The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, and Alexander the Great

Johann_Georg_Platzer_-_Thalestris_im_Lager_Alexander_des_Großen (1)

Alexander’s campaigns in 330 BCE brought him around the Black Sea, where he received many emissaries from tribal leaders negotiating peace, surrender, or joint military campaigns. One of those emissaries is said to be representing Thalestris, a supposed Amazon warrior-queen with the intent to carry Alexander’s child in her belly. According to the legend, Thalestris strode boldly into Alexander’s camp with a company of 300 women dressed as warriors, and suggested the great Macedonian King mate with her in order to provide a strong child worthy of both well-accomplished leaders.

The reliability of this account was circumspect even to early authors of the tale. Plutarch, in Lives (46-119 C.E.) quotes Alexander’s General, Lysimachus, as saying “Where could I have been at that time?” when he was given an account of the supposed encounter, indicating that no one believed the fantastical tale of the Amazon warrior-queen and Alexander. Arrian, in The Campaigns of Alexander (146 C.E.), mentioned the story, but also discounts the tale, stating that the Amazons had all vanished long before the reign of Alexander the Great.

However, the tale has been passed down to us today as an account of Alexander’s prowess and magnificence. The identity of the Amazon Queen has intrigued both modern and ancient writers, as historians try to work out why this tale has been included within the ancient writings.

In a 2001 journal article “Alexander and the Amazons,” Elizabeth Baynham presented the argument that Thalestris is actually a daughter of a Scythian king who was presented to Alexander as a condition of treaty, and that her 300 female warriors were a gift to Alexander’s generals. Baynham argued that since Alexander sent the 300 females away with the intent to protect them from abuse by his own army, Alexander did not view this female escort to be a legitimate force. Baynham argued that true female warriors would be able to take care of themselves and would not have needed Alexander’s protection. She stated that these were most likely prostitutes sent by the Scythian king to please Alexander’s men, dressed up in play-armor and taught how to ride for Alexander’s amusement.

Another argument for a likely tale of the Amazon Queen was presented in 2015 by Adrienne Mayor. In “When Alexander met Thalestris” Adrienne stated that there were nomadic raiders near the Black Sea that sometimes banded together in same-gender groups. Mayor stated that often, the strongest female warriors would be sent out to find the strongest male warriors and mate with them, producing strong offspring to carry on their traditions. These groups often had similar custody arrangements that Thalestris arranged with Alexander, that the resulting female child would remain with the mother however, if the child was a male he would be sent back to be raised by the father. Adrienne pointed to recent archeological evidence to prove her point, consisting of graves of females adorned with weapons and grave goods that included drawings of armed women on horseback.

Whether the Amazon Queen was the daughter of a Scythian king or a nomadic raider in her own right, the enchanting tale of Thalestris and Alexander the Great delights the ear of all who hear this fantastic tale. The more cultural implications of these conflicting viewpoints have been lost to time, though it is clear from the skeptical tone of the contemporary writers that the story may have been nothing more than a propaganda tale showing Alexander’s greatness and glory.

Bibliography

Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey De Selincourt. London: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Baynham, Elizabeth. “Alexander and the Amazons.” The Classical Quarterly 51, no. 01 (July 2001): 115-126.

Mayor, Adrienne. “When ALexander met Thalestris.” History Today 65, no. 1 (January 2015): 10-17.

Plazer, Johann Georg. “The Amazon Queen, Thalestris, in the camp of Alexander the Great.” Christie’s. sale 7609. London: Wikimedia Commons, 2008.

Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. Translated by Dryden. Vol. 2. New York: A. L. Burt Company, n.d.

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