He Saw Alexander the Great

Question: Who was the last to see Alexander, the greatest man of ancient times?

Busts of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion (public domain photo by Neilwiththedeal)

Answer: The Emperor Augustus, according to the Roman biographer Suetonius.

But how could that be? Augustus lived three hundred years later.

  Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Civica, on display in the Musei Capitolini, Rome (public domain photo)

This way:
Augustus was in Egypt. He had just won the last battle, Actium, in his war against Mark Anthony and had chased and caught up with him in Alexandria. Cornered, Anthony told Augustus: “I think we could come to an understanding.”
“I don’t,” said Augustus. And he told Anthony to make his exit like a good Roman.

Anthony’s lover Cleopatra knew that Augustus wanted her very badly too. As yet another lover? No; as the star in chains of the triumph parade he was planning for Rome. So she decided to avoid that humiliation by making her exit like a good Cleopatra: with a snake—the famous asp. Augustus discovered her still warm and called in specialists to try to extract the poison and save her. But they were too late.

While he was in Alexandria, putting things in order, making Egypt into a better supplier of grain for Rome, the locals asked him if he’d like to see Alexander the Great.

This is how Suetonius puts it:

augustus views alexander's cadaver“…having placed before him the sarcophagus and the body of Alexander the Great, which was taken out of its tomb, [Augustus] honored him with a golden crown which he placed on his head and covered him with flowers….” (Suetonius, Life of Augustus, chapter XVIII)

“Do you want to see Ptolomeo, too?” the Egyptians asked. “We can show you him.”
“That’s enough,” said Augustus “I came to Egypt to see a king, not the dead.”


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8 Responses to He Saw Alexander the Great

  1. 100swallows says:

    Thanks, Rrishi, I had never heard either of those stories and they are curious and memorable. I’d say an old body preserved in honey is still pretty ghoulish: did Alexander’s nose stick to Augustus’s cheek?

  2. Rrishi says:

    Then there’s that excellent but probably apocryphal (right?) story that Augustus knocked off Alexander’s nose when he bent to kiss the corpse, and also — second beloved fact — that the body was embalmed in honey. Now THAT’s why the old historians were the best, they wrote these things down!

    Gosh, what an experience it must have been to see the conqueror like that — much less ghoulish than the Mao and Lenin displays (yuck) in Beijing and Moscow.

  3. Pingback: The Alexander Sarcophagus « The Best Artists

  4. mike says:

    madame monet: It seems like you have confused Gaius Gracchus’s fate with that of Marcus Linius Crassus. Gracchus commited suicide rather than face the senate. Crassus who wanted to match the military success of Alexander the Great, decided to attack Parthia. Upon his defeat, his soldiers urged him to parley which resulted in the Parthians removing his head and hands. His head was sent to the court of the Armenian king who he had slighted and various versions include the hollowing out of the head which was filled with lead or gold. If something was done to his head aside from it being removed, it was likely, according to dio cassius’ account(a couple hundred years later) that molten gold was poured into his mouth. One gruesome story claims he was made to drink the molten gold, thus killing him for his greed.

  5. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: No, I don’t know that story. How terrible! Where does it come from?

  6. Madame Monet says:

    Thanks for the interesting clarification.

    I was reading another story this past week, and was wondering if you’d heard it. Whoever killed Gaius Gracchus (I didn’t take care to remember the killer’s name, but it was in a battle) cut off his head, scooped out his brains, filled the empty cavity with molten lead, and carried it back to whoever in Rome had wanted Gaius’ head. The killer threw the lead weight on a scale and was paid in gold the same weight. Do you know this story?

    Madame Monet

  7. 100swallows says:

    Madame Monet: Julius was lover one. Cleopatra had his baby, people said, and she named him Caesarion.
    Mark Anthony was lover two.
    No lover three.
    Augustus (Octavio), much younger than any of them, fought a war with Anthony and beat him, then caught up with him in Egypt, where he had fled. Augustus’s only interest in Cleopatra was as a captured enemy. He wanted to take her back to Rome in chains for his victory parade.
    Suetonius says Augustus had Caesar’s son, Caesarion, murdered.

  8. Madame Monet says:

    Well from what I have been reading this past week (we’re doing a unit on the Romans in Grade 3, and I’ve been doing a bit of reading), Cleopatra was apparently the lover of Julius Caesar? But was this before or after Mark Anthony? So, was Augustus Caesar also in here? I was surprised at two, but am even more surprised at three.

    Madame Monet
    Writing, Painting, Music, and Wine

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