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…


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