One Morning in Macedon

"One Morning in Macedon" depicts the youths Alexander and Hephastion out for a ride. I did this painting as a gift for a pair of friends celebrating their 20th year as a couple. It's probably the best painting I have ever done.

"One Morning in Macedon"

by Pam Green, © 12/12/12

This painting in acrylics was created as an anniversary present for two friends in honor of their 20th anniversary as a couple. Both have done so much for me and my dogs over the past decade.

The painting depicts the young boys Alexander and Hephastion out for an early morning ride, accompanied by two dogs. Alexander is riding Bucephalas (Oxhead) and Hephastion a very nice horse, recently given to him by Alexander .

Alex gained Oxhead when he was 12 years old, thus 344 BC. Hephastion's birth year is unknown, but he became a page sometime in 343 BC. It's unknown if they knew each other earlier. I place this painting sometime between 344 BC and 342 BC. The boys are probably both 12 to 14 years old and already know they are Best Friends Forever , or in their own contemporary concept, the new Achilles and Patrocles (at whose tomb in Troy they later publicly sacrificed, thus public acknowledgement of their relationship as a committed couple). The two remained the most important figures in each other's lives for the rest of their lives, and Alexander survived Hephastion's death only briefly and not very well.

Horses , dogs, and the dress code.

The horses and dogs are more modern than the horses of circa 342 BC, which would have been like those on the Parthenon frieze. Oxhead is taken from a photo of Keen (great Olympic dressage horse, whom I saw perform many times) and is seen in the near-passage trot so admired by Xenophon, who writes instructions on how to teach this to your horse. Alexander had studied all of Xenophon's books, including the one On Horsemanship and the one on Hunting Dogs, as well as the Life of Kyros and the Anabasis, the latter two dealing with Persia. The chestnut's color is taken from my Arab stallion, Kumair, coat of fire, who was my Bucephalus, my Pegasus, the magic stallion of my own youth.

Greek horses were rather small compared to the heights of people, probably at most 14 hands 2 inches. This can be seen in the art of the time, notably the Parthenon and other contemporary sculpture. Xenophon suggests that to mount the horse one grasp the mane up near the horse's ears, which implies a small horse. Oxhead was said to have been somewhat larger (questionable in view of the desirability of horse's size being compatible with rider's, especially when without saddle, and Alex known to have been of smaller than average height), and is known to have been black with a white forehead marking. The rather romantic story of the taming of Bucephalus is (as Mary Renault suggests) probably so much recorded because it was a story Alex loved to tell at parties and that he may well have embroidered a bit with repetitions. But he would have known from Xenophon to recognize fear in a horse and to deal with it by reassurance rather than by harshness.

The dogs are probably none of the hunting types described by Xenophon, who wrote only of hunting dogs. The brown one is some type of terrier and looks a lot like my precious Chris other than for the color. Although Xenophon doesn't mention rodent-killer dogs, the Macedonians would have needed something of this sort as they didn't yet have cats and they did have grains. (Some kept tame snakes around the house, Alex's mother Olympias being known to do so, and these could have reduced the rodent infestations, but nowhere near as much so as a good terrier can do.) The grey dog was intended to be a wolfhound type, able to hunt and kill wolves (which were present in that environment), with some shagginess as might fit Xenophon's advice that a dog's coat have straight thick hair on the thighs, loin, and below the stern, with medium length above. But, not surprisingly, the grey dog became rather Bouvier-like and resembles my adored Bones.

Neither of the dogs is Alexander's Peritas, whom he won't get until some years later and who lived until late in Alex's life. Alex named a city for this special dog, who must have been almost as dear to him as Oxhead, for whom he also named a city. (His other many cities were all named after himself : no false modesty there !) .

Swans were considered by the Greeks to symbolize fidelity. Undoubtedly they knew that swans mate for life, as do geese. At least Aristotle would probably have known this and taught Alexander and Hephastion about it.

Common apparel for Greek and Macedonians was the chiton, which is a wrap-around , hung from pins at one or both shoulders and tied or belted at the waist, often being open at that side.. Adult men wore it knee length for less active pursuits, but mid-thigh length for hunting and other outdoor active pursuits such as riding. Also for riding, the horseman's short cloak, the chalmys. I've taken the drapery from contemporary sculpture, such as the Tombstone of Dexileus and the Alexander Sarcophagus (which is not the actual enclosure of Alex's embalmed corpse that came to rest in Alexandria , Egypt.)

