As with so many aspects of Alexander the Great’s story, to accurately set the context of his life and actions it’s fitting to begin with those of his father King Philip II of Macedon. It was Philip that turned the Kingdom of Macedonia from one on the brink of collapse into the dominant power in the Central Mediterranean. It was Philip that laid the foundations which Alexander built upon when forging his large empire.
And so when it comes to Alexander’s sex life too, we must first talk about Philip’s. In some ways, their sex lives proved similar, particularly when it came to the practice of polygamy and the diplomatic importance Macedonian monarch marriages could serve. But in other ways, their sex lives proved very different.
In this article we’ll highlight various amorous stories associated with the promiscuous Philip.
Rise of Macedon
Although his story is often overshadowed by the heavily-mythologised one of his legendary son, King Philip II was one of antiquity’s titanic monarchs. During his 23 year reign, it was Philip that transformed Macedon into the most powerful kingdom in the Central Mediterranean.
Philip accomplished this through various actions. Militarily, he reformed the army and its logistics system, developing most famously the iconic Macedonian phalanx formation for his core heavy infantrymen. He won several wars against various enemies – Dardanians, Thessalians, Phocians, Athenians, Thracians.
Philip didn’t just gain success by the sarissa pike however. Shrewd marriage alliances with neighbouring realms also played an important role in Philip’s expanding of Macedonian territory and influence.
Polygamy likely preceded Philip II as a diplomatic tool embraced by Macedonian monarchs, but it was Philip who took this practice to a whole new level. Over the course of his reign, he married seven times.
Most, if not all, of them had clear diplomatic undertones. Five of Philip’s wives belonged either to royalty or a prominent noble family that hailed from a nearby, non-Macedonian power. Philip had used these marriages to secure alliances with the neighbouring powers in question, sometimes in the wake of defeating them on the battlefield.
For example Audata, Philip’s first wife, was the daughter of a renowned Illyrian king called Bardylis. Philip defeated Bardylis in battle very early on in his reign in one of the first great tests of his Macedonian military reforms. In the wake of his victory, Philip married Audata to quell any future Illyrian threat and to secure his northwestern frontier.
Philip’s most famous wife was Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother. Olympias was a princess from the Kingdom of Molossia, the most powerful ‘tribe’ ruling the region of Epirus southwest of Macedonia. Her marriage to Philip secured the latter an alliance with the Molossians,
For Philip, polygamy was a useful tool through which he was able to consolidate, to secure, his Macedonian kingdom as it expanded during the monarch’s two decades on the throne. The marriage alliances provided Philip powerful allies, but it also had negative consequences too.
Rival factions at court emerged; the question as to who would succeed Philip was no settled matter. Philip had two sons, Alexander (by Olympias) and another called Arrhidaeus (by a Thessalian wife called Philinna). He also had a cousin called Amyntas and several daughters – including the warlike ‘Macedonian Amazon’ Cynane.
It wasn’t simply a case that Philip’s eldest son would inherit the throne. The question of who would succeed Philip remained dangerously unclear throughout his reign. A recipe for bloody internal, factional fighting at the Argead court.
For transforming his kingdom into the powerful domain that Alexander ultimately inherited, Philip’s multitude of marriages proved incredibly important. But the court intrigue it predictably created, combined with the unsettled nature of Macedonian succession, meant that this ‘tool’ would also contribute to his terrible end….
Philip wasn’t just sexually interested in women – both wives and courtesans. He also had a number of younger, male lovers. Similar to examples of pederasty we have surviving from ancient Greek city-states such as Athens and Sparta, the practice of an older man (the erastes) taking an adolescent, youthful looking lover (the eromenos) was also present at the Macedonian royal court in the 4th century BC. Justin, admittedly quite an unreliable source, claimed that Olympias’ brother Alexander (not to be confused with her famous son Alexander ‘the Great’) became Philip’s catamite when he was residing at the Macedonian court during his teenage years.
