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Alexander: How Great?

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Museo Archelogico Nazionale, Naples/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Detail of the ‘Alexander Mosaic,’ circa 100 BC, recovered from the floor of the ‘House of the Faun’ in Pompeii, showing Alexander the Great (with a Gorgon’s head on his breastplate) charging toward King Darius of Persia in what is thought to be the Battle of Issus, 333 BC

In 51 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had reluctantly left his desk in Rome to become military governor of the province of Cilicia in southern Turkey, scored a minor victory against some local insurgents. As we know from his surviving letters, he was conscious that he was treading in the footsteps of a famous predecessor: “For a few days,” he wrote to his friend Atticus, “we were encamped in exactly the same place that Alexander occupied when he was fighting Darius at Issus”—hastily conceding that Alexander was in fact “a rather better general that you or I.”

Whatever the irony in Cicero’s remarks, almost any Roman, given the command of a brigade of troops and a glimpse of lands to the East, would soon dream of becoming Alexander the Great. In their fantasies at least, they stepped into the shoes of the young king of Macedon who, between 334 and 323 BC, had crossed into Asia, conquered the Persian Empire under Darius III, and taken his army as far as the Punjab, some three thousand miles from home—before dying, on the return journey, in the city of Babylon, at the age of thirty-two, whether (as the official version had it) from a deadly fever or (as others insinuated) from poisoning or some alcohol-related condition.

Other Romans had a much better claim to be “new Alexanders” than the normally desk-bound Cicero; and they made even more of the connection, with less sense of irony. Cicero’s contemporary Cnaeus Pompeius has been eclipsed in the modern imagination by his rival Julius Caesar, but as a young man he had achieved even more decisive victories over even more glamorous enemies than Caesar ever did. After conquests in Africa in the 80s BC, he returned to Rome to be hailed “Magnus” (or “Pompey the Great,” as he is still known), in direct imitation of Alexander. And as if to drive the point home, in his most famous surviving portrait statue (now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen), Pompeius is shown aping Alexander’s distinctive hairstyle, with a rising “quiff” (or anastole as the Greeks called it) brushed back from the center of his forehead.

Julius Caesar was not to be entirely outdone. When he visited Alexandria, where Alexander’s body had finally ended up (hijacked in its hearse on the way back from Babylon to Macedon and claimed for Egypt by one of Alexander’s “successors”), he made sure to make a pilgrimage to the tomb: one demented despot paying homage to another, as the Roman poet Lucan derided the stunt.

There were, nonetheless, divergent views on Alexander at Rome (as Lucan’s sour account of the tomb visit hints). In one of the first known attempts at counterfactual history, Livy raised the question of who would have won if Alexander had decided to invade Italy. Predictably, Livy concluded that the Roman Empire would have proved as invincible against Alexander as it had against its other enemies. True, Alexander was a great general, but Rome at that period had many great generals and they were made of sterner stuff than the Persian king, with his “women and eunuchs in tow,” who was by any reckoning “an easy prey.”

Besides, from early on, Alexander showed signs of fatal weaknesses: witness the vanity, the obeisance he demanded from his followers, the vicious cruelty (he had a record of murdering erstwhile friends around his dinner table), and the infamous drinking. An invasion of Italy would have been a tougher test than the invasion of India, which “he strolled through on a drunken revel with an intoxicated army.”

Even Cicero, in his more hardheaded moments, could see the problems in Alexander’s career. In a now fragmentary passage of his treatise On the State, he seems to have quoted an anecdote that would turn up again, almost five hundred years later, in the pages of Saint Augustine. The story was that a petty pirate had been captured and brought before Alexander. What drove him, Alexander asked, to terrorize the seas with his pirate ship? “The same thing as drives you to terrorize the whole world,” the man sharply replied. There were plenty of acts of terror he could have cited: the total massacres of the male population after the sieges at Tyre and Gaza; the mass killing of the local population in the Punjab; the razing of the royal palace at Persepolis, after (so it was said) one of Alexander’s inebriated dinner parties.

The ambivalence of Alexander’s Roman image is nicely captured in the well-known “Alexander Mosaic,” a masterpiece composed of literally millions of tiny tesserae, which once decorated a floor in the “House of the Faun,” the grandest house in ancient Pompeii (and is now in the Naples Archaeological Museum). Depicting a battle between an instantly recognizable Alexander (his hair is arranged with the characteristic quiff) and King Darius in his chariot, it has almost always been taken to be a Roman mosaic copy of an earlier Greek painting—on the basis of no good evidence, but on the old assumption that Roman artists tended to be derivative copyists rather than original creators.

