Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretations

Discuss Alexander's generals, wives, lovers, family and enemies

Moderator: pothos moderators

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretations

Post by Arethusa33 » Sun Feb 03, 2013 12:19 pm

I know that there are a lot of scholars here who can read ancient Greek. So, I would like to submit a problem of interpretation based on translations of an ancient Greek text to French and to English .

It's about a letter written by Hephaistion to Olympias.It can be found in Diodorus Siculus Library of history book 17 Chapter 114 § 3

Apparently Hephaistion had received many letters from Olympias where she criticized and threatened him.In that letter he answered her.

We have only the end of the letter but it is only the last sentence which is differently translated in French and in English.The way the text is translated in the 2 languages changes completely the meaning.

French translation : " Tu sais qu'Alexandre est plus puissant que tout le monde" meaning : you know that Alexander is more powerful than anyone else in the world.

English translation : "you know that Alexander means more to us than anything"

What did Hephaistion exactly mean? That he feared nothing because he had the trust of the most powerful man in the world and was under his protection? Or that he didn't care about Olympias' recriminations because all that mattered to him was Alexander? It's 2 different meanings.

Here is the greek text :

Image


English text :

As a matter of fact, Hephaestion enjoyed so much power and freedom of speech based on this friendship that when Olympias was estranged from him because of jealousy and wrote sharp criticisms and threats against him in her letters, he felt strong enough to answer her reproachfully and ended his letter as follows: "Stop quarrelling with us and do not be angry or menacing. If you persist, we shall not be much disturbed. You know that Alexander means more to us than anything."

agesilaos
Strategos (general)
Posts: 2180
Joined: Mon Sep 09, 2002 2:16 pm
Location: LONDON

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by agesilaos » Sun Feb 03, 2013 1:47 pm

The French seems closer to the Greek, but kreittwn can have the sense of being more powerful than outside influences, ie self-controlled and this sense seems better to me, the alleged Hephaistion is saying Olympias' complaints will not affect Alexander as he is 'more impervious to influence than anyone.' It can mean 'more powerful than anyone', as in the French but that does not really answer, Alexander's continence was as common a trope as his wrath, 'plus puissant que tout le monde,' strikes me as being an otiose statement and a weak rejoinder. The English seems altogether too free and is equally not to the point; Olympias was trying to estrange Alexander from Hephaistion so the value Hephaistion set on Alexander is largely irrelevant. That Alexander could be counted on to remain unswayed by any influence is a good point, be it from a rhetorical exercise or 'l'eminense grise'.
When you think about, it free-choice is the only possible option.

robbie
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 82
Joined: Mon Oct 22, 2012 12:14 pm

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by robbie » Sun Feb 03, 2013 7:03 pm

Wait a minute here? Did Olympias really have a beef or grievance of sorts with Hephaestion?

1. Why?

2. Do you guys remember, in the movie Alexander, the scene where Alexander is reading a letter sent by his mother, where her voice-over reads out the letter explaining that Alexander would be wise in watching out for some people close to him, with the exception of Hephaestion? Robin Lane Fox, as you all know, was consulted during the making of this film. Thus, this particular scene would suggest that there wasn't any animosity between Olympias and Hephaestion...?

3. Here are several quotations from Elizabeth Donnelly Carney's "Olympias: mother of Alexander the Great"

"Diodorus includes an apparent quotation from the letter of Hephaestion, a quotation that bizarrely employs the "royal we". This is the only evidence of a strife between Hephaestion and Olympias, though Plutach preserves four different versions of a story about Hephaestion reading Olympias' letters to her son and being enjoined to secrecy about their contents. None of plutarchs many versions of the story, however, say anything about the relations between Hephaestion and Alexander and they vary as to whether they consider Hephaesion's reading of Olympias' letters unusual."

Now what does all this mean?


"Tension between Olympias and the man closest to Alexander would be unsurprising, but the evidence for it is much poorer than for her notorious and much more important dispute with Antipater"

So was there a quarrel or not? Diodorus says that she became hostile to Hephaestion out of jealousy, and that she wrote letters to him of a harsh and threatening nature.



Rob

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Arethusa33 » Sun Feb 03, 2013 9:15 pm

agesilaos wrote: the alleged Hephaistion is saying Olympias' complaints will not affect Alexander as he is 'more impervious to influence than anyone.'
Hi Agesilaos,

Your translation is the most convincing because that is the most intelligent answer that Hephaistion could make to Olympias.She wasted her time with all her complaints because neither of them had the power to influence Alexander. In saying that Hephaistion didn't need to justify himself.

