Saturday, June 27, 2009

Trial of Philotas

By Apostolos Daskalakis
Member of Athens Academy
Abstract from the book “the Hellenism of Ancient Macedonians”, pages 69-76, Institute Balkan of Studies, Thessaloniki, 1965

But the passage which right from the beginning has been the strongest card in the hands of those who support the theory of a non-Greek Macedonian language having existed in ancient times, is the one in the Latin author Curtius Rufus recounting the trial for conspiracy and the execution of Alexander's general Philotas, son of Parmenion.[1] In spite of its interpretation and refutation by many Greek and foreign experts, this passage is still quoted as a fundamental argument by those denying the Hellenism of the ancient Macedonians; hence we must deal with it at length.

In reporting the plot of Philotas and his execution by Alexander, C. Rufus presents him as being tried by the army. After numerous speeches and the pronouncement of the charge, Alexander permits Philotas to defend himself "patrio sermone." Philotas replied that he preferred to use the same language as had just been used by Alexander (in order to be understood by a greater number of those present). Philotas prefers to speak in the language used by Alexander because he sees present in larger numbers those who he thinks will thus understand more easily what he has to say. Upon this Alexander chides Philotas before the onlookers for loathing his paternal tongue because he was bored at having to learn it thoroughly. Next, before leaving the trial, Alexander charges the judges not to forget that "Philotas equally loathes our customs and our language," obviously, in the author's view, with the object of weighing the scales against Philotas. A prolix rhetorical trend and a bombastic manner with continued orations marks the whole of Curtius Rufus' work. No earlier writer records these and it would have been impossible to have them verbatim if no minutes were kept.

So no weight need be given to these bombastic declamations and texts with dialogue in them the context of which is to be found nowhere else. Fer¬tile imagination and a literary bent carry him away from the facts of history into descriptions of the life, achievements and adventures of Alexander the Great, obviously mythical in character and written with the unconcealed intent of delighting his readers. In fact elsewhere he himself admits that he transcribes more items than he believes.[2] This applies more truly to the long harangues abundant in Curtius Rufus' work, which recall the fireworks in the Roman schools of rhetoric, so customary at that time in dealing with rhetorical subjects. The subject of Philotas' trial naturally proved highly interesting to them.

But even if after critical scrutiny we take this narrative of Curtius as a reliable source of history, we should still be justified in feeling astonish¬ment that it should be put forward so persistently in an attempt to de¬rive "Macedonian," from it, that is, not a Greek dialect, but another lan¬guage, not understood by the Greeks. According to Curtius, Philotas answers Alexander clearly that he would rather speak the language in which the king had spoken (obviously Greek), because he would thus be more easily understood by a larger number, that is by the non-Macedonians too, or the Greeks present. But if it were a case of a non-Greek Macedonian tongue, then the question of its being easily understood would not arise, for the simple rea¬son that the Greek bystanders would not have understood a word of what Philotas was saying. Thus, even if we take this passage of Curtius Rufus as a verified and unimpeachable historical source, the only deduction we can make is that he is referring to a Macedonian dialect of the Greek language, to which the non-Macedonian Greeks present would naturally prefer stand¬ard Greek.

But in the examples already cited as well as in the present trial of Phi¬lotas, we maintain that not even a Greek-Macedonian dialect is to be thought of. We regard this extract from Curtius as wholly imaginary, or as arbitrary the addition of the passage giving Alexander's remarks in usual Greek or a Macedonian vernacular, either from misunderstanding or through the desire to tell a good story. It is not certain when Curtius Rufus lived, cer¬tainly not before Augustus, and in the view of some scholars during the time of Constantine the Great. In the course of the many centuries which had elapsed since the events he deals with, Alexander's personality and the feats of his expedition in Asia had been embellished with all sorts of agreeable legends, which were not derived from the stories of eye-witnesses, but from later traditions. The lost work of Cleitarchus, itself widespread during Ro¬man times, which contributed much to the growth of legend around Alexan¬der's campaigns and was drawn on by Curtius, is found to be based large¬ly on anecdote; as a source of history it is of very questionable authority.

Looking at the subject from a logical point of view we are led to the conclusion that Philotas' defence is a figment of the imagination and a rhe¬torical exercise which was never delivered. How can we possibly imagine that this young general, son of the illustrious Parmenion, till the day before en¬joying power and renown, when dragged in tatters, with his hands bound and the prospect of frightful tortures ahead of him, would have the presence of mind to deliver in reply to Alexander's charges an extremely long ex tempore speech to the army, full of rhetorical forms and profoundest syllogisms ! In our view, this whole passage of Curtius is a purely rhetorical exer¬cise based on no historical foundation whatever.[3]

Curtius' account of Philotas' trial does not tally with the known sources on this subject. The passage about the use of the Macedonian or the usual Greek language is found in no other historical writer. More specifically, neither Plutarch, nor Arrian, not even Diodorus has anything to say about it. These writers, recording the history of Alexander and the adventures met with on his campaigns in Asia on the basis of genuine contemporary accounts, be it even that of Cleitarchus, would be the only people qualified to know and would not have omitted anything of the sort.

