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Historical Analysis of Alexander

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    Historical Analysis of Alexander

    Hollywood director Oliver Stone spent several years and made three different versions of his historical epic Alexander in an effort to ensure that he received the desired result of the most historically accurate portrayal of the Macedonian king’s life possible.  The film proved to be a great undertaking, not leaving the famed director until his 2007 final director’s cut of the film Alexander Revisited.  Though much effort was put into the film to assure its accuracy in the portrayal of not only Alexander the Great but also the many people who surrounded him in his everyday life, it is a point of content whether or not the film truly is historically accurate.  Though the tales of Alexander and his great army are well known throughout the world, the man himself lived and ruled over three hundred years before Christ and so the truth of his exploits have been manufactured into the stuff of myths and legends.

    There are many remaining historical documents from ancient times which still exist that depict as much of the truth of Alexander’s adventures that we will ever know.  After viewing Stone’s film, there were several sequences which seemed to call for a more in depth exploration, such as the circumstances surrounding the death of Alexander’s father, King Philip, and Alexander’s subsequent claim to the throne as king, the character of Alexander’s long time friend Hephaestion and the true nature of the two men’s relationship, and the taming of a horse in front of the entirety of the court as a boy.

    Main Points of the Film Alexander

    The Film Alexander  is less of an in depth look into the hero’s life and more of an exploration of the main points of his short life.  In the film, King Philip is presented as a man mainly ruled by his strong emotions, a trait which his son seems to inherit.  Though Philip is passionate, he is almost brutal, even with those he claims to love, a trait which leads to his murder at the hands of one of his bodyguards.  Hephaestion is depicted as Alexander’s right hand, his second in command, and his sometime lover.  Though Hephaestion presents somewhat of an imposing figure because of his close ties to Alexander, he is grievously envied by other generals in Alexander’s army.  He dies suddenly after a night of drinking in what is thought by Alexander to be a poisoning at the hands of Roxanne.  The other event in both the film and Alexander’s life to be discussed is the taming of the horse Bucephalus.

    The Death of King Philip II

    According to historical record, much of the events leading to the death of Philip in the film are relatively accurate.  The cause for the celebration in October of 336 B.C. was not a military coup but the wedding of Alexander’s sister Cleopatra to her uncle Alexander of Epirots (Wilcken 1967).  King Philip had arranged many different events to accompany the ceremony including a feast and friendly competitions.  Philip did enter the theatre at Aegaes alone, having sent his bodyguards ahead of him with instructions to keep their distance in order to prove both his trust and his eminence over the Macedonian people assembled.  It is important to note that Stone was extremely historically accurate with the statues that accompanied the celebration as well as the color of the robe that Philip was wearing when he died (Farrell, Leto and Jolie 2004).  “Once the theater had been filled, Philip himself entered, wearing a white cloak. He ordered his bodyguards to follow, removed at some distance from him, as an indication to everyone that he had no need of the protection of guards. Such was the degree of preeminence that he had attained.” (Wilcken 1967)  The historical disconnect seemed to be in the circumstances surrounding Philip’s death and the cause of the celebration itself.  The young man who stabbed Philip, Pausanias, was not raped by Philip, but abused another young man of the same name who he sensed was gaining the king’s favor.  Though this second Pausanias reported the insult to Attalus, another of the king’s favored advisors, he committed a type of suicide by placing himself in front of the king during an attack and was killed.  Attalus sought retribution for the young man’s death and called his abuser to the home of Attalus where Pausanias was given a large amount of wine and then given to the stablemen to be sexually assaulted.  Though Pausanias reported this incident to the king and was rewarded by Philip in order to remedy the transgression, Pausanias held on to his anger, eventually causing him to be the one to murder Philip though it was suspected that more people were involved in the plot to kill the king, including his exiled wife and Alexander’s mother, Olympias (Tarn 2003).  Though there historically was some consideration given to the idea that Alexander might be one of the conspirators, the film depicts the prince as completely innocent in the matter.  Stone also shows an argument between Alexander and Philip just before the murder where Philip is extremely angry and disappointed in his son though historically Alexander had just returned victorious from war.  The film is extremely accurate in the actual stabbing as well as the attempted escape of the killer.  However, there is no mention of Alexander other than that he was named king and none at all of Hephaestion.

    The Taming of Bucephalus

    Oliver Stone’s film depicts a very close relation between Alexander and his horse Bucephalus, stemming from when Alexander was a child and first tamed the horse that his father could not ride.  Though the story has been dramatized over time, it does have roots in historical fact and the taming of the horse did occur in much the same way that it appeared in the film.  Philonicus offered the horse, which Alexander later named Bucephalus, to Philip for a reported thirteen talents.  When Philip tried the horse, the horse balked and Philip deemed the horse unmanageable.  Young Alexander witnessed this exchange and was very impressed with the spirit of the horse.

