Thalestris (ancient Greek Θάληστρις Thálēstris), also Talestris, is the last Amazon queen to be mentioned by name. She is said to have met the Macedonian king Alexander the Great during his Asian campaign in 330 BC. Modern researchers consistently consider her to be an invented person rather than a historical one.
Reports of ancient historians
The most important surviving ancient sources for the alleged meeting of Alexander the Great and Thalestris are the accounts of the historians Diodorus and Curtius Rufus, as well as the excerpt by Iustinus from the Histories of Pompeius Trogus.
The Greek historian Diodorus writes in the 1st century B.C. that at the time of Alexander's campaign the power of Queen Thalestris extended over the area between the rivers Phasis (today Rioni on the southwestern slope of the Caucasus Mountains) and Thermodon.
In 330 B.C. Alexander, on his campaign against the Persians, camped with his troops on the southern Caspian Sea in Hyrcania, having previously fought the Marder tribe in western Elburs. There Thalestris had ridden to his camp with a part of her army, 300 Amazons in full armor.
She had explained to the king that she desired to have a child by him. Since he had proven himself the greatest of men, and she herself was braver and stronger than all other women, a child conceived by them together would surpass all mortals.
Alexander would not have been averse to the request and had decided to stop with his army for a few more days. After 13 days of joint intercourse, he dismissed Thalestris richly endowed.
The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus, who probably lived in the 1st century AD, mentions further details in his narration of this episode. For example, Thalestris told Alexander that she would keep a female child, but would send a male child to him. Alexander also complied with her desire to father offspring with him out of tact rather than passion.
He had insisted that she should join him with her warrior women as military allies, which proposal Thalestris rejected, saying that she had to defend her empire. The Roman historian Iustinus, who lived in the 2nd or 3rd century, provides a similar account of the story. All three writers give no information about the further life of the Amazon queen.
Assessment of the historicity of Thalestris
The historicity of Thalestris was already disputed among ancient historians. Around 100 AD, the biographer Plutarch lists 14 authors who mentioned the Thalestris story. Some, such as Cleitarchus or Onesicritus, believed it, while nine writers considered the affair between Alexander the Great and Thalestris to be complete fiction (including Aristobulus, Ptolemy, Chares of Mytilene, and Duris of Samos).
Many years after the alleged encounter between the Macedonian king and Thalestris, the Greek historian Onesikritos stayed with Lysimachus, a participant in Alexander's campaign, who had been near Alexander at the time of this supposed episode.
When Onesikritos read the appearance of the Amazon from the fourth book of his work of history, Lysimachus smiled and asked where he had been at that time; thus, he apparently knew nothing about the Amazon.
Around 150 AD, the Roman historian Arrian, who is considered very reliable, does not report anything about Thalestris, but states that according to some accounts, the Macedonian king did not meet 100 armed horsewomen, supposedly Amazons, until six years later (i.e. 324 BC).
These had been sent to him by the Median satrap Atropates. Alexander, however, sent them away again to prevent the soldiers from inflicting violence on them. Arrian points out that Alexander historians such as Aristobulus and Ptolemy, who are credible to him, did not mention this story, and he doubts that such a race of warrior women still existed in Alexander's time.
Modern scholarship is unanimous in considering the Thalestris episode unhistorical. Perhaps the daughter of a Scythian king who - according to Alexander's own letter to Antipater - had been offered to Alexander as a wife, provided the impetus for this Amazon legend.
Literary reception in antiquity and the Middle Ages
The novel of Alexander by Pseudo-Kallisthenes, written in the 3rd century, does not mention the figure of Thalestris. In this work, Alexander demands by letter that the Amazons submit to him.
In a subsequent correspondence, the Amazons draw the Macedonian king's attention to their state constitution and military power. Also, their country was surrounded by a river difficult to pass and inhabited by wild animals.
With the men of neighboring kingdoms they held feasts with horse sacrifices and left boys born of the common union to their fathers, but took daughters to themselves.
Alexander refrained from waging war against them, but demanded tribute and military support from them through a detachment of their warrior women. The Amazons submit to this demand.
The Western transmission of the material in the Middle Ages, such as the Strasbourg Alexander (c. 1170) and the prose novel of Johannes Hartlieb (Die histori von dem großen Alexander, c. 1450), relied primarily on the Alexander romance of Pseudo-Kallisthenes and its Latin translation by Julius Valerius.
Therefore, Alexander's encounter with Thalestris was unknown to this tradition. In addition, the Historia de preliis Alexandri Magni by the archipresbyter Leo, written in the later 10th century, was also influential, especially in France.
In this work, the Amazon queen appears as a negotiator with the Macedonian king: After an agreement has been reached, she visits him with a group of Amazons and presents to him, among other things, the horsemanship of her warrior women.
The French poet Lambert le Tort and Alexandre de Bernay (Li romans d' Alixandre, 2nd half of the 12th century), who based his work on it, adapted the material very freely.
In this version, the Amazon queen named here Amabel dreams that Alexander is planning an invasion of her kingdom, whereupon she sends two beautiful women to him, who present gifts to the Macedonian king. Finally, Amabel appears in person, accompanied by a thousand Amazons, and demonstrates that she has mastered chivalric arts.
Some medieval authors also drew on the more original tradition of Curtius Rufus. However, since Thalestris's undisguised desire to father a child with Alexander for reasons of state policy did not correspond to the imaginary world of courtly chivalric novels, they explained her desire with an amorous passion of the queen.
