Print this page

Aristander, the seer

Aristander was from Telmessus in Lycia, and appears in Alexander’s history as the chief soothsayer, diviner and interpreter of dreams at the Macedonian court. We hear that he was the seer that Alexander trusted the most (eg. QC IV.6.12; V.4.1-3), which is hardly surprising as he was known to have made many correct predictions, at least sometimes at variance to the divinings of his professional competition (Arr. I.11.2; Pl. ‘Alex’, 2.2-3). Perhaps there was some truth in what was said about the Telmessians, that they were “skilled in the interpretation of prodigies …” – so much so that it was to their land that Gordius went to have his dream interpreted (Arr. II.3.1-4)!

Aristander’s skill can also be attested by the fact that he was clearly a long-term fixture at the Macedonian court. He was certainly not the only seer entertained by Philip, but he was on hand to make the (correct) interpretation of Philip’s dream about Olympias’ pregnancy with Alexander (Pl. ‘Alex’, 2.2-3). When Alexander ascended the throne he kept Aristander on (possibly on the strength of the aforementioned prophecy!), and he proved his worth in 334BC, when the statue of Orpheus at Pieria began to sweat. He predicted glory for Alexander, again at variance to the interpretations of the other seers, and no doubt thereby earned his bread, many times over! (Arr. I.11.2; Pl. ‘Alex’, 14.5).

Aristander performed three functions for Alexander. The first was to assist with the king’s daily sacrifices (and those called for on special occasions), and to interpret the status of the sacrificial beasts. Interestingly enough, relatively few of his predictions that are recorded come from his performance of this function: at Tyre (Pl. ‘Alex’ 25.1-2), and at the Jaxartes (Arr. IV.4.3; QC VII.7.20-29). We do hear of other sacrifices he carried out, but not of his accompanying predictions (eg. at Gaugamela - Pl. ‘Alex’, 31.4).

His second function, as an interpreter of other prodigies and omens, provides the majority of his prophecies. As well as the interpretation of the sweating statue of Orpheus already mentioned, he interprets omens at Tyre (QC IV.2.14), Gaza (Arr. II.26.4; QC IV.6.11-13; Pl. ‘Alex’, 25.3-4), Alexandria (Arr. III.2.2), Gaugamela (Arr. III.7.6; QC IV.13.15-16, 15.26-27; Pl. ‘Alex’, 33.2), and in Bactria/Sogdiana (Arr. IV.15.7-8; Pl. ‘Alex’, 50.3).

Aristander’s third function was as an interpreter of dreams. We have already seen how he got into Philip’s (or Alexander’s) good books with his interpretation of Philip’s dream about Olympias; but he also interprets Alexander’s dreams about Alexander of Lyncestis (Arr. I.25.7-8), Tyre (Arr. II.18.1), and Cleitus (Pl. ‘Alex’, 52.1).

There is no doubt that Alexander was superstitious, and that he relied upon Aristander’s prophecies. However, neither of them was above helping the gods when it suited them. When Aristander sacrificed at Tyre, according to Plutarch (op. cit.) he predicted that the city would fall that month. However, as it was already the last day of the month, and the officers felt this was rather an unlikely prediction, Alexander helped out by officially changing the calendar.

Whether we should believe this is a difficult question to answer, for we have two occasions where Aristander was obviously not willing to compromise his credibility. Curtius records one instance where Alexander called for sacrifices, but even Aristander didn’t think it would help, so the sacrifice was abandoned (QC V.4.1-3). At the Jaxartes the omens proved unsatisfactory, and Alexander wanted them ‘re-read’, but Aristander refused to misinterpret them deliberately just to satisfy him (Arr. IV.4.3). As it turned out, Alexander ploughed ahead with his intended crossing of the river, to attack the Scythians, and the bad omens were borne out when he fell victim to dysentery. However, it is interesting that Curtius, when reporting this occasion, says that Aristander did re-sacrifice, and this time the omens were good (QC VII.7.20-29). It is difficult to decide who to believe, although my own opinion is that Arrian is the more likely to be telling the truth.

It is intriguing that Aristander drops out of the sources after his predictions in Bactria/Sogdia; but there is no indication that he died or was otherwise side-lined: he crops up again after Alexander’s death, according to Aelian (‘Varia Historiae’ 12.64). Alexander certainly didn’t dispense with esoteric services, as we hear that he was in communication with Chaldeans (eg. Arr. VII.16.5-17.6); and there are other vague references to “the seers” that probably included Aristander (eg. Arr. VII.24.1-3 – although as all the seers predicted bad things on this occasion, maybe Aristander wasn’t one of them!). Perhaps Aristander’s (generally) up-beat predictions were of no interest to the historians, who were more concerned with the men who predicted doom in the last year or so of Alexander’s life; so he continued helping with the daily sacrifices, but was too optimistic to be remembered when the portents of Alexander’s death came to be recorded?

Written by marcus