Alexander the Great’s Murder of Cleitus the Black

As one studies the campaigns of Alexander the Great, it quickly becomes apparent that Alexander was not alone as a great commander in the Macedonian army. Many other superb officers, such as Parmenio, Antigonos, Philotas, and Ptolemy, all provided Alexander with exceptional leadership. Without their help, Alexander certainly could not have succeeded in conquering Asia. All of Alexander’s generals were committed to the conquest, and all were ready and willing to follow their king. However, by the time the Macedonian army reached Samarkand, there was a growing disunion between the “old guard” of the army, veterans of Philip and staunch believers in the Macedonian way of life, and Alexander, who had begun to embrace, in the eyes of the old guard, too many of the eastern ideas of autocracy. As Alexander experimented with and delved into deification, the veterans of Philip began to grumble, and as Alexander practiced such non-Macedonian rituals as prostration and Oriental rites of kingship, the old guard grumbled even more. Perhaps it was the assassination of Parmenio that finally led Cleitus the Black to speak out in defense of the old Macedonian ways and to try and put Alexander in his place, or possibly it was Alexander’s shuffling of old guard commanders to lesser outposts. Whatever the case, when Alexander murdered Cleitus the Black, the concerns of the old guard came to their culmination, and their roles in the Macedonian army were made explicitly clear.

Little is known of Cleitus before the murder. Peter Green, in his book Alexander of Macedon 356-323, notes that Cleitus was the son of Dropides, and the brother of Alexander’s nurse, Lanice, and that Alexander considered him as almost a brother (41). Arthur Weigall, in his book Alexander the Great, calls Cleitus one of Alexander’s earliest heros (32). Plutarch points out that Cleitus was a “man of great bravery” and that his name “the Black” was used to distinguish him from Cleitus the White, an infantry commander in the Macedonian army (41). As far as Cleitus’s physical appearance, nothing is known. Using Plutarch, it is possible to guess that Cleitus was probably slightly older than Alexander, since he fought with Philip while Alexander was still young, and possibly his name can provide a clue as to his coloring, but nothing is certain.
There are certain episodes that document Cleitus within the Macedonian army in Asia. The most famous of these is when Cleitus saved Alexander’s life at the Granicus, a fact Cleitus would remind Alexander of at his death. Green writes that Alexander was attacked by Rhosaces, a Persian noble cavalryman, and Rhosaces managed to cleave Alexander’s winged helmet. Alexander’s helmet was split to the scalp, but he still managed to dispatch Rhosaces with his sword (178). However, according to Arrian, Spithridates, brother of Rhosaces, approached Alexander from behind and prepared to run him through with his scimitar, but Cleitus, in the nick of time, cut Spithridates arm off at the shoulder, leaving the limb still holding the sword on the ground, Alexander fainted, and Cleitus defended his body until the Macedonian cavalry arrived to save the king (178).

Certain other military appointments are noted sparingly, but none with so much dramatic effect as Cleitus’s rescue of Alexander. A.B. Bosworth writes in his book Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great that Cleitus began in Asia as a “hipparch” of the “ile”, or a cavalier in the famous companion cavalry (103, 269). Weigall remarks that Cleitus was one of Alexander’s most trusted commanders (252), and that he was second in command to Parmenio at the Granicus (129). Arrian notes that Cleitus was in command of the lead squadron at Alexander’s right at the battle of Gaugamela (165), and Arrian and Green write of Cleitus’s command of some of Parmenio’s divisions in the pursuit of Darius (Arrian, 181, Green 323). And Arrian also notes that after Parmenio was left behind, Alexander split command of the companion cavalry between Cleitus and one of Alexander’s favorites, Hephastion (193). Perhaps Cleitus feared for his own position, seeing Parmenio, in effect, deranked and the young Hephastion elevated to equal status. In fact, Green writes that the only reason Alexander gave command at all of the companions to Cleitus was to appease the old guard (348). It is quite possible that the assassination of Parmenio, which had occurred by the time of the murder, combined with the appointment of Hephastion, influenced Cleitus’s decision, however inebriated it was, to speak out. Neverthless, since the sources are so sparse on Cleitus before his death, it is difficult to draw any strong conclusions from Cleitus’s past as to why he chose to aggravate Alexander to the point of assassination.

Chronicling the events leading up to and the actual murder of Cleitus the Black is a difficult task. All of the sources, both secondary and primary, point out differing, and sometimes opposing details. Some biographers cite the general intoxication at the banquet, not uncommon in the Macedonian camp, as the culprit, writing that Alexander had a propensity to brag. As Plutarch writes,

“Under the influence of drink he became unpleasant,
because of the airs he gave himself, and acted like a
bragging soldier; for not only was he himself carried
away into making boastful claims, but he allowed
himself to be ridden by flatters.” (Hamilton, 60).