We know that alexander meant more to Hephaistion than anything as it is said in the English translation but Olympias didn't believe it and wouldn't have be touched by this statement.

It is not because I'm French that I say that but I really think that the English translation is the less accurate of the two.

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Arethusa33 » Sun Feb 03, 2013 9:52 pm

Hi Robbie,

It is not surprising at all that the historical Olympias was Hephaistion's enemy.Because she loved power and the most powerful man after Alexander was Hephaistion.Of course she didn't believe that Hephaistion loved Alexander for himself.

I know that in the movie Olympias is not hostile to Hephaistion but Stone's Alexander is not historically accurate in spite of the presence of Robin Lane Fox as historical consultant.It is mostly influenced by Mary Renault's Persian Boy which is a fiction and not the historical truth.I have no reason to doubt of the veracity of Diodorus Siculus's account about Olympias complaints against Hephaistion.In the movie Craterus is not Hephaistion's enemy and yet he was.

I don't like the scene in the movie where Hephaistion reads Olympias' letter with Alexander because it is a poor reconstruction of the seal ring anecdote as told by Plutarch in Moralia :

" In fact it is recorded that once, when he had broken the seal of a confidential letter from his mother and was reading it silently to himself, Hephaestion quietly put his head beside Alexander's and read the letter with him; Alexander could not bear to stop him, but took off his ring and placed the seal on Hephaestion's lips."

It is as poorly recreated as the "he too is Alexander" anecdote.

robbie
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 82
Joined: Mon Oct 22, 2012 12:14 pm

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by robbie » Mon Feb 04, 2013 7:41 pm

Hi

Thanks for the response. I appreciate it a lot! :-)

But are there sources saying that Olympias wrote harsh letters to Hephaestion? I always figured her as being partial to him...

Alexias
Hetairos (companion)
Posts: 693
Joined: Thu Nov 26, 2009 11:16 am

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Alexias » Tue Feb 05, 2013 1:18 pm

Perhaps the question that needs asking here is (if the letter is genuine) what would Olympias and Hephaestion have had to correspond, and argue, about? Their only common ground would be Alexander and his policies. So, if Olympias is attempting to persuade Alexander to change his mind about something, perhaps she is also attempting to get Hephaestion to attempt to influence him (or maybe blaming Hephaestion in the first place). In which case, if it is a three-way argument, Hephaestion, being completely loyal to Alexander's policies, may be using the royal 'we' in a literal sense ie me and Alexander. Or even writing on Alexander's instruction if Alexander had delegated the task of answering his mother's letters and rebutting her arguments to him.

robbie
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 82
Joined: Mon Oct 22, 2012 12:14 pm

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by robbie » Tue Feb 05, 2013 4:18 pm

Thanks Alexias!

Your reply makes a lot of sense :-)

Probably there wasn't any strife.

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Arethusa33 » Tue Feb 05, 2013 7:36 pm

Hello Robbie,

I really believe that Olympias was a ruthless woman and that she could hate her son's lover as much as she had hated Philip's wives or Antipater or the numerous enemies she had all along her life.

There isn't anything else in the ancient sources about the enmity between Hephaistion and Olympias because as Olympias was not in Asia with him no one could be the witness of a direct altercation between them and also because Hephaistion was not the type to expose his conflicts with his enemies.It was also the reason why Alexander trusted him because he knew that he could keep something secret.

Sometimes Hephaistion could lose his patience like here with Olympias, or in India in his quarrel with Craterus or with Eumenes (the flute-player anecdote).

Anyway, I couldn't understand why he would have used the royal we to talk about himself because he was not conceited and this arrogant answer would not have soothe things between Olympias, himself and Alexander.I imagine him as a tactful man.

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Arethusa33 » Tue Feb 05, 2013 7:40 pm

Hi Alexias,

That's what I thought when I saw Agesilaos' translation. In Paul Goukowsky's(the French translator) and Agesilaos' translations Hephaistion doesn't use the royal "we".It is obviously because he doesn't talk about himself but about him and Alexander.

