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Thalestris, the Amazon Queen

Thalestris was the name given to a (fictional) queen of the Amazons. She ruled the Amazons who lived between the Caucasus and the River Phasis (Curt. 6.5.24-25). While Alexander campaigned in Hyrcania in 330 BC, Thalestris arrived at his camp with an honour guard of 300 warriors. She explained that she had come with the intention of conceiving his child. Alexander granted his army a rest period of thirteen days, during which time he spent his furlough assisting Thalestris in his quest! At the end of this period Thalestris considered that she was indeed pregnant; she left the camp and Alexander moved on with his army into Parthia (Diod. 17.77.1-3; Just. 12.3).

Curtius tells the same story, but with embellishments: he describes the Amazons’ appearance (paying particular attention to their bare breasts and the fact that one of the breasts was cauterised to facilitate weapons-handling); and he adds that Thalestris was a bit disappointed by Alexander’s physique—the fact that he was not of extraordinarily heroic build, of course, rather than that he was in any way unathletic (Curt. 6.5.29).

Arrian makes no mention of Thalestris visiting Alexander, although he does tell a slightly different version of the story, which he is at pains to explain that he doesn’t believe. In his version some Amazons were sent to his camp, but he sent them away again, in case they proved too much of a temptation to his men. He did promise them, however, that he would travel to meet their queen and give her a child. In fact, Arrian states that he does not believe the Amazons even existed at the time; and that, if the female warriors were sent to Alexander, then they were showgirls, sent to make an impression. Arrian also places the episode at a much later date, after Alexander’s return from India (Arr. 7.13.2-6).

It is clear that the story of Thalestris is a fiction: although Plutarch read it in at least five writers (including Cleitarchus and Onesicritus), he also cites nine authors (including Aristobulus, Chares and Ptolemy) who said it was fiction. Further weight is added by Plutarch’s tale that, when Onesicritus was reading the passage to Lysimachus (some time before 281 BC), the king smiled and said "And where was I, then?"; and Plutarch also cites a letter in which Alexander himself denied Thalestris’ visit (Plut. Alex. 46.1-2; see also Strabo 11.5.4).

However, the story might have arisen from another tradition (told by Alexander himself, according to the letter in Plutarch), that says that Alexander was offered a Scythian princess in marriage. Alexander graciously refused; but if this indeed happened then it might have been the kernel from which the Thalestris legend grew. (Arr. 4.15.1-5; Plut. Alex. 46.2; Itin. Alex. 42).

Written by marcus

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