Alexander the Great

Alexander conquered an area, which consists nowadays of Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran, and Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other, smaller places that are mostly in the Middle East. In his time, the Greeks regarded all foreigners as barbarians who worshipped strange gods, and who lived a slave-like existence under cruel and despotic rulers. Westerner’s, who went to the East, saw it as their remit to educate these races in the ways of the West, its culture and its democracy.

The foundations of an empire by Alexander, was an enormously important event for Greek art, for thereby it developed from being the concern of a handful of city- states into the pictorial language of almost half the world. This would never have happened if there had not been a mingling of two different cultures where the styles and inventions of Greek art were applied to the magnificence and splendour of the art of the East.

Alexander 111 became King of Macedonia at the age of 21, after his father was murdered in 336 BC. Some scholars think that Alexander and his mother, Phillip’s wife Olympia, were involved in this murder because Phillip had already elbowed them aside from the succession with a new bride and baby son. Whatever the truth, Alexander became not only the Regent, but also took his father’s place as the elected head of the Congress of Corinth which had been formed to make war on the East.

The Congress was an all-Greek confederation of states (apart from Sparta) whose aim was ostensibly, to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule. Also, the Congress was determined to punish the Persians for the sacrilege their forebears had committed 150 years before when the Persian King Xerxes’ had invaded Greece in 480-479 BC and burnt and smashed many of Greece’s temples, and holy relics. So, when Alexander set out to invade the East in 334 BC, it was seemingly as the leader of a crusade, which would avenge the gods, bring freedom and democracy, and educate the barbarians in the more enlightened culture of the West. Alexander and the others were to be the Hammer that was about to Fall on the East.

Sometime between 350 BC and the middle of the next century, there was a revolution in Greek thought. Until that time, the Greeks had regarded non-Greeks as those who were naturally inferior to them. However, this attitude changed in such a way that by 250 BC, there was a body of opinion which discarded this division and claimed that there should be no distinction between the people of the West and barbarians, and also that all men should live in harmony as brothers.

Although many modern scholars believe that this idea came from the Stoic philosopher Zeno, others believe that it actually originated from Alexander. Earlier, in c. 344 BC, the Athenian sophist Isocrates had written an open letter, which stated that, instead of fighting amongst one another, it would be better if the Greeks promoted harmony among themselves, so that they then could liberate the Greek cities of the East and annex Asia Minor. Isocrates hoped that a single leader would reconcile and then lead the Greeks in a great crusade, which he thought would bring to an end Greece’s own endemic, political, social and economic problems.

Its thought that Alexander intended to extend this harmony to all mankind rather than just among the Greeks for he is quoted as having once said that he believed that God was the father of all mankind.’’ This implies that, if God is the Father of all mankind, then all people must be (in an ethical sense) brothers and sisters. Furthermore, Alexander believed that he had a mission from the Deity to unite all mankind and make them equal partners in the government.

However, some scholars maintain that Alexander was really the commander of a successful war of imperial aggrandisement, which was pursued for glory and gain, under the fallacious pretext of revenge. Rather, they say that the real picture of Alexander was one of a man who gloried in the slaughter and massacres of both barbarians and Greeks – such as took place at the battle of the Granicus River, in northwest Turkey, in 334 BC.

Here, apart from his massacre of the Persians, Alexander refused quarter to c. 20,000 Greek mercenaries, and butchered the majority before he sent 2,000 of the survivors back to Macedonia as slaves. The ancient biographer and historian Arrian, also enhances this modern view of Alexander’s bloodlust when he says that he was ‘fighting mad’ and that his desire for glory was such that he found war to be ‘irresistible’.

There is no doubt that Alexander was driven by a desire for personal glory, and also that the ‘Pan-Hellenic mission of revenge’ was really a Macedonian invasion disguised as a Greek crusade. It was true too that the slogan of revenge for Persian sacrilege (which implied justice for past wrongs) did not disguise the fact that everyone on the expedition saw it as a chance for plunder. Howsoever, to understand this war and find out why Alexander acted as he did, we have to understand his personality, to understand his motives. He wanted to travel to the ends of the world, and prove to his colleagues and his friends that there was nothing he could not do.

Alexander’s favourite book was Homer’s Trojan War saga, The Iliad, which was written about 750 BC, and is the earliest known literary epic in the Western world. It was something, which the Greeks regarded as a sort of a Bible and a moral guide on how a man should behave in this life. Alexander saw it this way too and also regarded it as a handbook on the art of war, and how ‘heroes’ should behave. In fact, it meant so much to him that he carried it about with him everywhere he went – even sleeping with it under his pillow. Alexander (and the Macedonian nobility) lived by ideals that were not far from Homer’s world of war, conquest and glory, and he once told his men that they would travel further than Hercules to subdue the races of the earth. This is the key to the man, which can be seen from the beginning of his arrival in the East.

