An Empathetic Leader

“Risible” isn’t a word that should be used lightly, but the Indian online newspaper Patna Daily and Iranian.com have come perilously close to it in the last few days in statements that their columnists have made about Alexander.

To take the Patna Daily first, in a column titled A Vainglorious Leader, the writer states the following

Born in 356 B.C. at Pella, the capital of ancient kingdom of Macedon (now Macedonia), and a student of Aristotle, Alexander the Great was narcissist. He was twenty when his father was murdered; and he became king of Macedon after eliminating several of his rivals out of his way.

But the kingdom proved tiny for Alexander the Great, so he set out to conquer more nations. In next 13 years, and before his death at 33, he and his army captured Greece, Persian Empire (now Iran), Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and penetrated into that part of India that we now call Punjab.

Alexander the Great’s victories came at the expense of his soldiers’ lives – but he had no empathy for them. He issued coins with his images on them. He got his statues unveiled. And he named many cities after him, the most famous being Alexandria in Egypt.

No one can have any complaint with the assertion that Alexander was born in 356 B.C. in Pella, was a student of Aristotle and was twenty years of age when he became king.

If the first paragraph parenthesis refers to FYROM, however, then the writer is plain wrong. If he means what is now the Greek province of Macedonia then he has created a false distinction. As I understand it, ‘Macedon’ is just the French form of ‘Macedonia’. There was never a point when Macedon changed its name to Macedonia. If I am wrong, do feel free to say so in the comments section (explaining why, of course).

Further to the above, the writer gets his chronology mixed up when he says that Alexander became king after eliminating his rivals. Diorodus XVII.2 and Plutarch in Chapter 11 of his Life of Alexander are quite clear that Alexander became king first then eliminated his rivals.

In the second paragraph, Alexander’s motive for invading the Persian empire is erroneously reported. He went east to win glory (see Plutarch Chapter 5). The writer, I think, has been taken in by the propaganda at the end of Chapter 6 which has Philip tell Alexander – after the latter’s taming of Bucephalus, “My boy, you must find a kingdom which is your equal. Macedonia is too small for you.”.

The writer gets his dates at the start of the third paragraph right – just about. Alexander’s reign was about 13 years in length but he was actually 32 when he died. To be sure, he was within a month or so of his 33rd birthday so we can let that one go.

Alexander conquered so many countries in the east that it would be hard for any writer to name one that never fell under his sway. I presume, however, that this one was just a bit sleepy when he confused the Persian empire with Iran the country. Ancient Persia corresponds to modern day Iran. The Persian Empire was a rather bigger realm comprising of many countries. As for the writer’s claim that Alexander entered ‘that part of India that we now call Punjab’ (my emphasis) – we should probably skirt over it as it has probably caused enough offence already.

Up till now, the writer has demonstrated a certain if not quite perfect knowledge of Alexander’s life. His mistakes are a great shame but not the worst. That comes in the third paragraph. There, he makes the extraordinary and – here it is – risible claim that Alexander ‘had no empathy’ for his soldiers.

I would suggest that not only did Alexander build his career as a conquerer on his ability to empathise with his men but maintained that empathy even in his later, more disturbed days.

Alexander’s empathic nature can be seen in the way he shared his men’s travails. Look at how he refused the water during his march against Darius (Plutarch 42), in Sogdia (Curtius VII.5.10-12) or the Gedrosian desert (Arrian VI.26). Look at how he burned his own possessions before asking the men to burn theirs (Curtius VI.6.14-17), or at the respect he gave to women (Plutarch 21) and former enemies (Arrian V.19). Look at the nature of his relationship with Hephaestion (Arrian II.13, Diodorus XVII.37). Someone who lacked empathy could not have done any of these things.

The writer cites the examples of Alexander’s coins, statues and self-named cities as if they are proof that Alexander lacked empathy or indeed was, as he claims in the first paragraph, was a narcissist. I would argue that these acts of Alexander (except in respect of the coins with his image on them as I am not sure that he did issue any such coinage. Can anyone confirm that this happened?) took place alongside the respect he had for his men, not in oppressive opposition to them.

