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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.

Palais des Beaux Arts, Lille/Erich Lessing/Art Resource
Jacques-Louis David: Apelles Painting Campaspe in the Presence of Alexander the Great, circa 1813–1823

Further, romance and fantasy not only took over Alexander’s life, but ensured that the more serious, and thus less popular, accounts of that life written by his contemporaries were far less likely to survive. In fact the earliest one we possess, that by Diodorus Siculus, a second-rate scissors-and-paste historian, though utilizing contemporary sources lost to us, was written some four hundred years after its subject’s death.

The fantasies started early. Alexander, the story ran, was sired on Olympias by a large serpent, alleged to be the avatar, variously, of the Libyan god Ammon, the divinized pharaoh Nectanebo, or Zeus (who alternatively zapped Olympias’ womb with lightning). He was propositioned by the Queen of the Amazons. He went down to the bottom of the sea in a diving bell. One likely result of all this was to extend the range of more realistic interpretations: few historical theories would fail to look eminently reasonable by comparison. Time could also bring in some startling changes of opinion, none stranger than those visible where Alexander’s career began, and arguably had its greatest psychological impact: Greece.

During his lifetime, as we have seen, and for long afterward, the Hellenes of the mainland reviled him as a foreign, and barbarian, tyrant, rebelling against his, and Macedonia’s, overlordship whenever they got the chance. (“Alexander dead?” exclaimed one Athenian politico when the news arrived. “Impossible: the whole world would stink of his corpse.”) Fast-forward now to the current scene. That both Macedonians generally and the half-Macedonian, half-Epirot Alexander were indisputably Greek is the basic thesis of the Greek government in its ongoing debate with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, now an independent country of two million people, who claim Alexander as one of their own. To suggest otherwise is to court serious trouble from nationalists.

Alexander is also seen as a great Greek military hero and icon, conveniently pointing in the direction of what today is Turkey. These views are held by serious Greek academics, and the case they present is at least arguable. Denial of that case—including assertions of Alexander’s bisexuality, largely accepted elsewhere—has, in Greece, quite literally provoked riots. Few things could more dramatically illustrate the violent emotionalism that Alexander is still capable of inspiring.

Conquest and Empire was the apt title of one of the best modern biographies of Alexander, that by Brian Bosworth (1988); and conquest and empire, or, more precisely, one’s moral and political attitude toward them, overt or implicit, underlie most of the varying judgments on Alexander himself down the centuries. Alexander’s admirers, more often than not, are would-be emulators, like the succession of Roman emperors, from Augustus to Caracalla, who made honorific visits to the great man’s embalmed corpse in Alexandria. Critics, significantly, were fewer, and even they tended to view his career not as a matter of imperialism run wild, but rather as a supreme example of the vanity of human wishes. Only one or two, like Saint Augustine, dismissed him as a kind of world-class condottiere.

The balance in favor of imperialism was only reversed after the French Revolution and the American and Greek wars of independence made the idea of Greek democracy respectable after centuries in the Latinate doghouse. Nineteenth-century historians, in particular George Grote, took moral exception to unfettered conquest as such. Since Alexander was a powerful emotional icon not willingly abandoned, a morally valid justification for his career had to be put in place. The solution was both simple and effective, leaning heavily on the Victorian Age’s missionary belief in spreading the light of its superior culture and religion to the lesser breeds still struggling in heathen darkness. In Alexander’s case what was seen as being propagated, naturally, were the dazzling achievements of Greek art, literature, and philosophy. An early essay by Plutarch, not to mention the alleged efficiency of the British Raj in India, as later of Cecil Rhodes’s and Lord Milner’s colonial activities in south Africa, lent support to the bizarre notion of Alexander as Hellenic cultural torchbearer to the barbaroi of Asia.

The culmination of this curious exercise in moral mythography was the famous, and immensely influential, version of Alexander and his career produced, between 1926 and 1948, by W.W. Tarn, a retired British lawyer and independent scholar. The early date is significant. The 1920s were the heyday of the League of Nations, when the Brotherhood of Man was being promoted by many late-Victorian liberal idealists like Tarn, including Gilbert Murray and Sir Alfred Zimmern. But this was also the heyday of another hero, Lawrence of Arabia, whose exploits (some of them, like the attack on Aqaba from the desert, consciously copied from Alexander) were being sedulously promoted, and mythicized, by Lowell Thomas.

Tarn duly gave his Alexander the character of an idealized English gentleman—honorable, sporting, temperate in appetite, moderate and orthodox where sex was concerned, but a heroic and original field commander in the Lawrence mold. He further saddled him with a mission to achieve the Brotherhood of Man, under which Macedonians and Persians would preside benignly over a kind of idealized Raj. His vision, coming as it did on the heels of a devastating and ugly world war, was widely popular, exactly as Lawrence’s Arabian career had been. So popular, in fact, that it not only found its way into just about every general account, schoolbook, and encyclopedia article, but became conventional wisdom for the vast majority of Anglo-American teachers and scholars. As late as 1950 it was still hard work to get any British or American academic journal to publish an article systematically undermining Tarn’s thesis. The credit for ending this extraordinary state of affairs goes, almost entirely, to Ernst Badian, and his Collected Papers on Alexander the Great shows, in detail, just how he did it.