The plot of the epic Alexandreis (c. 1180) by the French theologian and poet Walter of Châtillon runs along these lines, although the author followed the version by Curtius Rufus quite closely.
The epic subsequently served as a model for Ulrich von Etzenbach (Alexandreis, c. 1270), who, like Rudolf von Ems before him, strongly reshaped the Thalestris episode in the spirit of courtly epic poetry. In the Alexander novel written by the latter author around 1245, the Amazon queen bears the name Talestria.
When she meets Alexander, she explains to him the history and organization of her kingdom, refuses to pay him tribute, and informs him of her desire to have a child, a desire that she has harbored because of her lust.
The Macedonian king at first flatly rejects this request, but after two weeks of consideration Talestria brings it up again, and now Alexander is also seized by love. A daughter is born of their 14-day intercourse. The plot of Ulrich von Enzenbach's Alexander novel develops in a more condensed form.
The author lets the Amazon queen be seized by passion for the king when she enters Alexander's military camp. Although Alexander rejects her desire at the beginning, he then secretly spends a night of love with her.
Literary and musical reception in modern times
In the tragedies written in the 16th and early 17th centuries that dealt with Alexander the Great, his affair with Thalestris was not addressed. It seemed too problematic; Alexander's other love affairs took precedence.
Then, in his successful novel Cassandre (10 volumes, 1642-50), the French writer Sieur de La Calprenède greatly altered the ancient tradition about the Amazon queen, so that, according to this new plot, she appeared acceptable as a heroine to a courtly audience and thus became literarily acceptable.
The main theme of the work is the union of several princes and heroes to free Alexander's widow Stateira, who after Alexander's demise is threatened by the intrigues of the jealous Roxane, so she adopts the alias Cassandre and lives in hiding.
Embedded in the plot, Thalestris' earlier fates are told in retrospect, as she joins the liberation army. Accordingly, she maintains a relationship with Orontes, a prince of the Massagets, who is able to consort with her undetected by disguising himself as a woman.
When Alexander approaches the border of her empire with an army, Thalestris wants to dissuade him from an invasion and therefore seeks him out, but rejects the wish of her warrior women to father an heiress to the throne with Alexander. Orontes, meanwhile, hears the rumor that Thalestris is indeed in love with Alexander and leaves the land of the Amazons.
Thalestris considers him unfaithful, is dejected and searches for him everywhere. Finally, the lovers find each other in the camp of the allies. Thalestris gives up her royal position to join Orontes in marriage; and the Amazons follow her advice to renounce their ancestral way of life, so that the continuance of their empire ceases.
Soon La Calprenède's novel had an effect on the further reception of the Thalestris theme. Thus, the fate of the Amazon queen, which he conceived, was taken up as an opera theme by the German poet and librettist Christian Heinrich Postel (Die großmächtige Thalestris oder letzte Königin der Amazonen; composition by Johann Philipp Förtsch; first performed in 1690).
In the libretto, Postel omits Thalestris' encounter with Alexander and focuses only on her amorous relationship with Orontes. At first she does not want to know about a love affair with Orontes, but changes her mind when she falls into the captivity of enemies and is rescued from her predicament by Orontes.
In the opera Thalestris, which premiered in Bayreuth in 1717, the liaison of the title heroine with Orontes is also the leitmotif. The same theme was used by the Saxon electress Maria Antonia Walpurgis in her opera Talestri, regina delle Amazzoni, first staged at Nymphenburg Palace in 1760 or 1763.
At the beginning of the plot, Talestri is crowned the new Amazon Queen. At this time, her secret lover, the Scythian prince Oronte, who has temporarily lived with the Amazons disguised as a woman, is already in their captivity. He is to be killed as a ceremonial sacrifice.
When Oronte's friend Learco attacks with a Scythian army and is also captured, he falls in love with Talestri's sister Antiope. Especially the high priestess Tomiri resists Talestris and Antiope's request to pardon the Scythian princes. Eventually, however, reconciliation occurs between the Amazons and Scythians, and the two lovers are able to marry.
In the novel La nouvelle Talestris, written by an anonymous French author in 1700, two girls who are friends read Cassandre's work and then act out that they are Amazons. When one of the girls is seized by passion for her friend's brother, but loses this lover again, she falls into his madness and, disguised as an Amazon, searches everywhere for him.
The Italian librettist Aurelio Aureli, meanwhile, returned to the ancient tradition about the Amazon queen for his libretto set to music by Bernardo Sabadini for the opera Talestri innamorata d'Alessandro Magno (1693).
The German novelist Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler und Kliphausen greatly reshaped La Calprenède's Thalestris material, which served him as a basis, for his opera libretto Die lybische Talestris. The accompanying music was composed by Johann Philipp Krieger; the work was performed at the Weißenfels court in 1696.
Already in antiquity Amazons had been localized - for instance by Diodorus - also in North African Libya, and Ziegler took up this tradition by having Talestris dwell there with her warrior folk. Talestris is sketched as very quarrelsome and hostile to men and, although he is faithful to her, wants to kill the man who is in love with her.
Nevertheless, he stays with her and the title character ultimately gives in to his courtship. In 1715, a novel based on Ziegler's libretto appeared, but the plot was expanded. La Calprenède's recasting of the ancient Thalestris episode for the period of the late Baroque had generated a new interest in this theme, which had already come to an end in the subsequent Rococo era.
Girolamo Fagivoli: Alexander and Thalestris, after Francesco Primaticcio (painting, 16th century). Johann Georg Plazer: The Amazon Queen Thalestris in the Camp of Alexander (painting, c. 1750)