Whatever else you say about the career of Alexander the Great—and classicists, at least, say quite a lot1—it was neither funny nor dull. So it was a sign that something had gone seriously wrong with Oliver Stone’s long, gaudy, and curiously empty new biopic about Alexander when audiences at both showings I attended greeted the movie with snickering and obvious boredom. The first time I saw the picture was at a press screening at a commercial theater, and even from the large central section that was (a personage with a headset informed us) reserved for “friends of the filmmaker” you could hear frequent tittering throughout the film—understandable, given that the characters often have to say things like “from these loins of war, Alexander was born.” A week later, a matinee suggested one likely reaction by those unconstrained by the bonds of amity: at the end of the three-hour-long movie, four of the twelve people in the audience had left.
This was, obviously, not the reaction Stone was hoping for—nor indeed the reaction that Alexander’s life and career deserve, whether you think he was an enlightened Greek gentleman carrying the torch of Hellenism to the East or a savage, paranoid tyrant who left rivers of blood in his wake. The controversy about his personality derives from the fact that our sources are famously inadequate, all eyewitness accounts having perished: what remains is, at best, secondhand (one history, for instance, is based largely on the now-lost memoirs of Alexander’s general and alleged half-brother, Ptolemy, who went on to become the founder of the Egyptian dynasty that ended with Cleopatra), and at worst highly unreliable. A rather florid account by the first-century-AD Roman rhetorician Quintus Curtius often reflects its author’s professional interests—his Alexander is given to extended bursts of eloquence even when gravely wounded—far more than it does the known facts. But Alexander’s story, even stripped of romanticizing or rhetorical elaboration, still has the power to amaze.
He was born in 356 BC, the product of the stormy marriage between Philip II of Macedon and his temperamental fourth wife, Olympias, a princess from Epirus (a wild western kingdom encompassing parts of present-day Albania). His childhood was appropriately dramatic. At around twelve he had already gained a foothold on legend by taming a magnificent but dangerously wild stallion called Bucephalas (“Oxhead”)—a favorite episode in what would become, after Alexander’s death, a series of increasingly fantastical tales and legends that finally coalesced into a literary narrative known as the Alexander Romance, which as time passed was elaborated, illuminated, and translated into everything from Latin to Armenian. While still in his early teens, he was at school with no less a teacher than Aristotle, who clearly made a great impression on the youth. Years later, as he roamed restlessly through the world, Alexander took care to send interesting zoological and botanical specimens back to his old tutor.
At sixteen he’d demonstrated enough ability to get himself appointed regent when his father, a shrewd…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.