Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Love Story at the Heart of DANCING WITH THE LION

The nature of Alexander’s relationship with Hephaistion completely fascinates me.

Not whether they were lovers (for the novel, I've assumed that), but the honesty, duration, and sheer depth of it.

Alexander called Hephaistion “Alexander too,” and “Philalexandros”—friend of Alexander, in contrast to one of his other generals, Krateros, who he called only “Philobasileus”—friend of the king.

Although it seems they did often agree on policy, his support wasn’t brown-nosing. We’re explicitly informed that Hephaistion would tell Alexander what he really thought. Nobody else was as free as he was to upbraid the king. Yet Alexander never seemed to have felt threatened by him. 

They were true best friends.

How many rulers throughout history have had that? Someone who they utterly trusted? And for about nineteen years, too. Maybe even longer (we’re not sure when they met).

Who was this guy? What must he have been like, to become best friend to Alexander the Great? I’ve spent much of my career studying him, and I’m working on a biography about him now. But fiction lets me speculate in ways history doesn’t.

It seems to me that a lot of novelists who write about Alexander aren’t entirely sure what to do with Hephaistion. He winds up bland, or bitchy. It may also be why at least some historians have a hard time believing he deserved his commands. He had to have been a yes-man or Alexander wouldn’t have kept him so close. Or he’s painted as Richelieu-esque, called “sinister,” and described as “tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid.”

I’ve challenged these portrayals in my scholarship, but believe a goodly chunk of the problem is trying to imagine the sort of man who’d become “Alexander too,” without menacing the authority of such a dominant figure as Alexander. I think Hephaistion was a gamma male. Pop definitions can be found all over the net, but the term was born in anthropology to describe the (few) male bonobo chimps who simply didn’t play the game. While some pop definitions assume gamma males will always clash with alphas because of a gamma’s dislike of authority, that’s only partly true. For especially powerful and intelligent alpha males, gammas may be their only true friends.

I believe Alexander trusted Hephaistion because he was neither a follower nor a leader, and he could keep up with him intellectually, shared his visions and ideals. They had a mission together. All the best love affairs do. Far from bland or bitchy, Hephaistion must have been complex and formidable. And theirs is one of history’s most interesting love stories, even if we may not know a whole lot about how it came to be.

But that’s what fiction is for.

No comments:

Post a Comment