Wednesday 10 February 2021

The 2 Billion Dollar Funeral

Could this have been the most expensive funeral in history? I haven’t looked closely at all the funerals of all the heads of world powers (i.e. Russian tsars, Egyptian pharaohs, etc.) but I suspect their costs would reach into the millions. The funeral we look at today cost billions, and it’s the funeral of Alexander the Great’s male lover/companion, Hephaestion.

Some historians doubt there was a sexual relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. They both grew up in societies where same-sex activity was a part of their youth and it is certain they both would have participated willingly in it. But we’ll leave that debate for another time. There is no doubt that their friendship was strong enough for Alexander the Great to organise a funeral for Hephaestion that was more spectacular than his own father’s, which was spectacular enough. As the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote in his 1st century BC: “He showed such zeal about the funeral that it not only surpassed all those previously celebrated on earth but also left no possibility for anything greater in later years”.

There’s one slight problem with Diodorus’ statement. He wrote it two centuries after Hephaestion’s funeral took place. He was copying earlier, now lost, sources. The earliest known account is by a contemporary of Alexander’s called Cleitarchus. However, Cleitarchus was a bit of a sensationalist and historians believe most of the events his included in his biography of Alexander were over-embellished. Having said that, there’s nothing to indicate that Cleitarchus was making it up.

Depending on which ancient historian you read a total of between 10,000 and 12,000 talents were spent on the funeral. Estimates put this as equivalent today of between 2 and 3 billion US dollars. Not all of this came out of Alexander’s own “pocket”. He sent messengers to every city in his conquered territories of Persia requesting them to send as much money as they could to help give Hephaestion the send-off he thought he deserved. The cities seemed to have had no problem with this and responded enthusiastically and generously.

At the same time Alexander ordered that all sacred fires should be put out in Persia until after the funeral. This was a custom when a Persian king died, which gives another indication of Alexander’s feelings for Hephaestion.

Now that the financing had been arranged Alexander began panning the funeral itself. As Diodorus wrote (in the quote given above) he threw himself into the arrangements with zeal. A couple of years ago I mentioned that the ancient Greeks often celebrated someone’s death with funeral games – athletics and sport. The funeral games in honour of Hephaestion were held in Ecbatana, the city in which he died in October 324 BC. During this time a huge funeral procession was being gathered and Hephaestion’s body was being prepared and embalmed. When the games were over the funeral procession made its way to Babylon City.

The huge procession arrived, perhaps around what our modern calendar would call New Year. The funeral pyre on which Hephaestion’s body would be burned was still under construction. It was massive. Alexander had chosen an architect called Stasicrates (sometimes called Cheirocrates and Dinocrates) to design and build the pyre. Stasicrates was well-known for laying out the plan of Alexandria in Egypt, reconstructing the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (turning it into one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and he even planned to carve a huge statue of Alexander the Great into the side of Mount Athos until Alexander himself objected. So, you can see what sort of funeral pyre Stasicrates was likely to come up with, and he didn’t disappoint.

Stasicrates’ plans were so big that he needed to knock down about a kilometre of the city walls to make enough room for it and the surrounding “spectator” area. The pyre itself was a square structure, each side being about 180 meters (590 feet) in length. On top of that were five more square structures, one on top of the other like a ziggurat, a stepped pyramid. When complete the structure was said to have been 58 meters (193 feet) tall.

Each side of the pyre was richly decorated in statues and sculptures made from wood and clay. Most of these were painted and gilded so that the whole thing shone and gleamed in the daylight. All around the ground floor were carved 240 life-size ships’ prows with statues of archers and armed men on the decks.

On the level above torches about 8 meters (26 feet) tall were attached to the walls, with golden wreaths around their handles, snakes coiled around the base of each one, and huge eagles with outstretched wings hovering over them.

On the next level up were carved animals representing a wild hunt.

On the next level was a scene representing a legendary battle between the centaurs and a tribe called the Lapiths. All of which was covered in gold.

The penultimate level also had gold statues – bulls alternating with lions.

Around the top level were arms and armour of the Greek and Persian armies.

Right on top were statues of sirens. These were hollow to allow the attendants who sang the funerary laments to stand inside. No doubt there were ladders running up through the whole structure for them to get up and down before the whole thing was set on fire.

None of the ancient sources say that the pyre was actually lit, and several modern historians, including the eminent ancient historian Robin Lane-Fox, doubt the funeral ever took place as planned. However, back in 1904 the archaeologist Robert Koldeway uncovered areas of burnt ground among the ruins of Babylon. This, he theorised, might have been the site of the pyre and that the funeral took place as intended.

After the pyre had been extinguished Hephaestion’s remains were placed in a magnificent tomb. The mystery is where? No-one is sure, but we do know that Alexander the Great had little time to continue to mourn for his lover as he himself died a couple of months after the pyre was built. Some archaeologists have suggested that Hephaestion’s tomb is in Greece.

The image at the top shows an artist’s impression of what Hephaestion’s funeral pyre might have looked like. It was painted around 1900 by F. Buracz and Franz Jeffe. Even though it was a temporary structure it would have been a magnificent sight, situated on the banks of the River Euphrates in the shadow of the famous Wonder, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (though some historians doubt the Gardens existed in the form most popularly imagined).

In an age long before inner-city skyscrapers any structure towering as high as Hephaestion’s pyre would have struck awe into the Babylonians, It could easily be called the 8th Wonder of the Ancient World.

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