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He Found the Real Alexander

Louvre, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Charles Le Brun: Alexander the Great Entering Babylon, 1665


Throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BCE the southern Greek states had an increasingly uneasy relationship with the kingdom of Macedonia. Located north of Thessaly, in the ring of mountains surrounding the wide fertile plain above the Aegean (the site of modern Salonika), Macedonia was widely regarded by its southern neighbors as a primitive social anachronism. It was a dynastic monarchy, at a time when the rest of the Greek mainland (with the exception of Sparta) had long since abandoned kings for a more or less democratic republicanism. Its clan-based inhabitants were regarded as uncouth hillbillies, given (according to the Greek historian Theopompus) to wild wine-swilling parties and to casual sodomy. They spoke a patois incomprehensible to other Greeks, and were sneered at as foreigners.

Whether Macedonians were, in fact, Greek or not is still a matter of fierce debate, which in all likelihood will never be settled conclusively. But that in antiquity southerners such as the Athenians either truly believed they were indeed barbarous foreign hicks, or at least found it politic to so denigrate them by way of active propaganda, is a well-documented fact. The speeches of the bellicose Athenian orator Demosthenes are full of such attacks, and the more powerful the Macedonians became, the more angry his vituperation.

To begin with they had been treated, patronizingly, as a kind of archaic joke; but with the accession in 359 of their dynamic king Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father, who combined aggressive military skills with cynically shrewd international diplomacy, the tone changed. Before long Macedonia, far from being a disregardable back- water, had become, with its well-trained standing army and ambitious monarch, one of the leading powers on the Greek mainland. A desperate attempt, led by Athens and Boeotian Thebes, to stop Philip’s progress was crushingly defeated, in 338, at the battle of Chaeroneia (the eighteen-year-old Alexander led the crucial cavalry assault). This cost the southern Greek states their freedom, and left them subservient to new masters whom they had been accustomed to mocking as slaves, drunks, and barbarians.

In 336, after Philip had been assassinated by a disgruntled bodyguard, Demosthenes assured his ecstatic Athenian audience that Philip’s son and successor, a mere unlicked stripling, would be easily disposed of. Athens watched, horrified, as the unlicked stripling put down the attempted revolt of the city-state of Thebes with contemptuous ease, slaughtered thousands, sold the rest into slavery, and leveled one of the oldest and most renowned cities of Greece to the ground, as though it had never existed.

Thus for the foreseeable future the attitude of Athens and the other southern Greek states toward Alexander—despite the existence, always, of a minority of pliant and willing collabos—was one of deeply rooted and abiding hatred, and this is a factor that always needs to be taken into account when attempting to assess, as Ernst Badian does in his Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, the character, career, and legacy of that mysterious and elusive world-conqueror. Alexander has been the subject of a great deal of mythification, both contemporary and posthumous, much of it self-generated. This makes close, rational scrutiny of the evidence—such as it is—of particular importance.

The mythic aspects of Alexander’s comet-like career had an archetypal quality that was to prove irresistibly infectious, and the wide-ranging, passionately held, and frequently contradictory assessments of him that posterity delivered (and continues to deliver) remain the most striking evidence of this. Emotional neutrality is conspicuous by its absence.

Here a useful historiographical maxim comes into play: distrust the opinions, evaluate the facts. Actions are far less likely to be rewritten than words. It is not, by and large, the actual events of Alexander’s career that are in dispute, so much as their motivation. Examining those events—including their subject’s personal habits and characteristics—without, as far as possible, being affected by the overlay of emotional coloring, supportive or hostile, that accumulated around them from the very beginning, is the method Badian has clearly adopted throughout, and it offers the best chance we are likely to have of reaching a conclusion somewhere near the truth.


Problems abound from the beginning. Alexander’s dominant mother Olympias, and the tutors under her influence, seemingly reared the boy not only to identify himself with his putative ancestor Achilles, but to regard the leadership of a great expedition into Asia as his virtual birthright. This brought him, inevitably, into uneasy conflict with his aggressively ambitious father. Alexander’s position as Crown Prince only remained assured until the victory of Chaeroneia opened the way for that expedition. His sense of insecurity was further exacerbated by his father’s polygamous marriage—the last of several—to a young Macedonian aristocrat (Olympias came from Epirus). At the wedding-feast doubts were openly cast on Alexander’s own legitimacy by the bride’s uncle, and Alexander and his mother both fled the country. A reconciliation with Philip was patched up, but a large question mark now hung over Alexander’s future. What role, if any, would he play in the expedition? Second-in-command? Regent in Greece during Philip’s absence? Neither position would satisfy him, and now even these seemed unlikely.

What changed everything was Philip’s last-minute assassination, during the wedding of Alexander’s sister Cleopatra. Promptly presented to, and acclaimed by, the Macedonian army, the twenty-year-old Alexander found himself, literally at a blow, and against all the odds, both king of Macedonia and prospective leader of the Persian expedition. Whether he or Olympias had anything to do with the assassination will never be known—inevitably, there were rumors—but that Philip’s sudden elimination benefited Alexander’s expectations since childhood would be a considerable understatement.

