The Man Alexander the Great
THE exploits of Alexander the Great had a tremendous impact upon the ancient world. In a matter of a few years he gained control of a land area greater than that of any ruler prior to his time. But what kind of a person was Alexander the Great?
A prime source of information is the Greek biographer Plutarch, who lived over three centuries after Alexander’s time. His accounts are therefore not firsthand, but based on the writings of earlier historians. Likewise the Greek historian Arrian, of the second century C.E., had to base his work on that of others. Taking these sources for what they are worth, this is the story that unfolds:
Traits Manifested Early in Youth
Early in life Alexander manifested ambition, love of glory and an interest in matters that usually are of little concern to young boys.
When very young, Alexander on one occasion, in the absence of his father Philip, entertained ambassadors from the king of Persia. His questions revealed the workings of a practical mind even then. He inquired about such things as the “nature of the road into inner Asia, the character of their king, how he carried himself to his enemies, and what forces he was able to bring into the field.”
Alexander’s joy over his father’s victories was limited. He felt that his father’s achievements might deprive him of the opportunity to perform great and illustrious deeds. He was not interested in inheriting wealth and luxury, but wanted to display his courage and gain glory through his own accomplishments.
The kind of glory that Alexander sought was what he viewed as being worthy of kings. Therefore he was not impressed by professional athletes. Asked whether he would run a race in the Olympic Games, Alexander indicated that he would do so if he were to run with kings.
Alexander had full confidence in himself and his abilities. One striking example of this involves the horse Bucephalus. When this horse was being led away as completely useless and untractable, Alexander reportedly said: “What an excellent horse do they lose for want of address and boldness to manage him!” Hearing this remark several times, Philip retorted: “Do you reproach those who are older than yourself, as if you knew more, and were better able to manage him than they?” Alexander boldly asserted that he could manage the horse better than others. If he failed, he agreed to pay the full price of the horse. But Alexander did not fail, prompting his father to exclaim: “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.”
Later Philip sent for Aristotle so that Alexander might receive instruction from this famous philosopher. Besides imparting his views on morals and politics, Aristotle is also thought to have taught Alexander about medicine.
It appears that Aristotle was primarily responsible for Alexander’s interest in learning and reading. This interest continued with Alexander throughout his life. He would place under his pillow his dagger and the copy of Homer’s Iliad that had been corrected by Aristotle. Alexander continued reading history, plays and odes. Even in matters of knowledge he sought preeminence and therefore voiced his disapproval upon learning that Aristotle had published things that had been imparted to him orally. Wrote Alexander: “You have not done well to publish your books of oral doctrine; for what is there now that we excel others in, if those things which we have been particularly instructed in be laid open to all?”
Already as a teen-ager Alexander distinguished himself in military exploits. At sixteen he, in the absence of his father, ruled Macedonia. He put down the rebellious Mædi, took their chief city by storm, drove out the inhabitants, brought other peoples into the city and then named the place after himself, Alexandropolis.
As King and Military Leader
Following the assassination of his father Philip, Alexander, at the age of twenty, became king of Macedonia. During his reign of less than thirteen years Alexander continued to be driven by an unrestrained desire for glory. Though apparently a dreamer, he had the determination to transform his dreams into reality. Despite great odds, he boldly went ahead with his plans.
According to his own testimony (as quoted by the historian Arrian), Alexander inherited from his father only a few gold and silver cups. Though Philip owed five hundred talents, there were less than sixty talents in the treasury. Nevertheless, Alexander borrowed an additional eight hundred talents and then, with a comparatively small army, began a campaign of conquest. And he succeeded, extending his conquests clear into India.
Of course, it should not be overlooked that Alexander had the advantage of starting out with an experienced army. But considerable skill was required on his part. New situations arose. Altogether different means of warfare had to be faced. Hence opposing forces had to be fought with different but appropriate tactics.
Then, too, it was largely the personality of Alexander that kept the army going for a considerable period with comparatively little difficulty in the ranks. He was able to gain and maintain the affections of his men.
His army could see that he never spared himself. One example of this concerns the time when Alexander and his men were marching through a sandy desert. Though he was suffering from intense thirst, he, in full view of his men, poured out the water that some soldiers had been able to procure for him with much difficulty from a shallow riverbed. Before pouring out the water he duly thanked the soldiers.
Toward the close of his short life Alexander could say: “I have no part of my body, in front at least, that is left without scars; there is no weapon, used at close quarters, or hurled from afar, of which I do not carry the mark. Nay, I have been wounded by the sword, hand to hand; I have been shot with arrows, I have been struck from a catapult, smitten many a time with stones and clubs.”
Other actions, too, won him the affection and admiration of his forces. On one occasion he arranged a furlough for recently married men, enabling them to spend the winter with their wives in Macedonia. In the earlier part of his reign he had complete trust in his friends. Once while Alexander was seriously ill, a physician by the name of Philip made a strong potion for him. When he was about to give it to Alexander, a note was delivered, advising Alexander that King Darius had bribed Philip to poison him. Alexander nevertheless accepted the medicine, handed the note to Philip and, while Philip read it, drank the dose. There was indeed nothing amiss; rather, the prescription led to Alexander’s recovery.
After battles, Alexander visited the wounded, examined their wounds, praised soldiers for their valorous deeds and honored them by a donation in keeping with their accomplishments. Whenever there were spoils after a siege he canceled the debts of his men, making no inquiry as to how the debts were incurred. As for those who fell in battle, Alexander arranged for a splendid burial. The parents and children of the fallen men were exempted from all taxes and services. For diversion after battles Alexander held games and contests.
