This tapestry, produced around 1600 in a workshop in Flanders, re-creates an interesting legend that was told about Alexander the Great of Macedonia (r. 336–323 BCE). As the story goes, soon after the Macedonian king’s defeated Persian rival, Darius III, was betrayed and executed by his own satrap or governor, Bessus, in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great marched his forces to a region known as Hyrcania, located just to the east of the Caspian sea. While he was there, he secured fertile farmlands for his empire, hired mercenaries and pacified a local tribe that allegedly had the audacity to steal his horse. There was, however, another incident that occurred in Hyrcania that was controversial enough to cause even the ancient authorities on Alexander’s life to fiercely squabble over the truth—this incident was the legend of Alexander encountering Queen Thalestris of the Amazons.
As told by the ancient storytellers, the Amazons (which translates approximately to “no breast”) were a society of warrior women who were so devoted to their militancy that the members of the tribe would each remove one of their breasts to make themselves better at launching deadly projectiles. As they were an exclusively female tribe, the warrior women would periodically breed with foreign men to ensure the survival of their civilization. Yet, the fathers were not allowed to stay in Amazon territory, and male children were killed or exiled. Although the Amazons were a civilization of myth, they were likely inspired by the historical Scythian or Sarmatian civilizations, which featured prominent roles for women. Whatever the case, the ancient Greeks seemed to think that Amazon warrior women could be found to the north of Hyrcania and the Caspian Sea.
Bringing us back to Alexander the Great, legend has it that one particular queen of the Amazons, named Thalestris, heard of the impressive victories of Alexander against the Persians. The tales of his achievements were so extraordinary that she immediately left her homeland with a band of 300 Amazons to find the conqueror. What she had on her mind was an experiment of ancient eugenics—she believed that Alexander, as the greatest man of the age, and herself, as the greatest woman, could produce truly great children. Thalestris and her honor guard of armed women supposedly intercepted Alexander near Hyrcania, or possibly in Parthia, where she blatantly declared that she wanted to have a child with the king. Alexander the Great, at the time an unmarried bachelor, was said to have eagerly agreed to the proposal. According to the tale, Alexander spent thirteen nights heroically seeing to the queen’s desire. After nearly two weeks of passion, Queen Thalestris returned to her realm in the north, confident that she was pregnant with a mighty child.
If you believe this tale seems too far-fetched, you are not alone. Even the most ancient biographers of Alexander were split on the validity of this particular encounter. Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE) later wrote down a list of the two factions of Alexander biographers in his own text about Alexander the Great. On the side of doubters was Aristobulus, Chares, Ptolemy, Anticleides, Philo the Theban, Philip of Theangela, Hecataeus of Eretria, Philip the Chalcidian, and Duris of Samos. On the other hand, the advocates of the controversial episode were Cleitarchus, Polycleitus, Onesicritus, Antigenes, and Ister. Even though Plutarch sided with the skeptics, his own generation of historians still disagreed about the tale. A century before Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus happily included the enticing episode in his own text, The Library of History. In the end, it is best to regard the story of Alexander and Thalestris as unrealistic folklore, but, nevertheless, it makes for an interesting tale.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.