Plutarch[4] in recording the scene of Philotas' arrest and execution says that the unfortunate son of Parmenion, on suspicion of plotting against Al¬exander's life, was suddenly arrested and subjected to torture to make him reveal his accomplices. Certainly the troops would not have been present at the loathsome scene of torturing a brave and distinguished Macedonian, son of Alexander's bravest general; but only some trusted courtiers, "the hetairoi witnessing the torture," and those administering the inquisition. Alexander, as Plutarch clearly records, was not present, but listening behind a curtain to the loud cries of the tortured man and his prayers to those about Hephaestion administering the inquisition, deplored his guilt. Philotas was straightway put to death. Thus, as far as Plutarch goes, this trial and defence in front of the army in Alexander's presence never took place. But if Plutarch had had reliable sources of such a court martial for Philotas, and of a defence speech before the Macedonians at Alexander's command, it seems very doubtful that he would have omitted them, both on account of the dramatic story and because he would have been able to draw many and typical moral lessons from it, with apt judgements thereon.

Throughout the whole of Macedonian history, we cannot find anything definite about the existence—like a hard and fast unwritten law—of a Macedonian custom that persons guilty of conspiring against the king's life should be tried by the Macedonians. On the contrary, because of the very frequent conspiracies and ceaseless danger of the throne being seized by some other member of the family, the kings of Macedonia for the most part settled such matters in the fashion of absolute monarchs: by ordering the execution of the guilty person, or the murder of the one suspected. Parmenion had received an order from Alexander immediately after the latter came to the throne, to kill Attalus. At the revolt near Opis, Alexander himself arrested 13 Macedonians and ordered that they should be put to death forthwith. During his campaign in Asia, he ordered the death of many of his brothers-in¬arms without a trial, either because he suspected them of plotting against him, or else because they blocked his plans. Olympias sought from Kassander to be tried before all the Macedonian Army, but he refused and she was executed. Sometimes it is stated that the Macedonians had "equal rights of speech," but that meant the right to express an opinion in other circumstances, particularly in military operations, but not in cases of conspiracy or of a death verdict. According to Polybius[5] the Macedonians asked of their king—by virtue of equal rights of speech—that they might take part in the trial of Leontius, but their request was not considered at all.

It is true that in the affair of Philotas the circumstances were altogether exceptional. The man arrested and accused of conspiracy had been till the day before a renowned general, son of a famous general, commander of the most prominent battle corps, the hetairoi. Even if this custom had not existed, it would have been justifiable to bring him before the Macedonians in order to persuade them of his guilt. But in that event, his appearing before them would have had to come after the torture and extraction of a confession; not beforehand, when he was denying his guilt with rhetorical sword-play. In other words, historically speaking and apart from the words which Curtius puts into his mouth, the second alternative after the torture and confession would have been possible, just before Philotas was executed; but in no circumstances the first, with the rhetorical flights which Curtius intersperses, inventing among other things that conceit about the "paternal tongue of the Macedonians," for greater elaboration.

Most fitted of all to provide detailed information on the subject is Arrian who undoubtedly used as his sources the accounts of contemporaries and eye-witnesses that had accompanied Alexander on his Asiatic campaign. Arrian clearly states that he took his account of Philotas's plot and execution from Ptolemy and Aristobulus, who evidently were eye-witnesses.[6] What Arrian writes about the trial of Philotas is pretty vague, because from the phrase ''to be brought before the Macedonians" which he takes from Pto¬lemy we cannot judge with any certainty whether he is referring to a trial before the Macedonian Army, as Curtius has it, or within a close circle of Alexander's generals and other men of high rank. But the fact of his record¬ing Alexander's charge, Philotas' defence, the exhaustive examination of accusers in order to nullify the defendant's claims of innocence and establish his guilt, leads us to the latter. From a logical angle, a case so grave could only have been tried in a closed circle constituting a court of law and not amid the hurly-burly of the Macedonian Army. Obviously, in that closed circle of the generals and courtiers of Alexander, who had been nurtured on Homer's epics, by whom as is often recounted the ancient tragedies were recited from memory and which included men rivalling one another in Greek learning and verbal elegance, a proposal of Alexander that Philotas should speak in a Macedonian dialect, and a reproach too for loathing his native tongue, as part of the indictment, would have appeared inconceivable, if not laughable. At any rate, Arrian writes nothing at all about Alexander's proposal. We may draw the conclusion that the eye-witnesses Ptolemy and Aristobulus, from whom he took his account, had heard nothing of it and had not included it in their works.

