Tuesday, December 03, 2002

A member of my ancient Rome discussion group posted a rather unflattering assessment of Alexander the Great today, citing his megalomaniac behavior evidenced by his trying to imitate eastern despots. After reading Mary Renault's trilogy of novels about Alexander (Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, Funeral Games) as well as her biography, The Nature of Alexander, research articles, and even Judith Tarr's novel "Lord of the Two Lands", I found myself admiring this Macedonian warrior king more an more. Therefore, I could not help but defend him with the following observations:

Prostration was a recognized social practice in Persia to demonstrate deference to a member of a higher social class. It was not viewed as "groveling" any more than a priest would view prostrating himself before the Pope, groveling, or a samurai bowing before his master, groveling. Alexander had to demonstrate his newly assumed position to his new Persian subjects in a social manner they would understand. The problem arose when his Persian subjects were offended by what they viewed was a lack of respect by his countrymen for the man that was now their Great King. He attempted to resolve the problem by offering to kiss his Persian subjects, a custom used by Macedonians, in response to their prostration and asked his Macedonians to respond both ways as well. However, the Macedonians, with their conceptions of superiority, would not agree to this either.

The Macedonians were further outraged that Alexander had actually recruited young Persians to form a new group of Companions trained in Macedonian tactics. They simply could not give up their centuries-old concept of the behavior of conquerors and conquered. This is further demonstrated by the behavior of Alexander's successor generals in ruling their respective satrapies after his death.

As for the Kleitos the Black affair, Alexander realized he had made a terrible moral mistake by killing Kleitos but Kleitos did provide serious provocation. Using a quote from Euripedes, Kleitos essentially accused Alexander of having no regard for his men at all but being consumed with his own ambition. Alexander was ambitious. He could not have achieved all that he did without it. But he always led from the front and expected no more of his men than he did of himself - something modern generals can never claim. This was a slander of Alexander's honor and leadership. Both men had been drinking heavily (another Macedonian custom) and inhibitions were severely impaired by that time. Kleitos would have survived if he had left after the two men were initially separated but he wouldn't let it rest. He returned to the banquet with more epithets and Alexander, by then in a rage, snatched up the spear before anyone could stop him. We are talking about two very physical and aggressive warriors here still stained with the blood and sweat of a fresh battle. We're not talking about two accountants arguing over a tax return.

As for the "commonsensical" court from which he came, the Macedonian court was hardly a model of liberal political values unless you call the liberty to assassinate your fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins, etc. something to be emulated. In fact, your venerable Philip eliminated his rivals with brutal efficiency, those he couldn't bribe with the gold of Mt. Pangaeus. Philip was a very talented war leader and astute diplomat but I would avoid viewing his career with rose-colored glasses. In addition, even though Olympias claimed Alexander was the son of Apollo and he was proclaimed son of Amun in Egypt, efforts to formalize his deification were not unheard of in Greek society and was probably only intended to be a political maneuver at the time. Alexander admired Philip and actively sought Philip's approval as most young men would. But Philip's refusal to rebut his new wife's father's drunken slur inferring Alexander was not a legitimate heir at one of Philip's innumerable wedding feasts was a far more direct disgrace to Alexander than any assumed disrespect from acceptance of claims of immortal origins.

I would also be hesitant to grant the term "venerable" to the old captains that served at Philip's side. If you are referring to Parmenion, I think you should at least consider the consequences of Parmenion's son's involvement in a plot to assassinate Alexander (or his willingness to allow it to occur without warning Alexander of the threat). Even if Parmenion had not indicated his complicity by smiling slightly upon receiving the forged letter notifying him of the assassination, Alexander would not have had much choice but to have the "old captain" executed because of the Macedonian cultural policy of blood vengence.

Alexander was very respectful to his culture's gods, insisting upon personally offering the morning libation just a few days before his death. He sponsored games and classical Greek theatrical performances and shared his wealth generously. He valued loyalty and friendship and actively sought the love of his men.

PBS recommends the following texts:

"Alexander the Great"
Fox, Robin Lane. Reissue edition.
Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1994.
ISBN: 0140088784
Cost: $12.75
Additional texts:

Arrian. "The Campaigns of Alexander" (England: Penguin Classics, 1958).

Curtius, Rufus. "The History of Alexander" (London: Penguin Classics, 1984).

Diodorus. "Library of History" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1963).

Justin. "Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Vol. 1: Alexander the Great" (Clarendon Press, 1996).

Plutarch. "The Age of Alexander" (New York: Penguin Classics, 1995).

To this list I would add "The Nature of Alexander" by Mary Renault (Random House, 1979)