ALEXANDER: THE AMBIGUITY OF GREATNESS
By Guy MacLean Rogers
ALEXANDER THE GREAT: THE HUNT FOR A NEW PAST
By Paul Cartledge
Alexander III of Macedon, “the Great”, is one of history’s truly larger-than-life, iconic characters. In part this is because he wanted it that way. He didn’t consider himself bound by normal human limitations, preferring to measure his accomplishments against those of a heroic-mythic past. He wanted to be a legend, maybe even a god, and, by the standards of the day, he could claim some success.
In these two new books, released at the same time as Oliver Stone’s epic film treatment, we get to see a pair of Classical scholars attempting to untangle the “real” historical Alexander behind the legend and the myth.
It is not an easy task, as they both make clear in lengthy appendixes that discuss the nature and reliability of their sources. Rogers calls his appendix “Flacks, Hacks, and Historians.” Paul Cartledge summarizes the situation this way: “although the surviving evidence is quite ample in quantity, it is poor in quality, being contradictory, tendentious and mainly non-contemporary.” Of the numerous accounts of Alexander written during his lifetime, none survives in the original. Our best sources are histories that relied on these original sources, but which were written hundreds of years after the fact.
And so Alexander’s early life is an almost total blank. We know, for example, that he was tutored by Aristotle. But we can only speculate about what Aristotle taught him, whether or not Alexander actually learned anything, and whether, as Yeats imagines it, the famous philosopher ever whipped the prince’s royal bottom. We don’t have his report cards.
Rogers has written more of a narrative life, and, when possible, tends to place a positive spin on Alexander’s story. At times his attention to detail is overdone, especially when breaking down the opposing sides before one of the famous set-piece battles (there were four: the Granicus River, Issos, Gaugamela, and the Hydaspes). The names alone make some passages nearly unreadable:
After passing through the [Caspian] Gates himself, Alexander learned from Bagistanes, a Babylonian nobleman, and Antibelus, one of Mazaeus’s sons, that Darius had been seized and put under arrest by Nabarzanes, his own cavalry commander; Bessus, satrap of Bactria; and Barsaentes, satrap of Arachotia and Drangiana.
This calls for an editor.
Cartledge’s “hunt for a new past” is organized thematically rather than chronologically, with individual chapters focusing on key issues in Alexander scholarship and historiography. His attitude toward Alexander is also a little more cynical, though it stops short of what has been called the “new orthodoxy”, which paints Alexander as a brutal, paranoid, drunken, megalomaniac tyrant.
Two examples, out of the many available, will have to do.
First there is Alexander’s marriage to Roxane, the daughter of a Bactrian noble. Cartledge sees the marriage as an extension of Alexander’s father’s tactic of “fighting his wars by marriages”. While some writers have talked Alexander’s marriages up in romantic terms, especially the marriage to Roxane, “the truth was surely more pragmatically prosaic.” It was marital diplomacy, a mere “marriage of convenience.”
Rogers isn’t so sure. He notes that the “purely political or pragmatic explanation for Alexander’s first marriage is not persuasive.” Alexander could have married any woman before then, for greater political benefit, and he hadn’t. Instead, “The simple explanation here is most convincing: this was a love match.”
Rogers is persuasive here, but it’s hard to come away from either book thinking Alexander was a romantic. His motto was to make war, not love. As one of Cartledge’s chapter epigraphs has it, “Alexander had no sex-life whatsoever and my theory is that he got his fun doing to countries what normal people do to women.” This probably isn’t all that far from the truth. Alexander did enjoy the company of women, and even had children, but when Cartledge refers to him as “one of the supreme fertilizing forces in history” he is referring to his dissemination of Greek culture, not his literal progeny.
Another issue the authors divide on is the question of Alexander’s motives for invading the Persian Empire in the first place. At the furthest extent of his campaign, in modern India, a Brahman philosopher had only one question for Alexander: For what reason had he made such a long journey hither?
The rationale provided for public consumption was that the invasion was payback for Persia’s burning of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis some 150 years earlier. Rogers, surprisingly, seems to put some stock in this. He sees Alexander’s Persian campaign as part of the long struggle between Persia and Greece. Cartledge, however, dismisses the payback theory as a pious fraud. In fact, Greeks were always uneasy allies, and more fought against Alexander in Persia than for him. He might just as well have said he was going to look for weapons of mass destruction as seeking to avenge the sack of Athens.
Why Alexander went to war is the central question of his life, for the simple reason that war was his life. It was what made him great. Alexander was indeed a great warrior and leader of men in battle. Rogers sees him as one of history’s “virtuosos of violence”: “one of that very rare class of warriors who not only are superbly talented professionals, but who also enjoy the combat itself.” But aside from being a great warrior, what else was he?
Not much. His historical importance lies in his role as Cartledge’s “supreme fertilizing force.” Rogers calls him “one of the decisive founders of Western civilization.” But how much of this was his intention? Alexander carried elements of Greek culture everywhere he went in the ancient world. But what drove him was a pathologically insatiable lust for glory. This ultimately tragic ambition to transcend all boundaries and challenge the achievements of the gods themselves is what continues to make him such a fascinating, even mythic figure today.
Review first published December 11, 2004.