Alexander the Greatest

by Victor Davis Hanson

The Times Literary Supplement

A review of:

Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge (341 pp., Macmillan. £18.99)

Alexander: Destiny and Myth by Claude Mossé (244 pp., Edinburgh University Press. £49.99.)

Alexander the Conqueror: The Epic Story of the Warrior Kingby Laura Foreman (213 pp., Da Capo. £19.99.)

The Death of Alexander the Great: What – or – Who Really Killed the Young Conqueror of the Known World? by Paul Doherty (236 pp., Constable. £17.99.)

The ancient world is on a Hollywood roll. First Gladiator, then Troy, and now an Alexander the Great directed by Oliver Stone, starring Colin Farrell, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie, due out in early November. Rumours are already flying of Lord of the Rings-like epic battlescapes, graphic violence, overt homosexuality and flamboyant drunkenness. “Bad fiction”, quips Colin Farrell of the often sordid life which the wild-man actor brings to the big screen. The Greeks, in fits of nationalist pride after their football triumph and successful Olympics, are already griping that their national icon – in timely fashion rehabilitated during the recent Macedonian crisis – is to be gratuitously sullied, while the public awaits eagerly something like a mix between a sweeping Ben Hur and fleshy Caligula.

Meanwhile, some scholars fret that despite – or because of – his $150 million budget, Stone will do to Alexander what he did to Kennedy and Nixon. Others more bold rush into print lavishly illustrated Alexander-the-Great biographies, eager to piggyback onto the once-in-a-lifetime global attention, planning to snag (we Classicists hope) a few thousand new crossover readers from a worldwide audience of millions of filmgoers. The general English-reading public, worried about the supposed ongoing “Clash of Civilizations” – American soldiers in Mosul last year passed not far from the site of Alexander’s greatest victory at Gaugamela (modern Irbil) – has a renewed, though morbid, curiosity about the first great Western invasion of the now all-too-familiar territory of Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The subtitles of these recently released volumes – replete with words and jazzed-up phrases like “myth”, “hunt for” and “who really killed…?” – hope to tap into the controversy arising over the film. In fact, both the sensationalism and bewilderment over Alexander the Great are not new, but simply reflect some 2,300 years of ongoing dispute over what the warrior-king actually did and who he really was.

Our extant sources for Alexander’s life – the historians and biographers Arrian, Curtius Rufus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch – cannot agree on any general assessment. Indeed, they offer both glory and dirt, drawing from lost contemporary sources – Aristoboulos, Callisthenes, Cleitarchus and Ptolemy in the mostly “good” Alexander corner, along with the more negative Nearchus and Chares. This literary quagmire is further muddled by “official” and “vulgate” traditions, Hellenistic myth-making and Roman-era propaganda, all giving rise to either extreme of the drunken perverted psychopath or the Aristotelian who tamed Asia as he had the equally wild Bucephalus, with gentle firmness and romantic élan.

Still, the basic facts are not in dispute. After the murder of his father, Philip II of Macedonia, the twenty-year-old adolescent liquidated his chief rivals and claimed Philip’s throne. He adroitly put down internal rebellion and then, at twenty-three, invaded and conquered Persia – over 1 million square miles and 50 million subjects – in a mere decade, before his mutinous troops finally reined him in at the Indus.

Alexander died of “natural” causes at thirty-two in Babylon but under mysterious circumstances. Both the ancient and modern rub with Alexander comes from reconciling what he claimed with what we know he did. Like Napoleon, who caused the death of hundreds of thousands in Russia and Iberia, while lecturing on the sacrifices needed to bring Revolutionary egalitarianism to Europe, Alexander’s “Brotherhood of Man” – a purportedly noble Hellenic effort to civilize and unite Asia into a kinder and gentler continent – was the brilliant rhetorical veneer that rested atop millions of corpses.

Mass death followed him everywhere. Alexander levelled the hallowed city of
Thebes – 20,000 enslaved, 6,000 butchered. He rounded up and liquidated 15,000 Greek captured soldiers after the battle of Granicus. Tens of thousands more were slain during – and again after – the sieges of Miletus, Halicarnassus (334), Sagalassus (333), Tyre and Gaza (332), all as grand precursors to the incineration of Persepolis. The dirty, asymmetrical warring between 331 and 326 in Afghanistan and Bactria took the highest toll, where whole regions were ethnically cleansed. The vainglorious, wholly unnecessary march back from the Indus River through the Gedrosian desert caused more Macedonian deaths than all the phalangites lost to the Persians and Indians in four horrendous battles, slugfests themselves that claimed tens of thousands of the enemy.

