Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones in Literary Review, August 2004

Even though that doyen of Alexander scholars Robin Lane Fox has been the adviser to Oliver Stone's forthcoming film about Alexander and will be seen on horseback leading the charges, it will, like all historical films, be rubbish. I strongly recommend Paul Cartledge's fine new assessment to keep the history in focus.

Greece of the 4thC BC was not a nation state or a political unity of any sort. It consisted of self-governing independent city-states - like Athens, Corinth, Sparta and so on - all quarrelling among themselves like snakes in a sack. To the north of Greece, however, lay Macedon and its ambitious and powerful king, Philip II. Philip decided to extend his power south, and one by one he picked off these quarrelling city-states, some of who tried- in vain - to unite against him. By 338 BC he was master of the whole of the Greek mainland. In 336 BC, however, he was assassinated, and his son Alexander the Great became king, aged 20.

Greeks regarded Macedonians as a collection of thuggish oiks, short, hairy and illiterate. But Alexander was a passionate Graecophile; his literary hero was the poet Homer; his model was the mythical hero Achilles; he loved the story of the Trojan War, the great Greek/Trojan east-west conflict with its tales of intercontinental ballistic wooden horses; and Philip had given him Aristotle as his tutor (rather like looking out a GCSE maths tutor for your son and landing him with Stephen Hawking, though Cartledge does not think it had much effect).

Alexander was determined to prove what a good Greek he was in the most striking way possible. One hundred and fifty years earlier - 490-479 BC - the Persian empire had attacked Greece, but had amazingly been repelled. Alexander now announced his intention of taking revenge against the Persians for having dared to attack Greece at that time. Cartledge finds the reason unconvincing, and sees in Alexander a man driven to extremes - in this case, to conquer to the ends of the earth. In 334 BC he set out with his formidable army at his back, the most important legacy his father had handed down to him.

By 334 the Near East, including Egypt, was his, with staggering amounts of booty; by 330 he had conquered Iraq and Iran (the Persian homeland). Mission accomplished? Not for Alexander. By 325 he had reached Pakistan and western India, where, when he was on the point of attacking the Ganges delta, his army called 'Enough'. He returned to Babylon (Baghdad), now perhaps with Arabia, North Africa, Sicily and south Italy in his sights, but in 323 (aged 32) he died - probably of malaria.

We all know there are lies, damned lies and public relations. But whoever was Alexander's public relations officer would have earned his bonuses. Alexander's name has been revered across cultures all over the world to this very day - India, Arabia (where 'Iskander' and 'Iksander' are 'Alexander'), Armenia, Syria, Ethiopia, the Balkans and among the Jews, in Iceland and Ireland. Ancient Greeks practised as Buddhists; Homer was translated into Indian languages and read in Sri Lanka. The east, especially the near east, would never be the same again. Greek language, culture and institutions were there to stay for a thousand years, proving fertile ground for the eastern Roman empire and the spread of Christianity.

Amazing stories sprang up about Alexander. He was a miracle-working hero. He travelled in flying-machines and submarines. One of the wise men was said to have presented Jesus with gold from Alexander's treasury. Some Afghan chieftains still claim descent from him. Alexander, in other words, became a universal brand, an everyman, capturing people's imagination down the millennia.

Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Clare College, Cambridge, deals with all this very skilfully. He traces the story of Alexander both chronologically and thematically, teasing out fact from fiction, explaining with great clarity the historical problems but without clogging up the story. He thinks alcohol may have played a part in Alexander's early death (it certainly did when he killed his friend Cleitus in a drunken fit); he admires Alexander's efforts to promote a multi-cultural, Graeco-oriental world - a somewhat starry-eyed assessment, in my view - but admits that these efforts came on the back of brutal military campaigns; he takes Alexander to have been bi-sexual, though not over interested in sex. He acknowledges that Alexander could brook no argument and did away with rivals without compunction (including, for example, his official historian Callisthenes, who resisted Alexander's desire to be worshipped like a Persian king), and was a supreme promoter of his own self-image, including the idea that he was himself descended from a god.

I was not quite persuaded by Cartledge's theory that hunting - both men and animals - is a key to understanding Alexander's personality, since it was a sport of all kings, not unique to him; and, whether Alexander wanted to go to the ends of the earth or not, conquest then (like business today) was fantastically profitable if you won. That surely was part of Alexander's motivation. But Cartledge is right to argue that, if the title 'Great' is to be unarguably applied to him in any field, it is to his almost unparalleled brilliance as a general.

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