Nevertheless, when he set out for Asia he was not yet Alexander the Great, and in many ways still the unlicked stripling jeered at by Demosthenes: in particular, he remained dependent on the support of Macedonia’s powerful aristocratic clans, and on none more than that of Philip’s most trusted general, Parmenio, who saw to it that every key post in the army’s command structure was held by a family member or relative by marriage. A great deal of Alexander’s time and energy on the expedition was devoted to loosening, by fair means or foul, this dangerous internal stranglehold on his authority as both king and generalissimo.

The expedition itself produced its own paradoxes. Its official, somewhat threadbare, justification was revenge for the destruction, in particular of Greek temples, wrought by Xerxes’ troops during the Persian invasion of Greece a century and a half earlier, in 480. There was also the Panhellenism preached by various Athenian orators, Isocrates in particular, calling for an attack on the Persian empire as a heaven-sent way of uniting the eternally fractious and quarrelsome Greek states. An attractive lure here was the assurance of infinite wealth for the taking, allegedly defended by effete and unwarlike barbarians. Yet the number of Greeks who joined Alexander’s expedition remained strikingly small, and the Spartans boycotted it altogether. Many Greek mercenaries chose rather to fight for the Persians. This is hardly surprising. Those who had lost their freedom at Chaeroneia, and had seen, in the eradication of Thebes, what their new master was like when crossed, had little inclination to follow him on his career of conquest.

The hostility was mutual. Alexander had no intention of weakening his control over the expedition’s command structure still further by appointing to it Greeks whose loyalty was, in his view, by definition questionable: the few exceptions were faithful friends of long standing. Similarly, he was not going to risk defections at crucial moments by using Greeks as front-line troops (though he kept a group of Greek intellectuals around him for cultural entertainment), and his distrust of the experienced Greek fleet was so great that he preferred to dismiss it, and run the huge risk of attacking the powerful seaports of Asia Minor, such as Miletus and Halicarnassus, exclusively from the landward side. Finally, though he could ill spare them, he left at home a force at least 12,000 strong—a very necessary precaution, as events turned out—to keep the mainland states from revolting during his absence. Whatever his real aims were, the pursuit of Panhellenism, so convenient as an excuse, was evidently not among them.

Other aspects of the eleven-year expedition, which penetrated as far as India, similarly call for comment. There were a remarkable number of supposed treacherous conspiracies against Alexander, marked by carefully staged interrogations and ruthless executions, most notably of Parmenio and his son Philotas. Equally suggestive, after the defeat of Persia’s ruling Achaemenid dynasty, is Alexander’s steadily increasing policy of accommodation with his recent enemies. He adopted Persian court dress and protocol, and tried to introduce proskynesis, prostration before him as monarch; he began to appoint Persian grandees to key offices, and ordered the training of 30,000 Persian youths for integration into Macedonian military units, another move that not unnaturally caused violent resentment among his veterans.

But most striking of all, and what in the long run most hardened Macedonian hostility, was the growing realization* that for Alexander conquest was an end in itself, virtually unrelated to the establishment of an empire. Veterans who had expected to return home, laden with loot, after the defeat of the Persians, now faced demands to follow their obsessional leader on a further march of conquest with no apparent end in sight. Alexander’s recourse to Persian reinforcements was, in large part, a direct response to this obstinacy on the part of his own worn-out and disillusioned Macedonians.

There were also, by the end, disturbing signs of megalomania. Alexander demanded to be treated as a god. He planned vast and impracticable projects: a mausoleum for Philip that matched the largest Egyptian pyramid, six grandiose temples at a cost of 1,500 talents each. But above all he was planning, even on his deathbed, for further conquests: of Arabia, and then of North Africa westward as far as the Pillars of Heracles near what is now Gibraltar, and back by way of Spain and South Italy. For this a thousand large warships were to be built, and a great highway driven along the African coastline from Alexandria to the Atlantic.

The huge gap that now yawned between Alexander’s ambitions and those of his Macedonian followers—partially concealed by the vast bribes he paid out from captured Persian treasury reserves to exhausted, and finally mutinous, troops—is made all too clear by the fact that on his premature death, when he was not yet thirty-three years old, in Babylon (whether from illness, the cumulative effect of severe wounds, increasing alcoholism, or, inevitably, suspected poisoning), every single one of these projects was cancelled, almost literally overnight, and never heard of again.


Whatever the actual cause of Alexander’s death (theories abound; certainty is impossible), its early occurrence was a crucial factor in the creation of his posthumous mystique. The handsome, youthful conqueror was rapidly morphing into a paranoid, and terrifying, embarrassment, on the verge of middle age. There had been two mutinies already; there would almost certainly have been more. By dying when he did (in the nick of time, it could be argued) he preserved his quasi-magical aura of superhuman invincibility for future generations.

  1. *

    According to Arrian, the main historian of Alexander’s career whose works have survived: “No matter what he had already conquered, he would not have stopped there quietly, not even if he had added Europe to Asia and the Britannic Islands to Europe, but…would always have searched far beyond for something unknown, in competition with himself in default of any other rival” (see Anabasis of Alexander, translated by P.A. Brunt, Loeb Classical Library, 1983, 7.1.4). 

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