Add to this tally the random murders of Macedonian cavaliers – Cleitus stabbed in a drunken rage, Philotas executed after a show-trial, seventy-year-old Parmenio beheaded, and the generals Cleander and Sitacles along with 600 of their soldiers dispatched. The cranky philosopher and historian Callisthenes was finally done away with, and so were hundreds of Macedonian pages. Alexander, the philosopher king, introduced the popularity of both decimation and crucifixion into the Western world. We are sometimes told that all this gore was the necessary wage of imperial conquest, which according to our Victorian standard histories either ensured needed unification for a fragmenting Greece (J. G. Droysen) or brought belated civilization to heathens (W. W. Tarn).

A new generation of biographers has not been so kind. Peter Green’s Alexander was, among other things, a clever but ultimately deranged fraud. The even tougher portrait that emerges from A. B. Bosworth, Ian Worthington and Ernst Badian is one of a ruthless autocrat, whose deference to the East and hocus-pocus one-worldism were little more than propaganda that made it easier for a half-educated youth, equipped with his daddy’s army, to conquer, loot and kill with impunity.

And yet most cannot quite accept this new darker Alexander. The Greek government surely cannot, as it showcases the stunning imperial tombs from Vergina and insists that all of Macedonia has always been as Hellenic as Alexander was himself. Perhaps none of us is quite ready to destroy this image of the handsome romantic nation-builder, Homer’s Achilles come alive.

Alexander did not look or sound quite like his one-eyed, gimpy, thuggish father, or any of the gangsters and debauchees who inherited his kingdom. And in the heart even of the most utopian academic rests the human sin of admiration for material achievement and military prowess: Alexander, like Caesar or Napoleon, did things not only that we would not do, but also which we could not if we wished.

None of the books under review, given their need for haste and a self-confessed desire to time their publications with the movie, is as authoritative as Bosworth’s existing biography, as engagingly written as Green’s, or as massive as Robin Lane Fox’s (the latter is a consultant on the Stone film). But by far the best of the current crop is Alexander the Great: The hunt for a new past by Paul Cartledge, who combines thorough knowledge of recent scholarship with wide literary and historical allusion, in offering a reliable narrative that might well interest those in the after-movie glow who want a little more than Colin Farrell, Oliver Stone et al have offered them. Everyone from Walt Whitman to Constantine Kavafy is conjured up, along with ample allusions to Orde Wingate’s Chindits and even Earl Mountbatten. We get the gore, bisexuality and megalomania, but presented by a real scholar (there are fine chapters on Persia and the problem of our sources) who is neither pedantic nor trendy.

To Cartledge, Alexander the Conqueror is a mixed bag – not nice for killing so many, but, given the depressing mores of the time, not so unusual either. And unlike other murderous ancient captains, at least he was a precursor to what Cartledge breezily calls “peaceful, multi-ethnic coexistence”, albeit with the obligatory “streak of ruthlessness”. Cartledge’s Alexander almost comes off the pages as a sort of proto-global ecumenicalist (“One of the supreme fertilizing forces in history”). So instead of Tarn’s white man’s burden, we nearly get an ends-justifying- the-means struggle for something like the dream of an ancient United Nations or at least a more informal global multiculturalism.

Cartledge, not known from his earlier writing for either romance or naivety, offers up such encomia without a trace of irony, nor any sign of anxiety that in some sense Genghis Khan, Cortes and Napoleon also fit his bill of “fertilizing forces” of cross-cultural change. Of course, he is not necessarily wrong; but a few paragraphs that try to weigh the carnage as the price of post-bellum utopianism might be salutary. Nevertheless, most of us Classicists would rather be wrong with Paul Cartledge than right with the majority of others – and so it is in the present case with this excellent biography.

Claude Mossé, who like Cartledge established her reputation through investigating the class conflict of fourth-century Greece, offers a livelier, but more eccentric account in Alexander: Destiny and myth. Only half of Mossé’s short biography is devoted to the usual round-up of battles, conquests and palace intrigue. Instead of adjudicating between the good and bad Alexander, Mossé assesses his achievement for posterity in more material, zero-sum terms of winners and losers.

There was always monarchy on the fringes of the Hellenic world outside the Greek polis, but after Alexander it transmogrified into a global phenomenon, both more intrusive and authoritarian than the old homegrown kingship in Thessaly or Macedon. As both living god and saviour, the new Hellenistic basileus felt no need to haggle over concessions with the old cadre of landed aristocrats and mounted grandees. Macedonian-style monarchy might have ignored local autonomy here and there, but the logic of Alexander’s notion of regality was totalitarian and theocratic, with dire ramifications for what was left of Greek liberty.

