Alexander the Great, the King in Shining Armour
By Dr. Victor Alonso Troncoso
Professor of Ancient History
Universidad de La Coruña
In his account of the preparations for the battle at Granicus, Arrian notes that the Persians could easily identify Alexander on the other bank of the river by his armour: “he was unmistakable ‒ Arrian (An. 1.14.4) says ‒ from the splendour of his equipment and the enthusiasm of the men in attendance round him (δῆλος γὰρ ἦν τῶν τε ὅπλων τῇ λαμπρότητι)”. Our best Alexander historian uses this typical expression again, as if it were a Homeric formula, when describing how the king personally led the assault on the battlements of the Mallians’ city in India: “Conspicuous as Alexander was both by the splendour of his arms (δῆλος μὲν ἦν Ἀλέξανδρος ὢν τῶν τε ὅπλων τῇ λαμπρότητι) and by his extraordinary audacity” (An. 6.9.5). We know for certain that Ptolemy was at least one of Arrian’s sources for the Indian episode (An. 6.10.1; cf. Curt. 9.5.21), thus making it perfectly possible that the motif of the shining armour attributed to the Macedonian conqueror had already appeared in the Lagid’s work. In fact, the image of the king as a radiant figure was conceptually in tune with the iconography of Alexander keraunophoros on Ptolemy’s gold staters from c. 304 onwards, which featured a deified Argead with aegis and thunderbolt (MØRKHOLM 1991, pl. 96), not to speak of the socalled Porus decadrachms (STEWART 1993, 201-3; cf. BERGMANN 1998, 19), in other words, associated with the weapon of Zeus, refulgent and terribly divine. Of course, this in no way excludes the possibility that, for his part, Aristobulus had described Alexander in the same or similar terms, even more so if we bear in mind that the Cassandrean is the source Arrian uses consistently in the prolegomena of the battle of the Granicus, as both Schwartz (1895, 912) and Bosworth (1980, 115) have pointed out. However, in the case of a coincidence between Ptolemy and Aristobulus regarding the portrayal of the Macedonian as a warrior in shining armour, the logical explanation could be a common source, in this case probably Callisthenes. His Alexander was not only cast in a heroic mould (HAMILTON 1969, liv; CARTLEDGE 2004, 272), but also invested with aegis and thunderbolt (FGH 124 F 20), as if in some way he reflected, or participated in, Zeus’ nature, the lord of heaven and the thunderbolt-bearer par excellence in Greek mythology (cf. STEWART 1993, 97, 193; OGDEN 2011, 13).
Unsurprisingly, the image of Alexander gleaming in a splendid panoply of war, likely to capture the attention of the enemy, did not pass unnoticed to the Vulgate. Diodorus does not preserve any explicit mention of the king in shining armour, but Curtius reports that during the final attack on the walls of Tyre, the Argead distinguished himself by mounting a very lofty tower with great courage and still greater danger, “for being conspicuous” ‒ Curtius explains ‒ “for his royal garb and gleaming arms (quippe regio insigni et armis fulgentibus conspicuus), he more than any other was a special target for missiles” (Curt. 4.4.10-11). For his part, Diodorus (17.46.2) describes Alexander’s decisive act of prowess against the Tyrian city, carefully enumerating his arms (dory, machaira and aspis), though omitting any reference to their brightness. It follows that Diodorus and Curtius’ common source, Clitarchus, may well have devoted a full report to this climactic moment in the siege, somewhat exaggerating Alexander’s personal prowess and highlighting the effects of his awesome arms ‒ perhaps as a doublet of the Mallian episode. I suggest that Curtius’ Latin armis fulgentibus conspicuus may be a translation of Clitarchus’ δῆλος τῶν ὅπλων τῇ λαμπρότητι, the same expression as in Ptolemy and Aristobulus, or a very similar one. The visibility of Alexander in the heat of battle, as opposed to a king who hides behind his troops and forsakes his splendid regalia (Plu. Alex. 33.5-8), is unanimously underlined by the sources: Curtius, for instance, who does not allude to the resplendent arms of the Macedonian on the occasion of the Mallian campaign, notes however that his daring led him to remain alone on top of the wall “in the sight of so great an army (in conspectu tanti exercitus)” (Curt. 9.4.33).