Plutarch and others feel that this combination of Alexander’s inebriated character combined with Cleitus’s drunken, angry state caused Cleitus to make comments that, according to Arrian, he should have kept to himself (214). Almost all of the biographers blame Alexander’s flatterers, saying they urged Alexander on by proclaiming his divinity. Arrian writes that it was Alexander’s flatterers, more than anything else, that angered Cleitus (214), but Arrian also writes that Cleitus had “for some time past had quite obviously depreciated the change in Alexander” (214). It was probably a combination of flattery, simple anger, and fear for the Macedonian traditions that enraged Cleitus. As Green notes, however, Alexander may well have fueled the flames himself to try and get the issue into the open. Green suggests that Alexander was not nearly as drunk as he appeared to be, but chose his replies carefully, with the intent of urging Cleitus on to speaking the true feelings of the old guard (361).

The sources contradict each other in more minute details also. Guessing at who tried to calm Alexander, or who restrained Cleitus. Even a detail as small as the apple thrown by Alexander is in question. Green has Alexander throwing the apple and missing (363), while Weigall writes that Alexander struck Cleitus right on the head with the apple (263). Alexander’s calling of the guard is called into question, Green noting that the trumpeter wisely refused (363), while Arrian writes that the trumpeter was simply too slow for Alexander, who struck him to the floor (215). Despite the disagreement over who did what, who said what to whom, and in what order did it all take place, it is possible to create a reasonably close reenactment of what was done and said at the banquet, and through the direct quotes, it is easy to conclude that Cleitus’s murder was indeed the last stand of the old guard. In the words of Pierre Jouguet, from his book Macedonian Imperialism and the Hellenization of the East, Alexander killed Cleitus “for the crime of setting Philip’s glory above his own.” (41)
According to Green, the army was at Samarkand, preparing to embark into India (41). Weigall guesses that the month was probably September, of 331 BC (262). Arrian writes that the banquet was to celebrate the festival of Dionysus, however, Alexander instead sacrificed to Castor and Polydueces, sons of Zeus, for reasons all his own (214). Green suggests that the banquet was at least in part to honor Cleitus, who had been appointed as governor of Bactria, who was leaving the next day for that “hazardous and responsible post” (361). Perhaps Cleitus felt he was being left behind, like Parmenio. Weigall writes that Alexander may have been anxiuos to get rid of Cleitus (262), and Plutarch notes that Alexander may have wished to be rid of Cleitus because showed a lack of enthusiasm for Alexander’s plans (140). Whatever the case, Cleitus received Alexander’s summons before he had sacrificed, and went straight to Alexander’s tent with, as Green writes, the sacrificial lambs in tow (549). On the topic of mysticism, it is interesting to note that Alexander had previously described a dream in which he saw the sons of Parmenio and Cleitus all dead and dressed in funeral garb (Weigall, 262). As Arrian writes, Cleitus’s failure to sacrifice upset Alexander enough that upon Cleitus’s arrival he had the sacrifices made for him (214). So Cleitus entered the banquet as an honored guest, and proceeded, as everyone else did, to drink incredible amounts of alcohol.

At this point, some of Alexander’s flatterers began to compare him, favorably, with the Dioscuri and Hercules himself. According to Arrian, Cleitus took great offense to the flattery, considering it blasphemy to compare Alexander with the Gods (214). Alexander boasted, either out of inebriation or to provoke Cleitus further, and his admirers chimed in with him, saying that Philip’s conquests were nothing compared to Alexander’s (Green, 361). Green writes that Cleitus then said that all of Alexander’s successes were due to the Macedonian army and Philip, saying that Philip’s achievements were far greater than Alexander’s, and Alexander replied by pointing out the battle of Chaeronea, where Alexander had saved Philip’s life, only to have Philip downplay Alexander’s contributions (Green, 361). Cleitus then rated Philip’s victories “higher than the present victories” and defended Parmenio, saying that Alexander depended on Parmenio’s veterans (Green, 361). At this point in the argument, as Green quotes Curtius, the confrontation was not between Cleitus and Alexander, but between “nationalism against orietnalizing policy, simplicity against sophistication,” and “free speech against…conformism” (362). Alexander continued to provoke, calling upon, according to Green, a Greek singer who poked fun at several Macedonian commanders who were present and had recently been defeated against the Persian Spitamenes (362). Cleitus replied to this satirical song by saying that it was wrong to “insult Macedonians who were far better men than those who laughed at them, even though they had met with misfortune” (Green, 362). Alexander provoked further, saying that cowardice did not equal misfortune. This implication of cowardice, according to Plutarch, “struck Cleitus like a whiplash” (141). At this point, Arrian has Cleitus bringing up the Granicus, and saying “This was the hand that saved you, Alexander, on that day” (215), and according to Arrian the further events were rushed through. However, Green quotes Cleitus as saying,

