The History That Never Was

Yesterday, I looked at an article published on the Patna Daily website that accused Alexander of lacking empathy. You can read my post here.

There is no doubt that the Macedonian king was (as we would say) egocentric, but to suggest that he lacked empathy demonstrates in my view a risible ignorance of more than the basic facts of Alexander’s life.

Despite this, the writer of that article still possesses more understanding of Alexander than the person who wrote “Iran: the land of political midgets” for the Iranian.com website. In a post that looks at how Iran has civilised both foreigners and natives, the writer tells us that

Alexander (Known as the Alexander the Great, that Iranians call him “Alexander, the Impure”, Eskandareh Ghojastak or Ghojasteh), was so fascinated by the Iranian culture and civilization that he accepted many governmental arrangements of Iran. His reaction to what he saw in Iran of that day was like a peasant from medieval ages walking the streets of present day New York.

I will not argue with the assertion that Iranians call Alexander ‘the Impure’ if only because my knowledge of contemporary Iran is limited to whatever appears on the news, and it rarely talks about anything other than the political situation there.

I will, however, take issue with the assertion that Alexander was ‘fascinated by… Iranian culture and civilization’. My objection here is based on the word ‘Iranian’. Alexander would not have recognised it. The country we now call Iran was in his day called Persia (i.e. Persis). It was Persian culture and civilisation that entranced him.

This may seem like a quibble – Iran and Persia are the same place after all – but actually it is vitally important that we make the distinction. By saying that Alexander was ‘fascinated by… Iranian culture and civilization’ the writer is creating an illusory link between the modern state of Iran and the ancient state of Persia. They are manipulating history in order to suit their nationalist agenda. That is a very serious matter.

This, of course, is nothing new when it comes to Alexander. He is called a ‘gay’ icon despite the fact that the word ‘gay’ in its current meaning is hardly older than the twentieth century. Greece claims him as one of her own when in his own lifetime, many of the Greek city states reviled him. On that point, at least Alexander was, in a sense, Greek as well as Macedonian. One thing he wasn’t was Slavic. That, however, has not stopped FYROM from trying to claim him as their ancestor.

Of course, this is not to say that Alexander is off-limits to gay people*, Greeks or, for that matter, Slavs, but there’s no use anyone at all talking about him if they are going to do so in a way that fogs the truth of who he was and the world he lived in.

Which brings me to the risible aspect of the Iranian.com article.

… [Alexander’s] reaction to what he saw in Iran of that day was like a peasant from medieval ages walking the streets of present day New York.

This is simple nonsense. Not a manipulation of history but an exaggerated, absurd falsification. If a peasant from the Middle Ages was dropped into New York today he would surely be overwhelmed by what he saw. He might suspect magic to be behind some of the gadgets in the Apple store, or that giants built the Empire State building**. Poor people would appear wealthy to him, and even a mere pistol such a weapon as he could take over the world with.

When the peasant returned home, if he ever recovered from the mental shock of his experience, all that he saw in the future would surely find a place in stories and soon become figures of legend and myth.

For this post, I took a quick look at two moments in Alexander’s life as told by Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus and Plutarch to see how they matched up to the peasant in New York. I chose the king’s entry into the Persian camp after the Battle of Issus and into Babylon. The former was his first experience of how the Great King lived, the latter his first experience of the grandeur of the Persian empire. Unsurprisingly, on neither occasion was Alexander overwhelmed. Plutarch records that after entering Darius’ tent and seeing its luxurious appointments, he

… turned to his companions and remarked, ‘So this, it seems, is what it is to be a king.’

But I defy anyone to interpret those as the words of someone overawed rather than simply making a drily humorous aside. As I say, I only looked at a couple of scenes from Alexander’s life. If anyone knows of any other incidents which they feel stand up to the Iranian.com writer’s description, do leave a comment. For now, though, and in my view, their absurdly exaggerated description does not help their main point – that Iran has lifted up foreigners and natives alike – but rather, detracts from it.

* I’m using ‘gay people’ here as shorthand for the LGBT community as not all who identify as being LGBT are fortunate enough to live in a recognisable ‘community’ (or, perhaps, do not desire to)

** The Anglo-Saxons thought giants built some of the Roman ruins that they found after invading England

Categories: By the Bye, Finding Alexander | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “The History That Never Was

  1. I think I may help you to understand the so-called ‘impure’ Alexander: in the Persian/Iranian culture there are two interpretations of this king. The first is a bad one (from Sasanid sources): the Book of Arda Wiraz calls him ‘damned’ and ‘cursed’, because he invaded Persia and burnt the Law’s books. But two Persian poets, Firdawsi ( c. 977-1010) and Nezami (1194-1202) praised him as a political model for contemporary leaders ( see E. Van Donzel – A. Schmidt, ‘Gog and Magog in Early Eastern Christian and Islamic Sources ‘, Leiden – Boston (Brill) 2009, pp.39-46).

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  2. Janet Fauble

    I do not consider Alexander to have been a homosexual at all. He enjoyed and loved many women. Only the gay community pretends that Alexander could be gay.

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    • In modern terms we would most accurately call Alexander bisexual; ideally, though, we should describe him in the way that the ancient Greeks would have.

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