She is frozen in motion as she leads the soldiers in their drunken stupor. According to legend , she is the one responsible for the burning of the palace at Persepolis. The woman is Thais, and the date is approximately 330 BCE, the artist who creates this moment is named Joshua Reynolds.
Why are the men drunk? Why are they following a woman? Because of the man that she travels with: Alexander the Great. Tutored by Aristotle, by thirty Alexander had created the largest empire in the ancient world. Thais (pronounced tah-eess) was a hetaera, or courtesan that traveled with Alexander on his military campaigns. It is not certain whether they were lovers, but one historian states that Alexander ‘liked to keep Thais with him’. Hetaera were women in ancient Greek society who claimed a stronger independence than normal women. Usually they were freed slaves that excelled in music, dance, beauty or intelligence.
The event that precedes this painting is recounted by Diodorus Siculus, a historian writing almost 350 years later. Diodorus tells us that after a successful attack on Persepolis, in modern day Iran, Alexander and his entourage celebrated with a banquet. While Alexander and his men were drunk on wine, Thais is said to have made a passionate entreaty- that Alexander and his men must revenge the destruction of the temple of Athena in Athens by the Persian Xerxes years before. The men, we are told, impassioned with wine, grasp her words and make it their mission. A parade of drunken warriors, dancers and musicians with Thais in the lead make their way to Persepolis. Thais is given the honour of throwing the first torch on the pyre that was the palace of Persepolis.
Is this legend an example of the power of Thais, or is she the scapegoat for the destruction of the palace at Persepolis? Notice that it is only after the men have had too much wine that they agree to destroy the palace that is a tribute to the Persian Empire. It is hard to answer- Alexander’s men have already plundered and killed many in Persepolis- why would this act need an explanation?
Her implication in the destruction doesn’t do her any personal harm. As her life unfolds, she partners up with Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s generals who become King of Egypt. He is also the man who establishes the library of Alexandria, ancestor of Cleopatra. Thais, will never be Ptolemy’s legal wife, but they will share two boys and a girl together. Her daughter will be queen of Cyprus.
As with so many throughout time, her death is unrecorded. A woman who wined, dined and slept with two of the most interesting men in history is lost to history- save for one passionate and destructive act.