Callisthenes and Aristotle

Callisthenes and Aristotle

Callisthenes and Aristotle

Aristotle died in 322BC so he was alive when Callisthenes was killed.

Callisthenes was Aristotle’s nephew and both Callisthenes and Aristotle shared the view that the Persians should be conquered, not treated as equal to the Greeks, like Alexander seemed to be doing. So one can imagine that Aristotle would have been furious and upset when he heard news of it. See some interesting points below that I have highlighted in pink.


Callisthenes (Gk. Kallisthenês), son of Damotimos, c.360-c.353 BC, a Greek from Olynthos, was a kinsman of Aristotle, probably his great-nephew (P 52.1, 55.4). He was a well-known historian in his own right: before he joined Alexander as the historian of the campaign against Persia he had already written historical works, including a history of Persia, and another on the Third Sacred War (for example Athenaeus, Deipnosophists, 13.560b–d; Plutarch, Moralia, 292E-293, 307D) and at some point he had worked with Aristotle on a list of the victors in the Pythian Games (SIG 274). Strabo (13.?) ascribes to Callisthenes and Anaxarchus Alexander's cherished "casket copy" of Homer's Iliad.

We do not know whether it was Philip or Alexander who initially engaged Callisthenes to record the war against Persia, but it appears that he was introduced to Alexander by Aristotle (Valerius Maximus, 7.2.ext.11a). In 334 BC he crossed the Hellespont with Alexander’s army. Similarly we don’t know the full extent of his employment although it is clear that, as well as writing a history of the expedition he was at some point put in charge of educating the Royal Pages—as Aristotle had educated Alexander and his peers (P 55.2; A 4.13.2; C 8.6.24f, 8.7.3, 8.8.1) . During the army’s time in Egypt Callisthenes went on a trip to locate the source of the Nile, and when they reached Babylon he supervised the translation of the Babylonian astronomical records; so his remit was clearly much wider than just writing a journal of the expedition.

Callisthenes is best known for writing a history of the expedition which was laden with flattery of Alexander, and he appears to have played a large part in the elevation of Alexander as son of Zeus following the visit to Siwa in Egypt. The history is lost, surviving only in a few fragments cited by later authors (for example: P 27.3, 33.1; Strabo, 17.I.43).

Callisthenes’ history was probably written in installments that were sent back to Greece to be disseminated to the states of the League of Corinth. We are not sure exactly where his work ended: it is generally assumed that the battle of Gaugamela was the last major event recorded, but his record might have gone up to the death of Bessus in 329 BC.

His main "claim to fame" in the extant sources comes during the period when he lost favour with Alexander, which eventually led to his arrest and execution on charges of conspiracy in 327BC (as a member of the Pages' Conspiracy). Callisthenes was an opponent of Alexander’s orientalising, and things came to a head when Alexander attempted to introduce the custom of proskynesis, or prostration. Although the custom had no religious significance to the Persians, Greeks and Macedonians considered the practice appropriate only for the gods. They saw proskynesis, therefore, as an attempt by Alexander to get them to worship him as a god. Callisthenes spoke out against it and his intransigence was a prime factor in Alexander’s decision to abandon the idea. At this time Callisthenes gained the approval of the Greeks and Macedonians for his views, where before he had been somewhat shunned for his austerity and straitlaced attitudes. (A 4.10-12; C 8.5.13-20; P 54.1-3; J 12.7, 15.3; Valerius Maximus, 7.2.ext.11a.)

According to Plutarch Aristotle had once remarked that Callisthenes possessed great eloquence but lacked common sense, and this seems to have played a part in his downfall (P 54.1). There is a story that Callisthenes, at a feast, spoke eloquently about the Macedonians’ virtues. Alexander challenged him to speak so eloquently about their weaknesses, which he did. Unfortunately, the Macedonians did not understand the finer points of eristics and took grave offence. (P 53.3-5; Philostratus, Apollonius of Tyana, 7.2, 8.3)

There is no evidence that Callisthenes had any part in the Pages' Conspiracy. Hermolaus and his confederates revealed the names of all the conspirators under torture, but Callisthenes was not named—Plutarch even cites a letter from Alexander that absolves him from complicity (P 55.3). Aristobulus and Ptolemy both claimed that he was the instigator of the plot but even Arrian doubts his sources because of their differing accounts of Callisthenes’ death—it is reasonable assume that Aristobulus and Ptolemy accused him of complicity in order to defend Alexander’s actions (A 4.14.1). Nobody is recorded as having objected when Alexander accused him of treason, and his fate was secured.

As for the differing accounts of Callisthenes’ death, it is remarkable how many versions there are. He is variously reported to have been racked and hanged (Ptolemy), or put in chains and carried around with the army until he died of sickness (Aristobulus) (for both see A 4.14.3; see also C 8.8.21); or he was kept in prison for seven months in order to be tried by the League of Corinth, but he died of “excessive corpulence and the disease of lice” around the time Alexander was wounded by the Mallians (Chares) (P 55.5). Arrian suggests that there were other traditions, too, and remarks on the fact that his two main sources cannot agree on the details of a public event. (For other traditions see J 15.3; Diogenes Laertius 5.1. Valerius Maximus, 7.2, 9.3 says that he was ordered to commit suicide.) Not clear how he died!


In 343 B.C., Aristotle was invited by Philip of Macedonia to tutor his son, Alexander. At this time Aristotle was far from the acclaimed intellectual leader of Greece, and Philip's decision probably was based on more practical reasons–Aristotle's connection to Macedonia through his father's position as court physician may have played a role, but perhaps most important was the diplomatic link that Aristotle provided between Philip and Aristotle's friend Hermeias. Hermeias played an essential part in Philip's plans to invade Persia. But shortly after Aristotle accepted the tutoring position, Hermeias was captured by a Persian general and tortured. Hermeias never gave in to betray his allies, however: his final words were, "Tell my friends and companions that I have done nothing weak or unworthy of philosophy." His death moved Aristotle deeply, and Aristotle himself wrote the epigraph that remains at Hermeias's memorial today.

Aristotle served as Alexander's tutor for three years. The education was for the most part formal, consisting of standard subjects such as poetry and rhetoric. Homer constituted a significant segment of their curriculum, as Aristotle attempted to inspire his pupil with the model of the Greek hero. At the same time, Aristotle encouraged the young prince in his hopes for Persian conquest. Aristotle's hatred for the Persians was of course aggravated by the death of Hermeias, and he succeeded in fueling Alexander's already strong anti-Persian sentiments. For Aristotle there was never any doubt that Greece deserved to rule over other nations, for such foreign nations were barbaric and fit for enslavement. Aristotle's lasting influence on Alexander may have been negligible, however. It was on the issue of non-Greeks that student and teacher would ultimately disagree, though the Persian invasion was long underway before Alexander began attempts to unite his two empires in equality.

After Philip's death, Alexander would win Aristotle's favor by restoring his home of Stagira, which Philip had pillaged years before. Nevertheless, their relationship would deteriorate, perhaps culminating in the execution of Aristotle's nephew Callisthenes. Callisthenes had served as the official historian of the Persian expedition, but while he fulfilled his role by writing as he was told, Callisthenes shared Aristotle's attitude toward the Persians and opposed Alexander on strongly held ideological convictions. Alexander soon had him arrested and executed on dubious treason charges, and Callisthenes died a martyr. It is possible that Alexander even plotted against the life of Aristotle, but he never had the chance to follow through. This last comment is conjecture.