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who was this guy anyway?
. . . and how the heck do you pronounce his name!? 

Hephaistion's name gives everybody fits.  There are actually three different ways to say it.

    1) The most common pronunciation comes from the Latinized spelling Hephaestion: he-FEES-ti-an
    2) Another familiar pronunciation is based on the transliterated Greek, Hephaistion: he-FAIS-ti-an
But if you went back in time, walked up to him and called him either of those, he'd stare at you in bafflement.

    3) The Greek pronunciation he'd have used is:   he-pais-TI-on
      (Make the /p/ sound like the /p/ in pot.)

Myself, I use a pronunciation he'd recognize --  seems the polite thing to do -- but it does result in some initial confusion with modern English speakers who are used to one of the two more familiar pronunciations.

(Students: if you intend to use any of this information for papers, go HERE first.  You must cite it properly.)


Hephaistion was Alexander the Great's best friend, and grew up with the prince.  Or at least, they met when young and were about the same age.  That means Hephaistion was born around 356BC(We don't know if he was born in 356 exactly, though people sometimes assume it.  I think he was a year or so older than Alexander.)  His father's name was Amyntor, and supposedly he was from Pella (the capital).  He and Alexander went to school together, one of several boys who studied under Aristotle at Mieza with Alexander.  Later, Aristotle wrote him letters, as did another philosopher (Xenocrates).  So maybe he was an intellectual (or liked people to think so).  He turned out to be better at logistics and diplomacy than military combat strategy, and Curtius says he was the king's counselor.  All that suggests more brain than brawn.

AristotleIf he was raised and educated with the prince, his father would have been one of the king's Hetairoi, or Companions.  So he was born into a wealthy family.  And if his father was a Companion, then he was probably one of the king's Pages as a teenager (they're called 'Pages' but the term in Greek translates "Kings Boys" and were more like squires).  We don't know what his mother's name was, or the names of other relatives (although his grandfather may have been called Demetrios).  About the only additional detail of interest is his father's name.  'Amyntor' and 'Amyntas' are variations on the same name, like 'Stephen' and 'Stefano' or 'Mary' and 'Maria.'  "AmynTAS" was the usual version in Macedonia.  But "AmynTOR" was used in Greece.  So that's a bit odd.  Also, the name 'Hephaistion' is itself uncommon in Macedonia.  What this means is anyone's guess, but it's worth noticing.  They appear to have had Greek ties of some kind (maybe to Athens specifically).


The first time we hear anything about Hephaistion in the histories of Alexander, it's at Troy.  When Alexander crossed into Asia Minor to invade Persia, his landfall was at Troy.  There, he did a lot of symbolic things, among them sacrificing at the tomb of Achilles.  Hephaistion supposedly sacrificed at the tomb of Patroklos, Achilles' best friend -- a nice little allusion to their own friendship.  Alexander liked those kinds of dramatic gestures, and the Macedonians (not just Alexander) took the Iliad very seriously.  It wasn't just a story.  They lived it.

After that, Alexander marched off to meet part of the Persian army at the Battle of the Granikos.  He won, but almost got himself killed in the process.  It wasn't Hephaistion who saved him, but a guy named Kleitos, who was the baby brother of Alexander's childhood nurse.  In fact, we don't hear of Hephaistion again until the second big battle:  the Battle of Issos.  There's a funny story that, on the morning of the battle, Alexander's officers had come to his tent to receive last minute orders when Hephaistion showed up, saying, "Health to you," instead of "Joy to you."  That's like saying, "Good bye" or "Good evening" instead of "hello" or "Good morning."  The officers interpreted it as a bad omen (the Greeks were superstitious).  They thought it meant Alexander would die.  Alexander re-interpreted it, saying that wishing him health meant he'd live.  Quick thinking.  But the odd thing about the story is that Hephaistion wasn't alarmed by his slip of the tongue.  He was embarrassed.  My own take on it is that he was leaving the king's tent, not arriving.  (Okay, get your minds out of the gutter.  Maybe Alexander just needed his best friend's company the night before the Big Battle.  I doubt he could sleep much.)

