A choice few characters in history have earned, or at least have acquired and retained, the title of “The Great.” Peter the Great, of Russia; Charles the Great, who is Charlemagne, Emperor of the West; Louis le Grand, fourteenth of that name, King of France: we are familiar, more or less ironically, with them all. An attempt was made by Romantic Victorian writers to call Alfred, king in Britain in the ninth century, by that gratifying title, but the general verdict of the British has been an embarrassed mutter of “Oh, chuck it!”
Least controversial of all, perhaps, has been Alexander III of Macedon, conqueror of Egypt and of the huge empire of Persia, and invader of India: Alexander the Great. He combined enormous conquests with great personal dash, good looks, and (above all) youth: having conquered much of the world, he died at the age of thirty-two. That is more romantic, certainly, than living on like Napoleon on St. Helena, growing stout, and quarreling about trivialities with the second-rate civil servant who was his keeper.
The Greeks of the classical period were greatly impressed by the mighty Persian Empire, which had come from nowhere and smashed, in bewilderingly quick succession, the older powers of Babylon, Assyria, Lydia, Phoenicia, and Egypt. All went down like ninepins before this terrifying new player. When, in the early years of the fifth century BCE, Darius, the Great King, having subdued the Greek cities of Asia Minor, marched on mainland Hellas, few observers gave the Greeks a chance. The oracular god Apollo, from his well-informed shrine of Delphi, issued some very disheartening forecasts. After the event, they had to be carefully explained away by the embarrassed staff of the oracle.
The Persians were given a bloody nose by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BCE, when they sent only a small force to Hellas, judging that it would be easily sufficient for the job. Ten years later, King Xerxes, Darius’ successor, came in person, with an enormous army and fleet, drawn from all the peoples of the East and the South. To the astonishment of the world, the Persians were roundly defeated, on land at Plataea and on sea at Salamis, and the Great King (that was his title, but usually he was called, even more impressively, just “King”) had to retreat at full speed back to Asia.
Aeschylus’ play The Persians (472 BCE) dramatizes those astonishing events, declaring that the gods were not prepared to see one man rule both Asia and Europe: the Persian defeat was thus part of the divine plan. Herodotus, the first and—still—the most readable of historians, tells the story at length and with astonishing evenhandedness.
For the next century and a half, Persia and Hellas rubbed along, side by side. There were episodes of war, on a smallish scale; embassies; treaties; trade. On the Greek side, there were those who urged, in vain, that the quarrelsome cities of Hellas should stop fighting each other and instead …