Thais Inspired Alexander and His Men to Burn Persepolis

face of a prisoner

According to Diodorus of Sicily (Bibliotheca Historica, 17.72), during a raucous, drunken feast that Alexander and his followers held in Persepolis:

one of the women present, Thaïs 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 Dionysius.

The force of verbal manipulation is built into this account. Consider, for example, the contrasting references to “women’s hands” and “a deed worthy of Alexander alone,” and the metaphoric use of fire: “the king had caught fire at their words.”

Alexander, Thaïs, and the others proceeded to start a huge fire:

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, Thaïs 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.

The Greek’s destruction of Persepolis occurred in 330 BCE. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Thaïs married Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander’s leading generals. Ptolemy went on to rule Egypt as the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Ptolemy has three children with Thaïs and also wrote a biography of Alexander. Menander, who was among the elite of Athens, wrote from 325-4 BCE to 293-2 BCE. He undoubtedly knew of the historical figure of Thaïs. Her story was probably important context for Menander’s play Thaïs.

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