Ernst Badian, then a fourteen-year-old Jewish schoolboy, left Austria for New Zealand in 1938, at the time of the Anschluss, the annexation of his country to Nazi Germany, and thus dangerously late. As a child he had experienced at first hand the horrors of Kristallnacht, when, in Vienna as elsewhere, Jewish homes, stores, hospitals, and synagogues were smashed up by angry street mobs. He was clearly hyper-intellectual from an early age; one New Zealand obituarist, a school coeval, remarks that he “already seemed a dangerous figure, since it was alleged he knew more than our teachers.” His career as an ancient historian culminated in his appointment at Harvard, from which he retired only in 1998.

In his excellent introduction to the Collected Papers, Eugene N. Borza, himself a distinguished expert on Macedonia, justly remarks that

Badian’s most enduring legacy was the precision with which he wielded his intellectual scalpel, bolstered by unusual competence in both ancient and modern languages, a powerful intellect, and a formidable memory both for what he himself had written and for what he had read of others’ work.

To this we should add an unusual degree of imperviousness to the passionate element in strongly held beliefs when assessing evidence, something that experience at an impressionable age of absolute power run amok can only have intensified. His calculated demolition of Tarn’s thesis in “Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind” was made easier by Tarn’s determination to prove his idealizing version of Alexander at all costs, which involved much dubious twisting of evidence. All of this Badian relentlessly analyzed and exposed:

Mistranslation in the crucial passage, misdirection in its setting, free imaginative interpretation where its restrictions and precision are irksome, and vague use of words charged with emotion—those, so far, have turned out to be the methods by which the image of Alexander the universalist philosopher is built up.

It is extraordinary to see how much of what today we take for granted about Alexander (and forms the frame of my survey above) was first worked out, step by step, by Badian in these collected articles. The dismantling of Alexander’s English-style sex life is carried out in “The Eunuch Bagoas.” In “The Death of Parmenio” and “Conspiracies” Badian traces the course of Alexander’s murderous struggle to free himself from the stranglehold of the old nobility in the military hierarchy, though Badian perhaps overdoes his disbelief in the actuality of these conspiracies. Men like Parmenio, reared in the cutthroat tradition of Macedonian court intrigue, must have known very well what Alexander was about: countermeasures were only to be expected. “Greeks and Macedonians” clarifies the propaganda-ridden way southern Greeks and Macedonians regarded each other in the fourth century BCE. “Alexander the Great and the Greeks of Asia,” by pinpointing the deep distrust that existed (largely as a result of Chaeroneia and the destruction of Thebes) between Alexander and the Greeks, shows up the use of Panhellenism in his propaganda for the hollow sham it was, and explains his preference for risking a land campaign against the Asia Minor ports rather than trust a Greek fleet.

The essay entitled “Harpalus” includes a step-by-step analysis of the purge of satraps after Alexander’s emergence (unexpected by many) from the Gedrosian Desert. “The Deification of Alexander the Great” injects a welcome dose of common sense into that vexed and emotionally fraught phenomenon. Not all of Badian’s interpretations have been fully accepted, but the degree to which his overall picture, so relentlessly realistic, so devoid of idealistic dreams, has become today’s conventional wisdom is both startling and impressive.

Collected Papers will never have a wide audience. Its price is prohibitive, its scholarship relentlessly multilingual. It is thus a great pity that Badian excluded from it all reviews except two, and all pieces written for a general audience, since a number of these are of exceptional interest. Readers of The New York Review during the 1970s and 1980s encountered a wonderfully wide-ranging series of Badian’s review articles, on such topics as ancient slavery, Gibbon and the decline of the Roman Empire, Marx and the class struggle in antiquity, and the logistics of the Macedonian army, all driven by his emphasis on textual evidence, and all written in a muscular, edged, vigorously concise prose style that would be admirable enough in a native speaker, but coming from someone for whom English was a second language was little short of miraculous.

Most striking of all is the early article in History Today, “Alexander the Great and the Creation of an Empire,” written in 1958. There, astonishingly, almost every historical conclusion established over the years in Collected Papers is already sketched out. A good case could be made for a second volume, this time designed for the general reader, and including the items that Badian carefully excluded from his academic collection.

The nearest thing in Collected Papers to a general survey, “Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power,” reveals how, after “fighting, scheming and murdering in pursuit of the secure tenure of absolute power, he found himself at last on a lonely pinnacle over an abyss, with no use for his power and security unattainable.” All that remained was the prospect of further conquest. This is the aspect of Alexander revealed by a scholar whose own life was shaped by the forces of totalitarianism. In 1948 Tarn looked at his idealistic claims for the Brotherhood of Man and wrote: “I have left the latter part of this footnote substantially as written in 1926. Since then we have seen new and monstrous births, and are still moving in a world not realized; and I do not know how to rewrite it.” But Ernst Badian did, and the essays here reviewed are a permanent testament to that knowledge.

  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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