty problematic. Just with different problems. Just ask Pausanias of Orestis.

This, in which Alexander speaks to his sister Kleopatra, who has just learnt she’s to marry her own uncle and be chill about it, and is understandably distraught:

He crossed over and drew her against his shoulder. He had scarcely embraced her since their childhood, and now it was in Melissa’s arms that she had wept. ‘I am sorry. You need not be frightened. He’s not a bad man, he has no name for being cruel. The people like him. And you’ll not be too far away.’

She thought, You took for granted you’d choose the best; when you chose, you had only to lift your finger. When they find you a wife, you can go to her if you choose, or stay away with your lover. But I must be grateful that this old man, my mother’s brother, has no name for being cruel. All she said was, 'The gods are unjust to women.’

'Yes, I have often thought so. But the gods are just, so it must be the fault of men.’

AND IT IS.

Which brings me onto another thing. The style. It works. The book was released in 1969 but the style is pretty staunchly Modernist in a way that sits it alongside stuff from earlier in the century. Which is to say, stuff I like. It’s constructed in a sort of Woolfish collage of perspectives that slip in and out of free-indirect-discourse/stream-of-consciousness in a way that’s defter and bolder than’s been fashionable for quite a while. The clearest example of this is Renault’s rendering of the Battle of Chaeronea, in which the perspectives flick and switch from both sides of the battle chaotically, and actually let a psychological chaos take centerstage over physical or tactical action, with only glimpses of the whole, or of more immediate grisly detail shown all the starker for it. It does it well. At least, if your tastes run like mine. Renault’s got a strong lyrical and psychological bent in her writing, and I’m fond of that.

This multi-perspective shifting POV thing also allows for a much more grey moral landscape than it otherwise might. There’s the occasional character who’s just a fucking buffoon or an asshole, but most characters are understandable after you get enough of their perspective. The politics in Alexander’s family, for instance, work fantastically because of this — the complexity and all-round nastiness of his relationship with both his parents and their dealings with one another. The same goes for the slight sadness of Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship. We’re privy to how both lovers see and relate to one another, and note the key differences between them.

And that leads into, I guess, my reaction to the main criticism leveled against the book. That Renault paints an overly sympathetic and sanitised picture of Alexander. In short: he’s a Big Damn Mary Sue. Beautiful, athletic, charismatic, brilliant at pretty much anything to which he puts his will, mature for his age and compassionate and progressive for his time…in some ways, all true.

But I think above all that there’s an innate tragedy and lack to Alexander’s character in the sense that, to my reading, he’s so fucking inhuman. He’s this brilliant glowing golden changeling child who incites, requires, and feeds off love from pretty much anyone he encounters without being able to return it in anything like the kind of way the individuals providing it to him need. His greatest strength is weaving the illusion of individually relating to every single person he encounters, while in fact viewing them all as implements by which to achieve his goals, and unknowingly viewing this glamour of his as another tool at his disposal. He’s a gleeful mechanically efficient merciless murderer on the battlefield, pitiful of the dead only in so far as they feed into his Homeric obsessions.

He’s Icarus, with no goal or compassion or sense of self-preservation able to preserve him or keep him from his flight. The virtues and qualities he represents and enacts are archaic even beyond the scope of the ancient world he lives in. And essentially he’s blinkered by the act of making his own myth. It’s what makes a narcissist of him. And honestly, I am really really eager to see how much worse it gets in the next book in the series.

First though, gotta read something SF or Fantasy, according to my system. Just…what?

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In 378 BC, Thebes organized the Sacred Band which was a troop of 150 male lovers - the elite forces. Those men were being chosen by commander Gorgidas “purely for ability and merit, regardless of social class.

The Sacred Band was stationed in Cadmea as a standing force, likely as defense against future attempts by foreign forces to take the citadel. It was occasionally referred to as the "City Band” (ἐκ πόλεως λόχος), due to their military training and housing being provided at the expense of the Boeotian polis. Their regular training included wrestling and dance. The Sacred Band played a crucial role in the Battle of Leuctra. It was annihilated by Philip II of Macedon in the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.

The origin of the “sacred” appellation of the Sacred Band is unexplained by Dinarchus and other historians. But Plutarch claims that it was due to an exchange of sacred vows between lover and beloved.