For instance, when he first reached the shore of Asia, he threw his spear into the soil, to claim the whole of Asia for his own – this was an action worthy of any of Homer’s heroes. Furthermore, Alexander made a pilgrimage to the ancient site of Troy where Homer’s heroes were thought to be buried, and there he ran naked around the tomb of the dead hero Achilles’, who was Troy’s most formidable and deadliest enemy. His behaviour on landing and his visit to Troy to honour Achilles was calculated to give notice to his contemporaries that he saw himself as the new Achilles, or possibly even the demi-god Hercules from whom he claimed descent. Did he really believe this or was he only using an old story to justify his leadership of the invasion?

Whether or not Alexander saw himself as a sort of demi-god hero, after the battle of Issus, in 333 BC, it could be said that Alexander had completed his mission. By this time he had freed the Greek cities of Asia Minor, beaten the Persian king Darius, in two major battles, and caused him to flee into the interior of Persia. Alexander had also captured the royal family whom he kept with him as honoured guests, and Darius’ travelling treasury, worth 3,000 gold talents. As a talent was judged then to be around 45 pounds in weight, we can see that this was worth a fortune. It seemed then that he had fulfilled Isocrates Pan-Hellenic dream however, Alexander had other ideas because he had begun to realise that the Persians were not the formidable force that they had been in the days of Xerxes, and it was now that he started to formulate plans of conquering the whole of the kingdom in earnest.

This can be seen in his reply to a letter from Darius, who offered to give Alexander a huge amount of money, cede Asia Minor, and enter into an alliance with him if he gave him back his family. Alexander told Darius that if he wanted peace and his family back, he must submit to him for he now considered himself as the King of all Asia. At this juncture in time, it might be thought that Alexander would now pursue Darius east into the interior of Asia, in what is now Iran, Iraq and Armenia, but Alexander had problems. The Persian fleet controlled the seas at his back and he realised that he would have to conquer the whole coastline (down to at least Egypt), to deny the enemy a safe harbour. When he wanted to move south instead of east, no one wanted to back him and, for the moment, he stood alone.

When Alexander did manage to persuade his men to move south, he knew that he had to capture the harbours and ports along the coast and this is the reason why he spent so much time on the sieges of major landfalls like Tyre and Gaza. Another indicator of his change of thinking can also be seen in the fact that he now began to draft surrendering Greek mercenaries into his army instead of killing or imprisoning them.

Two others reasons for going to Egypt where that he knew that its Persian satrap Mazaces, had no Persian troops, and also the fact that he simply wanted to see Egypt for himself – a country that had always fascinated the Greeks. When Alexander moved into Egypt, Mazaces surrendered the country to him and gave Alexander 800 talents in gold. Alexander was then crowned as pharaoh in the capital Memphis, and hailed as the son of the god Amun Re. While he was there, he showed his respect for Egypt’s gods by sacrificing to them and combined this occasion with a Greek festival, which was the beginning of a long-term plan to combine Greek and Oriental cultures.

Later, he left and crossed the desert westwards to the oracle of Zeus-Ammon at the oasis of Siwah, where he was acclaimed by its priest as the son of the god Zeus-Ammon. This also suited Alexander’s growing design of wedding the peoples of the East and West for the god had both Greek and Libyo/Egyptian origins and therefore personified the unity of both cultures. While he was there, he also founded the modern-day city of Alexandria, which he intended to be a permanent reminder of himself and a major centre of culture.

The political idea of pan Hellenism had ruled the first stage of Alexander’s campaign while the war itself was mainly decided after the battle of Guagamela in 331 BC, where Alexander finally destroyed Darius’ credibility as King, and had himself proclaimed ‘King of Asia’ at the village of Arbela. It was here also, for the first time that a substantial number of high-ranking Persian’s went over to Alexander’s side. He was now the ruler of the greatest empire known to the West and must have felt on top of the world.

By this time, Alexander had captured Persia’s vast silver reserves and sat on Xerxes throne in the Persia capitol of Persepolis. The fiction of the Pan-Hellenic crusade was finished for good, and his real intentions had become clear. For he now moved East into Bactria or modern day Afganistan because he knew that he had to conquer and rule all the territories that the Persian kings had claimed as their own, if he was to further his designs of harmony. This was why he spent the next three years subduing the natives, before he moved into northwest India in the area now known as Pakistan.

While he was there he defeated all opposition including that of King Porus, whose kingdom lay in the Punjab. Alexander could have had him executed but instead, he reinstated him and even added more territory to his kingdom. However, Alexander’s desire to march to the end of the earth finally came to a halt when, after weeks of trekking through the jungle during the rainy season, his own Macedonian troops refused to go on any further.

