Famous Bis: Alexander the Great

By Jennie Roberson

September 30, 2022

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Photo credit: Pexels/Pixabay

Sometimes we are introduced to the greatest historical figures in the most unusual ways. I first found out about today’s subject from a frozen treat.

When I was growing up, whenever there was a hot day — a rare thing in my town — I would get an Otter Pop. Otter Pops are long, skinny tubes of shaved ice that come in different fruit flavors, and the tubes look like — you guessed it — sea otters. Each flavor features an otter whose name is a pun on a kind of fruit — which led me to ask my parents who Alexander the Grape was.

Mural painting of Alexander the great riding a horse during a battle scene.

I don’t know about the sea otter, but his human counterpart was one of the greatest conquerors of the ancient world, a Greek king whose empire spanned from Egypt in the south to modern-day India in the east — by the time he was 32. His reign was very important: it led to increased communication between Europe and Asia. Many of the cities he founded became cultural centers and some of them are still around today.

And he was bi.

Born in 356 BCE, Alexander was a son of Philip II, who was the king of Macedon and a great warrior in his own right, and Olympia, a clever queen who knew that her son could grow up to be a great leader (and never hesitated to tell him so). Alexander both revered his father for his conquests and resented him for his long absences out on military campaigns. Alexander was tutored by Aristotle between the ages of 13 and 16, and received a world-class education in a wide range of subjects and skills. He was especially inspired by the story of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad.

When Alexander was 19, King Philip was assassinated by the captain of his bodyguards while at a wedding feast. Alexander’s own succession to the throne was not bloodless — both he and Olympia were careful to dispose of politicians and even relatives who were rumored to be potential rivals for the crown. The news of Philip’s death led many of his client states — including Thebes — to revolt. Instead of responding with diplomacy, Alexander rode into Thebes with his cavalry and massacred the rebel troops, in the hopes that the other city-states would view this as a warning. (They did.)

Alexander’s military conquests are legendary. During the 330s, his empire spread eastwards, as he conquered first Turkey and then Babylon (modern-day Iraq), before declaring himself the king of Persia. Still unsatisfied, in 331 Alexander seized control of Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria, which bears his name to this day. During the 320s, Alexander headed back eastwards towards Iran. In northern India, he defeated the forces of King Porus, but was so impressed by the monarch’s courage that he reinstated him on his throne, as an ally.

Once he was back in Iran, Alexander encouraged many of his generals and noblemen to marry Persian women in order to ensure his long-term grip on the region. Insatiable for further conquest, Alexander then set his sights on crossing the Ganges River — but this time his soldiers refused to continue and he had to head back west. By now, he had amassed one of the greatest empires the world had ever seen.

A graphic design of a map detailing the rule of Alexander the Great.

But what makes historians think that he was bisexual?

Alexander married three times — he married his first wife, Roxana, for love and then married the Persian princesses Stateira and Parysatis for political gain. (Alexander’s father Philip also had a number of wives — polygamy was common in those days.) He also had a Persian mistress named Barsine. He sired at least one child, a son by Roxana, born posthumously in 323 BCE. But his most important relationship was probably with his boyhood friend Hephaestion, a Macedonian general. Hephaestion had also been a pupil of Aristotle’s and was Alexander’s ally throughout his life: helping him ascend the throne and expand his empire and fighting beside him in countless battles.

Hephaestion was, by all accounts, Alexander’s dearest friend. He is also believed to have been his lover. The historian Aelian reports that when the two men visited Troy, Alexander “garlanded the tomb of Achilles, and Hephaestion that of Patroclus, the latter hinting that he was a beloved of Alexander, in just the same way as Patroclus was of Achilles.” When Hephaestion died suddenly in 324, Alexander organized a funeral that would seem gobsmackingly opulent even to modern sensibilities. The costs ran to the equivalent of around a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s money. The devastated Alexander drove the funeral carriage himself part of the way back to Babylon, where he held funeral games in his dead friend’s honor. These involved thousands of contestants competing in multiple disciplines and a funeral pyre nearly 200 feet tall, hollowed out at the upper level so that a choir could be concealed inside to sing a lament.(It is not known whether the pyre was ever completed or whether it was actually intended to be burned or was meant to serve as a monument.)

Eight months later, Alexander took ill after a night of wine-drinking and died two weeks later. The cause of his death remains unknown to this day. Some contend that he contracted malaria or typhoid fever, and others argue that he died of cirrhosis of the liver or was killed by a slow-acting poison in the wine. It is one of the great mysteries of the ancient world. In the wake of his death, his colonies rebelled. The subject peoples fought to regain their sovereignty and his mighty empire collapsed.

Though his life ended more than two thousand years ago, Alexander’s legacy has had far-reaching effects. Both Caesar and Napoleon were awed by his doings and cited him as inspiration for their own military conquests. His military campaigns and methods are studied in military academies throughout the world to this day.

Alexander the Great remains one of the most storied names of antiquity. He laid the foundations for the art of military strategy and his conquests furthered the cross-cultural pollination of Europe and Asia. His relationships with his wives and with Hephaestion suggest that he was bi and therefore that — despite what some haters like to claim — bi people have been here for a long time and will probably always be around. Maybe another bi person will even inspire a new popsicle flavor one day.

Marble replica of Alexander the Great.