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 unite in a crusade of retaliation against the Persian Empire.
Not much came of that, despite indications that the conquest might not be as difficult as it looked, until Alexander became king of Macedon. That was a half-Hellenized kingdom up in the north, which many Hellenes did not regard as properly Hellenic at all. Alexander’s father, Philip II, succeeded in suppressing the liberty of the Greek cities, including Athens, and planned the invasion of Persia; he was removed from the scene by death, and his young son Alexander inherited his plans and his ambitions.
The project was now nothing less than the conquest of Persia. It was fantastically ambitious. The King ruled from the eastern coast of the Aegean all the way down into India. His empire included the ancient realms of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon, each a kingdom rich in history, possessions, and power; and Lydia, realm of King Croesus of the fabulous wealth, and of King Midas of the golden touch.
Alexander defeated the Persian armies in three great pitched battles, and the unfortunate Persian king was murdered by his own people. Alexander married an exotic Eastern princess, became King of Kings, and died, not quite thirty-three years old, in Babylon (323 BCE). Some said he died of a particularly violent drinking bout: heavy drinking seems to have been a tradition among the upper class of Macedon, a society by no means famous for its cultural or scholarly interests.
News of his death percolated back to Greece. Some refused to believe it. If he were really dead, said one, the whole world would reek of his corpse. But dead he was, and the struggle was on for the succession to his vast realm and fabulous wealth. His generals fought it out, each aiming to keep as much as he could. Alexander’s young son was promptly murdered, and most of his family wiped out. The whole story is a cruel lesson—almost, one might feel, overemphatic in conception—on the vanity of ambition and the nothingness of power.
After a generation of warfare, things settled down. No king had been able to hold on to the whole of Alexander’s empire. Four more or less stable monarchies emerged, among them the Egypt of Ptolemy, a level-headed general, which would last for three hundred years; its last queen was the famous Cleopatra (a Macedonian name). One by one, those kingdoms fell to the rising and irresistible power of Rome. But Alexander lived on, as a figure of fantasy and romance.
Sometimes he was a focus for hatred of the Roman conquerors and oppressors. If only Alexander had lived, said many Greeks, he would have conquered these horrible Romans. But Roman writers disagreed: Alexander would have met his match in the sturdy Roman legions!
There is nothing like an early death for creating legends, and Richard Stoneman gives a great many of them learned but lively treatment in his new book. The Egyptians had a story that made Alexander an Egyptian; the Persians soon had one that declared him to be a Persian. In these and many other cases, of course, the point is the same: We were never conquered, except by one of our own people!
By 300 CE there was an imaginative Egyptian version of the Alexander legend to which Stoneman gives close attention. The legend has two main points. One is that Alexander was, in fact, the son of an Egyptian aristocratic priest, or wizard, named Nectanebo (the last pharaoh had the name Nekht-hor-heb, to which this is evidently an approximation): he went to Macedon, says the tale, and impregnated Alexander’s mother, the formidable Olympias. For the occasion, he assumed the form of a serpent. Nectanebo fled back to Egypt and was defeated and killed by the Persians—and so the unborn Alexander, his avenger, is the heir of the pharaohs, and his conquest of Egypt and Persia will avenge his father and liberate his country from the Persian yoke. Egyptian pride could take comfort from that.
The story adds that Nectanebo was an accomplished astrologer, who planned that Olympias should give birth at the right moment for the production of a world conqueror. Some versions of the story embellish this outline with spicy details. Did Olympias know, or did she not, who it was that slept with her? In one version she is made to ask her serpentine bedfellow when he will come back for another night with her. The story has a dark turn: Alexander will, unwittingly, kill his real Egyptian father. But that does not cast much more than a transient shadow.
It is not surprising that there also existed a Persian version of Alexander’s birth. According to the Persian poet Firdausi, writing in the tenth century, “Sekandar” was actually the half-brother of Dara: that is, of Darius, the Persian king whom, in history, Alexander conquered. The Al- of Alexander’s name is here taken to be the familiar Arabic prefix, with which it had, in reality, no connection at all. So, after Dara’s death, Sekandar was the legitimate ruler of Persia. No question, then, of Persia being conquered by a foreigner: it was all in the Persian royal family! And so another nation’s prickly pride is assuaged.
