This painting, by the Danish artist Nicolai Abildgaard (c. 1743 – 1809), depicts a scene of the ancient conqueror, Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE), being told of a conspiracy that threatened his life. Although the artwork’s title does not explicitly specify which plot or conspiracy is being depicted, the most likely assumption is that the painting references a nefarious scheme hatched by the king’s royal pages around 327 BCE. It was a plot mentioned by most of the ancient scholars about Alexander, including Plutarch (c. 50-120), Quintus Curtius Rufus (c. 1st century), and Arrian (c. 90-173+), with the last two sources presenting the fullest accountings of the tale. Arrian’s work has the reputation of being more historically accurate, whereas Curtius Rufus, in his narrative, often sacrificed historical accuracy for vivid descriptions and storytelling. As Nicolai Abildgaard was an artist, he seemed to have understandably been drawn to the account of Curtius Rufus, which provided more imagery and told the story from a more artistic framework.
As the story goes, the conspiracy of the royal pages began after a particular page named Hermolaus was punished by Alexander the Great due to a hunting argument. Hermolaus had run afoul of Alexander by killing a boar that Alexander wanted to hunt alone. Alexander, angry that his own chance to kill the boar was stolen, decided to have Hermolaus flogged or whipped as punishment. Hermolaus was bitter after this beating, so he decided to start a conspiracy to assassinate Alexander the Great. His first recruit to the plot was his close friend and fellow royal page, Sostratus. From there, Hermolaus and Sostratus went on to recruit a number of other disgruntled pages. According to the accounts of Arrian and Curtius Rufus, the new recruits included men named Antipater, Epimenes, Anticles, Philotas, Nicostratus, Asclepiodorus and Elaptonius. Together, these men plotted to wait until a night when enough of the conspirators were on guard duty at Alexander’s tent to slip into their liege’s quarters and attempt to murder him while he slept.
Unfortunately for Hermolaus and his conspirators, their plan discounted one particularly important variable—Alexander’s own free will and his ability to unpredictably amend his schedule. Therefore, in true Alexander fashion, the conspiracy’s timeline was thrown into chaos when the king allegedly partied all night with loyal companions on the very evening that the conspirators had deemed to be the best night for an assassination attempt. On this, Arrian stated, “It so happened that on the night in question Alexander sat up drinking until dawn” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 4.14). With the changing of the guard and the break of day, the assassination attempt was thwarted.
Even though Alexander survived the night, the conspirators could always plot to strike again. Yet, time was a double-edged sword. While the next assassination attempt was planned, the individual members of the plot also now had time to reevaluate their commitment to the mission. In the end, one of the conspirators succumbed to his guilty conscience and decided to tell friends and family about the mess he had put himself in. This repentant conspirator was Epimenes. According to Arrian’s account, he first told his friend, Charicles, and then Epimenes’ brother, Eurylochus, was informed. Curtius Rufus’s account, contrastingly, claimed that Epimenes went straight to his brother, Eurylochus, with the confession. Arrian’s account read as follows, “Charicles told Epimenes’ brother, Eurylochus, who went to Alexander’s tent and passed everything on…Alexander ordered the arrest of all the boys whose names were given by Eurylochus. Questioned under torture, they admitted their guilt…” (Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 4.14). Curtius Rufus told much the same story, albeit with more creative license for imagery and storytelling technique. He wrote:
“[Epimenes] revealed what was afoot to his brother Eurylochus…so Eurylochus immediately seized his brother and came with him into the royal quarters. He alerted the bodyguards and declared that the information he brought related to the king’s security…They opened the door, took in a lamp and woke Alexander, who now lay in a deep drunken sleep. Gradually coming to his senses, he asked what news they brought…Epimenes then gave a detailed and systematic account, including the names of the conspirators” (Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander, 8.6.20-24).
It is this second account that Nicolai Abildgaard seems to re-create in his painting. The artwork likely shows Eurylochus dragging in his brother, Epimenes, to the bedside of Alexander the Great to confess about the conspiracy. According to Curtius Rufus’ account, Eurylochus’ actions ended up saving Epimenes’ life. The other conspirators, however, were all reportedly tortured and executed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The History of Alexander by Curtius Rufus, translated by John Yardley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984, 2001, 2004.