What made Alexander so great?

What made Alexander so great?

What made Alexander so great?

A wartime lexicon.
Nov. 29 2004 1:30 PM

What Made Alexander So Great?

The real mystery of his life isn't his bisexuality.

The current pointless tussle over the bisexuality of Alexander of Macedon is only the latest and cheapest tribute paid to our fascination with him. Recent studies have also raised the question of whether he was a hopeless alcoholic (or perhaps an almost sacrificial votary of a cult devoted to Dionysus, the god of wine) and of whether he was just another bloodthirsty conqueror.

But note this first: This man really did exist, and these events really did occur. Our sources may be fragmentary and inconsistent and contradictory, but they involve us in disputes about real people and events. For the next four weeks, you won't be able to go into a supermarket without hearing pseudo-devotional music concerning an episode 2,000 years ago that may well never have taken place. Meanwhile, Jews will be celebrating Hanukkah, which commemorates the victory of the Orthodox over those Jews who had succumbed to "Hellenism" in Alexander's time. ("Hellenised Jew" is still a taunt hurled by Orthodox Israelis against the secular.)

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Alexander is only a "myth" because his achievements were legendary in his own lifetime and for the secondary and myth-generating reason that we do not know where he is buried. But this has not prevented archaeologists and historians from closing in. It took a very long time for Manolis Andronikos to locate the tombs of the Macedonian royal house, including that of King Philip. But a British classicist named Nicholas Hammond, who had worked with the Greek resistance during World War II, consulted all the ancient accounts he could find and pointed to Vergina, in Greek Macedonia. Dig there, he said. And Andronikos found it. The unmistakable Greekness of the trove is part of the reason that the Greek government is so upset at President Bush's recent decision to recognize former Yugoslav "Macedonia" under its assumed name.

Alexander himself was not above using myth for propaganda purposes. He claimed descent from Achilles, the hero of Troy, and from Zeus himself. He took the work of Homer with him wherever he went. He wanted to be acknowledged as Pharaoh in Egypt—the loftiest of all aspirations in those days—and also to be recognized as a god by those who worshipped the Olympian pantheon. Alexandros Megalos, to give him his Greek sobriquet, reminds us of the root of our word "megalomania." But should he be compared with the other great despots of antiquity, or with more modern totalitarians and butchers?

A very absorbing recent book, Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness, by Guy MacLean Rogers, argues that this modern temptation should be avoided. Alexander's tutor was Aristotle (a fact that supplies endless fascination to those who study the relationship between philosophers and monarchs, from Machiavelli to Leo Strauss). And Aristotle, perhaps sharing in the continuing rage and shame at the Persian desecration of the Acropolis in 480 B.C., urged his pupil to treat the peoples of the Persian Empire as coldly as he would plants or animals. The available evidence is that Alexander did not take this advice.

He certainly followed the custom of ancient warfare in allowing the massacre of cities that did not surrender and the enslavement of captives. He never hesitated to employ torture in extracting confessions or other sorts of information. But in smashing the gruesome power of the seemingly eternal Persian Empire, he showed some gallantry and some cunning. Formerly subjected peoples were permitted various kinds of autonomy, and the captured family of the vanquished Emperor Darius was treated with almost exaggerated respect. Alexander further married a Bactrian wife and encouraged his officers and generals to do the same. Indeed, he was criticized by the Macedonian hard-liners for being too deft in assimilating himself to the customs of those he had defeated. It was only by this policy of alliance that he was able to keep his army on the march all the way across Afghanistan to India, and then back through modern Iraq and the Gulf, founding city-states all the way—some of which still bear versions of his name. If we have the word polis, we owe it to this early form of primitive globalization, just as we are indebted for almost all of our political terms to the Greek language. The term "known world" would be almost oxymoronic were it not for this combination of military and political genius. Once Alexander had spent himself, people in hitherto unconnected regions knew that there was a world beyond their own constricted horizons. And they had a lingua franca, in the form of bastardized Greek, which even the later Roman sphere had to adopt.

As for how he spent himself: He was both a hero and a debauchee. When his homesick and grizzled troops began to grumble at Opis, on the banks of the Tigris, in 324 B.C., Alexander is said to have challenged every man present to strip and show his wounds. He himself, he announced with no fear of contradiction, was marked on every part of his body—except his back. This prefigures the words of King Henry ("then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars ... ") on the eve of Agincourt—and it was followed by Alexander's sullen retreat to his tent in emulation of Achilles before Troy. We may distrust the idea of military glory and heroism, but if Alexander did not display these qualities, then such qualities do not exist.

It's notoriously difficult to be a hero at the bar and in the sack, in any order, but Alexander seems, in spite of hangovers that lasted for days and that often nearly killed him, to have married the Bactrian Roxane for her beauty more than for her dynastic value and to have made other interethnic marriages that were designed to produce heirs. That he loved his male comrade Hephaestion seems to be one of the few conclusions upon which all chroniclers agree and about which none were surprised. The case of the beautiful eunuch Bagoas is less clear, but Oliver Stone will have done the world a service if he sends readers back to Mary Renault's marvelous novel The Persian Boy and, indeed, to a rereading of her work in general.

Though his temples and cities and monuments do not show the hideous barbarism and vanity that was displayed by some of those he overthrew (there is a little Greek temple in upper Egypt conspicuous for its proportion and modesty among the vast trunks of grim, power-proclaiming stone), Alexander was eventually brought low by hubris. He did not know when or how to stop, and he wanted to be worshipped as well as admired. Unlike Ozymandias, however, it cannot be said of him that none of his work remains. And if we search for a neat contemporary allusion—imperial overstretch? clash of civilization?—we come up short because this time, as before, it really is too early to say.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.