Only the English translation let us think that Hephaistion used the royal we : "Alexander means more to us than anything"

For a reason unknown to us it was Hephaistion who was the target of Olympias' wrath but in their answer Alexander and Hephaistion spoke with one voice.

agesilaos
Strategos (general)
Posts: 2180
Joined: Mon Sep 09, 2002 2:16 pm
Location: LONDON

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by agesilaos » Tue Feb 05, 2013 10:02 pm

‘καὶ πρὸς ἡμᾶς παύου διαβαλλομένη καὶ μὴχαλέπαινε μηδὲ ἀπείλει: εἰ δὲ μή, μετρίως ἡμῖν μελήσει: οἶδας γὰρ ὅτι Ἀλέξανδρος κρείττων ἁπάντων.’
The eboldened words do mean 'we' and 'us' but I too think that it refers to H and AtG rather than the 'Royal' we or pluralis maiestas form of nosism :shock:
When you think about, it free-choice is the only possible option.

User avatar
marcus
Somatophylax
Posts: 4764
Joined: Fri Aug 16, 2002 6:27 am
Location: Nottingham, England

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by marcus » Tue Feb 05, 2013 10:38 pm

Arethusa33 wrote:... she could hate her son's lover as much as she had hated Philip's wives or Antipater or the numerous enemies she had all along her life ...
I'd have to check this to be sure, but there's no evidence that Olympias hated Philip's wives. Sure, she appears to have manipulated Cleopatra/Eurydice into killing herself, but even that doesn't mean she actually hated the girl herself, merely that she was too dangerous a rival. (OK, that's not strictly true once Philip was dead, and therefore Olympias was perhaps acting out of pure spite; but the point remains that her antipathy towards Cleopatra was due to what Cl. represented, and the challenge that her family might make to Alexander's throne - not due to any personal animosity.)

Even if you won't buy that, there is nothing to suggest that Olympias had any antipathy towards Philip's other five wives.

Also, apart from Antipater, we have no record of her having any other enemies until after Alexander's death, and her main foe then was Antipater's son.

ATB
Marcus
Sine doctrina vita est quasi mortis imago
At Amazon US
At Amazon UK

Alexias
Hetairos (companion)
Posts: 693
Joined: Thu Nov 26, 2009 11:16 am

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Alexias » Tue Feb 05, 2013 10:52 pm

Olympias brought Thessalonike, Philip's daughter by Nicepolis (spelling probably wrong there), up as her own daughter after her mother's death, and Thessalonike was with Olympias when they were captured by Cassander (if I remember correctly). There is no evidence that Olympias hated Philip's other wives. She simply resisted anything that threatened her status as Philip's principal wife by virtue of being the mother of his heir.

User avatar
Arethusa33
Pezhetairos (foot soldier)
Posts: 25
Joined: Tue Nov 22, 2011 4:19 am
Location: Bordeaux, France

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by Arethusa33 » Wed Feb 06, 2013 5:08 pm

agesilaos wrote:
‘καὶ πρὸς ἡμᾶς παύου διαβαλλομένη καὶ μὴχαλέπαινε μηδὲ ἀπείλει: εἰ δὲ μή, μετρίως ἡμῖν μελήσει: οἶδας γὰρ ὅτι Ἀλέξανδρος κρείττων ἁπάντων.’
The eboldened words do mean 'we' and 'us' but I too think that it refers to H and AtG rather than the 'Royal' we or pluralis maiestas form of nosism :shock:
Hello Agesilaos,

The first time I heard of Alexander it was in a biography of him translated in French and during many years I only knew the French translation of the last sentence of the letter.

Later, when I began to read English books I saw that the English translation had nothing to do with the French one and some of Hephaistion's detractors quoted this sentence to say how much he was pretentious to use the Royal "we" to speak to Alexander's mother. Those who liked Hephaistion said that the letter was not genuine.

Of course we can always question the authenticity of any account reported in the ancient sources but I consider that this letter is genuine and the jealousy of Olympias and her threats towards Hephaistion too.It also doesn't surprise me that "we" refers to the 2 friends who rarely disagreed with each other.

"Alexandre est plus puissant que tout le monde" (French translation) or "Alexandre ne se laisse influencer par personne"(my translation in French of your translation from the Greek) , those 2 translations erase the English one which is totally out of context.

agesilaos
Strategos (general)
Posts: 2180
Joined: Mon Sep 09, 2002 2:16 pm
Location: LONDON

Re: Hephaistion's letter to Olympias:2 different interpretat

Post by agesilaos » Wed Feb 06, 2013 6:41 pm

I too doubt the authenticity of the letter; in fact I find them all doubtful, being an arch sceptic and the provenance, probably Kleitarchos' rhetorical production, doesn't improve matters; whether he did any real research is debateable as is the existence of a collection of Hephaistion's letters but even a forgery deserves accurate translation! :lol:
When you think about, it free-choice is the only possible option.

Post Reply