At First Comparatively Temperate in Habits
Unlike many other rulers, Alexander considered it “more kingly to govern himself than to conquer his enemies.” Reportedly the only woman with whom he became intimate before his marriage was Barsine, the widow of Memnon, general of the Persian troops. Regarding Alexander’s marriage to Roxana, the Greek biographer Plutarch writes:
“It was, indeed a love affair, yet it seemed at the same time to be conducive to the object he had in hand. For it gratified the conquered people to see him choose a wife from among themselves, and it made them feel the most lively affection for him, to find that in the only passion which he, the most temperate of men, was overcome by, he yet forbore till he could obtain her in a lawful and honourable way.”
Alexander also respected the marriages of others. Though the wife of King Darius was his captive, he saw to it that she was treated honorably. Personally Alexander did not see her and did not permit others to speak of her beauty in his presence. Similarly, upon learning that two Macedonian soldiers had abused the wives of some strangers, he ordered that they be executed if found guilty.
Alexander regarded homosexuality as something very base. When an offer was made to him to buy two young boys for sexual pleasure, he was highly incensed and wrote that the ‘seller and his merchandise might go to destruction.’
Alexander was moderate in his eating habits. In his drinking, however, it appears that he eventually gave way to excesses. He would speak extendedly over every cup of wine and boast of his achievements. At such times he also delighted in being flattered.
Like his mother Olympias, Alexander was very religious. Whether he really believed that he himself was a god there is some question. Plutarch indicates that Alexander simply used claims to divinity as a vehicle for maintaining a sense of superiority among other people. However, Alexander was very careful to observe religious ritual. He would sacrifice before and after battles, and would consult his diviners regarding the significance of certain omens. He also consulted the oracle of Ammon in Libya. And at Babylon he carried out the instructions of the Chaldeans regarding sacrifice, particularly to Bel.
In view of this religious leaning and interest, there may be some basis for what the Jewish historian Josephus relates about Alexander’s coming to Jerusalem (though many think otherwise). Reportedly the Jewish high priest showed Alexander the book of Daniel, wherein it is pointed out that a Greek would destroy the empire of Persia. Alexander supposed that he himself was the person intended and, later, granted the Jews everything they desired.
As time passed, Alexander’s religiosity appears to have become practically an obsession. Writes Plutarch:
“When once Alexander had given way to fears of supernatural influence, his mind grew so disturbed and so easily alarmed that, if the least unusual or extraordinary thing happened, he thought it a prodigy or a presage, and his court was thronged with diviners and priests whose business was to sacrifice and purify and foretell the future.”
This somewhat parallels the situation of modern dictators like Hitler who consulted astrologers before making their moves.
Further Deterioration in Personality
In other matters, too, Alexander changed for the worse. At first he put up with unfavorable comments made about him and endeavored to render unprejudiced judgment. Later, however, he readily began to believe false accusations. The preservation of his glory and reputation becoming the most important thing in his life, he administered punishment with the greatest of severity. Having been led to believe that Philotas was implicated in an attempt upon his life, Alexander had him executed. Thereafter he sent word to Media and had Parmenio, the father of Philotas, also put to death. This was despite the fact that there was no evidence that Parmenio was involved in seeking Alexander’s death.
One of the darkest deeds of Alexander was the murder of his friend Clitus in a fit of drunken rage. Commenting on the incident, Arrian observes:
“[Alexander] showed himself therein the slave of two vices, by neither of which any self-respecting man should be overcome, namely, passion and drunkenness.”
However, Alexander came to recognize the baseness of his act. Most ancient historians (according to Arrian) state that Alexander condemned himself for having become the slayer of his friends. For three days he lay in his bed, partaking of neither food nor drink. Finally his friends were able to persuade him to eat.
Reportedly Anaxarchus the Sophist consoled Alexander by telling him that “what is done by a great King should be held just.” Regarding this Arrian states:
“I say that [Anaxarchus] did Alexander a wrong more grievous than the trouble which beset him; . . . For the tale goes that Alexander even desired people to bow to the earth before him, from the idea that Ammon was his father rather than Philip, and since he now emulated the ways of the Persians and Medes, both by the change of his garb and the altered arrangements of his general way of life. It is said that he had no lack of zealous flatterers who yielded to him in this.”
So it appears that Alexander’s craving for glory eventually brought out the most undesirable traits.
Death of Alexander
At Babylon, after having fought fierce battles in India, Alexander was stricken with fever. The royal diaries report that, while the fever was already upon him, he twice drank till late in the night with Medius. Alexander’s condition progressively worsened, though he continued to offer the customary sacrifices. Finally he lost his speech.
The soldiers insisted on seeing Alexander. Basing his comments on the royal diaries, Arrian writes:
“He was already speechless as the army filed past; yet he greeted one and all, raising his head, though with difficulty, and signing to them with his eyes.”
About two days later, Alexander died, having lived a mere thirty-two years and eight months. It was just as certain Indian wise men had observed:
“O King Alexander, each man possesses just so much of the earth as this on which we stand; and you being a man like other men, save that you are full of activity and relentless, are roaming over all this earth far from your home, troubled yourself, and troubling others. But not so long hence you will die, and will possess just so much of the earth as suffices for your burial.”
Though Alexander had applauded the words of these wise men, he never heeded them. His ambition impelled him to keep on conquering until his vitality was entirely depleted. In death he had nothing more than other men.