Aristander of Telmessos is one of my new favorite figures from classical history. He was Alexander the Great’s personal soothsayer, and he was never wrong. The Greeks themselves assumed he had mystical knowledge that let him pierce the veil of time. My skeptical interpretation is that he was a shameless flatterer who got lucky.
Imagine. You’re hired by this new boy-king, totally untested. He says “I’m going try to conquer Thessaly, predict what will happen”. You don’t know much about Thessaly, but you know where your bread gets buttered. “Oh, it will be a great triumph, Your Majesty, remembered in song for centuries to come.”
Then he comes back “Wow, you were totally right about that one, they’re already writing the songs. Maybe I should just take on all of Greece now, what do you think about that?” “Uh, it will be a resounding victory, my lord, everything will go exactly as you planned”.
Then Alexander comes back. “Very impressive, right again! Maybe I should go up against the whole Persian Empire single-handed, what do you think?” At this point you start wondering if your luck has run out. But Alexander seems like the wrong guy to cross, and you don’t want to seem disloyal, so you just say “Well, yes, ah, surely that will all go just fine.” And it does.
And then Alexander shakes your hand and says “You know, you’re the only guy I can really trust about this stuff. So, well, I’ve got Greece. I’ve got Persia. I don’t really know what else there is in the world, but I think I might just try marching east and conquering everything I see and renaming it after myself. What are your thoughts?” And by now you know the score, so you just say “Yes, Your Majesty, whatever you say, it’s a great idea and I’m sure you’ll win a legendary victory over whatever the heck there is east of the known world.” A few years later, a messenger from some ethnicity you’ve never heard of, wearing strange clothing made from an animal you thought was mythical, brings you a letter that just says “RIGHT AGAIN - LOVE, ALEX”. In fact, this happens several times. The letters are always postmarked “Alexandria”, even though they all seem to be coming from different places.
And so you go down in legend as one of history’s most accurate soothsayers.
My favorite Aristander story is when Alexander is besieging the city of Tyre. He’s getting tired (no pun intended) of the siege, so he asks Aristander when he’ll finally win the victory. “This month,” says Aristander confidently, forgetting that it is the last day of the month and the city is widely considered impregnable. Alexander is sort of concerned, and doesn’t want to break his lucky streak of all the prophecies coming true, so he makes an emergency decree changing the calendar and adding two days on to the end of the month to give him more time. Then he feels bad about it, attacks the city, and captures it that day.
“How do you do it?” he asks a face-palming Aristander. “You’re always right. It’s just spooky.”
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