Alexander and his conquests assume more and more fantastic forms in the legends assembled by Stoneman. He sought for immortality and almost attained it. He reached the land where huge ants dig for gold. He met the men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders, and the Sciapods, whose one enormous foot served as a sunshade in hot weather, and the Cynoscephali, who have the heads of dogs and a language which sounds like barking. He invented a flying machine by suspending some tasty morsel just out of the reach of tethered griffins, who, in their efforts to reach it, carried him aloft. He descended in a diving bell and learned the secrets of the deep. These stories are often represented in art, and Stoneman illustrates his book with some delightful examples.
It was hard for stay-at-home Greeks to estimate the truth or falsehood of all this. Some prudent persons regarded descriptions of the hippopotamus, for instance, as obvious inventions: there was no such creature! The philosophers, naturally, were not silent. One legend held that Alexander was in contact with the Gymnosophists, the naked sages, of India; with them he discusses the meaning of life and death. He is made to receive some crushing snubs from these men, who regard conquest as murder, and treasures as trash.
We see him in conversation, too, with the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, who showed his indifference to possessions by living in a tub. “What can I do for you?” asks the conqueror of the world. “Just don’t stand in my sun,” snarls the philosopher. Impressed by his self-sufficiency, Alexander declares (so the story goes): “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes!” The anecdote became a classic. It was much loved by educators, whose own resemblance, perhaps, either to Diogenes or to Alexander, was not always very striking.
Alexander’s fame long outlasted the ancient world. Christian writers wondered: Did the monstrous races whom Alexander met, the Sciapods and the rest of them, have souls? Could they be saved? Were they, indeed, in our world at all, and included in God’s plan of salvation? His legend assumed more exotic forms. Alexander encounters the Amazons, a nation of women warriors, and has a love affair with their queen. He visits the fabulous island of Taprobane, sometimes identified with Ceylon, where he finds a Utopia: no slavery, and universal good health and longevity. The Earthly Paradise comes to play a part in his story.
Alexander seeks for immortality and almost—but not quite—attains it. On Mount Qaf he meets the angel of death, who tells him to stop worrying about mortal glory. He becomes a Muslim—a striking anachronism: he lived a thousand years before the Prophet—and conquers Andalusia for the faith. He reaches the distant Land of Darkness. He goes in search of Adam’s tomb. He attains the Water of Life but is unable to drink from it. Jewish accounts say that he was favored by Enoch and Elijah. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim stories all depict him receiving both rebukes and edification from their respective moral teachers.
He is shown the vanity of mortal power and mortal ambition. He meets centaurs, giant scorpions, men with six hands. He fights and kills a dragon. He builds a wall to enclose and exclude the Unclean Nations, Gog and Magog. He establishes Islam in Iran. He visits Jerusalem (almost certainly a fiction) and proclaims the One God. He finds Solomon’s book of wisdom and gives it to Aristotle, who cribs from it. So the learning of the Greeks is, sure enough, a stolen legacy: not from the black Africans, this time, but from the Jews. The Persians, however, maintained that what Aristotle plagiarized was not Jewish but (you guessed it) Persian: it was the legacy, in fact, of Zoroaster.
Alexander’s conquests were so enormous and so sudden, his death so unexpected and so inexplicable, that the world was left not only astonished but also unsatisfied. That could not, surely, be the end of this amazing career. More Alexander stories were desired; they were duly produced. As Stoneman’s book shows, they are picturesque, romantic, at moments perhaps profound, when hero and narrator confront the inescapable fact of death. At the level of prosaic reality, they are fantastic and untrue; but at another level they can, perhaps, assuage longing for completeness, for shape, for something better, even in politics and war, than just the meaningless succession of one damn conquest after another.