IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Alexander the Megalomaniacal

From Peter Green, a view of Alexander the Great, as seen through the eyes of the classicist Ernst Badian (from The New York Review of Books):

. . . 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 needs to be taken into account when attempting to assess, as Ernst Badian does in his Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, the character, career, and legacy of that mysterious and elusive world-conqueror. Alexander has been the subject of a great deal of mythification, both contemporary and posthumous, much of it self-generated. This makes close, rational scrutiny of the evidence—such as it is—of particular importance. 

The mythic aspects of Alexander’s comet-like career had an archetypal quality that was to prove irresistibly infectious, and the wide-ranging, passionately held, and frequently contradictory assessments of him that posterity delivered (and continues to deliver) remain the most striking evidence of this. Emotional neutrality is conspicuous by its absence. 

Here a useful historiographical maxim comes into play: distrust the opinions, evaluate the facts. Actions are far less likely to be rewritten than words. It is not, by and large, the actual events of Alexander’s career that are in dispute, so much as their motivation. Examining those events—including their subject’s personal habits and characteristics—without, as far as possible, being affected by the overlay of emotional coloring, supportive or hostile, that accumulated around them from the very beginning, is the method Badian has clearly adopted throughout, and it offers the best chance we are likely to have of reaching a conclusion somewhere near the truth. . . .

[W]hen he set out for Asia he was not yet Alexander the Great, and in many ways still the unlicked stripling jeered at by Demosthenes: in particular, he remained dependent on the support of Macedonia’s powerful aristocratic clans, and on none more than that of Philip’s most trusted general, Parmenio, who saw to it that every key post in the army’s command structure was held by a family member or relative by marriage. A great deal of Alexander’s time and energy on the expedition was devoted to loosening, by fair means or foul, this dangerous internal stranglehold on his authority as both king and generalissimo.

The expedition itself produced its own paradoxes. Its official, somewhat threadbare, justification was revenge for the destruction, in particular of Greek temples, wrought by Xerxes’ troops during the Persian invasion of Greece a century and a half earlier, in 480. There was also the Panhellenism preached by various Athenian orators, Isocrates in particular, calling for an attack on the Persian empire as a heaven-sent way of uniting the eternally fractious and quarrelsome Greek states. An attractive lure here was the assurance of infinite wealth for the taking, allegedly defended by effete and unwarlike barbarians. Yet the number of Greeks who joined Alexander’s expedition remained strikingly small, and the Spartans boycotted it altogether. Many Greek mercenaries chose rather to fight for the Persians. This is hardly surprising. Those who had lost their freedom at Chaeroneia, and had seen, in the eradication of Thebes, what their new master was like when crossed, had little inclination to follow him on his career of conquest.

The hostility was mutual. Alexander had no intention of weakening his control over the expedition’s command structure still further by appointing to it Greeks whose loyalty was, in his view, by definition questionable: the few exceptions were faithful friends of long standing. Similarly, he was not going to risk defections at crucial moments by using Greeks as front-line troops (though he kept a group of Greek intellectuals around him for cultural entertainment), and his distrust of the experienced Greek fleet was so great that he preferred to dismiss it, and run the huge risk of attacking the powerful seaports of Asia Minor, such as Miletus and Halicarnassus, exclusively from the landward side. Finally, though he could ill spare them, he left at home a force at least 12,000 strong—a very necessary precaution, as events turned out—to keep the mainland states from revolting during his absence. Whatever his real aims were, the pursuit of Panhellenism, so convenient as an excuse, was evidently not among them.

Other aspects of the eleven-year expedition, which penetrated as far as India, similarly call for comment. There were a remarkable number of supposed treacherous conspiracies against Alexander, marked by carefully staged interrogations and ruthless executions, most notably of Parmenio and his son Philotas. Equally suggestive, after the defeat of Persia’s ruling Achaemenid dynasty, is Alexander’s steadily increasing policy of accommodation with his recent enemies. He adopted Persian court dress and protocol, and tried to introduce proskynesis, prostration before him as monarch; he began to appoint Persian grandees to key offices, and ordered the training of 30,000 Persian youths for integration into Macedonian military units, another move that not unnaturally caused violent resentment among his veterans.

But most striking of all, and what in the long run most hardened Macedonian hostility, was the growing realization that for Alexander conquest was an end in itself, virtually unrelated to the establishment of an empire. (According to Arrian, the main historian of Alexander’s career whose works have survived: “No matter what he had already conquered, he would not have stopped there quietly, not even if he had added Europe to Asia and the Britannic Islands to Europe, but...would always have searched far beyond for something unknown, in competition with himself in default of any other rival”) Veterans who had expected to return home, laden with loot, after the defeat of the Persians, now faced demands to follow their obsessional leader on a further march of conquest with no apparent end in sight. Alexander’s recourse to Persian reinforcements was, in large part, a direct response to this obstinacy on the part of his own worn-out and disillusioned Macedonians.

