Return to Greek Courtesans
"As the drinking went on, Thais delivered a speech which was intended partly as a graceful compliment to Alexander and partly to amuse him. What she said was typical of the spirit of Athens, but hardly in keeping with her own situation. She declared that all the hardships she had endured in wandering about Asia had been amply repaid on that day, when she found herself revelling luxuriously in the splendid palace of the Persians, but that it would be an even sweeter pleasure to end the party by going out and setting fire to the palace of Xerxes, who had laid Athens in ashes. She wanted to put a torch to the building herself in full view of Alexander, so that posterity should know that the women who followed Alexander had taken a more terrible revenge for the wrongs of Greece than all the famous commanders of earlier times by land or sea. Her speech was greeted with wild applause and the king's companions excitedly urged him on until at last he allowed himself to be persuaded, leaped to his feet, and with a garland on his head and a torch in his hand led the way."
Plutarch, Life of Alexander (XXXVIII)
It was the hetaira Tha´s who captivated both Alexander the Great and later Ptolemy I, the founder of the library at Alexandria. At the conclusion of a symposium, she was thought to have incited Alexander to burn Persepolis in revenge for the destruction of the Acropolis by Xerxes, the son of Darius, a century and a half earlier. Diodorus Siculus adds to the detail of the scene.
"When the king [Alexander] had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysus. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the comus to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Tha´s the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport."
Library of History (XVII.72)
Begun by Darius the Great, the ceremonial capital of Persepolis (Parsa) was a residence of the Achaemenid kings. Once a year, during the New Year's festival in March, emissaries from all of Persia's subject nations were summoned to offer tribute (as reliefs on the staircases of the monumental audience hall attest), their gifts secured in the national treasury on this remote desert plain. One of five capital cities and for almost two hundred years the symbol of Persia's might, Persepolis was sacked and burned by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. One hundred and twenty thousand talents of gold and silver were taken (more than thirty-three hundred tons) (Diodorus, XVII.71.1; Curtius, V.6.9; also Strabo, XV.3.9; Justin, (XII.1). Plutarch (XXXVII.3-4) reports that forty thousand talents were transported to Susa on the backs of ten thousand pairs of mules and five thousand camels.
But whether Tha´s instigated the burning of Persepolis, simply participated, or only witnessed the conflagration is not certain. She first is mentioned by Athenaeus, who cites Cleitarchus, an early biographer of Alexander and the source for the later histories of Diodorus Siculus and Curtius Rufus, who preserve many details of the lost work. There, the courtesan is described "as having occasioned the burning of the palace of Persepolis" (Deipnosophists, XIII.576d-e; fr. 11). In this version, she is presented as inciting Alexander to burn Persepolis at the conclusion of a drunken symposium to avenge the destruction of the Acropolis by Xerxes, the son of Darius I, a century and a half earlier. Writing in the first century BC, three hundred years after the event, Diodorus describes the scene (and is the only one to mention the comus or Dionysiac procession of flute-girls and courtesans led by Tha´s).
"While they were feasting and the drinking was far advanced, as they began to be drunken a madness took possession of the minds of the intoxicated guests. At this point one of the women present, Tha´s by name and Attic by origin, said that for Alexander it would be the finest of all his feats in Asia if he joined them in a triumphal procession, set fire to the palaces, and permitted women's hands in a minute to extinguish the famed accomplishments of the Persians. This was said to men who were still young and giddy with wine, and so, as would be expected, someone shouted out to form the comus and to light torches, and urged all to take vengeance for the destruction of the Greek temples. Others took up the cry and said that this was a deed worthy of Alexander alone. When the king had caught fire at their words, all leaped up from their couches and passed the word along to form a victory procession in honour of Dionysus. Promptly many torches were gathered. Female musicians were present at the banquet, so the king led them all out for the comus to the sound of voices and flutes and pipes, Tha´s the courtesan leading the whole performance. She was the first, after the king, to hurl her blazing torch into the palace. As the others all did the same, immediately the entire palace area was consumed, so great was the conflagration. It was remarkable that the impious act of Xerxes, king of the Persians, against the acropolis at Athens should have been repaid in kind after many years by one woman, a citizen of the land which had suffered it, and in sport" (Library of History, XVII.72).
The Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus (first century AD) presents an even longer account. Tha´s had too much to drink when she declared that
"if Alexander gave the order to burn the Persian palace, he would earn the deepest gratitude among all the Greeks. This was what the people whose cities the Persians had destroyed were expecting she said. As the drunken whore gave her opinion on a matter of extreme importance, one or two who were themselves the worse for drink agreed with her. The king, too, was enthusiastic rather than acquiescent. 'Why do we not avenge Greece, then and put the city to the torch?' he asked. They were all flushed with wine, and they got up, drunk, to burn a city which they had spared while under arms. Alexander took the lead, setting fire to the palace, to be followed by his drinking companions, his attendants and the courtesans. Large sections of the palace had been made of cedar, so they quickly took flame and spread the conflagration over a large area [one to three feet of cedar ash were found in the excavation]. The army, encamped not far from the city, caught sight of the fire. Thinking it was accidental, came running in a body to help. But when they reached the palace portico, they saw their king himself, still piling on torch-wood, so they dropped the what they had brought and began throwing dry wood into the blaze themselves. Such was the end of the palace that had ruled all the East'" (History of Alexander the Great, V.7.3-8).
Arrian (second century AD), however, follows another tradition, one that does not mention Tha´s. As he relates in the opening sentences of the Anabasis, his sources are Ptolemy and Aristobulus, both of whom had served with Alexander, one as a bodyguard and the other as an engineer with the army (at Alexander's order, he repaired the desecrated tomb of Cyrus, VI.29). Both, too, had written their own histories of the campaign. "Certain statements by other writers upon Alexander [such as Callisthenes and Chares] may be taken to represent popular tradition: some of these, which are interesting in themselves and may well be true, I have included in my work." Callisthenes, who was related to Aristotle, Alexander's tutor, had accompanied the expedition as its historian but quarreled with Alexander over whether, in the manner of a Persian king, one should prostrate before him. He also was imprudent enough to suggest that "without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten" (IV.10; it is a primary source for Ptolemy and Aristobulus). More ominously, he was thought to have been complicit in an attempt to assassinate Alexander and later died, either dragged about in chains or tortured and hanged. Arrian cannot be certain, lamenting that "even the most trustworthy writers, men who were actually with Alexander at the time, have given conflicting accounts of notorious events with which they must have been perfectly familiar" (IV.14).
It is unlikely that the destruction of the palace was the spontaneous conclusion to a drunken bacchanal. Alexander already had been four months at Persepolis and looted the palace complex. He was advised that it would be bad policy to burn the ancestral palace (indeed, he later regretted it). The property was his own, and destroying it would undermine his sovereignty in Asia if he seemed to have come only as a conqueror and not a king. Alexander's response was that the act was one of retribution "for their invasion of Greece...for the destruction of Athens, the burning of the temples, and all the other crimes they had committed against the Greeks" (Arrian, III.19; cf. Strabo, XV.3.6, "Alexander burnt up the palace at Persepolis, to avenge the Greeks, because the Persians had destroyed both temples and cities of the Greeks by fire and sword"). Such action also must have been to demoralize Darius III, who would be murdered by one of his satraps only weeks later.
At the time, Tha´s probably was the mistress of Ptolemy, one of Alexander's most trusted generals (and possibly his half-brother). She married him, says Athenaeus, after Alexander's death in 323 BC when, as one of the Diadochi ("successors"), he became Ptolemy I Soter ("Savior"), ruler of Egypt. His own history does not mention Tha´s. But, if written early in his reign, when Ptolemy sought legitimacy as the principal successor to Alexander and support for the city he had founded, the omission might reflect an understandable bias not to discredit him by suggesting that Tha´s (now Ptolemy's wife) was a drunken whore who had exhorted an equally besotted Alexander and his Macedonians to destroy Persepolis.
