The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In the critical attention given to the portrait of Alexander, the portrait and mirror image of Bagoas is often overlooked or given less prominence. Yet it is Bagoas’ perspective that makes the portrait of Alexander so convincingly lifelike. As the narrator, Bagoas is introduced first. The glimpses of his childhood prepare the reader for the ways of the Persian court, with its endless intrigue, and for the sympathetic presentation of many eunuchs. Though often portrayed as indolent, grossly fat harem gossips or evil intriguers—or both—some eunuchs retain their grace and dignity. A number of Bagoas’ all-too-human vanities and flaws, as well as his virtues, result from his determination to prevent his body from deteriorating and from his refusal to become involved in bribery or intrigue.

Though the evils of homosexual prostitution, degrading in spirit as much as or more than in body, are uncompromisingly portrayed, the gentler art of the courtesan is shown from a more favorable point of view. Bagoas, trained in the service and the art of pleasing, including sexual pleasure, is prepared as a worthy gift for Darius, setting the stage for Bagoas’ relationship to Alexander, with its similarities and contrasts. Through Bagoas’ experience are presented the ways of the Persian court; its luxurious refinement, formal manners, intrigues and cruelties prepare for the shocking (to Bagoas and to some extent the reader) contrast of Alexander’s Macedonian ways. Instead of pomp and the custom of prostration before the Great King, there is equality and, to Bagoas, unheard-of informality. Instead of the Persian ceremonial attire, rich and modest, there are the clean-shaven Greeks (like eunuchs to the Persians) with their minimal tunics and armor, who exercise in the nude, even the king among his followers. Bagoas reveals his own self-perception as well when, the first time he sees Alexander at such exercise, he muses that it is something when a king makes a courtesan blush.

The love between Alexander and Bagoas is emblematic of Alexander’s gradual adoption of Persian ways, his attempt to fuse them with Greek customs. The love between Alexander and Hephaistion is, however, Alexander’s first loyalty. No matter how Persianized his followers may think he has become, with resultant discord and strife, at heart Alexander remains true to the Homeric ideal. Renault observes that Alexander might, had their lives intersected, have become the...

(The entire section is 1004 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Bagoas, the title character and narrator of the novel, which is based on the life of Alexander the Great. The son of a minor Persian nobleman who is betrayed to his enemies and brutally killed, he is sold because of his beauty at the age of ten, castrated, then resold to a gem dealer in Susa. Purchased at the age of thirteen by an agent of Darius, he becomes the Persian king’s favorite and remains in his service until Darius is deposed and killed. A Persian lord takes Bagoas to Alexander by way of a peace offering, after which Bagoas becomes Alexander’s closest personal companion and partner in love. Because he has been made a eunuch, Bagoas never reaches a man’s full stature, but he is well matched to Alexander’s shorter-than-average height. Although he is much resented by Alexander’s squires, he makes himself useful as an interpreter of Persian customs for his Greek master.

Alexander of Macedon

Alexander of Macedon, later called Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Asia and son of Philip II. Not much more than twenty years old when Bagoas comes into his service, he already has conquered Asia Minor and is deep in Persian territory. Although he is a fearless warrior and a brilliant leader, he has, without knowing it, long needed the love Bagoas gives him. The key to Alexander’s character, as interpreted by the author, is the need for love: from cities, from armies, and from captured enemies. This need lays him open to false friends but renders him a sympathetic character. Alexander may need love, but he is quick to anger and never forgives a betrayal. His role model is the romanticized Persian king Cyrus described in Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. This penchant for Persian ways and the tutelage of his Persian boy Bagoas make Alexander sympathetic to the Persian world that he is conquering.



(The entire section is 785 words.)