Thalestris (fl. 334 BCE)

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Thalestris (fl. 334 bce)

Legendary Amazon queen who is reported to have visited Alexander the Great in Hyrcania in order conceive a child with him. Name variations: Minythyia. Possibly flourished around in 334 bce.

Thalestris (whose name is based on a Greek word meaning "the despoiler") was a legendary Amazon queen who is also known by the name of Minythyia. Justin (12.3.5–8) alleges that Thalestris visited Alexander III the Great in Hyrcania (northern Iran) as he was in the process of conquering the Persian Empire. She is reported to have traveled 25 days with 300 attendants through populous lands so as to meet the famous Macedonian king and conceive a child with him. Justin mentions that Alexander's retinue was astonished both by her military attire and the purpose of her visit. Further, Justin states that Alexander rested his army for 13 days so as to honor Thalestris' request, only renewing the attack upon Persia after Thalestris—convinced that she was pregnant by the famous conqueror—departed.

Justin's story is based on the discredited account of Onesicratus, a philosopher-pilot-writer who accompanied Alexander on his eastern expedition. Hoping to ingratiate himself with Lysimachus, one of Alexander's generals and political successors, after Alexander the Great's death, Onesicratus read to Lysimachus the passage from his book which detailed Thalestris' visit to Hyrcania, after which Lysimachus (who had been at Alexander's side when the great king had been in Hyrcania) sneeringly replied, "And where was I at the time?"

Although the episode is ahistorical, its fame as an anecdote grew, and in the process at least one version of the tale reported that Thalestris was an Illyrian. The repetition of Thalestris' story illuminates some important attitudes common to the Greeks in antiquity. First, the episode underscores the transcendence of Alexander's literary figure over his historical reality (a process which accelerated after the Roman conquest of Greece, but which had begun even before Alexander died). Alexander became a hero for whom nothing was impossible—he could journey to the bottom of the sea, travel to the moon, and even produce children by the semi-civilized queen of a primitive society of women when she came begging him to do so. As such, he became the archetypical Greek, capable of accomplishing anything and taming all lesser species.

Second, as an Amazon, Thalestris represented to the Greeks a perverse social order (one not embracing urban settlement) in which women not only dominated the culture, but actually assumed what were considered by the Greeks to be masculine social roles. Among other things, these included assuming the duties of a soldier and taking the initiative in sexual relations. The Amazons thus represented a threat to the Greek notion of ordered life. Alexander's ability to "tame" the queen of the Amazons functioned as proof that the Greek way of life was superior to exotic alternatives (just as Alexander's conquest of Persia "proved" that the Greeks were superior to the Persians).

Third, Thalestris' identification as an Illyrian could produce a similar result. Like the Amazons, the Illyrians posed a threat to Greek order, insofar as they all too frequently pillaged Greek lands (see Teuta). Also like the Amazons, the Illyrians did not live in cities. Since they "glorified" war without balancing that activity with the more humane pursuits thought available only in cities, they joined the Amazons in representing to the Greeks a more primitively organized society. This "inferiority" was reinforced in the Greek mind because Illyrian women were allowed greater freedoms than, it was thought, would ever be permitted in any polis (ironically, this was not so for the kingdom of Macedon, but by the time these stories circulated the more sophisticated Greeks of the city-state—having appropriated Alexander as one of their own—did not care to remember that he was not the product of the polis). We know, for example, that Illyrian women trained for war, participated in politics, and had greater sexual freedom than did Greek women. It is therefore not surprising that Thalestris became associated with an Illyrian background. Since this "Illyrian" had (in Onesicratus' story) acknowledged the superiority of the Greek Alexander by trekking to visit him, she provided yet another reaffirmation that Hellenic culture as personified by Alexander was superior to foreign alternatives—even though the foreigners in question could pose a very real threat to the health and well-being of historical Greeks.

sources:

Plutarch. Life of Alexander.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California