As might be expected, the glorious arms of the Macedonian conqueror provided a good topic to embellish and overdramatize the historical narrative, particularly for Clitarchus and his followers, although not only them. For instance, there is general agreement in the sources that Alexander was the first to disembark on Asian soil in full armour (Arr. An. 1.11.7), something also more less explicit in Diodorus’ narrative (17.17.2). The emphasis on the king’s arms is even more evident in Justin’s narrative of the landing in Asia: Alexander first hurled his spear into the soil and leapt in heavy armour from the ship like a man performing a dance (Just. Epit. 11.5.10, cf. YARDLEY ‒ HECKEL 1997, 109-10). At the same time, however, discordances inevitably arose between the Vulgate and the versions given by Ptolemy and Aristobulus. I have already referred to the main discrepancy between these traditions, the scenarios of Alexander’s shining appearances. A second point of disagreement lies in the function and use accorded to the weapons taken by Alexander from the temple of Athena at Troy. Diodorus (17.18.1) writes that, “taking the finest of the panoplies deposited in the temple, he put it on and used it in his first battle”, that is, at Granicus, where ‒ the Sicilian adds ‒ “he took … three blows on the shield which he had brought from the temple of Athena” (17.21.2). Arrian, on the other hand, states that the dedicated arms from the Trojan war were henceforth carried by the hypaspists before the king into battle (An. 1.11.7-8), specifying that it was Peucestes who bore the sacred shield in the assault on the citadel of the Malii (An. 6.9.3). Though this new discrepancy between the different sources does not directly affect the subject of this paper, I allude to it to denote the relevance of Alexander’s armour to the ancient historians and its potential as a source of rhetoric and embellishment.
That said, I believe that the most eloquent author on our topic is probably Plutarch. Like Arrian, and contrary to the vulgate tradition, he places Alexander resplendent in armour at Granicus and the city of the Malli. The biographer also gives a full report of Alexander’s combat actions at Granicus and in addition offers the best description of the king’s personal weapons. Again we find that in his first encounter with the satraps “many rushed upon Alexander, for he was conspicuous ‒ here not δῆλος, but διαπρεπής ‒ by his buckler and by his helmet’s crest, on either side of which was fixed a plume of wonderful size and whiteness…” (Alex. 16.7). Plutarch is not making this stuff up, but drawing on a reliable source, perhaps Callisthenes (HAMILTON 1969, lv). In fact, the same helmet, or a very similar one, is shown on the above mentioned medallions commemorating Alexander’s victory over Porus (HAMILTON 1969, 40), as well as on the bronze emissions from Memphis (PRICE 1991, 496, pl. 149 nº 3960; DAHMEN 2007, 44). The medallic coins, in effect, show Alexander on their reverse wearing a helmet of the Phrygian type (SEKUNDA 2012, 20, 42-3), with gorget, flowing crest and two side large plumes, apart from cuirass (breastplate) and military cloak (HOLT 2003, 118-21). Some years later, c. 300, the Macedonian funerary painting of Agios Athanasios gives us a true picture of this military headgear at the right edge of the frieze: two of the young men clad in the traditional Macedonian uniform are also wearing “brilliant helmets with high crests and fluttering white plumes”, in the words of Tsimbidou-Avloniti (2004, 149). The motif of the shining armour is more evident in Plutarchs’ account of the Mallian campaign: “Then, as he brandished his arms, the barbarians thought that a shape of gleaming fire played in front of his body” (σέλας τι καὶ φάσμα πρὸ τοῦ σώματος; Alex. 63.4-5; cf. Hom. Il. 18.225-26), like the apparition of Phoebus that darted down to earth, “gleaming round about with flaming armour” (Mor. 343E). Conceptually and iconographically, the impression given by Alexander to the Mallians seems to be in line with the image of the king after the battle of Hydaspes as rendered by the elephant medallions, grasping in his right hand a bolt of lightning.