Cleitarchus, who does speak of Tha´s, is thought to have written before Ptolemy, probably sometime between 310-300 BC, on the assumption that he would not deliberately contradict the powerful ruler. This argues for a later date to Ptolemy's own history, perhaps between 305 and 283 BC, when he wrote as king, something which, for Arrian, made it all the more trustworthy, for "it is more disgraceful for a King to tell lies than for anyone else" (I.1). It may be that mention of Tha´s had been intended to compliment his fellow Greeks, offering a moment of pride when the Athenian hetaira avenged them in inspiring the destruction of the Persian capital. But Cleitarchus was not there and, if ancient critics are to be believed, given to exaggeration. Quintilian admits to his talent but not his accuracy (Institutio Oratoria, X.1.75); Cicero classes him with the rhetoricians, whose privilege is "to exceed the truth of history, that they may have an opportunity of embellishing the fate of their heroes" (Brutus, XLII); Strabo opines that he "should not be considered even worthy of mention" as one who is untrustworthy and does not care for the truth (Geography, XI.1.5, XI.5.4).
Even if the destruction was a deliberate and sober act of policy, this is not to say that Tha´s was not present or that her participation was not consistent with that policy. Perhaps that is all that can be said.
The engraving is by Gustave DorÚ and illustrates Dante's Divine Comedy: The Inferno. Here, in Canto XVIII.133-135, Virgil shows Dante the shade of Tha´s, where she resides in the eighth circle of Hell among the flatterers in the ordure of the second trench. This is not the courtesan of Athens, however, but a character of the same name and profession in Eunuchus ("The Eunuch," III.391-392), a popular play by Terence. Tha´s, the bona meretrix, has contrived to return a freeborn slave to her family, having one of her paramours (the stock character of the miles gloriosus or "boastful soldier") make the purchase. This he does, sending the girl to her and asking her reaction. Cicero quotes the exchange in his essay on friendship. "'Did Thais return me many thanks, say you?' An artless man would have thought it sufficient to answer 'many,' but the cunning sycophant replies, 'immense, innumerable;' for a skilful flatterer perfectly well knows that a pleasing circumstance can never be too much exaggerated in the opinion of the person upon whom he means to practise" (De Amicitia, XCVIII).
Dante has taken these lines from Cicero, mistakenly thinking the character in the play to be an historical figure. He also presumes the exchange to be between the paramour and Tha´s when, in fact, it was the sycophant who responds so extravagantly. As no other name appears, it is to Tha´s that the reply is attributed and she who is consigned to Hell, not because she is a harlot (a sin which would have condemned her only to the second circle) but because she was thought to have prostituted, not herself, but words themselves.
As Terence himself relates, he has taken the Eunuchus (and the character of the braggart soldier and his parasitic toady) from the Athenian playwright Menander, who Pliny characterized as "unrivalled for perception in literary knowledge" (XXX.2.7). A fragment from his play Eunuchos, "Communion with the bad corrupts good character," is quoted by Paul in I Corinthians 15:33, "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners."
The picture representing Persepolis is that of a male winged sphinx, which formed part of the fašade of the palace constructed by Artaxerxes III (r. 358-338 BC). It now is in the British Museum.
References: The Age of Alexander: Nine Greek Lives by Plutarch (1973) translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics); Diodorus Siculus: Library of History (1963) translated by C. Bradford Welles (Loeb Classical Library); Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (1971) translated by Aubrey de SÚlincourt, revised by J. R. Hamilton (Penguin Classics); Quintus Curtius Rufus: The History of Alexander (1984) translated by John Yardley (Penguin Classics); "Fire from Heaven: Alexander at Persepolis" (1972) by Eugene N. Borza, Classical Philology, 67(4), 233-245; "The Archaeological and Literary Evidence for the Burning of the Persepolis Palace" (1992) by N. G. L. Hammond, The Classical Quarterly, 42(2), 358-364; "In Search of Cleitarchus: Review-discussion of Luisa Prandi: Fortuna Ŕ realtÓ dell' opera di Clitarco" (1996) by A. B. Bosworth, Historia Einzelshriften, 104, 203; "The Treasury at Persepolis: Gift-Giving at the City of the Persians" (1985) by Nicholas Cahill, American Journal of Archaeology, 89(3), 373-389; "Did Dante Know Terence?" (1947) by Joseph A. Russo, Italica, 24(3), 212-218; The Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Hell (1949) translated by Dorothy L. Sayers (Penguin Classics); "Bias in Ptolemy's History of Alexander" (1969) by R. M. Errington, The Classical Quarterly, 19(2), 233-242; "Ptolemy and His Rivals in His History of Alexander" (1984) by Joseph Roisman, The Classical Quarterly, 34(2), 373-385 do not cite Tha´s as an example.
Return to Top of Page