The Incense Incident Between Alexander The Great And His Old Mentor

(Alexander the Great (by Giuseppe Cades (1750–1799)) With Incense)



The most famous tutor of Alexander is obviously Aristotle, the brilliant polymath who studied and wrote about almost everything he had access to in ancient Greece. Yet, before the arrival of Aristotle, Alexander had other tutors. In particular, the most influential of these early instructors were Leonidas and Lysimachus. These two oversaw Alexander’s early physical training and war studies. Of these two men, the young prince developed an especially close bond with Leonidas, a relative of Alexander’s mother, Olympias, from Epirus.

Though Alexander and Leonidas had mutual respect and love, their relationship was not always warm and smooth. Leonidas wanted Alexander to grow up to be a strong, disciplined ruler, and as such, his style of mentoring and tutoring was ruthless. He apparently had a fondness for sending Alexander, and his young companions, on long, arduous marches. Leonidas also kept his ever-watchful eyes scouring for any treats that may have been hidden for Alexander by friends or family. Nevertheless, despite all the frustration that Leonidas assuredly caused Alexander, the young prince reportedly still loved the man like a father.

Years later, when Alexander had transformed the Kingdom of Macedonia into an empire spanning several continents, he still vividly remembered one particular critique given by his old mentor, Leonidas. The memory was of an event that occurred when Alexander was at some shrine or other with Leonidas to give a gift of incense to a god. Alexander, who was a very religious man, scooped up as much incense as he could in his hands and burnt it on the altar. The gruff mentor, Leonidas, immediately chastised Alexander for being wasteful and irresponsible with such an expensive luxury resource.

Alexander remembered this old chastisement even as he was tapping into the spice markets of Asia. During one of these times when he was pondering that memory, a humorous idea immediately struck the king—he had a huge shipment of frankincense and myrrh sent home to his aging mentor, Leonidas, with a letter advising the man to stop being so stingy in his worship.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


  • Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
  • Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

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