Above all, we owe to Plutarch the richest description of the monarch’s arms, the arming scene before the battle at Gaugamela, whose Homeric colouring (Il. 11.15-46) could not be denied (MOSSMAN 1988, 88; BAYNHAM 2015, 58-59). It is a long paragraph worth mentioning, maybe deriving from Chares (HAMILTON 1969, lii n. 6):
“He put on his helmet, but the rest of his armour he had on as he came from his tent, namely, a vest of Sicilian make girt about him, and over this a breastplate of two-ply linen from the spoils taken at Ipsus. His helmet was of iron, but gleamed like polished silver (ἔστιλβe δὲ ὥσπερ ἄργυρος καθαρός), a work of Theophilus; and there was fitted to this a gorget, likewise of iron, set with precious stones. He had a sword, too, of astonishing temper and lightness, a gift from the king of the Citieans,… He wore a belt also, which was too elaborate for the rest of his armour; for it was a work of Helicon the ancient, and a mark of honour from the city of Rhodes, which had given it to him” (Alex. 32.8-11).
Alexander’s funeral was the perfect occasion to exhibit his arms, alongside the other most valuable insignia (HAMMOND 1989). According to Curtius (10.6.4), during the turmoil following the king’s death, Perdiccas displayed the royal throne draped with the diadem, robe and arms of the dead monarch. And later ‒ Diodorus (18.26.4) reports ‒ the arms of the deceased were placed beside the coffin in the funeral carriage designed by Arrhidaeus in Babylon. The powerful effects of Alexander’s panoply, as if it were a sort of talisman, remained during the wars of the Successors. Eumenes’ stratagem constitutes the best proof of this. He set up a fine tent and in it erected a throne, upon which were placed Alexander’s own diadem, scepter and armour.
As everyone knows, in traditional societies the king epitomizes the best qualities of his people, and as a warrior Alexander reflects what we find a bit more diffuse in other members and corps of the Macedonian army. In this regard, Baynham (2015, 55) has recently highlighted that the ornate military dress and equipment proclaimed power, intimidation, wealth and social status, being at the same time designed as a symbol of group or ethnic excellence. The Silver-Shields are the first to come to mind, “distinguished for the brilliance of their armour (τῇ τε τῶν ὅπλων λαμπρότητι) and the valour of the men” (D.S. 17.57.2); but also the asthethairoi, if Anson (2010, 88-89) is right about the term deriving from a contraction of aster-hetairoi or “StarCompanions”, a name given to troops carrying shields decorated with the Macedonian star. Furthermore, if in Plutarch’s Moralia (339E) Philotas is called “that man of iron” (ὁ σιδάρεος ἐκεῖνος), the Doric sidareos form suggesting here a quotation from a poem or a drama (BABBIT 1972, 457), the Macedonian champion Coragus inspired terror “by the brilliance of his arms” (D.S. 17.100.5), exactly the same expression used by Arrian (Succ. 12) when describing Leonnatus’ airs and graces. But it was not only individuals or elite forces that looked radiant. Alexander’s army as a whole could also produce the same impression (D.S. 17.53.3), and after his death, in 317, we are told that the joint army of Eumenes and Peucestas raised the spirits of the Macedonians by the number of their men and the splendour of their equipment (λαμπρότητι παρασκευῆς, Plu. Eum. 13.4). As Philopoemen would put it a century later ‒ our informant is now Polybius (11.9.1) ‒ “the brightness (λαμπρότητα) of the arms contributes much to intimidate the enemy”.
