Cleitus the Black

Alexander Slaying Cleitus by Daniël de Blieck

Cleitus the Black (Greek: Κλεῖτος ὁ μέλας; c. 375 BC – 328 BC) was an officer of the Macedonian army led by Alexander the Great. He saved Alexander's life at the Battle of the Granicus and was killed by him in a drunken quarrel several years later. Cleitus was son of Dropides and brother of Alexander's nurse, Lanike.

Battle of the Granicus

At the Battle of the Granicus in 334 BC, when Alexander was personally under attack by Rhoesaces and Spithridates, Cleitus severed Spithridates's hammer arm before the Persian satrap could bring it down on Alexander and saved his life.[1][2]

The death of Cleitus

In 328 BC Artabazus resigned his satrapy of Bactria, and Alexander gave it to Cleitus.[3] On the eve of the day on which he was to set out to take possessions of his government, Alexander organized a banquet in the satrapial palace at Maracanda (what is now the town of Samarkand). At this banquet an angry dispute arose, the particulars of which are disputed by various authors.

Most of the members were rather drunk, and Alexander announced a reorganization of commands. Specifically, Cleitus was given orders to take 16,000 of the defeated Greek mercenaries who formerly fought for the Persian King north to fight the steppe nomads in Central Asia.

Cleitus knew that he would no longer be near the king and would be a forgotten man. Furious at the thought of commanding what he saw as second-rate soldiers, fighting nomads in the middle of nowhere, he spoke his mind. To make matters worse, when Alexander arrogantly boasted that his accomplishments were far greater than that of his father, Phillip II, Cleitus responded by saying that Alexander was not the legitimate king of the Macedonians, and that all of his achievements were due to his father. Alexander called for his guards, but they did not want to intervene in a quarrel between friends.

Alexander kills Cleitus, painting by André Castaigne 1898–1899

Alexander threw an apple at Cleitus' head and called for a dagger or spear, but the party near the two men removed the dagger, restrained Alexander, and hustled Cleitus out of the room. The Hypaspists had conveniently left the vicinity of Alexander. Alexander then called for his trumpeter to summon the army, the alarm was not sounded. Nevertheless, Cleitus managed to return to the room to utter more grievances against Alexander (it is possible that Cleitus had not left the room). But sources agree that at this point Alexander got hold of a javelin and threw it through Cleitus' heart.

In all of the four major texts we possess, it is shown that Alexander grieved for the death of Cleitus. Alexander may have genuinely not wanted to kill Cleitus. However, Cleitus was a member of the generation of Philip II and Alexander had been systematically killing off that generation to keep his generation in power.

The motives of Cleitus in this quarrel have been interpreted in various ways. Cleitus may have been angered at Alexander's increasing adoption of Persian customs. After the death of King Darius III Alexander was legally King of the Persian Empire. Alexander was now employing eunuchs such as Bagoas (not to be confused with another Bagoas, who was a contemporary high Persian official) and was tolerant of such Persian customs as proskynesis, a sort of kow-tow thought to be degrading by many in the Macedonian army.

Cultural references

Cleitus, as Clito, appears as a character in Handel's opera Alessandro.

The American poet John Berryman recounts the tale of "Kleitos" in his thirty-third "dream song."

The death of Cleitus at Alexander's hand is depicted in a scene of the film Alexander. The scene was intended to be the "turning point" in the campaign, when the Macedonian generals began to insist (more quietly than Cleitus) that Alexander return home. The film, however, erroneously depicts the death of Cleitus (played by Gary Stretch) as taking place in India as the film groups events as being "Persian" (Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, Babylon) or "After Persia" (Maracanda where Cleitus was killed, Sogdia, Bactria, India, etc.).

Cleitus's death is also depicted in Mary Butts's 1931 novel The Macedonian.


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