It now remains to examine the related passage in Diodorus, who is not apt to scrutinize very closely the information which comes to his hand from every source, but who all the same is possessed by a feeling for historic truth. In his narrative Diodorus[7] divides the incident into three stages: First, the examination during which Philotas did not confess his guilt, but during which damaging facts emerged against him. Second, his being sent for judgement before "the Macedonians" who after hearing many speeches "passed sen¬tence of death." In this case it is not disclosed whether "Macedonians" refers to the army or to the generals and first lords of Alexander's court. Diodorus gives more or less the same order of procedure as Curtius (presu¬mably because he is using Cleitarchus as his reference), connecting the incidents of his arrest, judgement by a court of Macedonians and execution, with many speeches (i. e. a great deal of discussion). Very probably this mention of "words" by Cleitarchus, or someone in his tradition, gave Curtius the opportunity of manufacturing speeches for Alexander and Philotas of the type of harangues in the public manner before the Army.

Anyhow, when it comes to a judgement, which Alexander entrusted to the Macedonians, we must infer that this meant the council of trusted senior officers, who uttered the many "words" before condemning Philotas, after he should first be put to torture in order to extract a confession from him.

The third stage of Diodorus' narrative gives the torturing of Philotas, after which he confessed his guilt and was executed. Thus Diodorus is perhaps the clearest narrator of Philotas' conspiracy among the Greek historians who have dealt with it; at any rate he does not say what Curtius fancied concerning a "trial before the Macedonians" and mentions absolutely nothing about a speech by Philotas, still less any discussion whether he should give it in Macedonian rather than in Greek. It is worth noting that Diodorus uses Cleitarchus as one of his most important sources of information about Alexander's campaign. Like Plutarch, Cleitarchus is almost the only relatively reliable author, as writing a bit after the events and used by Cur tius Rufus also. We may therefore conclude that as Diodorus does not mention the speech, nor did Cleitarchus write anything about it; so this last very doubtful source of historical fact was not employed by Curtius in his "battle of words"' over the use of Macedonian or ordinary Greek, who must have invented it himself.

We thus have the three Greek historians who wrote in detail about Alexander, drawing on contemporary accounts, writing nothing which connects up with Curtius' tale of Alexander's proposing to Philotas that he should speak in "patrio sermone" or the latter's reply that he would rather speak Greek in order to be better understood. We can therefore affirm positively that this passage of Curtius is not supported by any historical source and is purely a figment of the Latin author's imagination. We can also conjecture that the state of political and military life in the Roman Empire during its last period had some influence on the origin of this scene of Philotas' trial, either in the form of a tradition, or through Curtius, own fabrication. The Roman generals and pro-consuls who governed subject peoples and exercised the "imperium" of the Roman people at that time, left local justice in force and generally respected the laws and customs of the conquered people. These were certainly included in the "edictum," with which they inaugurated their yearly rule. Thus Curtius Rufus also imagined that in such a grave case, told in a book aimed to fascinate a wide public, the ancient historical facts about the trial might be rounded off in the fashion then prevalent throughout the Roman Empire. So Philotas the Macedonian grandee should be tried "in his native speech" as was the rule for merce¬nary troops under Rome;[8]

A thorough scrutiny of this whole passage of Curtius Rufus persuades us that the Latin author wrote this without reference to a source of Alexander's time. A critic's glance gives us such discrepancies and historical inac¬curacies as to preclude anything serious. As told by Curtius, Alexander recommends Philotas to use his paternal tongue, and when the latter declines, rebukes him in front of a large number of non-Macedonian Greeks for "loathing both our way of life and our language." As we shall see later on, Arrian drawing on contemporaries and eye-witnesses, mainly Ptolemy (whose me¬moirs are always accurate, as he had the "ephemerides" in mind), records the texts of speeches delivered in Greek by Alexander to Macedonians only, and these at critical, dramatic junctures.

All through his Asiatic campaign Alexander never spoke any other lan¬guage than the Greek in use at the time, not even in a Macedonian dialect. How therefore could he have rebuked Philotas, and that so harshly, for speaking "his paternal tongue" because he loathed it, if he himself even when addressing Macedonians never made use of it and presumably, if such "speech" existed,loathed it too? Anyone present could have turned the tables on Alexander himself. Alexander's entourage of generals, high lords and men of letters, steeped in the Hellenic traditions, used to quoting Homer and classic tragedy by heart would, to say the least, have been surprised at hearing the king of Macedonia, who was triumphing throughout Asia in the name of the Hellenic spirit and of Hellenism's institutions, champion as a "native idiom" something peculiar to the Macedonians, and not at all Greek.[9]

Curtius falls into another downright inconsistency when he makes Alex¬ander rebuke Philotas for loathing his paternal speech, because " he alone hated learning it." But if Philotas' paternal speech had been some separate Macedonian tongue, he would not have had to learn it at all, for it would have been his vernacular and naturally would have known it well. A native language, though supposedly abandoned in favour of another more advanced, is not learned by instruction but simply at our mother's knee, and is thus perpetuated from generation to generation; here Curtius has blundered not only from a historical but also from a logical point of view.

