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Alexander's Persian Pillow

Christopher Brunelle

The story that Alexander kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow (προσκεφάλαιον; Plut. Alex. 8, 26) is justly famous but physically impossible. A copy of the full text would require more than 50 meters of papyrus [Boyd 40]; if it were partitioned into 8 scrolls, each scroll would have roughly the diameter of a can of beer [Johnson 150].  Moreover, Plutarch explicitly mentions that the text was kept safe in a casket (νάρθηξ, κιβώτιον). Ancient pillows were relatively large but not immense [Tsimpidou-Aulonite 125, 208 and figs. 30-31, 34; Richter figs. 305, 316], and ancient art never represents anyone using more than two at a time.  Neither Alexander nor anyone else could have slept with the Iliad (with or without a casket) under his pillow. How, then, did this story develop?

The origin of the anecdote, I argue, can be traced to Chares of Mytilene and the bodyguards’ contest in 1 Esdras, which contains a similar physical anomaly over the use of a pillow.  Hilhorst, noting that the προσκεφάλαιον (1 Esd. 3.13) must be something other than a pillow, rightly adduces a parallel from Chares (Athen. 12.514ef = FGrH 125 F2), who records that the Persians called a treasure room next to the king’s bedchamber the “King’s Pillow”, προσκεφάλαιον βασιλικόν.  Helpful as it is for explaining the sense of the bodyguard’s contest in 1 Esdras, this fragment of Chares offers an even better solution for Alexander’s own προσκεφάλαιον: he kept his Iliad not under his pillow but in an adjacent chamber.  As Chares notes, the προσκεφάλαιον βασιλικόν was a treasure room, filled with 5,000 talents of gold coin; all the better, then, for the casket containing the Iliad to be placed there, since according to Onesicritus (Plut. Alex. 26) the casket was itself a treasure, the most valuable item among all of Darius’ captured property.

The adoption of this Persian arrangement and this Persian idiom fits perfectly with Alexander’s well-known adoption of other Persian forms of ceremony, all of it devoted to the cooption of the Persian nobility and the practicalities of running a monarchy; “Alexander did not waver in the importance, indeed centrality, which he attached to his court ceremonial as a political tool” [Spawforth 107].  Moreover, Chares himself was Alexander’s own chamberlain (εἰσαγγελεύς, Plut. Alex. 46); the author who preserved the idiom of the προσκεφάλαιον βασιλικόν was also the attendant who organized the “King’s Pillow” himself.

Alexander’s treatment of Homer, then, blends his approval of Greek values with his embrace of Persian customs. Moreover, Alexander’s unparalleled status as a model for later leaders gains greater resonance.  To keep the Iliad under his pillow proclaims his constant allegiance to the model of Homeric heroism, and other leaders publicize their allegiance to Alexander’s model by keeping a copy of their own favorite works under their pillow (e.g. the copy of Hugo Grotius’ De iure belli ac pacis kept under his pillow by Gustavus Adolphus while on campaign [Jeffery 52]).  Alexander’s Iliad, however, is now not simply a symbol of Homeric ἀρετή but a sign of Persian ceremonial splendor as well.

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Books: Material and Discursive Interactions

Session/Paper Number

78.2

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