There were also, by the end, disturbing signs of megalomania. Alexander demanded to be treated as a god. He planned vast and impracticable projects: a mausoleum for Philip that matched the largest Egyptian pyramid, six grandiose temples at a cost of 1,500 talents each. But above all he was planning, even on his deathbed, for further conquests: of Arabia, and then of North Africa westward as far as the Pillars of Heracles near what is now Gibraltar, and back by way of Spain and South Italy. For this a thousand large warships were to be built, and a great highway driven along the African coastline from Alexandria to the Atlantic.

The huge gap that now yawned between Alexander’s ambitions and those of his Macedonian followers—partially concealed by the vast bribes he paid out from captured Persian treasury reserves to exhausted, and finally mutinous, troops—is made all too clear by the fact that on his premature death, when he was not yet thirty-three years old, in Babylon (whether from illness, the cumulative effect of severe wounds, increasing alcoholism, or, inevitably, suspected poisoning), every single one of these projects was cancelled, almost literally overnight, and never heard of again. . . .

Conquest and Empire was the apt title of one of the best modern biographies of Alexander, that by Brian Bosworth (1988); and conquest and empire, or, more precisely, one’s moral and political attitude toward them, overt or implicit, underlie most of the varying judgments on Alexander himself down the centuries. Alexander’s admirers, more often than not, are would-be emulators, like the succession of Roman emperors, from Augustus to Caracalla, who made honorific visits to the great man’s embalmed corpse in Alexandria. Critics, significantly, were fewer, and even they tended to view his career not as a matter of imperialism run wild, but rather as a supreme example of the vanity of human wishes. Only one or two, like Saint Augustine, dismissed him as a kind of world-class condottiere.

The balance in favor of imperialism was only reversed after the French Revolution and the American and Greek wars of independence made the idea of Greek democracy respectable after centuries in the Latinate doghouse. Nineteenth-century historians, in particular George Grote, took moral exception to unfettered conquest as such. Since Alexander was a powerful emotional icon not willingly abandoned, a morally valid justification for his career had to be put in place. The solution was both simple and effective, leaning heavily on the Victorian Age’s missionary belief in spreading the light of its superior culture and religion to the lesser breeds still struggling in heathen darkness. In Alexander’s case what was seen as being propagated, naturally, were the dazzling achievements of Greek art, literature, and philosophy. An early essay by Plutarch, not to mention the alleged efficiency of the British Raj in India, as later of Cecil Rhodes’s and Lord Milner’s colonial activities in south Africa, lent support to the bizarre notion of Alexander as Hellenic cultural torchbearer to the barbaroi of Asia.

The culmination of this curious exercise in moral mythography was the famous, and immensely influential, version of Alexander and his career produced, between 1926 and 1948, by W.W. Tarn, a retired British lawyer and independent scholar. The early date is significant. The 1920s were the heyday of the League of Nations, when the Brotherhood of Man was being promoted by many late-Victorian liberal idealists like Tarn, including Gilbert Murray and Sir Alfred Zimmern. But this was also the heyday of another hero, Lawrence of Arabia, whose exploits (some of them, like the attack on Aqaba from the desert, consciously copied from Alexander) were being sedulously promoted, and mythicized, by Lowell Thomas.

Tarn duly gave his Alexander the character of an idealized English gentleman—honorable, sporting, temperate in appetite, moderate and orthodox where sex was concerned, but a heroic and original field commander in the Lawrence mold. He further saddled him with a mission to achieve the Brotherhood of Man, under which Macedonians and Persians would preside benignly over a kind of idealized Raj. His vision, coming as it did on the heels of a devastating and ugly world war, was widely popular, exactly as Lawrence’s Arabian career had been. So popular, in fact, that it not only found its way into just about every general account, schoolbook, and encyclopedia article, but became conventional wisdom for the vast majority of Anglo-American teachers and scholars. As late as 1950 it was still hard work to get any British or American academic journal to publish an article systematically undermining Tarn’s thesis. The credit for ending this extraordinary state of affairs goes, almost entirely, to Ernst Badian, and his Collected Papers on Alexander the Great shows, in detail, just how he did it. . . .

The nearest thing in Collected Papers to a general survey, “Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power,” reveals how, after “fighting, scheming and murdering in pursuit of the secure tenure of absolute power, he found himself at last on a lonely pinnacle over an abyss, with no use for his power and security unattainable.” All that remained was the prospect of further conquest. This is the aspect of Alexander revealed by a scholar whose own life was shaped by the forces of totalitarianism. In 1948 Tarn looked at his idealistic claims for the Brotherhood of Man and wrote: “I have left the latter part of this footnote substantially as written in 1926. Since then we have seen new and monstrous births, and are still moving in a world not realized; and I do not know how to rewrite it.” But Ernst Badian did, and the essays here reviewed are a permanent testament to that knowledge.


Peter Green, "He Found the Real Alexander," (review of Ernst Badian, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, Routledge), The New York Review of Books, November 22, 2012.