Philotas' reply quoted in the above passage, namely that he would rather use the Greek language which Alexander too was using, so as to be better understood by the non-Macedonians present, i.e. Greeks, shows how little Curtius knew about the customs and the social and political life of Macedonia. For if Alexander were handing over to his Macedonian fellow soldiers his right of judging Philotas for plotting against his life, Philotas would have made his defence to them and been judged by them alone.The proud, untamed Macedonian warriors, firmly adhering to their ancestral ways, would on no ground have brooked that a high personage, son of the most eminent general after Alexander, who had been their commander till the day before, should defend himself, much less be judged by the other Greeks too, who besides did not know of this custom. So if this trial did really take place, not in the presence of Alexander's courtiers and generals alone, as seems likely to us, but before whole army bodies like the hetairoi, hitherto commanded by Philotas, and the king's guard, there should not have been others, non-Macedonian Greeks, present who could not have been as numerous anyway, as Curtius would have us be¬lieve. The Greeks scattered throughout the units hardly reached one fifth of the Macedonian army's total, and those in the corps closest to Alexander, which was composed almost exclusively of Macedonian hetairoi or bodyguard units, were a very small proportion.[10]

The exclusion of Greeks, in large numbers at any rate, was imperative not only for reasons of Macedonian prestige, but also on practical grounds. Because, given that the verdict was reached by a shouting vote, the voices of the other Greeks could not affect the decision of the Macedonians, the only people with the right to express an opinion on such a topic. If in spite of this they were indeed present and Alexander really advised Philotas to use "paternal speech" in his defence, it would have been quite incomprehensible for the Macedonian general, after such a stern rebuke, to answer that he was interested in being better understood by the Greeks present, who had no rights in the matter, rather than devote all his attention to the Macedonians, on whom his life depended. It would also have been unthinkable not only for a Macedonian nobleman, who would never allow himself for personal and traditional reasons to beg for mercy from non-Macedonians, but for any man who, if not successful in convincing the Macedonians of his innocence, was doomed to death by frightful tortures.

Besides, not only Alexander and the other accusers, all pure Macedonians, spoke in standard Greek, but the Macedonian himself who is presented as accusing Philotas of being unable to speak his native language, addressed the Macedonians in faultless Greek. Such discrepancies, devoid of any historical foundation, could only have come from the frivolous literary imagination of Curtius. They could never have actually occurred.

But even if so many other indications did not exist, merely these amazing inconsistencies would be enough to show that this notorious passage of Curtius' narrative is historically false. It is strange indeed that the Greek and foreign historians after half a century's ample debate and rebuttal should not have discerned that these discrepancies are incontrovertible proof of the historical forgery of the passage and voiding it of all significance.


[1]-Curtius VI, 9, 34-36, VI, 10, 23 and VI, 11, 4.
[2]-Curtius IX, 1, 34. Curtius' work contains many "Rhetorical essays" of the kind used in schools of oratory at that time. He clearly had full command of the orator's art, sacrificing historic accuracy to that and it is probable that he was himself a teacher of rhetoric (See Curtius edited by H. Bardon, Belles Lettres Paris, 1947, introd., ix).
[3]-Η. Bardon, (ed. B.L. vol. I, p. 201, η. I) who in many occasions supports the Latin writer's authority, remarks in connection with the supposed speech of Philotas : "Curtius is given to school exercizes in bombast and retort: he is a master of the rhetorical art's formulae and arrays his arguments with a technician's expert skill."
[4]-Plut., Alex. XLIX, 6.
[5]-Pol. V, 27, 5.
[6]-Arr., Anab. Ill, 26 ff.\
[7]-Diod. XVII, 79, 5-80 ff.
[8]-Curtius' account of the frightful tortures, to which Philotas was subjected in order to make him confess, also smacks more of Roman practices under the Empire.
[9]-H. Bardon, editor of Curtius asks at this point: "Is it not astounding to hear Alexander accusing Philotas of philhellenism, when he was himself trying to expand the Hellenic world all over the East?" If Alexander ever accused Philotas of this, it would indeed have been amazing, but he never even thought of doing so.
[10]-Diod. XVII, 17. Here it must be remembered that these events took place in Bactria, after the complete destruction of the Persian Empire and amid prepar¬ations for the advance into Middle Asia. During this period, the Greek forces taking part in the expedition had been demobilised as provided by the terms of the Corinth Alliance and the Greek warriors, who did not wish to return to Greece, were enlisted in the Greek mercenary forces. There was no question of seeking their opinion.

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