On the night of 21 July 356 BCE (the sixth day of the Macedonian month Loios), Herostratus, a young man from Ephesus, decided to earn a place in the history books. He possessed no particular skill or competence to make him immortal, so he resolved to burn the temple of Artemis. The destruction was complete; the magnificent structure that, according to Edward Gibbon, the arts of Greece and the wealth of Asia had conspired to erect, came crashing down in a conflagration that marked the end of an era and the dawn of a new world. For, hundreds of miles away, in the rooms of a Macedonian palace, on that same night was born a child whose destiny it was to conquer the world. His name was Alexander.
A marble forest
The temple of Artemis had been designed to be among the grandest buildings of the ancient Greek world. It was a colossal edifice that stood on a massive platform; its columns reached a height of 12.08 meters (the columns of the Parthenon in Athens are 10.43 meters high) and were arrayed in a double colonnade (triple in the front side) that surrounded the temple with a forest of up to 117 marble columns that “soared to the clouds”. It was built by the Cretan architects Chersiphron and Metagenes. The task was so enormous that Chersiphon was said to have contemplated suicide when the time came to put in place the enormous lintel above the entrance (he was eventually saved by Artemis, who helped him lift the stone beam).
The breasts of Artemis
The purpose of this massive edifice was to house the cult statue of Artemis, a rather small piece of wood that fell from heaven. The story’s credibility was reinforced when the priests killed the sculptors to prevent them from taking credit for making the statue. Depending on the source, it was made of ebony or beech or elm or gold or the wood of the vine…and kept in good condition (despite its venerable age) with spikenard, an expensive perfumed ointment that was employed to moisten the wood. This precious relic was kept in a secure location inside the temple, while worshippers were more familiar with another version (taller than life-size) that depicted the goddess covered with a great number of animal breasts.
The temple of Artemis was a great attraction. Tourists and pilgrims flocked here to marvel at the sacred relics and the precious works of art. The sanctuary’s open courtyard was packed with industrious merchants who sold miniature silver copies of the cult statue and the temple, priests, and priestesses who sold the sacrificial meat hot off the altar, and soothsayers and charmers who hawked hope. The town was full of houses of ill repute frequented by actors, whores, and musicians whose livelihoods depended on the brisk business generated by Artemis’ popularity. The loss of the temple was a terrible blow to the economy of Ephesus and the morale of its residents. According to Plutarch, a number of Magi interpreted the fire as an omen of impending disaster; they ran around, crying and yelling that the perdition of Asia had been born that day.
A palace fit for kings
And what about Alexander himself? After all, he was at least partly responsible for the destruction of the Artemision, since Artemis was engaged as a midwife at his birth and failed to notice what was happening to her temple. Well, Alexander was totally indifferent to the great destruction in Ephesus and the anguish of the Magi. His birth coincided with two joyous events; the victory of his father’s horses at the Olympic Games, and the defeat of the Illyrians by the Macedonian general Parmenio. Philip was ecstatic and the palace of Pella must have been the happiest place during that time.
Pella became the capital of Macedonia during the reign of Archelaus I, who was eager to control newly acquired lands to the east of the traditional Macedonian heartland. At the time the city was close to the sea and an ideal administrative site for the expanding kingdom, despite the neighboring malarial swamps. Archelaus erected formidable fortifications and provided the city with wonderful public buildings. The theater could accommodate 10,000 spectators and hosted tragedies by Euripides and Agathon. The royal palace became so famous that people who cared nothing about the king would come here just to visit his residence. Archelaus employed the Athenian painter Zeuxis to decorate the palace and the final result must have been splendid; after all, Zeuxis was famous for a painting of grapes so true to life that passing birds attempted to eat them.
It was here that Alexander grew up. He had a pale complexion, but his skin could take on a ruddy tinge around the chest and the face; it also emitted a most delightful odor. From a very young age, he impressed those around him with his self-discipline, his disregard for physical pleasure or wealth, and his desire for recognition. He was an excellent runner without too much interest in athletics; he was curious about other countries, and he envied his father’s success in the field of battle. Some of his tutors were stern and efficient (Leonidas), while others were rather ignorant (Lysimachus the Acarnanian).
Eventually, Philip invited the greatest philosopher of the time, Aristotle, on the firm belief that education was very important and Alexander in serious need of someone who would guide him on the proper course of action. Aristotle’s arrival marks the end of Alexander’s childhood and the beginning of a meteoric rise that brought the young Macedonian prince not only to the ruins of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus but to the very end of the world.
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The World of Alexander – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece
Study abroad for a panoramic view of Alexander the Great’s life and legacy. Develop an understanding of the nexus between geography and imperialism in Alexander’s military accomplishments that resulted in the creation of a grand empire spanning Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and India.