Sunday, November 3, 2019

Alexander’s Heroes: Achilles and Herakles


Alexander may have become a hero to subsequent generations, but he had heroes of his own. The two he preferred most were Achilles (Akhilleus) and Herakles (Hercules in Latin). In book 2, Rise, he admits to Hephaistion that when he was young, he used to dress up in an ancestor’s old antique armor and pretend to be Achilles. It’s not so very different from the armies of children who recently knocked on doors for Halloween, dressed as Batman or Captain America.

Why Achilles and Herakles? He considered both to be his ancestors. We might view it as quaint, but the ancients really did believe the heroes of myth had been real, and some of the living were descendants of them.

On Alexandros’s father’s side, he claimed descent from Herakles, and Herakles appeared on his first coins (along with Zeus, Herakles’s father, on the coin reverse). Later, Herakles would morph into Alexandros himself, still wearing the lion-head helmet. In Rise, readers will discover how he got that helmet (or at least my fictional version). The series title (Dancing with the Lion) will also finally be explained. Lions were a symbol of royalty in the Ancient Near East back into the Bronze Age. Greece (and Macedonia) merely continued the tradition.

    

On his mother’s side, however, he counted descent from Achilles. The young, brash hero of the Iliad appealed to a young, brash king. Herakles is typically depicted (and thought of by the Greeks) as an older man, late 30s to 40s. Philip prominently linked himself to Herakles. But the young Alexandros preferred the young Achilles, often depicted in Greek art as beardless.

Unlike Homer’s other epic hero, the crafty Odysseus, Achilles was a straight-shooter. He said what he thought, and Alexandros likes to think of himself the same way. Achilles was also a runner, his epithet in the Iliad being “swirft-footed.” Likewise, Alexandros is a runner.

Yet another reason Achilles might have appealed involves his legendary friendship with Patroklos, who, by the 4th century BCE, most Greeks (and Macedonians) considered Achilles’s lover too. Patroklos was older than Achilles, typically shown in art as bearded. And of course, their relationship is depicted as a sexual one in Madeline Miller’s popular The Song of Achilles.