Needless to say, the fascination with the metal of war was not new to the time of Alexander, nor would it end in subsequent ages of European history (see, v. g., Soler 2010). Homer is once again an unavoidable incipit, in particular the heroes of the Iliad. As Longo (1996) has studied, arms and armour, spears and swords, cuirasses and helmets, occupy an extraordinarily prominent place in the topology of the poem: the visual and auditory space of the Homeric battle is dominated by the glare of the polished bronze that reflects and multiplies, as in a game of mirrors, the ruthless light of the meridian sun, projecting it once again towards the sky. This is not out of place here. On Alexander’s funeral carriage, above the chamber in the middle of the top under the open sky, there was a purple banner blazoned with a golden olive wreath of great size, and when the sun cast upon it its rays, “it sent forth such a bright and vibrant gleam that from a great distance it appeared like a flash of lightning” (D.S. 18.27.2). Neither had the epos failed to chant the “gleaming helmet” of Ajax (Hom. Il. 16.104-5), or Hector, Alcmaon and Imbrius’ “armour dight with bronze” (Il. 14.420; 12.396; 13.181), while the fascinating figure of Achilles may have been the reference for Alexander. In fact, the hero himself had once declared that the Trojans had taken heart to sally out against the Achaians, because they did not see “the visor of my helmet gleaming near them” (Il. 16.70-71). His mother Thetis would ask Hephaestus to manufacture for the hero a “glorious shining armour” (Il. 18.144), and indeed she would carry “the flashing armour from Hephaestus” (Il. 18.617) to Achilles, including “a corselet brighter than the blaze of fire” (Il. 18.610). It would not be unreasonable, therefore, to explain the radiant appearance of Alexander before the Mallians, with its incomparable gleam (σέλας), by referring it to a Homeric source of inspiration, for instance the σέλας of Achilles’ shield (Il. 19.375-379; MOSSMAN 1988, 90) and/or the same halo surrounding his head when the son of Thetis took his stand by the wall beyond the trench (Il. 18.214; MOLINA 2014, 101).
The ideology of war as a shiny spectacle canonized by the epos ‒ reminiscent of the metallic ages of Hesiod ‒ would remain firmly alive in the intertextual development of Greek literature. For instance, the dedicatory epigrams of the Greek Anthology collected by Meleager of Gadara (1st century BC) celebrated in Homeric terms the offering of weapons in sacred places, such as the “bright shield (ἀσπὶ φαεννά)” of a devotee of Artemis or the weapon dedicated to Apollo that says of itself to continue to glow by the valour of its owner in many combats (ἀρετᾷ λάμπομαι; AP 6.128; 264). Furthermore, this was in no way exclusive to Greek heroic poetry and aesthetics. Medieval epic cultivates the same image, both in Beowulf (231, 404-6, 2255-57), the Chanson de Roland (1003, 1031-32, 3865), the Cantar de Mío Cid (3074, 3177-79, 3649), Digenis Akritis (1.163) and the Niebelungenlied (79-80, 406, 1783). It is against this background that the arms of Don Quixote, which had belonged to his great-grandfathers, are ironically described at the beginning of the novel “as stained with rust and covered with mildew” (1.1.; GROSSMAN 2005, 22).
The memory of Alexander, the king in shining armour, remained alive among the Diadochi. According to Plutarch (Demetr. 29.1), Demetrius dreamed before Ipsus that Alexander appeared to him “in brilliant array of armour” (ὡπλισμένον λαμπρῶς), just as Poliorcetes’ army had been admired by the defenders of Rhodes (D.S. 20.83.2). It cannot be by chance that the great imitator of the Macedonian monarch, Pyrrhus of Epirus, is repeatedly described by Plutarch as an admirable man of arms, combining both the splendour of his military virtues and the splendour of his outward appearance in combat. At the battle of Heraclea, the king of Epirus recalls Alexander as being “conspicuous at once for the beauty and the splendour of his richly ornamented armour” (Plu. Pyrrh. 16.7). The course of the battle also recalls Granicus in that Pyrrhus became the primary target of the attacks of the most prominent enemy combatants due to the striking visual effect of his arms (Pyrrh. 16.10-17.2). The Romans and their allies identified the Epirote by his weapons and clothing, especially his helmet and the stephanē, with which his helmet was distinguished (Pyrrh. 34.1), as well as by his chlamys (cf. Metz Ep. 58), but not by his face or body, which were unknown to most of them. Perhaps we can take a step forward to reconstruct the visual image of the Molossian as a king and imitator of Alexander in shining armour if we analyze Pyrrhus’ conquest of Beroea in 287. To this end, I would like to bring together the literary tradition and the archaeological evidence, in particular, Plutarch’s report with the Shield Monument from Veria. We are told that the Macedonian soldiers under Demetrius abandoned the Antigonid, who stole away unnoticed from the camp putting on a dark cloak in place of his stage-robes of royalty, and they embraced the party of the Epirote. Demetrius’ soldiers and the Beroeans themselves had always admired Pyrrhus’ brilliant exploits in arms (τὴν ἐν τοῖς ὅπλοις λαμπρότητα), considering him a dazzling figure (λαμπρὸν ἄνδρα; Demetr. 44.5; Pyrrh. 11.4). If, following Markle (1999), we accept that the Beroean monument commemorated the bloodless victory of Pyrrhus and his subsequent proclamation as king of Macedonia, and if on this great marble base at Veria there was once a magnificent statue of Alexander mounted on a Nisaian horse leading the Epirote to the throne of the Macedonians, it would be logical to conclude that both warlords displayed magnificent panoplies in keeping with the shields ‒ Macedonian ethnic symbols (LIAMPI 1990) ‒ carved on the arresting pedestal, ultimately in harmony with the ideology of light associated with the Alexandrine kingship.