When Alexander arrived back in Persia, he executed many of the Macedonian and native governors who had begun to set up their own kingdoms during his absence. They had never expected to see Alexander return alive after his long absence. These revolts and the consequent removal of the men, who had caused them, brought home to Alexander the serious deficiency in the quality and the number of those whom he could trust to govern his many regions. So, he put into full operation a scheme that he had been gradually introducing to break down the barriers that existed between East and West, and to work something out that would be mutually beneficial to both.

While he had been mastering Asia he had begun to organise the administration of the various countries and peoples by merging Persian administrative practices with those of the Greeks. He had also granted important and powerful posts to the Persian nobility and appointed Persians to satrapies where they knew the language and the customs of the locals. Furthermore, Alexander incorporated a number of these Persian’s sons into his exclusive Royal Macedonian squadron and even enrolled some members of the Persian nobility into his own bodyguard. He felt further that it was now the time to summon 30, 000 of his newly trained Persians to his station at Susa and also to incorporate many new troops of barbarians into his cavalry.

These were led by Macedonian officers and were to be the core of his ‘new model army’. However, this favouritism towards many of the Persians, and his introduction of Persian court-etiquette, rankled with his more independent-minded Macedonian officers like his senior officer Parmenio. Although he and the others were loyal, their narrow parochialism could not comprehend the wider cosmopolitanism that Alexander had had to adopt if his vast empire was to survive. Alexander knew that he could not extract total obedience from the present generation of Macedonians, if he wished to rule in the autocratic fashion of the kings of Persia. Moreover, he clearly saw that the only way to do this was to get rid of his general Parmenio and those Macedonian barons of ‘the old guard’ whom he realised would never accept the reforms that had to be made.

Alexander knew that it would be hard to get rid of this clique for they were deeply entrenched within the command structure. So, he began to undermine the position of his powerful subordinates by first removing some of them to out-of-the-way ‘posts of honour’ and then rigging ‘treason’ trials against them and the others. But, it wasn’t until after the murder of Parmenio, who was stabbed to death, that Alexander finally felt free enough from their influence to start wearing a combination of Persian and Median dress and take up some Persian customs in earnest. He had done what he felt had been necessary and now, he had no regrets.

The ancient writer and moralist Plutarch says that Alexander adapted himself to local customs in a political move that would make him more acceptable to his subjects. Another reason was that this was done to introduce the Greeks to the practice of obeisance due to a Persian king by getting them accustomed to changes in his dress and ways. Until then, he had maintained two courts with two types of ceremony in an effort to mollify both his Hellenic and his barbarian subjects. The Macedonian one was very informal while the Persian one was strictly formal. From the latter he introduced the Persian practice of prostration, by which his Persian subjects lay face down on the floor, whenever the King appeared. This was a social gesture used in Greece for gods alone, but not in Persia where various forms of obsequious practices were used between those who were socially unequal. Although some of his friends had privately agreed to follow this practice, it was abhorrent to the majority for the Greeks, as a race could not bear the fashion of barbaric kings who they thought treated their subjects as inferiors and slaves. The first to publicly refuse this new practice was Alexander’s own biographer Callisthenes who had been invited on the expedition to ‘write-up’ Alexander’s exploits. He was later convicted on a trumped up charge of treachery and put to death.

Alexander’s adoption of Persian ways earned him the resentment of many Greek intellectuals and he tried to lessen this by marrying himself and 92 of his Companions to Persian noblewomen in 324 BC. He also gave presents to 10, 000 of his men who were cohabitating with native women, and recognised their children as legitimate. This seemingly humane act had another purpose for when he began to dismiss large chunks of his forces, he asked them to leave their wives and children behind, on the excuse that it would cause too much trouble back home. But his real intentions were that he wanted a new army of mixed blood who would have no ties or loyalties, except to him alone, and who would be free of national allegiance and tradition

In conclusion, it can be seen that Alexander’s policy and attitudes towards his indigenous subjects, was an attempt to allow them to cooperate in running his kingdom. He realised that he could not rule this vast empire with the present generation of Westerners who had accompanied him to Asia for, not only did he not have sufficient underlings to help him run the country, he knew that most of them would never accept the Persian way of life, nor its culture. Furthermore, he knew that they would not accept the cultural and political changes that had to be made nor would they willingly show the customary respect due to an Eastern king.

Thus, he had to find a way of combining native rule with the Greek way that would allow both his loyal natives and those Hellenes who were willing to change their ways, to run the many different areas of his empire. What was a problem was the army, which he had brought over from Europe for it was getting old while the cultural ethos of most of its men was alien to the mores and customs of the East. This was why Alexander was developing a new, younger one of mixed race and command. In short, Alexander adapted himself, his politics and his army to suit the ways of the East – not the other way round.

Maybe that’s something that the West should be thinking about today, eh? Anyway, Alexander the Great was buried at Memphis, when he died in 323 BC, but then his body was removed to a tomb at Alexandria. This tomb has since been lost. Was Alexander right? Or was he wrong?