This painting, by the Dutch artist Gerard Hoet (c. 1648-1733), was inspired by an episode from the life of the famous conqueror, Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE). Although the scene looks quite Greco-Roman in style and character, the painting actually represents an event that was said to have occurred as Alexander the Great neared India. In particular, this scene occurred after Alexander and his warriors (shown on the left side of the painting) besieged a city called Massaga or Mazagae for several days in 327 or 326 BCE. Curiously, Gerard Hoet chose to paint the incident in a clean and bloodless manner. Unfortunately, that is not how the city fell into Alexander’s hands.
Looking at the civilians of Massaga or Mazagae crowding the right side of the painting, it is striking that they are almost all women, led by Queen Cleophis, displayed prominently in her white and blue dress. This is likely because much of the city’s male population was killed by Alexander during and after the siege. The battles involved in taking the city were costly, and even Queen Cleophis’ son, Assacenus—who led the defense—was among those who died in the fight. After Assacenus’ death, however, Queen Cleophis and the people of the city decided to surrender. As part of terms of surrender, the troops of Massaga or Mazagae were ordered to camp outside of their city walls. Queen Cleophis’ army reportedly did agree to this order, assuming that Alexander wanted to recruit them for future campaigns. Nevertheless, bloodshed would resume between the two sides.
Different ancient scholars blamed different people for the resumed violence. Whatever the case, it ended with Alexander the Great massacring the defenders who had come out of the city. The Roman biographer, Arrian (c. 90-173+), blamed the people of Massaga or Mazagae:
“Having no desire to fight against other Indians, they meant to desert under cover of night and desert to their homes. Their purpose, however, was reported to Alexander, and that same night he stationed his whole force in a ring around the hill, caught the Indians in a trap, and butchered them. He then seized the town, now undefended. Assacenus’ mother and daughter were among the prisoners” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, IV.27).
An earlier historian, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), proposed a vastly different theory than that of Arrian. Rather than accuse the people of Massaga or Mazagae of trying to avoid military service under the man who conquered them, he instead claimed that Alexander the Great had never intended to recruit the local army, but instead lured them out of their walls to win a decisive victory and occupy the city. His account read as follows:
“A truce was concluded on these terms, and the queen, impressed by Alexander’s generosity, sent him valuable gifts and promised to follow his orders in everything. The mercenaries straightway under the terms of the truce left the city and encamped without interference at a distance of eighty furlongs, without an inkling of what would happen. Alexander, nevertheless, nursed an implacable hostility toward them; he held his forces in readiness, followed them, and falling upon them suddenly wrought a great slaughter. At first they kept shouting that this attack was in contravention of the treaty and they called to witness the gods against whom he had transgressed. Alexander shouted back that he had granted them the right to leave the city but not that of being friends of the Macedonians forever” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 17.84).
Such, then, are the opposing theories of how Alexander the Great occupied Massaga or Mazagae. Whatever the truth might be, both sides agreed that siege had lasted for days and that the city’s troops were butchered outside of their walls. It was only after this sad epilogue that Alexander the Great and Queen Cleophis had their meeting, depicted above in Gerard Hoet’s painting.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.