Battle of IssusWhere Hephaistion fought at Issos, the histories don't say, but the Alexander Sarcophagus (Istanbul Museum) shows him on horseback.  We hear about him again after the battle.  Alexander won (of course), and Darius fled the field, leaving behind all his treasury, his personal effects and his family.  The Greeks thought this meant Darius hadn't taken Alexander seriously, but Persians kings typically traveled with their entire court.  So Alexander wound up with all Darius' stuff -- a fancy tent, a big bath, a huge bed, lots of gold . . . and his wife, daughters, and mother.  Well, the ladies expected what usually happens to captured women in war:  rape.  But Alexander sent to them, saying they wouldn't be harmed.  They didn't believe it.  So he went to tell them in person.  Hephaistion went with him.  Since Hephaistion was taller and more impressive-looking, the queen mother thought he was Alexander and bowed to him.  A eunuch warned her of her mistake, and she tried to bow again to the right guy.  But Alexander stopped her, saying, "Never mind, mother.  He's Alexander, too."  Pretty typical of Alexander's chivalry, when he was in the mood.  This story seems to have been popular in antiquity (and with painters of the Renaissance), but Arrian doesn't quite believe it.  Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't.  Even if it didn't, it must have seemed likely or people wouldn't have kept repeating it.  It's while telling this story that Curtius writes the longest description of Hephaistion in any of the Alexander histories:

Darius' mom
        bows to the wrong guyHephaistion was by far the dearest of all the king's friends, educated together with him and the counsellor of all his secrets.  No one had more freedom to admonish Alexander, but he used it in such a way that it seemed granted by the king, rather than taken by himself.  And though he was around the king's same age, he was of a larger physique. (book 3, chapter 12, trans. mine)
After Issus, Hephaistion got his first big command.  Alexander decided not to go after Darius, but to continue marching down the coast to cripple the Persian fleet by conquering all their ports.  He couldn't leave the fleet behind him, or it might have cut off his own supply lines.  One of those ports was Sidon.  After taking control of it, he told Hephaistion to appoint a new king for the city.  Hephaistion asked his hosts for help, and eventually named a fellow called Abdalonymos, who was from the old royal line.  Supposedly, the guy was a poor farmer and as honest as the day is long.  The tale of Hephaistion-and-hosts finding him out weeding his garden is a little too precious. (Okay, call me a skeptic.)  But it was a wise choice apparently, since Abdalonymos reigned for a while.  The famous Alexander Sarcophagus is really Abdalonymos's sarcophagus.  So it's no surprise if Hephaistion is honored by being placed at the middle of the frieze along one side.

After Sidon, Hephaistion was put in charge of Alexander's fleet (which were recommissioned ships of the Persian fleet) for the seige of Tyre.  And later, as the army marched south through harsh terrain towards Egypt, this same fleet sailed along the coast dropping supply magazines.  As Napoleon said, an army marches on its stomach.  Hephaistion couldn't afford to botch it or he might starve the army, so it was an important command.  In Egypt, Alexander was welcomed with open arms.  At some point, Hephaistion was sent off on an errand of some kind, probably to get more supplies.  He was also visited by a friend of Demosthenes, who asked him to put in a good word for Demosthenes with the king.  (Demosthenes was one of Alexander's arch-rivals in Athens, who now feared Alexander's success.)  We're not told if Hephaistion did speak for Demosthenes, but he must've been considered important at court, for Demosthenes to request his help.  It's also in Egypt that Alexander made his famous little hike out through what's today the Libyan desert, to the oasis of Siwah in order to visit the oracle of Ammon and ask some questions.  He took a relatively small group with him (one of whom was Ptolemy, the later founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt).  According to the histories, Alexander kept Ammon's answers to himself, but I have to wonder if he did tell them to Hephaistion, "the counselor of all his secrets."

Hephaistion then disappears until the battle of Gaugamela (or Arbela if you prefer).  This was the last of the three big set-battles with the Persians, and once again, Darius turned around and ran away when he saw Alexander headed for him.  Before that battle, Hephaistion may have been in charge of taking some troops to scout across the Tigris, but we do know that he fought among the Hypaspists in the battle, apparently in the front line, and was wounded in the arm from a spear.  This brings up an important point.  While Hephaistion wasn't much of a strategist, it shouldn't be assumed that he couldn't fight.  They're two different skills.  Not all good fighters are good strategists, and not all great generals are good fighters.

