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Harpalus, son of Machatas

Harpalus, son of Machatas, was possibly the son of one of Philip II’s wives (Athenaeus 13.557c). His father and uncle (or perhaps a cousin) were clearly on intimate terms with Philip—Plutarch tells stories about them that attest to their relationship with the king (Moralia 178f-179a).

He was one of the young men appointed as mentors of the young prince Alexander (along with Ptolemy, Nearchus, Erigyius and Laomedon). He, however, appears to have suffered from some form of physical ailment, which prevented him from entering into the traditional male pursuits of hunting and arms (Arr. 3.6.6). He was one of those banished by Philip after the Pixodarus affair, in which Alexander compromised Philip’s plans for a dynastic marriage with the ruler of Caria (Arr. 3.6.5; Pl. Alex. 10.1-3). After Philip’s death the exiles were recalled and were rewarded—Harpalus was made Alexander’s treasurer (Arr. 3.6.6).

In 333 BC, however, shortly before the battle of Issus, Harpalus absconded with a friend, Tauriscus, about whom nothing is known. He went to Greece and hid for a time in the Megarid; before finding his way back to Alexander, a pardon, and reinstatement (Arr. 3.6.4-7). The reason for his flight is not known: suggested explanations have included that he was, in fact, on a spying mission; that he had been replaced as treasurer; or, more feasibly, that he was alarmed by Alexander’s illness at Tarsus, or that he did not think that Alexander could defeat Darius. It is also possible that the flight in some way involved Alexander’s brother-in-law and uncle, Alexander of Epirus for, while Harpalus stayed in Greece, Tauriscus travelled to the Epirote king in Italy, where he died.

In 331 BC, therefore, Harpalus rejoined Alexander and resumed his role as treasurer. After Gaugamela and the sojourns in Babylon, Susa and Persepolis, he stayed in Ecbatana with the treasury, while Alexander pursued Darius (Arr. 3.19.7). From there he played a role in the provisioning of the army as it continued east: he provided men and equipment, and books for the king (QC 9.3.21. Pl. Alex. 8.2-3 lists some of the books he sent to the king).

At some point Harpalus transferred his seat to Babylon, where he became infamous for his profligate lifestyle—lavish dinners with imported delicacies, and a virile sex-life (Diod. 17.108.4). He took up with a famous Athenian courtesan, Pythionike, upon whom he lavished money and presents (Diod. 17.108.5; Paus. 1.37.5), and even worshipped as a goddess after she died. He replaced her with Glycera, another Athenian, whom he set up as a queen in Tarsus (Athenaeus 13.586b–d, 594d–596b). Less salaciously, he planted gardens and experimented with growing Greek plants in the environs on Babylon (Pl. Alex. 35.7-8; Mor. 648c-d; Pliny, NH, 16.144).

When Alexander returned from India, Harpalos realised that he had taken too many liberties and fled again. Although Alexander was much less tolerant now, he still reacted badly when he heard about his friend’s disappearance, and accused of slander the men who had come with the news (Pl. Alex. 41.8). The fugitive went to Athens, bringing with him thirty ships, 6,000 mercenaries, and 5,000 talents (Diod. 17.108.6; QC 10.2.1). He tried to raise the Athenians into rebellion, but found his attempts frustrated. Despite attempts to bribe certain Athenians, including Demosthenes, he was imprisoned and his money was confiscated. He escaped and eventually found his way to Crete, where he was killed by Thibron (Diod. 17.108.8, 18.19.2; Pl. Dem. 25, Mor. 846A–847C; QC. 10.2.3; Arr. Succ. 1.16; Pausanias 2.33.3-5; see also Just. 13.5).

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