     “I could manage this horse,” replied he, “better than others do.”
    “And if you do not,” said Philip, “what will you forfeit for your rashness?’
    “I will pay,” answered Alexander, “the whole price of the horse.” (Wilcken 1967)

    Though the prince was laughed at by the assembled men, Alexander wagered with his father for the price of the horse if he were able to successfully manage the animal.  Philip accepted the wager and the child quieted the horse who was previously extremely temperamental and violent before mounting the horse unaided and riding full speed on the horse who minded Alexander.  Philip was thrilled at his son’s success and proudly proclaimed him as not only his son, but also the future king of Macedonia (Tarn 2003).  Though this exchange has been turned into a bit of a hero’s myth story, it appears in many different books which are held in high regard among historical scholars, including Tarn’s Alexander the Great.  The continued appearance of the story despite some occasional variations in the specifics of the story such as the exact words spoken by each of the involved parties lends to its credence as an actual story of truth though the details of that truth may have been slightly exaggerated.  Despite this, it seems that Stone made his retelling of the story in the film as historically accurate as he was able to with the information available to him concerning the details of the story.

    Hephaestion’s Role in Alexander’s Life

    The character of Hephaestion in regard to Alexander’s life changes vastly in importance according to what resource you are consulting.  The film version of Alexander’s life depicts Hephaestion as Alexander’s long time companion, childhood friend, second in command, and the only truly great love of Alexander’s life.  The two men are shown as lovers though their relationship is never put on display in the film.

    Hephaestion: You once said the fear of death drives all men. Are there no other forces? Is there not love in your life, Alexander? What would you do if you ever reached the end of the world? I wonder sometimes, if it’s not your mother you run from, so many years, so many miles between you, what is it you fear?
    Alexander: Who knows these things? When I was a child my mother thought me divine; my father, weak. Which am I, Hephaistion? Weak or divine? All I know is I trust only you in this world. I’ve missed you. I need you. It is you I love, Hephaistion. No other. (Farrell, Leto and Jolie 2004)

    There are several different versions of Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion as well as how much power Hephaestion exerted over his friend’s decisions.  What remains constant is that the men are known to be very close friends from childhood and that there was a very close relationship between them throughout their lives.  It is more assumed that Hephaestion was present throughout Alexander’s life and that he and their relationship was widely known and understood rather than that there is an explanation needed to qualify the relationship. “Hephaestion is first mentioned at the very beginning of the histories of Alexander’s Persian campaign, when the invaders reached Troy (May 334). He is never introduced as ‘a friend’ or ‘a companion’ of the king; he is simply mentioned, which suggests that the historians assumed that everybody knew Hephaestion’s position as Alexander’s lover.” (Wilson 2006)  Historically, Hephaestion was a close companion of Alexander and the two did have a sexual relationship, however some sources believe that the sexual relationship ended once the two men reached their mid-twenties, the time when it was no longer acceptable in Macedonian society to indulge in same-sex relationships.  Though the two remained close throughout their lives, Hephaestion was not Alexander’s true second in command, though he did rise to some amount of importance as a member of Alexander’s bodyguard and one of his generals.  There was much talk of jealousy among the other generals with regard to the amount of trust that Alexander placed in Hephaestion and the man did die after a night of heavy celebratory drinking due to a fever.  In stark contrast to the film, Alexander did force Hephaestion as well as many of his other generals to marry in a large ceremony in which Alexander did marry two more women in addition to his first wife, Roxanne.  No further mention was made of Hephaestion’s wife or if the couple had children, though Alexander did marry the sister of Hephaestion’s wife so that their children would be cousins (Wilcken 1967).

    Though there are many differing accounts of Alexander the Great’s life, Stone seems to have taken the most common themes present throughout the extensive amount of respected material and pieced it together to provide the most cohesive, accurate account of the king’s life possible.  Though there are some liberties that seem to have been taken with regard to the details of specific instances, and some rather significant parts of Alexander’s life which were left out, such as the existence of his sister as well as some of the many other battles that Alexander waged in order to expand his empire, though those could have been disregarded for time’s sake with regard to the film.  Though the film is kind of a general overview, more of a glimpse into Alexander’s life rather than an in depth look at the king’s life.  Even though it does only hit the major high points, the film does appear to be almost completely historically accurate with regard to the major events in Alexander’s life and the associated timeline.


    Alexander. Directed by Oliver Stone. Performed by Colin Farrell, Jared Leto and Angelina Jolie. 2004.

    Tarn, W. W. Alexander the Great: Sources and Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

    Wilcken, Ulrich. Alexander the Great. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1967.

    Wilson, Nigel Guy. Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece. New York: Routledge, 2006.


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