Following this battle, we once again hear nothing about him until Alexander reached Baktria, chasing down Bessus, the man who'd killed Darius and claimed the title of Great King.  By this point, Alexander was styling himself Great King and didn't like the competition (though he also claimed to be avenging Darius' murder).  In Baktria, Hephaistion received more supply assignments.  Then, after the fall of Philotas, he was given command of half the Companion Cavalry.  This was one of the plum assignments of the army and it was open only because of the death of its former commander, Philotas.  The fall of Philotas, and his father, Parmenion, was the result of a conspiracy against Alexander's life.  Some (Badian) have doubted there was a conspiracy, and believe that Alexander made it all up in order to destroy the family of Parmenion, the man who'd been Philip's best general, good friend, and still had a lot of power and prestige in the army (and kept opposing Alexander's plans).  While doubting the conspiracy itself is a bit too skeptical (it makes the Macedonian court sound more like the CIA), Philotas probably wasn't any part of the actual conspiracy, even if he was accused of -- and killed for -- his supposed participation.  Instead, Philotas was guilty of stupidity(You don't hear about a conspiracy against your king and not report it!)  Because Philotas was the eldest son of such a powerful man, Alexander knew he didn't dare leave Parmenion alive . . . as Parmenion was behind him, sitting on his supply lines.  So he had Parmenion assassinated.  A very practical decision, but not a pretty story, however you slice it.

Alexander, Azara hermSo how did Hephaistion fit into all this?  Before arresting Philotas, Alexander had called a counsel of his closest advisors and friends.  The king's own inclination was to let Philotas off the hook, but the rest of them -- especially Krateros -- talked him out of that.  Maybe they really believed Philotas in on the conspiracy; people don't always think straight, in the middle of a crisis.  But once things were in motion, it was too late to pull back.  In any case, it was decided that Philotas should be tortured to make him name who else was involved in the plot.  Hephaistion was one of the three torturers, along with Krateros and Koinos (Philotas' brother-in-law).  Again, not a pretty story.  But what were the motivations of these three?  Well, Krateros had been Parmenion's understudy at least since Gaugamela.  Next to Alexander himself, he was probably the most talented younger officer in the army.  Krateros was Philotas's rival.  Plutarch says that as far back as Egypt, Krateros had been digging up dirt on Philotas; at the time, Alexander had dismissed it.  So it looks as if Krateros had been gunning for Philotas and now siezed his chance.  (Remember:  the Macedonian court was highly competitive.  Nice guys finished last.)  As for the brother-in-law . . . well, he didn't want to go under with the ship.  He had to separate himself from Philotas's family, or risk his career and maybe his life.  Last, there's Hephaistion.  He doesn't have an obvious political motive like Krateros's or Koinos's.  That's made some people think he did it for pure meanness and spite, or in order to get Philotas's command.  Yet that's 20/20 hindsight; at the time, there was no reason for him to assume he would get the command.  Krateros had a much better shot, and maybe that's why Alexander didn't give it to him:  he suspected Krateros's motives.  Yet Hephaistion did have a motive -- the most obvious one of all:  protective revenge.  Even if he didn't really believe Philotas had been involved in the conspiracy, by choosing not to report the plot, Philotas still could've gotten Alexander killed.  As Alexander's best friend, of course Hephaistion would be hopping mad.  (Still not something to admire, but at least comprehensible.)

After Philotas was executed, Alexander divided command of the Companions between Kleitos (the same guy who saved him at Granicus) and Hephaistion.  He didn't want any single officer to have that much power again, even his best friend.  But really, he probably did it because the troops knew and trusted Kleitos, but Hephaistion remained too green.  In fact, Hephaistion never actually commanded his half of the Companions.  The whole unit was divided up again not long after into several Hipparchies.  Hephaistion got one, but his fellow Hipparchs were theoretically his equals.

Nonetheless he was becoming more important, although not as a battle commander.  He excelled at logistics:  getting supplies for the army; scouting new terrain; overseeing the construction of towns, forts, and bridges.  He was also used for diplomacy.  In fact, his very first independent assignment of any kind had been to appoint a new king for Sidon.  Remember that Curtius said he was good at finessing his status at court, making it seem granted by Alexander instead of assumed by him.  And in another place, Curtius called him "charming."  In short, he knew how to manage people, or at least how to manage most people.  Apparently, it was Hephaistion who set up that private supper party where proskynesis (the Persian court bow) was first introduced to Macedonians in an attempt to unify court procedure. (The supper party was mostly a success -- Callisthenes aside -- but when they sprang it on the larger court, it failed, and the idea was dropped.)  Hephaistion was also used by Alexander in negotiation with Persian aristocrats and Indian rajas.  The probable upshot of all this?  Craterus began to get jealous of Hephaistion now, with Philotas out of the way.  They started crossing verbal swords, and once, in India, actually came to blows, each with his own supporters.  That must have been one nasty brawl!  Alexander was alerted and hurried over to separate them, warning them that even though he loved them both, the next time he caught them fighting, he'd kill them, or at least the one who started it.  They never fought again, never even said a word against each other.  But when the king had first pulled them apart, he'd made a nasty remark to Hephaistion right there in public.  He told him, "Without me, you're nothing."  Sometimes his words are interpreted to mean that Hephaistion really was nothing and only got ahead at the court because he was Alexander's friend.  But as we've seen, Hephaistion was quite successful at his logistical duties, so he wasn't nothing without Alexander.

