Numerous ancient sources, such as Arrian, Curtius, Plutarch, Justin, Polyaenus, Pliny and Strabo commented on the multiple marriages of Alexander the Great. Around 327 BCE, Alexander married a teenager named Roxane (also spelled Roxana). She was the daughter of Oxyartes, a vassal of Persia who ruled from a formidable fortress known as Sogdian Rock. Years later, in 324 BCE, Alexander married Stateira, the eldest daughter of the deceased Persian Great King, Darius III. At the same time, he also married Parysatis, the daughter of Darius’ predecessor, Artaxerxes. Despite these three women being the only known legitimate wives of Alexander the Great, none of them bore Alexander his first-born son, Heracles. No, the mother of Heracles was a woman named Barsine, Alexander’s mistress who accompanied the King of Macedonia during most of his military campaign.
Barsine was born from a union between a Greek woman and a Persian satrap named Artabazus II. Although she was technically Persian, Barsine was well versed in the Greek language and culture. After participating in a revolt, Artabazus was driven into exile, where he and his family (including Barsine) found sanctuary in the court of Philip II, in Macedonia. It is entirely likely that Barsine and Alexander knew each other well as children.
Nevertheless, Barsine returned to the Persian Empire, where she was soon married to her uncle, then widowed, and then married again to Memnon of Rhodes, who served as the main commander of the Greek mercenaries serving in the Persian army. Memnon, however, also met an early death when he died of illness during his siege of Mytilene, leaving Barsine, once again, a widow.
Alexander the Great unwittingly assured a reunion between himself and his childhood friend in 333 BCE when he sent his general, Parmenion, to seize the treasury located in the city of Damascus. When Parmenion arrived at the city with a detachment of soldiers, he found a large mass of Persians gathering outside the city in preparation to flee further into the interior of the Persian Empire. The fleeing citizens of Damascus were so numerous that Parmenion initially believed an army had sallied out of the city to face him in battle. Parmenion immediately arrayed his men for a fight, but his opponents did not behave as expected—the citizens of Damascus took one look at Parmenion’s troops and scattered in fear. Parmenion immediately gave chase and rounded up his newfound prisoners. When Parmenion returned to Alexander the Great, he brought with him hundreds of tons in gold and silver, as well as a host of prisoners. Among those captured from Damascus was Barsine.
Alexander the Great welcomed his childhood acquaintance warmly when he learned of her capture. There is no clear account of how their relationship sparked to life, but most ancient sources agreed that Alexander and Barsine became enthralled in a passionate affair quickly after Parmenion secured Damascus in 333 BCE. Sources such as Plutarch reported that Barsine remained an important person in the life of Alexander the Great until as late as 324 BCE, when she was present at the marriages between the Macedonian king and his new royal Persian wives, Sateira and Parysatis, at the mass wedding in Susa.
As the Persian Empire collapsed, fruit soon formed from the affair between Alexander and Barsine. Diodorus wrote that a son was born to the pair in 327 BCE, but Justin suggested that the birth occurred much later, in 324 BCE. Precision of dating aside, Barsine gave birth to the first known son of Alexander the Great. In a calculated, prideful move, Alexander the Great named his first-born son, Heracles. It was an unsubtle reference to his self-proclaimed divine lineage. After all, through his mother, Alexander supposedly traced his family back to Achilles and the nymph, Thetis. From his father’s side, Alexander claimed familial ties to the mythological Heracles and Zeus. As far as historians know, Alexander and Barsine were the first Hellenistic nobles bold enough to name their son ‘Heracles’—the name would become more fashionable after the death of Alexander.
Heracles, however, was an illegitimate child and his future in his father’s empire would always be uncertain, especially after Alexander’s first wife, Roxane, gave birth to a son named Alexander IV in the year of Alexander’s death. Yet, neither boy would live to inherit power from their father. Upon the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, Heracles and Alexander the IV were largely pushed aside and used as pawns by powerful Macedonian generals. Both of Alexander the Great’s sons met suspicious or violent ends before the turn of the century.
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.