The chiton would be of wool or linen and the cloak wool. Most sheep had "colored" wool, ie beige, brown, grey, or black rather than white. (White wooled sheep are relatively modern.) The Greeks had a number of bright dyes, including yellow and green . Alex's clothes are murex dyed, which is a blueish color overlaid with red, thus giving a purple impression. Now for an ordinary ride, the boys would more likely have worn something plainer, just natural colored wool. But I wanted the colors to compliment the horses and make the picture more interesting. (also, though I title the piece Morning in Macedon and began with a morning sky, the sky turned into more of a evening sky, sun just set, so perhaps the boys have escaped from a dinner party and thus would be wearing party clothes.) Their chitons are a bit shorter than mid-thigh, perhaps because the boys are out-growing their old clothes, but still find them useable. Or perhaps they have deliberately raised the hemline with their belts, just as some youth today let their pants sag. It's also possible that the boys have tucked the lower part of the chiton underneath their crotch to provide a bit of padding for their tender parts. Xenophon recommends as preferable horses with "double back", meaning the back muscles rising above the spine on both sides ; he does not mention withers, but almost certainly would have advised that they be not too high so as to be more comfortable for the rider. As to why Hephastion has one shoulder bare, possibly the pin holding his chiton over the other shoulder came loose, but more likely he chose this mode of drapery. (I chose it because it suits the mood and picture.) Greeks were very comfortable and casual about nudity. Both boys would have seen one another nude , and everyone else nude, at the gymnasium and the palestra where every boy and young man sought to perfect their bodies so as to become more beautiful to potential lovers and more pleasing to the gods, as well as the more practical goal of fitness for battle.

The Greeks and Macedonians did not have saddles or stirrups. They did have a type of "saddle cloth", perhaps padded, secured to the horse's back with either a girth or a strap in front of the chest. But this is omitted from artistic representations and boys out for a ride might well omit it too. (For more formal occasions Alex might have preferred a lynx pelt, one killed by himself of course.) This cloth probably didn't contribute greatly to the rider's security. (The Greeks lacked buckles, so the girth may not have been very secure, though the double ringed cinch used on modern stock saddles could have been used to give security.) I've simplified the bridle a little (and omitted the right rein), as Xenophon mentions nosebands and something that might be a browband and suggests a halter and lead rope underneath the bridle. The horses look better with less leather in the way. The bits are of the type of one found near the Athens Acropolis and dated to around Alexander's times. This bit was similar to a modern snaffle of the type called "Fulmer snaffle" but with spines or nubbles all over the mouthpiece. The Greeks did not have any type of curb bit or other leverage bit, only various types of snaffle bit. Xenophon describes bits as having sharp or smooth spines and having larger or smaller discs revolving around the mouthpiece. The idea was that the horse should not be able to grab the bit and hold on to it. Sculptures show horses with mouths slightly open, either because of the bit or to imply fierceness, a quality suitable for a war horse.

Here, Alexander and Hephastion both have their horses on a relaxed rein. Both boys exhibit a secure and relaxed riding "seat" (posture) very appropriate for riding without a saddle. (In fact they ride essentially as I did when riding bareback, though I didn't refer to my photos as a model.) They are in pretty much the seat recommended by Xenophon and portrayed in sculpture. Alex's neck is craned back a bit, which may be an attempt to counter-act his tendency to "vulture neck" as shown in some of the sculptures of him on horseback (usually spearing some unfortunate foot soldier). They ride with one hand, the left, on the reins, leaving the right hand or weapons for battle or hunting or just hanging free if no weapons were being carried. Greeks loved hunting, the goal being either something edible or something dangerous. Xenophon writes that hunting prepares a man for war and makes him a better person overall.

I had a lot of trouble with the faces, which are not quite as I envisioned them and had them in he drawings for this painting. I intended Hephastion to be looking in a fond and slightly yearning manner at Alexander (and I think I was successful in this). In my sketches Alexander is a bit younger and looking upwards at Hephastion. He is youthful and happy being with his horse and his best friend. However the final version attempts to be a smiling version of the portrayal of Alexander's side view on a coin. While there were many portraits of Alexander during his life, it is not unlikely that painters and sculptors took care to flatter him a bit. There must have been portrayals of Hephastion too, but I've only found one , a damaged marble which may not have been contemporaneous. Alexander was known to be blond haired. I initially made Hephastion brunette, but then thought that he too should be blond so as to facilitate Sysgambis mistaking him for Alexander at that famous first meeting, in response to which Alex told her "never mind mother, he too is Alexander".