Alexander and HephaistionWhy, then, would Alexander say so?  Well, Alexander was mad.  Here were his two top generals, acting like a pair of  boys out on the play yard yelling the adult equivalent of, "Mine is bigger than yours."  And when angry, especially at the people we love best, we can say really awful things.  We don't necessarily mean them.  But, of course, sometimes we do mean them.  And I think this was a case of both at once.

Alexander knew perfectly well what Hephaistion was good at.  He kept assigning him the same sort of jobs over and over.  But what Hephaistion did best -- logistics and diplomacy -- wasn't all that well-regarded by his fellow officers.  It was combat skill that men admired in antiquity.  Ancient historians never had much to say about logistics unless something went wrong.  (Boy, then you heard about it!)  And if Alexander knew Hephaistion's strengths, he also recognized that his friend was no combat commander.  Every time Hephaistion had to command in battle, he was co-assigned with another officer -- apparently to babysit him (Perdikkas, Demetrios, Peithon, or Alexander himself).  That protected Hephaistion's honor, but also kept him from making a fool of himself.  Hephaistion commands alone only when he's not likely to see combat.  In fact, Hephaistion himself may not have had a very high opinion of his own talents; children (and adults) learn what they live, and he was raised in a culture that admired warfare.  Alexander had many skills, both strategic and logistical.  So his culture's bias in favor of combat over more peaceful pursuits may have reared its ugly head here.  My own personal opinion of what Alexander meant is:   without his affection, and  his recognition and favor, Hephaistion's talents would never have got him so high in the army.  After all, he's "just" a logistics officer.  Never mind that he was the chief  logistics officer after Parmenion's murder.  Yet, in the end, being chief logistics officer would net him the highest position in the entire empire after Alexander's own.

Following Hephaistion and Krateros's big fight, they were kept carefully apart.  Eventually, Krateros would even be sent back to Macedonia to take over there as regent.  It was the highest assignment he could get that wasn't at Alexander's own side (and also wasn't in spitting distance of Hephaistion).  Meanwhile, Hephaistion's assignments in India were more of the same:  logistics and supply.  For instance, while Alexander was getting himself shot at in Mallia, Hephaistion was sent south to make a base camp with Nearkhos, while Krateros was to meet them with non-combatants, spare troops, and elephants.  (Sounds like both men were still in the dog house.)  Hephaistion fortified a port, and then followed Alexander into the Gedrosian desert disaster while Krateros went north with slower-moving troops.  (Gedrosia really wasn't as stupid a move as it's sometimes made out to be; if the supply plans had worked, things would have been fine.   Instead, there was this little problem called rebellion behind them in India, which threw off the timing of Nearkhos' fleet.)  Hephaistion was also in Karmania for that infamous Dionysian revel after they emerged from Gedrosia with less than three quarters of the people they'd gone in with. (They weren't celebrating the losses, of course; they were celebrating having survived at all.)  There, Alexander gave out a number of special awards, among them a gold crown for Hephaistion.  Nobody says what the award was for specifically.  Maybe just for putting up with Alexander in a peevish mood. :-)

Hephaistion, Getty headHephaistion and Alexander both are now in their final year or so of life, though of course they don't know it.  It's probably at this point Hephaistion hit the pinnacle of his career:  Alexander named him Chiliarch, or Grand Vizier (in Persian, hazarapatish).  This position at the Persian court had been vacant since Darius had executed the infamous Bagoas, who'd killed kings and made new ones with equal enthusiasm (this Bagoas is not to be confused with the equally infamous dancing boy at Alexander's court, though both were eunuchs).  In any case, Alexander revived it for Hephaistion.  Yet in truth, it was revived for practical purposes and Hephaistion was the ideal man to fill it.  The Chiliarch kept affairs at court running smoothly.  And who better to do that than Hephaistion?  It was an administrative office.  Unfortunately, he only held the position for a few months before his death.  Still, it was long enough for him to make an enemy out of Eumenes, Alexander's chief secretary.  Part of Hephaistion's new job would have been deciding what correspondence and documents would be forwarded on to the king.  Before that, such decisions would have lay with Eumenes, who'd answered directly to Alexander.  Now Eumenes must answer to Hephaistion.  It was the kind of bureaucracy that might be necessary, but nobody liked it, especially not the people demoted to middle management who'd once been higher in the scheme of things.  (Whether or not Hephaistion did something to genuinely piss off Eumenes may well be true, but the larger political context should be seen.)

