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Cleitus, "the Black", son of Dropidas

Cleitus, son of Dropidas, known as ‘The Black’, was one of the ‘old guard’ Macedonians, who had fought with distinction in many campaigns under Philip (QC 8.1.20). He was also close to Alexander, being the brother of the king’s nurse, Lanice (or Hellanice) (see, eg. Arr. 4.9.3; QC 8.2.8-9).

At the beginning of Alexander’s campaign Cleitus was already an experienced officer, and held a place of pride – as commander of the royal squadron of the Companions (the agema). We find he in this position at Gaugamela (Arr. 3.11.8; QC 4.13.26; Diod. 17.57.1) and although the sources don’t mention him holding that position at Issus, we can assume that the command was his, not least because of his position at the Granicus. In that first battle Cleitus was riding close to Alexander in the charge, which suggests that he was at the head of the agema. During the fight, when Alexander was threatened by a succession of Persian dignitaries, Cleitus was near enough to save Alexander’s life. One of the enemy – Spithridates in Arrian and Plutarch (Arr. 1.15.8; Pl ‘Alex’ 50.6), Rhoesaces in Diodorus (17.20.6-7) – came up on the king’s rear and was on the point of cutting down at him when Cleitus sheared off his arm. There is no doubt that, had he not been there, the expedition (and Alexander’s life) would have finished within days of its start.

We don’t hear much more of Cleitus’ military activity, although he clearly continued to perform his captaincy of the agema with distinction. He was left behind in Susa, suffering from an illness; but when he rejoined the army at Ecbatana in early 330BC Alexander put him in charge of a substantial portion of the army, ordering him to take these men to the rendezvous in Parthia (Arr. 3.19.8). After the death of Philotas, later that year, Cleitus was given joint command of the entire Companion cavalry, alongside Hephaestion. His appointment is explained by Arrian as being a direct result of the concerns that Philotas’ supposed conspiracy had raised – that he didn’t want Hephaestion to have sole command of such a large body of experienced fighters (Arr. 3.27.4). It has also been seen as a sop to the Macedonian old-guard, who themselves would have been alarmed by the deaths of Philotas and Parmenion – a way for Alexander to show that he was not about to dispense with the services of all of Philip’s veterans; and it has also been suggested that Hephaestion was not a good enough commander to be able to lead the Companions on his own, requiring the assistance of an experienced cavalry commander. All of these reasons might be true, and are not mutually exclusive; and Cleitus clearly did his job well enough, playing a key role in the subjugation of the seven cities at the Jaxartes (Arr. 4.2.5-6 – although Cleitus and Hephaestion are not mentioned by name as the commanders of the cavalry, we must assume they were).

But Cleitus was not entirely happy with the way things turned out, still less with the way Alexander was turning out. Things came to a head in Maracanda, in 328BC, during a banquet where the wine, it appears, was both strong and plentiful.

The sources do not agree completely on the incident, except in the main facts. Arrian tells us that it was a day when Dionysus was honoured but that, for some inexplicable reason, Alexander chose to sacrifice to the Dioscuri rather than to Dionysus. During the banquet some of Alexander’s flatterers began to compare him favourably to the Dioscuri, and then to Heracles; which prompted Cleitus’ outburst (Arr. 4.8.1-3). Curtius says that Alexander, wine-sodden, was boasting of his exploits to that he irritated even “those of his audience who accepted the truth of his statements” – he might, of course, have been comparing himself with the Dioscuri and Heracles, although Curtius doesn’t explicitly say that he was (QC 8.1.22). Justin's account is similar to that of Curtius, except that he states explicitly that Alexander extolled his own achievements to the detriment of Philip’s (Justin 12.6). Plutarch mentions that Alexander sacrificed to the Dioscuri, but adds also that Cleitus had not completed his own sacrifice when he was summoned by the king, which gave everyone a frisson of concern, as it was considered a bad omen; and that, during the banquet, some of the younger companions began to sing a scurrilous song that belittled some Macedonians who had been massacred by Spitamenes earlier in the season (Pl. ‘Alex’ 50.2-4). (NB: The incident is missing from Diodorus, receiving only a mention in the contents of Book 17.)

Whatever the exact circumstances that precipitated the argument, at this point Cleitus took umbrage, and took advantage of the wine and his position to speak his mind. Again, the sources are not unanimous on the arguments that he used, although they all come down to the same thing in the end:-

Arrian: Cleitus first admonishes the flatterers for belittling the Dioscuri and Heracles, and declares that their behaviour isn’t doing Alexander any favours. He then says that Alexander’s deeds were not as great as everyone makes out; and anyway, they were the Macedonians’ achievements, not Alexander’s alone. The flatterers then belittle Philip’s achievements, at which Cleitus defends the old king and scorns Alexander’s deeds; and he reminds Alexander that he owes his life to Cleitus. (Arr. 4.8.4-7)

Curtius: Although Cleitus begins by condemning the extolling of Alexander’s achievements over those of Philip, he goes off onto a different vein, by defending Parmenion – clearly a sore point with Alexander, who had had him killed. Then he accuses Alexander of trying to sideline him, even after he saved the king’s life, by exiling him to the satrapy of Sogdia. He maintains that, had it not been for Philip’s veterans, the expedition would not have come as far as it has. The final straw comes when he criticises Alexander’s murder of Attalus (at the beginning of his reign), and disparages his veneration of the oracle of Ammon.

Justin: Cleitus defends the memory of Philip, and praises his achievements.

Plutarch: It wasn’t right for the young men to make fun of the officers who had been killed, especially not in front of the barbarian guests. When Alexander retorts with a cutting remark, Cleitus reminds him that he saved his life at the Granicus; then accuses him of disowning Philip with his insistence that he is the son of Ammon. He objects to Alexander’s Medising, and the use of Persian court ceremonial; and finally indicates that the free speech that had previously existed at the Macedonian court has disappeared now that Alexander has adopted Persian dress. (Pl. ‘Alex’ 50-51.)

By now the banquet had deteriorated into a shouting match, as Alexander lost his temper and tried to shout Cleitus down, or order him from the feast. Despite the discrepancies in the sources, it seems clear that Alexander tried to grab a weapon – either a spear or a knife – but with quick thinking his bodyguards disarmed him; and the guards actually had to hold Alexander back while others tried to remove Cleitus from the hall. Once again there are different versions of what happens next – in Curtius Alexander grabbed a spear and stormed out of the hall, lying in wait for Cleitus when he left; in Justin he grabbed a spear and stabbed Cleitus there and then; in Plutarch Cleitus was hustled from the room but returned with a final taunt, at which point Alexander killed him; while Arrian tells two stories – those of both Justin and Plutarch – showing that the version in Plutarch came ultimately from Aristobulus. So Curtius assigns more premeditation to the murder than the other sources, while the others cast more blame on Cleitus.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the killing of Cleitus was unforgivable, and Alexander appears to have felt true remorse, especially because of his ‘familial’ link with the dead man through his nurse, Cleitus’ sister. It was one of the darkest points of Alexander’s career, and was clearly of great concern to the army, stuck in hostile territory: so much so that, according to Curtius, the entire army declared the killing justified and even attempted to deny Cleitus a proper funeral.

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