Concerning their relationship

Because the deeds and character of Alexander have been much romanticized (and also much slandered), it's easy to under-rate Hephastion ; and because of Alex's eventual rank, it's easy to assume an unequal relationship. Yet it is certain that Hephastion must have been a person of great ability, as seen by the many independent diplomatic, military, and other missions he unfailingly accomplished. That Aristotle wrote a series of letters to him shows that he respected the special relationship and that he probably thought Hephastion was the one person able to stabilize Alexander and influence him for the better, the one person able and willing to "tell truth to power". The personal relationship was almost certainly one of mutual respect as well as publically displayed love. The extremity of Alex's grief at Hephastion's death and his own demise only 3 months later may indicate how much he depended on Hephastion as his emotional gyroscope.

Though Alex was the king's son and being educated for war and governance (as Phillip has hired Aristotle, whose goal was a "philosopher king", to tutor Alex and his friends), but Hephastion was a lord's son and probably raised to consider himself among the elite. One must remember that a Macedonian King was not all that exalted a position. Every citizen (male) could speak quite frankly to the King. Indeed even a peasant woman might criticize the King, as one did to Alex' father Phillip. The King did not have powers of life and death and could not put anyone to death without a vote of the citizens. Kingship was not automatically hereditary father to son, but chosen by the men of power from among the royal kindred. Phillip was actually brother to the previous King, being chosen by the nobility over a very young son of the deceased Perdikkas II. The King had to be a capable military general. So at the time of this painting, it's far from certain that Alexander will be able to succeed Phillip. (Phillip was the first king of Macedon in a long time to survive long enough to have a son 12 or 14 years old. Assassination was a lively art and the risks in battle were also high. No wonder Alex slept with a dagger under his pillow.) The battle of Chaeronea is still at least 4 years away, the earliest time at which Alex would have been a proven war leader and accepted as king if Phillip had fallen. Otherwise, there were plenty of rivals, including the now adult uncle who had been passed over in Phillip's favor. Phillip had numerous secondary wives, so had he lived another 20 years there might have been other sons to contend with Alex . (At the time of Phillip's actual death, there were only the legitimate but retarded Arridaios and the reputed bastard Ptolemy, ten years older than Alex and a very capable person.) Olympias' frequent quarrels with Phillip and her assertions that Alex was sired by Zeus rather than by Phillip probably could not have helped the security of Alex's position and expectations.

But as of the time of this picture they are still boys and their friendship is everything. They can live in the moment and take joy in their horses and in one another.

History and alternate history

Although at least 20 histories of Alexander were written during his lifetime, none have survived except bits in quotation by later authors. The one I'd most like to read would be that of Ptolemy, who would have known Alexander from infancy to death. Arrian's history relies a lot on that of Ptolemy, but begins at the death of Phillip. I am relying largely on the historical fiction of Mary Renault, who relies heavily on Arrian (this is the same Arrian who also wrote on hunting dogs and seems a reliable source there). I have also read Robin Lane Fox, who draws on many sources and trys to make sense of the contradictions.

An interesting question to me is what might have happened if Hephastion had survived longer. If only the doctor who failed to supervise him during his recovery from typhoid had supervised adequately (himself or an apprentice or reliable slave) and prevented him from eating that half a boiled fowl that resulted in his death. If Hephastion survives, then it's very likely that Alex would not have been in Babylon during the unhealthy summer and would not have contracted maleria and died from it (with some contribution from the damage from an earlier lung penetrating wound). Or if Alex had died on schedule, with Hephastion surviving to be appointed Regent, what happens ? Hephastion would likely have been able to prevent Roxanne from assassinating Alex's other wife Stateira (who, remember, is sister to Hephastion's wife Drypetis) who may or may not have also been pregnant by Alex at the time. Hephastion probably knew that Roxanne was dangerous (she might have tried to poison him at some time) and would have removed her son by Alex from her influence, thus perhaps resulting in the boy becoming fit for rulership. Hephastion was the one person who might have been able to keep Alex's other generals in line rather than competing with one another for a share or the entirety of the empire. Presumably Hephastion shared Alex's visionary plan for a melding of the best of Greek culture and Persian culture into a larger culture and empire. And he might well have wed one of his offspring by Drypetis to one of Alex's offspring, consolidating his own position in government.

Could this extent of empire ever have held together for long ? Could such an extent and diversity of cultures have been governed from one center given the technology (especially communications technology, racing dromedary being the swiftest) of the time ? The later Roman empire was too large and was split in two at the time of Constantine. And perhaps Ptolemy would have gone off to hold Egypt as an independent kingdom anyway.

It would make a great alternate history novel and it's too bad Mary Renault didn't think of writing it.

site author Pam Green copyright 2003
created 12/12/12 revised 4/22/13
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