The figure of Demetrius, however, reminds us of other episodes less somber and more radiant in his career. We are told, for instance, that the Antigonid wore purple robes shot with gold, notably a magnificent cloak on which was represented the world and the heavenly bodies (Plu. Demetr. 41.4-5). This information is in tune with the praising of Demetrius’ august look in the Ithyphallic Hymn, with his friends around him, like stars around the sun. According to Csapo (2008, 271-72), Hermocles’ (or Hermippus’) immediate source for the astral imagery would appear to be Demetrius himself, in particular the king’s shield unearthed at Dion (inscribed “of king Demetrius”): its front is decorated with a sunburst surrounded by seven stars.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Alexander Romance, unsurprisingly, took up the motif of the king’s resplendent arms and garments to compose a typical farewell scene of gift-giving. The royal presents offered by the queen Candace of Meroë to Alexander included a diamond crown, a breastplate decorated with pearls and beryls, and a cloak of purple threaded with gold, “which twinkled like the stars (ἀστεροφεγγῆ)”. The relevance of this testimony lies in the fact that it makes explicit, or says in a more sophisticated way, what in the Alexander historians seems to be rather implicit: the fact that the metal weapons and precious garments of the Macedonian hero were endowed with cosmological reverberations. Moreover, the Romance presents the Macedonian shining like a star, more specifically because of the pine-torch he is carrying (Ps.Callisth. 2.15, A), while his soul (?) is borne up to heaven in the form of a star by an eagle (Ps.Callisth. 3.3, A). The Uranic motif is also taken up by Ps.-Libanius (Descr. 27.4) to characterize Alexander’s locks, “like the rays of the sun” (BERGMANN 1998, 78). Again these were qualities partially or entirely shared by the army as a whole, according to the same literary tradition, the Letter to Aristotle. So in the Epistola Alexander boasts that “the whole army followed me, bright like a star or a flash of lightning (veluti sidere aut fulgore clarum), with conspicuous banners and pennants shining with gold (radiantibus auro)”.
By way of conclusion, I would like to raise two questions.
First, is it possible to trace a sort of aemulatio (rather than imitatio) Alexandri in Demetrius’ ceremonial dress of celestial denotations? If, in the case of the Antigonid, emulation was most probably the prevailing attitude towards Alexander’s memory (Alonso 2016, 113), it would not be surprising that the cosmological connotations of the king in shining armour became more explicit and defined in Demetrius’ selffashioning, to the extent of being thematized in a colourful and ambitious iconography (Plu. Demetr. 41.4-5; Ath. 535F-536A).
Second, could the luminous image of Alexander studied in this paper reinforce the hypothesis of Ernst Kantorowicz (1961, 373) that the Macedonian conqueror was the first “god in uniform”, starting the Alexandrine tradition of representing not only Egyptian divinities in military attire, but also the Greco-Roman gods who in classical times had been preferably rendered in the nude or loosely draped?.
- All translations from Greek and Latin authors, unless otherwise indicated, are from The Loeb Classical Library. For the paragraphing of Plutarch’s Lives I also follow Loeb.
- Rather than having in mind Caesar’s part in the attack on Alesia, pace RUTZ 1965, 381 (see ATKINSON 1980: 310). It is to be noted that Arrian’s account of the final attack on Tyre (2.23.5) differs from the Vulgate (WELLES 1970: 249 n. 3): Admetus is the real protagonist of the final attack, not Alexander, whose arms consequently did not deserve special mention by Arrian’s primary sources, Ptolemy and Aristobulus.
