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Sleeping with the Tyrant: The Death of Alexander of Pherae in Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas

Marcaline Boyd

University of Delaware

Plutarch concludes his Life of Pelopidas with the story of how Alexander was assassinated in his bed by his own wife Thebe and her brothers (358/357 BCE). This paper argues that Plutarch not only prolonged the Life of Pelopidas as posthumous vengeance for his hero’s demise (Georgiadou 1997, Sprawski 2006), but also wrote Alexander’s murder to satisfy the quintessential elements of the end a tyrant ought to experience. In a 2013 article, Nino Luraghi proposed that motifs which recur in the death narratives of tyrants have symbolic meaning and he identified elements (i.e. torture, purification, sacrilege, and uprooting of the family) which, according to Greek thought, formed a typology of the tyrant’s death. Luraghi did not treat Alexander, but analysis of Pelopidas’ Life shows that Plutarch crafted his narrative to include these motifs and that he introduced another aspect, namely the role of Thebe as noble-intentioned tyrannicide. Plutarch’s take thus departs from the mainstream tradition which saw Thebe motivated by sexual jealousy or dynastic ambition (Xen. Hell. 6.4.35–37, FGrHist 26 (Conon) F 1.50.2, Cic. Off. 2.25, V. Max. 9.13).

According to Greek ideology, the manner of a tyrant’s end is supposed to atone for the heinous acts which he wreaked in life. For this reason, the element of torture is vital. The style of execution that Thebe and her brothers devised, however, was relatively quick: two brothers restrained Alexander while a third ran him through (35.11). Mindful of the torment that Alexander ought to have suffered, Plutarch engages this motif indirectly: “by the swiftness (τάχει) of his death he died more leniently (πρᾳότερον) perhaps than he deserved” (35.12).

Still, the handling of Alexander’s body allowed Plutarch to draw on other motifs of the tyrant’s demise. Plutarch reports that his corpse “was thrown out” (ῥιφέντος) and “trampled on” (πατηθέντος) by the Pheraeans (35.12). These actions mirror the treatment of other “marginal” individuals who were thought to have brought pollution onto their community and recalls the type of purification rituals, akin to the scapegoat, in which the entire polis joined in ridding themselves of the pollutant (Bremmer 1983, Parker 1983).

The murder of tyrants is also understood as an expression of divine will and as such it should never bring the religious pollution of sacrilege upon the tyrant-killer (see, e.g. Thgn. 1179–82 and Youni 2001 for Greek law). In the Life, Plutarch maintains this same outlook: he describes the punishment that awaits Alexander in term of divine justice (28.2, 3 [Pelopidas], 29.2, 35.2, 7 [authorial voice]) and marks the tyrant out as “hated by the gods” (θεομισὴς, 28.3).

In one respect, the events of Alexander’s murder did not permit Plutarch to evoke all the elements of the tyrant typology. Greek thought held that in assuming power a tyrant also put his family at risk, since when communities deposed a tyrant they often sought to eliminate his progeny (e.g. Sol. fr. 22 West2). Yet Alexander’s murder by his own wife and brothers-in-law (who were likely also his cousins) prevented Plutarch from adducing the uprooting of the tyrant’s family to his account. One way that Plutarch offset this obstacle was to employ another motif by casting Thebe in the role of the ideologically-motivated tyrant-slayer. In Plutarch’s version, it is not until Thebe’s private meetings with Pelopidas that she receives the “courage” (θυμός) and “will” (φρόνημα) to kill Alexander (28.10, see also 35.5, Mor. 256a, 856a). Indeed, verbal similarities suggest that Pelopidas incited Thebe in much the same way as Cassius did another tyrannicide Brutus (Pelop. 28.10 ~ Brut. 8.5).

In reality, Alexander’s murder did not bring about the end of the tyranny at Pherae. Thebe’s brothers succeeded him and ruled until 352 BCE. But Plutarch has worked up his account so that it engages the motifs of the tyrant’s ideal death, and in doing so, he also transforms Thebe from jealous wife to tyrant-slayer and liberator of the Pheraeans.

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The Body and its Travails

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