Callisthenes, a Greek from Olynthos, was a kinsman of Aristotle – his great-nephew – and a well-known historian in his own right. Before he was employed as the historian of the campaign against Persia he had already written a history of Greece covering the period 387-356BC and at some point he had worked with Aristotle on a list of the victors in the Pythian Games.
We do not know whether it was Philip or Alexander who initially engaged Callisthenes to record the war against Persia, but in 334BC he crossed the Hellespont with Alexander’s army. Similarly we don’t know the full extent of his employment although it is clear that, as well as writing a history of the expedition he was at some point put in charge of educating the Royal Pages – as Aristotle had educated Alexander and his peers. During the army’s time in Egypt Callisthenes went on a trip to locate the source of the Nile, and when they reached Babylon he supervised the translation of the Babylonian astronomical records; so his remit was clearly much wider than just writing a journal of the expedition.
But he is best known for writing a history of the expedition which was laden with flattery of Alexander, and he appears to have played a large part in the elevation of Alexander as son of Zeus following the visit to Siwa in Egypt. The history is lost, surviving only in a few fragments cited by later authors.
Callisthenes’ history was probably written in instalments that were sent back to Greece to be disseminated to the states of the League of Corinth – much like modern war reporting in the newspapers. We are not sure exactly where his work ended: it is generally assumed that the battle of Gaugamela was the last major event recorded, but his record probably went up to the death of Bessus in 329BC.
His main ‘claim to fame’ in the extant sources comes during the period when he lost favour with Alexander, which eventually led to his arrest and execution on charges of conspiracy in 327BC (as a member of the ‘Pages Conspiracy’). Callisthenes was an opponent of Alexander’s orientalising, and things came to a head when Alexander attempted to introduce the custom of proskynesis. Although the custom had no religious significance to the Persians prostration was, as far as the Greeks and Macedonians were concerned, only something one did before gods. They saw proskynesis, therefore, as an attempt by Alexander to get them to worship him as a god... and they weren’t having it! Callisthenes spoke out against it and his intransigence was a prime factor in Alexander’s decision to abandon the idea. At this time Callisthenes gained the approval of the Greeks and Macedonians for his views, where before he had been somewhat shunned for his austerity and straitlaced attitudes.
According to Plutarch Aristotle had once remarked that Callisthenes possessed great eloquence but lacked common sense, and this seems to have played a part in his downfall. There is a story in the vulgate that Callisthenes, at a feast, spoke eloquently about the Macedonians’ virtues. Alexander challenged him to speak so eloquently about their weaknesses, which he did. Unfortunately, the Macedonians did not understand the finer points of eristics (the technique of arguing different points of view in order to win the debate, rather than to reach the truth) and took grave offence. Whether Alexander intended it or not, this undermined Callisthenes’ standing with the Macedonian officers, making it much easier for Alexander to have him arrested and arraigned for treason with impunity.
There is no evidence that Callisthenes had any part in the Pages’ Conspiracy. Hermolaos and his confederates revealed the names of all the conspirators under torture, but Callisthenes was not named – Plutarch even cites a letter from Alexander that absolves him from complicity. Aristoboulos and Ptolemy both claimed that he was the instigator of the plot but even Arrian doubts his sources because of their differing accounts of Callisthenes’ death (see below) and we can reasonably assume that Aristoboulos and Ptolemy accused him of complicity in order to defend Alexander’s actions. One story, that when Philotas asked Callisthenes how he could become famous Callisthenes answered “by killing the most famous of men”, is spurious – probably put about by Callisthenes’ opponents; and the tale that he lectured the pages on the virtues of Harmodios and Aristogeiton (the Athenian tyrant killers) is not proof that he was urging them to kill Alexander – as the pages’ tutor he would naturally have lectured on history and the story of the tyrannicides was an important one in Athenian history. However, if these stories are true, even though they prove nothing, they were very convenient for Alexander once he had decided to rid himself of Callisthenes. Nobody is recorded as having objected when Alexander accused him of treason, and his fate was secured.
As for the differing accounts of Callisthenes’ death, it is remarkable how many versions there are. He is variously reported to have been racked and hanged (Ptolemy), or put in chains and carried around with the army until he died of sickness (Aristoboulos); or he was kept in prison for seven months in order to be tried by the League of Corinth, but he died of “excessive corpulence and the disease of lice” around the time Alexander was wounded by the Malli (Chares). Arrian suggests that there were other traditions, too, and remarks on the fact that his two main sources cannot agree on the details of a public event.