You are here

Conqueror or Monument? Unpacking an Alexander-Commonplace in Plutarch and Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana

Sulochana Asirvatham

Montclair State University

As Paper 2 shows, the easy circulation of Alexander-commonplaces throughout the Hellenistic Mediterranean paved the way for the Macedonian king’s use as a shared idiom for discussing kingship in varied Roman imperial literatures. Among Greek writers, Plutarch used such commonplaces to create a unique version of Alexander whose kingship, bound specifically to his status as a world conqueror, became the positive paradigm against which other Greek and Roman rulers could be measured, especially in the programmatic setting of the Lives. (In the Moralia, whose essay titles themselves often constitute “commonplaces”, Alexander sometimes shares commonplaces with other great leaders: e.g. in Plut. Non Posse 17, we learned that Agesilaus, Epaminondas and Alexander all refrained from indulging in food and wine until they had earned it through fighting.) While Alexander is by no means an unambiguously positive figure in his own bios, elsewhere in the Lives he is the looming shadow of the past that cannot be lived up to (e.g. by his successors Demetrius, Eumenes and Pyrrhus, and even Caesar) or is more rarely used subtly to laud near-equals (e.g. Agesilaus, Flamininus). In some important way, then, Plutarch’s Alexander is the world conqueror who has remained “unconquered”—that is, unsurpassed—even into the Trajanic present.

To illustrate this idea, my paper will trace the origin and afterlife of one Alexander-commonplace found in Life of Alexander 37. Having taken Persepolis, Alexander encounters a fallen statue of Xerxes; speaking aloud to the statue, he asks whether he should allow it to lie on the ground as punishment for Xerxes’s expedition against the Greeks or, alternatively, stand it up again in honor of the Persian king’s magnanimity (μεγαλοφροσύνη) and virtue (ἀρετή). (He leaves it to lie.) This commonplace seems to mix an old trope (as old as the Iliad) of the warrior who honors his “noble enemy”, with a new trope in which the conquering hero surpasses a dead conqueror who is represented in his absence by a monument. The story of Alexander and Xerxes’s statue is not found elsewhere in either the Hellenistic or Roman sources. Arrian tells a more straightforwardly “panhellenist” story, in which Alexander sends statues of Harmodius and Aristogeiton that had been taken by Xerxes back to Athens (3.16.7-8; cf. Pliny, NH 34.70; other sources credit Antiochus or Seleucus). The origin of the image of Xerxes as μεγαλοφροσύνη is found in Herodotus (7.24.1), but Alexander’s encounter with Xerxes’s statue seems more closely related to the Roman practice of acquiring and displaying spoils from conquered peoples—including the numerous statues of Alexander the Great (Briant 2016, 28) that became an integral part of emperors’ imitatio Alexandri. Plutarch’s peculiar parallel story concerning Caesar, Alexander’s inferior Roman counterpart in the Lives, is revealing. In Suetonius (Caesar 7) and Cassius Dio (37.52.2), Caesar encounters Alexander's statue in the temple of Hercules in Spain and laments that he has not accomplished as much as Alexander had at his age. Plutarch, however, has Caesar make this lament while reading about Alexander (Life of Caesar 11). It seems that by replacing Caesar’s active “conqueror-encounter-with-a-monument-of-a-deceased-predecessor” in the Heracles-temple with this new, inactive, bookish version, and at the same time creating a new, active version for Alexander, Plutarch has allowed Caesar to retain the admiration of Alexander without allowing him to encounter the latter as potential “spoils.”

Another Second Sophistic biography, Philostratus's Life of Apollonius of Tyana, provides an interesting contrast with what we see in Plutarch. Here the philosopher Apollonius, in a sort of reenactment of Alexander's campaign (see Parker 2008, 293-4; Abraham 2014, 467)  keeps encountering Alexander-monuments on his quest for knowledge in the East. Thus the commonplace found in Plutarch's Life of Alexander of a conqueror (Alexander) acknowledging a predecessor's monument (Xerxes's fallen status) is inverted to aggrandize the figure of the philosopher. In a context in which the conquering hero is redefined completely in philosophical terms, Alexander’s conquering supremacy is simply not needed.    

Session/Panel Title

Reframing Alexandrology

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy