Harpalus, An Unfaithful Servant

Harpalus was a courtier of Alexander the Great, whose story is told in various ancient authors. Here is the account in the first-century BC historian Diodorus Siculus.

Harpalus had been given the custody of the treasury in Babylon and of the revenues which accrued to it, but as soon as the king had carried his campaign into India, he assumed that Alexander would never come back, and gave himself up to comfortable living. Although he had been charged as satrap with the administration of a great country, he first occupied himself with the abuse of women and illegitimate amours with the natives and squandered much of the treasure under his control on incontinent pleasure. He fetched all the long way from the Red Sea a great quantity of fish and introduced an extravagant way of life, so that he came under general criticism. Later, moreover, he sent and brought from Athens the most dazzling courtesan of the day, whose name was Pythonicê. As long as she lived he gave her gifts worthy of a queen, and when she died, he gave her a magnificent funeral and erected over her grave a costly monument of the Attic type.

After that, he brought out a second Attic courtesan named Glycera and kept her in exceeding luxury, providing her with a way of life which was fantastically expensive. At the same time, with an eye on the uncertainties of fortune, he established himself a place of refuge by benefactions to the Athenians.

When Alexander did come back from India and put to death many of the satraps who had been charged with neglect of duty, Harpalus became alarmed at the punishment which might befall him. He packed up five thousand talents of silver, enrolled six thousand mercenaries, departed from Asia and sailed across to Attica.

Diodorus Siculus 17.108.4–6 (LCL edition, pp. 435–37)

Diodorus continues the story just a bit longer, showing that Harpalus found himself unwelcome and, pretty soon, murdered.

This story reminded me of the Parable of the Unfaithful Servant, told in Matthew 24:45–51.

But if that wicked slave says to himself, “My master is delayed,” and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 24:48–51 (cf. Luke 12:35–48

Honestly, I have long found that last bit of Jesus’ parable to be sort of incredible. Would a master really punish a slave in that way? After reading some ancient histories of Alexander, I am less surprised by the master’s treatment of his slave. Alexander could deal harshly with any hint of insubordination, as you can tell from the passage above about Harpalus, who got scared because Alexander was executing insubordinate servants. I don’t recall a story in which Alexander cut anyone up in little pieces (as in Jesus’ parable), but there are some gruesome things in ancient histories, so while Jesus might be exaggerating for effect (hyperbole), he wasn’t exaggerating much.

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