- Probably as a talisman of protection, like Danaus’ and Achilles’ shields: cf. PATON 1912; GERNET 1968, 95. See too ANTELA-BERNÁRDEZ 2018.
- GOUKOWSKY 2002, 180, quotes Arrian’s version implying that he is right, while LENDON 2005, 119, 133, tries to find a compromise. For the rest, according to BORZA’s hypothesis (1987, 116-18), the burial goods of Tomb II may include some of the royal accessories of Alexander (contra Hammond 1989). Note too Liber Mort. 120: “In the temple of June in Argos my arms are to be deposited.” His interest on the weapons of the vanquished as religious offerings has been highlighted by SQUILLACE 2013. There is now an exhaustive discussion by MENDOZA 2018, 114-130.
- Note also D.S. 18.26.4.
- MENDOZA 2018, 131-137, who correctly considers Callisthenes a primary source for the shining armour motif in the Alexander historians, although he does not analyze Curtius’ comment (4.4.10-11), is finally inclined towards Aristobulus as the source of both Arrian and Plutarch for the Mallian episode, apparently to the detriment of Ptolemy.
- See LIDDELL – SCOTT, sv. “στίλβω”, for the Homeric correspondences.
- Sources and bibliography on Eumenes’ device in BORZA 1987, 111 n. 20.
- Cf. also HECKEL 2009, esp. 112 n. 27. The cosmic significance of shields in Greece, particularly the concept of clipeus caelestis, from Achilles to the Byzantine emperors, through Alexander (v. g., his clipeus on the gold medallion from Abukir), has long been studied by L’ORANGE 1953, 90-102.
- Conversely, note Plu. Eum. 14. 3-4, where the effect is described as though by an observer in Eumenes’ ranks, surely Hieronymus: see HORNBLOWER 1981, 120-21. Cf. Arr. An. 2.12.1; Curt. 3.3.3-5.26; 4.13.12; 5.4.31; 9.3.21; 9.8.5. For the Roman army, Plu. Pyrrh. 16.7. It is also worth reading Pyrrh. 24.2, on the Italian champion who challenged Pyrrhus.
- It might be argued that the American imagination continues the heroic tradition in the Star Wars saga, with the lightsaber of the Jedi knight.
- See too the episode of Cratesipolis, Plu. Demetr. 9.4.
- Further references and bibliography on the association of armour, Homeric fighting and the cult of the heroized dead, particularly regarding Alexander, Alcetas, Demetrius and Pyrrhus, by HORNBLOWER 1981, 194-95, with n. 50. Her analysis, bearing in mind Hieronymus’ historiographical style, though a bit concise, is incisive and seminal.
- See BERGMANN 1998, 53; O’SULLIVAN 2008; CHANIOTIS 2011, 166.
- Ps.Callisth. 3.23 (A), trans. STONEMAN 1991. This quality had already been attributed in the Odyssey (19.234) to Ulysses’ chiton, “that was brilliant like the sun”, and, as I have pointed out, it was characteristic of Poliorcetes’ chlamys: O’SULLIVAN 2008, 85; HOLTON 2014, 383-84.
- I owe the last two references to Daniel Ogden, at the Salt Lake City conference (see above, the acknowledgements in n. 1).
- Epist.Alex.Arist. 13a (the translation into English is mine), VAN THIEL 1974, 204. The old English text of the Letter, palpably different in tone, becomes more like the Ithyfallic Hymn: “I had commanded that all the weapons of my thegns and all my troop and army be covered with gold plate. And all my troop looked like stars or lightning because of the amount of the gold. It shone and glittered before me and around me in glory, and they led before me war-banners and standards. And so great was the sight and spectacle of that troop of mine in splendour beyond all the other mighty kings there have been in the world” (§ 11, trans. ORCHARD 2003, 231).
- So far as I know, the first scholar to take up KANTOROWICZ’s hypothesis in the last decades has been HOLT 2003, 124 n. 24, who raises the question in relation to Alexander’s panoply on the elephant medallions. KRAFT’s (1965) paper is not very useful in this regard.
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Originally pubished by Karanos: Bulleting of Ancient Macedonian Studies 2 (2019, 19-27) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.