Alexander the Great had such confidence in himself and his army’s ability that he must have believed wondrous deeds would be an inevitable part of his future. So, before invading the Persian Empire in 334 BCE, Alexander the Great hired an official historian to document his military campaigns. The man tasked with this job was Callisthenes of Olynthus. Like Alexander, Callisthenes was a student of Aristotle. In fact, he and Aristotle had co-written a piece on the Pythian Games. Yet, Callisthenes was best known for his ten-volume history of Greece, covering events that occurred around the years 386-355 BCE. As a result, it is not surprising that Callisthenes came highly recommended when Alexander the Great put out a request for a royal historian to attend him on his journeys. The fact that Callisthenes was Aristotle’s nephew also undoubtedly helped in the selection process.
While accompanying the conquering king, Callisthenes was not just any historian—he was also Alexander’s propagandist. His job was not simply to document Alexander’s campaigns, but to write it in the way that best promoted the king’s public image. Callisthenes understood this second role of his and did indeed fill his history of Alexander with propaganda. From fragments of the history that survive, as well as references and critiques aimed at it from other ancient authors, we know that Callisthenes’ account was filled with stories of divine interventions on the Macedonian king’s behalf, and he was also one of the first to write down rumors alleging that Alexander may have been fathered by a god.
What Callisthenes wrote and what Callisthenes believed, however, were two vastly different realities. Paradoxically, while Callisthenes was Alexander’s chief propagandist, he was also one of the king’s boldest critics. Unfortunately for the historian, he was becoming more vocal with his criticisms at a time when Alexander was starting to openly eliminate threats to his rule. In 330 BCE, Alexander executed a nobleman named Philotas after he had failed to report an assassination plot to the king. He also used the situation as an excuse to kill Philotas’ father, Parmenio, a respected Macedonian general. A few years later, in 328 BCE, Alexander killed a close friend named Cleitus the Black during a drunken rage. Although he mourned for Cleitus in the days afterward, Alexander still showed a willingness to eliminate obstacles to his rule, even if the threats were friends.
Callisthenes’ outspoken criticisms of Alexander reached a breaking point in 327 BCE. At the time, Alexander was trying to bridge the cultural divide between Greece and the new lands he had conquered. One way he tried to do this was by wearing a hybrid wardrobe, mixing and matching pieces of Greek and Persian fashion. Callisthenes and other veterans from the European homeland grumbled at this, but they could contain their frustration as long as Alexander refused to include pants in his outfit, which the Greeks believed were a barbarian garment. Yet fashion was of little concern compared to another Persian custom that Alexander was thinking of imposing on his countrymen.
In the culture of the Persian Empire, the satraps and other nobility were expected to prostrate themselves on the ground before their king of kings. In contrast, the Greeks rarely bowed to anything or anyone, except to gods, and even then, a lowered head would usually suffice for the Greek deities. This clash of cultures only intensified as Alexander conquered the Persian Empire. By 327 BCE, when Callisthenes began to speak his criticisms, Alexander had conquered the Persian Empire and was now preparing to invade India. As a result, Alexander’s retinue was by then filled with countless former Persian officials who prostrated themselves on the ground every time they met with the king. Alexander’s trusted officers, who had followed him all the way from Macedonia, found this custom shocking, but also amusing, and they often snickered at the Persian officials groveling before the king. For his part, Alexander did not think that one demographic from his empire laughing at another demographics’ custom was healthy for imperial unity, so he decided to bridge the divide between the cultures. Unfortunately for the Greeks, he placed most of the burden of change on them.
According to the ancient sources, Alexander tried several times to get the Greeks to prostrate themselves like the Persians, and in each tale Callisthenes played a major role in thwarting the plan. In one account, a motion was put forward for Alexander to be proclaimed divine during his lifetime. It was a status that may have made prostration more palatable to the Greeks. Callisthenes, even though he had already written about Alexander’s alleged divine connections, reportedly gave a convincing speech against acknowledging Alexander’s divinity while he still lived, putting an end to the motion. In another story, Alexander tried to ease his companions into bowing by having them go, one by one, through an odd ceremony that consisted of them drinking wine from a goblet, then prostrating themselves before Alexander (or to a god’s shrine just behind the king) and then finally receiving a friendly kiss from their leader. All was apparently going smoothly with this plan until Callisthenes obstinately skipped the step of prostration, which rejuvenated Greek resistance to Alexander’s reform. In the end, the historian succeeded in sabotaging his king’s wishes, but Alexander would not forget Callisthenes’ actions.
In 327 BCE, while Callisthenes’ undermining behavior was fresh on Alexander’s mind, a group of royal pages launched a conspiracy to assassinate the king. According to the ancient sources, a page named Hermolaus started the plot after Alexander had publicly humiliated him as punishment for improper behavior during a boar hunt. The young conspirators, however, were incredibly loose-lipped with their plan, so word of the plot quickly reached the ear of Alexander. When the plot was discovered, the king immediately arrested the conspirators and, as Hermolaus sometimes talked of philosophy and history with Callisthenes, he had the royal historian arrested, as well.
Alexander condemned Callisthenes to death even though there was little-to-no evidence linking the historian to the plot. The historian, Plutarch, even claimed he had read a letter written by Alexander to some of his generals, in which he confessed that Callisthenes was not involved. Nevertheless, it was a convenient opportunity for Alexander to rid himself of the pesky scholar.
Hermolaus and the other conspirators were said to have been either stoned or tortured to death. Callisthenes, however, was executed by different means, although the eyewitness sources did not agree on the method of execution. In Ptolemy’s account, Callisthenes was tortured and hanged. Aristobulus and Chares instead reported that Callisthenes was either manacled in chains or confined in some other way until he died. In the end, no one knows exactly how Callisthenes met his end, but it was evidently not a pleasant experience.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Alexander the Great Refuses To Take Water, by Giuseppe Cades (1750–1799), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- 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.