A while back I wrote the following post on Facebook:
Mary Renault calls Hephaestion “one of the most underrated men in history”–an assertion with which I whole-heartedly agree. It should be no secret that I think one of the greatest keys to Alexander’s successes was Hephaestion. I think his record more than supports that belief. Here are just a few of the high points, which Renault points out in her book “The Nature of Alexander”.
- Hephaestion received steady and consistent promotions based on merit.
- He was never defeated in any of his independent commands all of which were of the greatest importance to Alexander’s continued success.
- He carried out numerous diplomatic missions of the first importance impeccably.
By all means, feel free to comment on whether you agree or disagree. Let’s start a discussion about this amazing guy. I know at least two of you (yes, I’m looking at you, Malcolm and Terri) will have something to say.
My friend and fellow Alexander researcher Malcolm responded with the following:
Jen, I’ll play devil’s advocate and take the opposite view: I agree that Hephaestion is a highly significant figure but Renault is overplaying his importance when she calls him the most underrated man in history. To take the points you mention, Jen:
1. Yes, he received promotions but as you say they were steady – not spectacular. This points to Hephaestion being a solid soldier rather than a great one
2. How many of Hephaestion’s independent commands were carried out in enemy territory where he might have come under threat? (I can think of at least one but I’m not going to tell you what it is!)
3. As a member of the nobility I would expect Hephaestion to be a competent diplomat (again, I can think of one occasion where he was trusted to a very significant degree but I’m not going to tell you what it is)
Malcolm recently complained, rightly so, that I had not responded to his points, so here we go
- My response to his first point is this. Firstly, none of Alexander’s close friends or contemporaries appear in the lists of high-ranking officers during the early battles of Alexander’s Danube campaign or the invasion of Persia. This suggests that promotions, including Hephaestion’s, were based on merit and deeds. Hephaestion was commander of the Somatophylakes, the small group whose primary goal was the protection of Alexander. He was also named a Joint Commander of the Companion Cavalry,the most elite group in Alexander’s army. The reason it was a joint command and not a sole was to provide balance to the two factions that made up Alexander’s army. Hephaestion represented the new guard that shared Alexander’s vision while the other commander, Black Cleitus, was a sut to the veterans of who first fought under Philip and remained enamored of the old ways. Hephaestion was continually given assignments away from Alexander meaning he was trusted to provide good results without the need of management and that he could be trusted implicitly to be loyal to Alexander. Finally, his prowess as a soldier is demonstrated by the fact that it is he that Alexander chose to march down the Hydaspes five days ahead of the main army in order to meet and subdue any peoples encountered. Finally, it is Hephaestion, and no one else, who was named and acted as Alexander’s second in command from the time he took charge of the army during Alexander’s convalescence after being wounded in the lung to his actual appointment as chiliarch.
- in answer to his second point, I put forth the following. After the siege of Tyre, Hephaestion was placed in command of the fleet of loosely federated allies and given the task of directing them down the coast to Gaza where he was then in charge of moving Alexander’s siege engines over difficult terrain to meet up with the land troops. Through the Kyber Pass to the Indus, he subdued all the populations he encountered including the successful siege of Peuceolatis. Finally, he was not replaced after his death as no one could have filled his shoes. It has been pointed out that he was chosen for assignments by Alexander when the objectives were not clear cut and Alexander needed a commander on whom he could rely to do what Alexander himself would do without needing instruction or management.
- Two incidents in particular point to Hephaestion’s outstanding diplomatic prowess. It is he whom Alexander chose to name a new King of Sidon, one of the most important ports on the Mediterranean. This is a job that one would think Alexander himself would have done as whoever was put in power would need to be trusted to not revolt against Macedonian forces or cause trouble as Alexander marched on. Likewise, to be trusted to recognize and name royalty meant that Hephaestion was on equal footing with Alexander and royalty, at least in Alexander’s own eyes. The second instance involves Mazeus and his actions. Hephaestion first encountered Mazeus while he was working to bridge the Euphrates to provide Alexander’s army a crossing. For the time it took to construct this bridge, he was in almost constant contact with Mazeus across the river, yet Mazeus never attacked. Later, at Gaugamela, Mazeus, in charge one of the whole Persian wings would simply ride away from the battle when it seemed as if he would overwhelm the Macedonian line. It has been suggested that a deal was struck between Hephaestion and Mazeus during the bridge construction. If so, then Hephaestion’s diplomatic prowess played a big role in Alexander’s conquest.
The final example I give that Hephaestion was second only to Alexander is his marriage. Alexander, a reigning king, chose to give the daughter of a emperor, and sister to his own wife, to Hephaestion in marriage. Alexander wished his children to be related by blood to Hephaestion’s children. There is no greater sign that Alexander thought of Hephaestion as his second self and a complete equal.
So, Malcolm, and anyone else who feels like jumping into the debate, there are my answers.