“It was my cowardice, as you call it, that saved your
life at the Granicus. It is by the blood of the
Macedonians, and these wounds of ours, that you have risen
so high- disavowing Philip, claiming Ammon as your father…” (Green, 362).
Alexander replied, angered, and perhaps, according to Plutarch, he sensed some kind of conspiracy (143).
“That’s how talk about me the whole time, isn’t it? That’s
what causes all this bad blood between the Macedonians.
You needn’t think you’re going to get away with it.”
(Green, 363)

Cleitus, thoroughly enraged, shot back,
“Look, Alexander, [Addressing Alexander by his proper name, angering Alexander even further] we don’t get away with it
even now. What rewards have we for our labors? Those who
died are the luckiest- they never lived to Macedonians
thrashed with Median rods, or kow-towing to Persians before
they could have an audience with their own king.”
(Green, 363).

A.B. Bosworth suggests in his book From Arrian to Alexander that Cleitus remarked on Alexander’s garb, who was, as Arrian wrote, “dressed up and moulded like a barbarian idol” (145). According to Green, Alexander then leaned towards some Greek courtiers and whispered, “Don’t you feel that Greeks go about Macedonians like demi-gods among wild beasts?” (Green, 363). Plutarch writes that this whispering made Cleitus remark that Alexander should speak his mind out loud, and that being told what to do enraged Alexander to the point of violence (142). Alexander threw an apple at Cleitus, which either hit or missed. Weigall writes that Cleitus then mocked the oracle of Siwa, one of Alexander’s eastern mysticisms (263). Alexander then reached for his sword, which had prudently been removed by a bodyguard when the argument started, again, Alexander suspected treachery on a grand scale, perhaps seeing an assassination plot (Plutarch, 143). Alexander compared himself to Darius, betrayed by his own men, which could not have eased Cleitus at all (Weigall, 263). Alexander called for the guard, but the trumpeter, whether too slow or too smart, refrained long enough for Alexander to strike him unconscious.

However, as the struggle became violent, with Alexander’s closest friends Perdicass, Lysimachus, and Leonnatus grabbing a spear from Alexander’s hand and holding him down and Ptolemy rushing Cleitus out of the tent (Green, 364), Arrian quotes not Alexander, but Cleitus saying,

“What? Have I nothing left of royalty but the name?
Am I to be like Darius, dragged in chains by Bessus
and his cronies?” (215).

At this point, the sources split apart. Weigall has Alexander ordering everyone out of the tent, then calling Cleitus back and thrusting a spear through him the instant he parted the curtains (264). Arrian writes that Alexander did not order everyone out of the room, but called Cleitus back, who did not break free from Ptolemy but was allowed to go back, and entered with “I am here…” as Alexander threw a spear through him (216). Finally, according to Green, Cleitus broke free from Ptolemy, stormed back into the tent, and quoted Euripides “Andromache”: “Alas, what evil government in Hellas!” This quote was part of a longer speech on the egos of generals and the praises of the actual soldiers (364). Alexander then grabbed a spear from one of the guards, and ran Cleitus through (Green, 364). However the events occurred, Cleitus was now dead, and Alexander had made it perfectly clear that his statements were not going to be tolerated. Green quotes Curtius that for the Macedonian army, this was “the end of freedom” (366). It was, at least, the end of the old guard and their concepts of how Alexander should act as king.

There are also varying accounts of Alexander’s reaction to Cleitus’s death. All of the sources say Alexander kneeled at the body and called out Cleitus’s name several times, but Weigall has Alexander preparing to impale himself on his own spear only to be stopped by his returning guards (264). Arrian presents Alexander incredibly remorseful, asking someone to hold his weapon so that he could kill himself, then being talked out of it and mourning for three days without food or water for three days (216). Green suggests that Alexander did indeed consider suicide, honestly grieved over killing Cleitus, and mourned for thirty-six hours (364).

The army believed that Cleitus had been killed for treason, but everyone who was present at the banquet knew that Cleitus had been killed for trying to defend the old, simple, Macedonian way of kingship. All of Alexander’s officers now knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Alexander’s conquests were not Macedonian campaigns, but part of Alexander’s grander, divine plans. It is difficult to precisely chronicle exactly what transpired during the fateful banquet, since as Bosworth writes, the episode is often glossed over by many historians, but through the quotes available as to what was actually said, it is easy to conclude that whether Alexander or Cleitus realized it in their drunken states, they were deciding the place of the old guard and their values in the future of Alexander’s conquests and the events after Alexander’s death.

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