Alexander gradually moved north to Susa, to settle affairs in Persia, before launching his next big campaign (which, of course, never happened).  There at Susa, he held a mass wedding for himself and his ranking Macedonian officers.  They all married aristocratic Persian brides.  Once, this was believed to have been an attempt by Alexander to introduce a "Brotherhood of Mankind" (so, Tarn).  But that belief was a product of Nineteenth Century Romanticism, not cold reality.  In truth, it was a shrewd bit of politics on Alexander's part, tying his top officers to important families in Persia.  His own bride was, of course, Darius' elder daughter.  And to his best friend -- and new Chiliarch -- Alexander gave the younger daughter of Darius.  The girl's name was Drypetis.  Curiously, Alexander's reason for the match wasn't to honor Hephaistion (or not that only), but to make his children and Hephaistion's cousins.  Sweet.  Probably genuine, as well.  Alexander was sentimental that way.

The story winds to a tragic close soon after.  From Susa, Alexander took his court-cum-army north to Ecbatana.  And it was at Ecbatana that Hephaistion fell sick with a fever and died, probably in late October.


Was Hephaistion poisoned by his enemies?  Did Alexander go crazy with grief after his friend's demise?  Was there a plot against Alexander's own life, hatched by his chief officers?

Popular questions.  The answers are:  no, no, and no.

A Macedonian burial urnHephaistion was sick.  He died.  That happened.  That happened a lot in antiquity, in fact, even to the rich and famous and apparently healthy.  Diseases that we shrug off today could be fatal back then.  No, no one knows exactly what he died of.  Maybe typhoid, maybe malaria.  There isn't enough (good) information about his illness even to guess.  As for the poison theory (whose proponents point to a boiled chicken and some wine that Hephaistion supposedly had on the morning of his death) -- and despite what the gentlemen at Tulane think -- at a highly suspicious court, if Alexander didn't believe Hephaistion had been poisoned and turn out the dogs after the murderer of his closest friend, then I don't think we should assume it, either.  Alexander supposedly had the doctor hanged.  But that was for malpractice, not fear of conspiracy and murder.  Hephaistion died of a fever.  Case closed.

So did Alexander go crazy with grief?  No, he didn't.  He reacted just like most people who lose a spouse or very very close friend or family member.  The main difference is that he had enough money (and power) to have his wishes obeyed.  If more people knew some of the odd (but perfectly normal under the circumstances) things that grieving people do, they wouldn't think Alexander's actions so extreme.  The plain fact is that grief of that sort is intense, and it doesn't go away overnight -- or even in a few weeks or a few months.  And although grief is something that happens to all of us, unless we're in a job or situation where we deal with grieving people regularly, we often don't recognize normal grieving behavior.  Alexander's actions were pretty normal, and he was starting to come out of his grief around the time of his own death, eight months later in Babylon . . . .

. . . . which brings us to Alexander's death.  Some people consider the nearness in time of Hephaistion's death and Alexander's, and once again, the old "It must've been poison!" theory pops up.  But to that, we can just repeat the refrain above:

Alexander was sick.  Alexander died.  That happened.  That happened a lot in antiquity, even to the rich and famous and apparently healthy.  There's been much more speculation about Alexander's final illness.  The current reigning theory is typhoid with complications, though not everyone buys it, and malaria is still a strong favorite among dissenters.  Did Alexander's grief over Hephaistion contribute to his death?  Maybe so.  That's not being sentimental.  It's a recognized, medically documented fact that grieving people are at a higher risk for certain illnesses, including communicable illnesses.  Certainly, the stress of grief didn't help his health, and he was already suffering from several ill-healed wounds.

So while Alexander didn't die of a broken heart (sorry, poets),  I think it safe to say that losing Hephaistion did contribute to his own demise.

[Those interested in more detail about the impact of grief on health -- including the medical evidence -- may want to check out my article co-authored with E.N. Borza:  "Some New Thoughts on the Death of Alexander the Great," The Ancient World 31.1 (2000) 1-9.   And for the record, as I don't want to mislead, the funereal urn pictured above is not Hephaistion's.  Hephaistion's body was first embalmed and then cremated in Babylon (or buried, depending on how one interprets Diodorus).  The funereal urn above belonged to the teenaged son of Alexander the Great.  But it's the style of urn that Hephaistion would likely have had, though his was probably even more fancy.]

Email me if you wish to use any of it.  While intended as popular history, and written with a colloquial tone -- for which I make no apologies -- I can happily provide footnotes and documentation to the curious.

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