Whereas the common narrative is that theater undid Philip II, Alexander himself co-opted theater to play different roles for different audiences: the sophisticated ruler to his Macedonian court, the semi-divine king to his foreign subjects. Like earlier kings, Alexander the Great featured theatrical entertainments at his symposia and hosted theater personnel at his court (Plut. Mor. 333d-335a). Unlike earlier kings, Alexander also seems to have taken his entourage of actors and musicians on campaign with him: the ancient sources describe several theatrical performances that Alexander sponsored to celebrate military victories and commemorate major events on his Eastern campaign. Alexander held dramatic performances in Tyre after he defeated the Phoenecians in 332 (Plut. Alex. 29). On the banks of the Hydaspes in India, after Alexander defeated Porus in 326, he celebrated a Dionysiac festival with a performance of Python’s satyr-play Agen (Athen. 13.595d-f). Alexander’s beloved Hephaestion died during the musical and athletic competitions that Alexander sponsored at Ecbatana; Alexander’s reaction was to engage some 3,000 athletes and musicians to perform in Hephaestion’s funeral games, consciously echoing Achilles’ games for Patroclus (Arr. An. 7.14.1, 10). Even Alexander’s death was bound up with a dramatic performance, this time by Alexander himself; he performed a scene from Euripides’ Andromeda from memory during the symposium he attended on his last night alive (Athen. 12.537d). The sources present Alexander as consistently and insistently using Greek drama to celebrate and reflect on his life and reign (Csapo 2010, Revermann 1999-2000, Bosworth 1996, Xanthakis-Karamanos 1980).
These performances employed Greek actors and musicians to perform Greek drama for Macedonians who were familiar with it in far-flung settings. At the same time, Alexander theatricalized his royal persona for an external audience, as witnessed by his controversial adoption of both foreign dress and the ritual of proskynesis. Alexander’s use of theatrical performance and stagy self-presentation as various heroes and divinities (Achilles, Heracles, Dionysus) in these accounts is in pointed contrast to his father, Philip II, who was assassinated in a theater in Macedon after Philip had the actor Neoptolemus privately perform a tragic aria that was ill-omened (Diod. Sic. 16.92). The Greek-educated Macedonian son thus learns to wield the (Greek) power that eluded his semi-barbaric father, by playing different roles in front of different audiences. One key to Alexander’s relative success exploiting theater in these accounts is that he holds his dramatic festivals outside of Macedon; in an exotic setting, the ruler’s appropriation of Greek drama unifies the court, whereas back home, it has the potential to divide members of the court over questions of patronage, pretension, and politics. The other key to Alexander’s relative success exploiting the power of theater is his self-presentation as a new Dionysus – the god of theater and Greek civilization, who returns home from his triumphant tour of the East.
Bosworth, A.B. 1996 “Alexander, Euripides, and Dionysos: The Motivation for Apotheosis,” in Wallace, Robert W., and Harris, Edward M., eds. Transitions to Empire: Essays in Greco-Roman History, 360-146 B.C., in honor of E. Badian. Norman, OK.
Csapo, Eric. 2010 Actors and Icons of the Ancient Theater. Malden, MA.
Revermann, Martin. 1999-2000 “Euripides, Tragedy and Macedon: Some Conditions of Reception.” ICS 24-25 451-67.
Xanthakis-Karamanos, G. 1980. Studies in Fourth Century Tragedy. Athens.