As for Alexander’s “empire”, there was none really, but rather a sort of continental Lebanon, where successor thugs fought each other for centuries. The Hellenism of the successor kings was never more than a thin veneer over mostly unassimilated Asian populations; in practical terms consisting chiefly of Greek public works and the military sciences of killing more efficiently through phalanxes, siegecraft and huge ships. Here the post-Marxist Mossé makes good points about the rising level of exploitation as Hellenistic expertise and a monetary economy helped marshal labour and capital more efficiently to enhance the ever more few. Imported know-how now largely enriched a narrow Persian-like, though Greek-speaking, elite. Thus Alexander’s legacy over three centuries unfolded as a pyramidal society of two, not three classes of the old polis. In strict economic terms, Alexander went east to Hellenize Asia and ended up Orientalizing the Greek-speaking Mediterranean.

Yet Alexander really did leave a radically altered world in terms of elite culture. What emerged from the vast wealth of the looted Achaemenid treasuries, and the nexus of thousands of intellectuals and scientists who tagged along after the army, was a garish hybridized pan-Mediterranean arts and letters. As Peter Green has emphasized, the mishmash was often extreme and overdone, but undeniably wild and radically different nonetheless.

Claude Mossé uses the first person too much; much of her analysis is impressionistic rather than logical; and there is no apparent rationale to the presentation of chapters. Yet the book is nevertheless oddly engaging – especially her final account of Alexander’s continual reinterpretation in the medieval and contemporary European worlds. Janet Lloyd offers another of her customarily reliable translations of French classical scholarship, and the result is something far better than the usual rehash of Alexander’s life and legacy.

Laura Foreman’s Alexander the Conqueror is a beautiful picture book. I say that without condescension, since she has assembled a photo mélange that goes beyond the usual Pompeii-mosaic copy of the lost Hellenistic rendition of Issus and the de rigueur sculpted fighting scenes from the Alexander Sarcophagus. Aerial photos of modern-day Alexandria, a colour landscape shot from rural Syria, snow on the Hindu Kush and ancient and modern Tyre are juxtaposed well with some rare line drawings and watercolours of both eastern cities and the famous snapshots of Alexander’s life, rendered by the Victorian painter David Roberts, the seventeenth-century French artists Jacques Curtois and Charles Le Brun, and the less well-known canvases of Francesco Guardi and Ciro Ferri.

Foreman’s accompanying text is overshadowed by the glossy photos, but still based on sound scholarship, making this new offering perhaps the best short picture book of Alexander yet to appear. The cover advertises a foreword by Eugene N. Borza, but it is too short (less than a thousand words) and mostly reassurance from a professor emeritus of Macedonian studies that the non-scholar Foreman’s text passes academic muster (“the reader may feel confident that Laura Foreman’s portrait…”). The theme of Foreman’s own text is the standard “a great”, but not a “good” man, assessment of Alexander, with the usual caution not to judge him by the elevated morals of our ages. All in all, it is a handsome volume, elegantly produced and modestly priced.

Less need be said about Paul Doherty’s murder mystery, Alexander the Great: The death of a god. Most Classicists agree that ancient rumours of Alexander’s poisoning are not necessarily false – given the legion of disgruntled soldiers, bereaved relatives of his many victims, and intense rivalry among his murderous cadre of marshals. If he did not die from acute cirrhosis, encephalitis, or malaria, we could perhaps argue over the method of his purported poisoning – arsenic or strychnine? – but there really is not enough evidence to pin the plotting on any likely suspect, much less hinge an entire book on the premiss that a reactionary Ptolemy did in his Orientalizing boss. About all that Doherty produces as evidence is that Ptolemy had motive enough and easy entrée to do the deed. For those who like a whodunnit mystery novel, Paul Doherty’s Alexander is apparently a sequel to his earlier “Who killed?”treatments of Edward II and Tutankhamun.

Gladiator more or less registered well on Classicists’ authenticity meter. Troy, on the other hand, was an abject travesty of Homer. With Angelina Jolie as a twenty-seven-year- old Olympias, mother of Colin Farrell’s twenty-eight-year-old Alexander, I don’t entertain much hope for Oliver Stone’s allegiance to what was likely rather than to anything and everything that cannot entirely be ruled out. Nonetheless, Classical scholars have done their small part in offering reliable but also lively guidance for any cinematographer interested in engaging history rather than empty entertainment – as three of these fine books under review attest.

Share This