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…

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