I alluded to the writer’s claim that Alexander was a narcissist. I hesitate to get involved with that allegation as I have no psychological training. If I may turn to Wikipedia’s Traits and Signs I would say that while it seems to me that Alexander certainly did meet some of the criteria for being a narcissist, he does not meet them all – and not only in the fact that contra Patna Daily he was a very empathetic person.

In the next post, I’ll turn to Iranian.com.

Categories: Finding Alexander, Of The Moment | Tags: , | 9 Comments

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9 thoughts on “An Empathetic Leader

  1. Jen Jones

    As always, it does my little Hephaestion-loving heart good to see him turn up in the blogs. I agree that if Alexander was so very horrid that his relationship with Hephaestion would not have been so long lived and contention-free. Likewise, I find it difficult to believe that his men would have followed him for 10 years into the complete unknown. And history has shown that negative behavior, whether real or invented, is favored fodder of writers. There is no way we would not have heard of such behavior from Alexander. Demosthenes would have made sure that survived!

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    • I can only think of one occasion when Alexander and Hephaestion might not have agreed on matter and that is over whether the siege of Tyre should be continued Diodorus (XVII.45) says that when A. decided to continue it, only Amyntas, son of Andromenes supported him.

      Having said that, it would be silly to say that this disagreement, if such it was, was proof of Alexander’s lack of empathy towards his friend.

      And given the circumstances it is interesting indeed that we never hear of any arguments between them. I think that is significant.

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  2. You are perfectly right! Besides, we cannot judge old times people according to today’s criteria!

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  3. blazeaglory

    Very good!

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  4. kalpana Ghimire Nourisson

    You are an Alexander lover, Malcolm Mann and I understand your indignation. But I do find you a bit unkind, the article appeared in the Patna daily, a small town indian daily. A provincial Indian writer of today remembers Alexander’s exploit, albeit with some discrepancies. Is not the fact itself noteworthy, I would even say praiseworthy? I think that the mistakes in the article are due to ignorance rather than to ‘mauvaise foi’. Look at how the ancient Athenians in the wake of Demosthnes or even some Romans deliberately villified Alexander and some moderns continue to do it. Also, look at all the ancient Greek assertions about the Persians or the Indians, how hilarious these were. Even the modern day portrayal of the Indians or the Persian are in the movie ‘ Alexander’, how off the mark these are!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Kalpana,

      The article did put me out of joint and so it might be a bit unkind. I’m sorry about that. I did try to stick to the text rather than make any comments about the writer. Further to that, I would not dream of accusing him of bad faith.

      Of course it is commendable that the writer knows Alexander. One thing I won’t do, though, is give him a break because he works for a small paper. That would be condescending. I would hope that if they ever read this post they would either learn from it or show me why I was wrong so that I might learn.

      You are certainly right about the absurdity of ancient Greek notions of the ‘barbaroi’. And it isn’t just them – as I have found today with the post on Iranian.com.

      If you have a blog you must write a post on how Alexander the film gets its treatment of Indians and Persians wrong. I’d be very interested to read that.

      MJM

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      • kalpana Ghimire Nourisson

        Thank you Malcolm for taking the time and trouble to answer me. I do not have a blog. For the Iranian perspective on the movie ‘Alexander’, Farrukh Kaveh has written a balanced and commendable article called ‘How are Iranians and Greeks portrayed in Alexander ?’ ( www.
        kavehfarrukh.com). I know not of Indian commentaries on the movie. But by perverse pleasure I would like to indicate an article, which had raised my blood pressure, on Alexander by a big time Indian journalist editor Anurag Sanghi called Alexander’s conquest of India (2nd look worldpress dated 30011\23).I suspect that the article is likely to irk and irrate you unfailingly too. Happy perusal. 🙂

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