Dead Links Two: The Letters of Aristotle and Hephaestion

Conversation can be an intimate experience. Moreso correspondence which, unlike the temporary titillation of eavesdropping, can be poured over for ages. It was the premise of A.S. Byatt’s romance Possesssion, and she won the 1990 Booker prize for her efforts (1). And it is the topic of this Dead Links post, for people of the Ancient World are famous for their letters and, oftentimes, famous because of them.

It’s easy to talk about Alexander the Great. The moniker “ὁ Μέγας” has been awarded to him with good reason. It’s easy to focus on his exploits and his empire, his personality, and the Hellenistic empires that grew up after his death in the Mediterranean. But he was hardly alone on his adventures, and hardly can his exploits be chalked up to him alone, even though they often are.

Alexander had with him a group of generals, men he had known since childhood when they were educated together in Macedonia. These generals, upon the death of the king, would carve up his empire and create the Hellenistic world, their names synonymous with their kingdoms: Ptolemy, Antigonus, Seleucus. And one amongst his generals was Hephaestion, considered “dearest of all the king’s friends… [who was] brought up with Alexander and shared his secrets” (2).

Hephaestion was a Macedonian youth who, along with the sons of other important Macedonian leaders, were educated at Pella in the fourth century BCE, trained in the arts of war and tutored in the arts of the mind (3). Philip had convinced (or cajoled) the philosopher Aristotle to leave the Academia in Athens where he had been working under the famous Socratic philosopher Plato to educate these young men, and there he developed longstanding relationships with Alexander, Hephaestion, and Ptolemy.

Much of what we know about Alexander is scattershot and spread across more than a millenium. His exploits are covered to their fullest extent in the Anabasis by the Greek military historian Arrian in the 2nd century CE, the work itself modeled on the Anabasis of Xenophon that detailed the March of the Ten Thousand (anabasis means “journey from the sea”). There is also the highly fragmented Historiae Alexandri Magni of the first century Roman historian Q. Curtius Rufus. And, of course, there were the court historians who rode with Alexander – Callisthenes, Ptolemy (who would become Pharaoh of Egypt), Nearchus, and Aristobulus – none of whose works survive.

The most famous if not the most reliable extant work is the Romance of Alexander, the earliest manuscript of which dates to approximately the 3rd century AD (4). It has indulged the story of Alexander, and even co-opted the use of his court historian Callisthenes as its author. We now refer to the author as Pseudo-Callisthenes because, simply, we don’t know what else to call him (or her, or them). The other major source for information on Alexander comes from the work of Diogenes Laertius, who wrote a history of eminent philosophers, probably in the 3rd century AD as well but an exact date remains elusive.

From these incomplete and varied sources, historians have pieced together a history of Alexander and his generals as they pursued their ambitions across Greece and Asia all the way to India. The army that came with them, composed of soldiers, “staff”, baggage, animals, women and children, and other hangers on relied on an imperfect system of relays back to Macedonia. What good was conquering the world if no one ever knew about it? Despatches and letters travelled the length of the army train back by a series of messengers to Pella, where replies were drafted and returned the same way. This process would have taken months at a time, but was as close to ‘instant messaging’ as was available before the postal service of Augustus in the early Principate. Alexander wrote back to his court, his mother, and to his tutor, Aristotle. And so too did Hephaestion.

The oldest reference that I can find to that personal correspondence is in Diogenes Laertius Book V, Section 27, and it is a tiny line item in a long list of the collected writings of Aristotle, nothing more (5). “Letters to Hephaestion, One Book” (5). And yet, to me, it is more intriguing than the letters Aristotle received from Alexander or Philip, which occur a few lines up in the same list. From those, we could imagine something similar to the despatches Caesar sent back to the Senate, compiled into the Bellum Gallicum; propaganda meant to bolster one’s position and quicken the imaginations of the people. But Hephaestion’s letters to Aristotle may very well have contained something different.

Hephaestion acted as both a general in the army and an engineer, and he may have been asking Aristotle’s opinion on upcoming projects or the ethics of the conquest of Asia they were undertaking. He might have asked about home, or what new books Aristotle was writing. And the correspondence may have been of a much more personal nature indeed.

It is a fairly established theory that Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship was of an intimate sexual nature. The social dictates of sexual preference were much less constrained than they are today. A man was expected to bear children and carry on the family line, but could also maintain a deep, personal relationship with pretty much whomever he chose. ‘Bisexuality”, “homosexuality”, “heterosexuality”: these terms had no meaning in the Ancient World. The Ancient Greek relationship between an older man (erastes) and a youth (eromenos) has been ridiculed as paedophilia and, in some cases, it may well have been. But the purpose of the relationship was just as often not primarily sexual, but was rather a kind of mentorship as a way for the young man to network within society and develop the skills necessary to succeed in that society. It is entirely unknown whether Hephaestion and Aristotle had this kind of relationship, but it is safe to say that the relationship they did have was one that extended beyond a child and his teacher, since the correspondence apparently carried on right up to Hephaestion’s death in 324 BCE.

As such, the correspondence between Hephaestion and Aristotle could offer up perspective on several questions:

  1. What could the missing correspondence have told us about Alexander, Hephaestion, and Aristotle? What could it have told us about the relations between them?
  2. What could the letters have told us about the erastes-eromenos relationship itself?
  3. And what could it have revealed about a close confidante of the famous Alexander the Great, of his experiences on the campaign trail, and of his impressions of the man who changed the face of history in only ten short years?

Unfortunately, we will never know. But if anyone needed a writing prompt, this is certainly a good one.




(1) The Booker Winner, 1990

(2) Curtius 3.12.16

(3) Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon. University of California Press, 1991. pp 58-59

(4) Wikipedia. “Alexander romance“. Accessed August 6th, 2017 at 18:05 EST.

(5) Perseus Tufts. “Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers“. Accessed August 6th, 2017 at 18:13 EST.