But the most (in)famous younger lover linked with Philip’s story was a Macedonian nobleman called Pausanias. While he was serving as a page (an officer / noble in training basically) at Philip’s court, Pausanias had caught the King’s eye and became his eromenos – Philip’s ‘beloved’. But Philip’s attention soon turned to another young man, also confusingly called Pausanias. This shunning, however, wasn’t the end of the story.
At a drinking party, celebrating Philip’s marriage to his seventh and final wife Cleopatra in c.338 BC, Pausanias (the shunned beloved of Philip) was gang-raped – a horrific act that was instigated by a Macedonian noble called Attalus. After the party, Pausanias demanded justice for the attack, but Philip did nothing. Attalus was the uncle of his new bride Cleopatra and rather than punish the man, Philip opted to turn a blind eye to the sexual assault.
A bloody succession
Greatly angered by Philip’s failure to punish Attalus, Pausanias developed a great hatred for the Macedonian king. Ultimately, two years later in 336 BC, that anger evolved into a successful plot to murder Philip when, as the king entered the theatre at Aegae during another great marriage celebration, Pausanias murdered Philip in full public view.
Could the likes of Alexander and Olympias have been involved in the plot to murder Philip? It’s certainly possible and there is a motive. As mentioned, in the Macedonian royal court there was no settled succession plan. Alexander was Philip’s son; he had served as a leading adjutant of Philip in recent years, most famously leading the Companion Cavalry at the Battle of Chaeronea against the Thebans and Athenians in 338 BC.
But Alexander had recently fallen out of favour with his father in 336 BC; both he and his mother Olympias had recently spent time in exile away from the court. There was no guarantee that Alexander would inherit the throne ahead of any other heirs that Philip would almost certainly have produced in future years.
Both Alexander and Olympias must have felt threatened by the recent marriage of Philip to the Macedonian noblewoman Cleopatra – with the likes of Cleopatra’s powerful uncle Attalus openly planning for any male offspring his daughter bore Philip to surpass Alexander as Philip’s heir in the years ahead (in their eyes, Alexander was not fully Macedonian due to his mother’s Molossian roots. This racial thinking was a big deal in Philip’s Macedon). The wronged Pausanias’ murder of Philip put an abrupt end to any such possibility.
It was Philip’s murder that allowed the c.20 year old Alexander to swiftly assume the diadem amidst the chaos. Potential threats posed by the likes of Attalus or Alexander’s cousin Amyntas were extinguished. Both Attalus and Amyntas, alongside Cleopatra and the infant children that she had recently borne Philip, were murdered almost as soon as Alexander assumed the crown.
Thanks in no small part to Philip’s embracing of royal polygamy, Alexander and Olympias proved ruthless in the removing of any potential threats to the new regime. A horrific, internal infighting practice that would outlive Alexander and become a common terror in the Hellenistic courts of Alexander’s successors – from the Ptolemies to the Antigonids.
As for Pausanias, Philip’s jilted lover turned assassin, he was killed trying to escape the theatre where he had carried out the murder.
Philip vs Alexander
Philip was a promiscuous king. He had several wives; he had several male lovers. And he no doubt also had courtesans. Alexander’s sex life, in comparison, proved relatively ‘moderate’. At least that is the impression we get from several surviving sources that mention this – Greco-Roman historians such as Aelian, Arrian and Plutarch for instance. These historians tend to emphasise Alexander’s sexual moderation.
Nevertheless there are similarities between Philip and Alexander when it came to sex. Like Philip, Alexander embraced polygamy for diplomatic purposes. Rather than marrying princesses / noblewomen from powers neighbouring Macedon however, Alexander would take it to another level. Instead of an Illyrian princess, he married not one, but two Persian princesses. Not to mention the daughter of a prominent chieftain who ruled in modern day Uzbekistan – a noblewoman renowned as one of the most beautiful women in Asia.
Like his father, Alexander had both female and male lovers. He too had at least one younger eromenos – a Persian eunuch called Bagoas. And of course, that’s not to mention the interesting case of Hephaestion. But contrary to Philip’s well known promiscuity, Alexander’s sex life is depicted as a much more moderated one. ‘Like father like son’? Not so much when it came to the sex lives of these two Macedonian monarchs.