It is a more puzzling composition than it might seem. Alexander is charging in on horseback from the left, and has just impaled an unfortunate Persian on his long spear (the famous Macedonian sarissa); Darius meanwhile, facing across from the right, is just about to flee the scene, and indeed his charioteer has already wheeled the horses around, ready to gallop off. We can be in no doubt about who the victor is. But our attention is focused not so much on Alexander but on Darius, who towers above the battle, his arm outstretched in the direction of Alexander. Whoever was responsible for this composition wanted certainly to draw our attention to the victim in this famous struggle between the waning power of Persia and the rising power of Macedon—even to elicit sympathy for the losing side.

These debates have continued through the centuries. To be sure, new themes come and go. Recently there has been some highly charged political controversy focused on Alexander’s “Greekness.” Was he, as the government of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM) would have it, a Slav (and so an appropriate symbol of the Slavic FYROM, and a good name for Skopje airport)? Or was he a bona fide Greek (and so had nothing to do with the FYROM at all)? The fruitlessness of this dispute is obvious: ancient national identity is a slippery concept; and the ethnic identity of the Macedonians is shrouded in myth, as Eugene N. Borza shows in a judicious appendix to the new Landmark Arrian, an illustrated edition of The Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis, written around 140 AD) by Lucius Flavius Arrianus, Roman senator and historian of Greek extraction, born in what is now Turkey.

But that did not prevent several hundred academics, mostly classicists, from writing a letter to President Obama in 2009, in which they declared that Alexander was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek” and asked him to intervene to “clean up” the FYROM’s historical errors. Obama’s reply is not recorded. Only a few months ago, this controversy flared up once more when a huge kitschy thirty-ton statue, almost fifty feet tall, on top of a thirty-foot pedestal, was erected in the central square in Skopje. Judiciously called merely “Warrior on Horseback,” it is strikingly similar to the standard image of Alexander—with that quiff again.

And from time to time, some new evidence surfaces to stir the popular imagination. In the 1880s this came in the shape of the “Alexander Sarcophagus” found in Lebanon, now in the Archaeology Museums in Istanbul. Dating to the end of the fourth century BC, and almost certainly the marble coffin of a junior monarch installed by Alexander himself, it depicts scenes of battles and hunting from Alexander’s life—and it was made closer in date to his lifetime than any other detailed image of him that we now have. (All the surviving large-scale “portraits” of him were made after his death, often long after, even if they were based on contemporary works, now lost.)

Still more impressive have been the discoveries since the 1970s at Vergina, near the royal palace of Macedon itself: in particular, the series of fourth-century-BC tombs, found largely undisturbed, and loaded with precious jewelry, gold and silver vessels, elaborate furniture, and wall paintings. Undermining any impression that the Macedonians were a “barbarian” people in the popular sense of that word, they are very likely the tombs of members of the Macedonian royal house: not Alexander himself, of course, but perhaps of his father Phillip II (assassinated in 336 BC) and various other relatives who met equally nasty ends in the power struggles after his death. Even if he himself is missing, the objects these tombs contain take us about as close to Alexander as we are ever likely to get.

But, for the most part, the debates about Alexander, and the evidence on which they are based, have not changed very much over two millennia: the basic dilemma—for writers, filmmakers, artists, and statesmen—is still whether Alexander is to be admired or deplored. For many, he has remained a positive example of a “great general,” heroically leading his army to victory in increasingly distant terrain. Napoleon was a famous admirer, and a striking relic of his admiration survives in a precious table he commissioned, which ended up in Buckingham Palace. Made of porcelain and gilded bronze, it features the head of Alexander at the center of the tabletop, surrounded by a supporting cast of other military giants of the ancient world. For Alexander, the message was, read Napoleon.

Philip Freeman, to judge from his new biography Alexander the Great, is another admirer, albeit a more guarded one. In his summing up, he concedes that we might not approve of “Alexander’s often brutal tactics,” but, he continues, “every reasonable student of history must agree that he was one of the greatest military minds of all time.” The final sentence of the book insists that “we can’t help but admire a man who dared such great deeds.”

Others have not found it difficult to curb their admiration. Dante found a place for “Alexander” (we assume he meant “the Great”) in the Seventh Circle of Hell, screaming in pain, up to his eyebrows in a river of boiling blood, spending eternity alongside such monsters as Attila the Hun and Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily. Many modern writers have followed him. A.B. Bosworth, for example, another doyen among historians of Alexander (who has contributed an appendix—on Alexander’s death, foul play or not?—to the Landmark Arrian), once summarized Alexander’s career bleakly: “He spent much of his time killing and directing killing, and, arguably, killing was what he did best.” And I myself, more flippantly, once described him as a “drunken juvenile thug” whom it was difficult to imagine chosen by any modern country as its national symbol.

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