The Persian Boy

by Mary Renault

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The Persian Boy is the central novel of Mary Renault’s trilogy on the life of Alexander the Great. Fire from Heaven (1969) deals with his boyhood and young manhood, Funeral Games (1981) with his death and its aftermath. Each work can be read independently. The Persian Boy, dealing with the last seven years of Alexander’s life and his conquest of the then-known world, is told through the perspective of Bagoas, a young Persian of noble family and exceptional beauty. Bagoas is captured at the age of ten when his father is accused of treason and given the Persian traitors’ execution, his nose and ears cut off before death—an image which is to haunt Bagoas. Made into a eunuch and sold into slavery, Bagoas is purchased by a jeweler, and by the time he is twelve, he is forced into a life of prostitution as payment for services rendered to his master’s friends and business associates. From this life, he is rescued by a mysterious purchaser, who prepares him to be a slave to the Great King Darius himself.

Bagoas rapidly becomes a favorite of Darius and learns the ways of the court, including the precarious position of favorites who lose their beauty or manage to displease the Great King. When Darius is defeated by Alexander and betrayed and killed by rival Persian nobles, Bagoas is rescued by Nabarzanes, one of the courtiers who has captured Darius. He takes Bagoas as a propitiatory gift to Alexander.

Though he has learned the arts of pleasing, Bagoas has never known real love. Soon he is devoted to Alexander and gradually wins his love. Tempted at first by jealousy to poison Hephaistion, Alexander’s lifelong friend and lover, Bagoas soon realizes that doing so not only would jeopardize his own position but also, more important, would cause pain to the one person he loves unreservedly and who loves him in return. From then on, he devotes his life to Alexander’s service, following on Alexander’s most arduous campaigns, from inaccessible mountains to unlivable desert to India.

Hardships and homesickness breed power struggles, intrigues, jealousies, and threats of mutiny. Persuaded at last by his soldiers to turn back before he reaches the Indian Ocean, the limit of the then-known world, Alexander finally returns to Babylon, still bearing the body of Hephaistion, whose death has driven him to near-madness. Warned away by omens and priests, he ignores them and enters Babylon. (Bagoas is by this time a courtier of influence who has presided over the execution of the nobleman who betrayed his father.) Alexander holds a funeral for Hephaistion worthy of Alexander himself, with magnificent funeral games, regarded by all as a further omen of disaster. While in Babylon, planning the consolidation and government of his empire, Alexander becomes ill with one of the deadly fevers endemic to the water-and-swamp-surrounded city and dies. Bagoas, devastated, watches his body, as the surviving commanders, ignoring all due ceremony and even the need in that climate for prompt embalming, quarrel over the succession, the metaphoric “funeral games” of the sequel to follow. At the novel’s end, Bagoas sits quietly in a corner, his place for many other vigils over Alexander, and watches as the embalmers prepare the body, still miraculously uncorrupted.

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