The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Published 1973 – pp numbers from Penguin edition.  Set in the 4th century BC

[The Persian Boy is Bagoas, favourite of Alexander the Great]

[ch 10] The suit of clothes… were of fine cloth, a loose coat of dark red, blue trousers and embroidered slippers…

[ch 13] For my costume, I ordered a Greek-style tunic, made all of scarlet ribbons, caught together just at the neck and waist… I had anklets sewn with round tinkling rattles of beaten gold…

[ch 17] I had my new suit made in deep red, embroidered with gold spangled flowers. The buttons were jewelled roses. I put it away to wear when he [Alexander] came back.

I should soon be twenty. Alone in my tent, I often looked in the mirror. For people like me, it is a dangerous age…

[ch 20] I had been wearing my coat of the silk from Marakanda, with its flying serpents and flowers. Its blue gleam caught my eye… the buttons were of a pale green stone, heavy and cool to touch, carved with magic signs.

[ch 24] I wore white striped with green, and started with little tinkling finger-bells for the mountain stream…

observations: Should be read in conjunction with this earlier entry.

Bagoas is personal servant to and lover of Alexander the Great, and is also a eunuch and a dancer. His beauty is his capital, so naturally he is very interested in what he wears.

An oddity of the novel is that Bagoas and Alexander do not meet till a hundred pages in. Apparently this was part of a very specific plan by Renault, according to her biographer, David Sweetman:

The plot itself is a seduction, the first third taken up with the slow advance of Alexander…[he] advances like a lover, courting the object of his desire…

- which is the Persian Empire. Bagoas is merely symbolic in this respect.

Sweetman also says that Renault considered that Bagoas would have looked like a Michelangelo sculpture of a slave – I’m guessing this one from the Louvre:

-- you can see the film version of him in the earlier entry. 

The voice of Bagoas is very well done in the book: funny, slightly camp, charmingly manipulative, loving. He is respectful of his and Alexander’s importance, but sometimes endearingly realistic – this unlikely character is rather a tour de force, a triumph of Renault’s imagination.

The top picture is from a manuscript at the Walters Museum in Baltimore, and shows a Persian court scene with music and dancing. The Museum (which has generously made its collection available under a Creative Commons licence) has some lovely, mostly Persian, manuscripts with illustrations from Alexander’s life – see for example him mourning Darius and enthroned at Persopolis. As mentioned before, we are more used to seeing Alexander as very Western.

Links on the blog: Earlier entry here. Alexander in the book likes to read Herodotus. We would find it hard to choose between Bagoas and Bucephalas as historian of Alexander’s life.


  1. Moira - Oh, yes, I recall your earlier entry! And the character of Bagoas really sounds very interesting. All that, history and wit too? What's not to like.

    1. This book is such a favourite of mine - I have read it many times and it always enchants me...


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