A few days ago I was reading the introduction to The First Poets by Michael Schmidt when I came to the following quotation from Homer’s Contest by Friedrich Nietzsche,
“… the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate – a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern “humanity”. When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, pierced, and ties him, alive, to his carriage, to drag him about while his soldiers mock, that is a revolting caricature of Achilles.
As this is a blog about Alexander the Great I am going to deliberately ignore what Nietzsche has to say about the Greeks in general.
So far as Alexander is concerned, the German philosopher is right in that he had a ‘trait of cruelty’. This should not surprise us as it is a trait nearly all of us share. What is extraordinary is that any of us, when we have the opportunity, do not give way to it.
I disagree with Nietzsche when he claims that Alexander had ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. Now, before I continue, I would like add this proviso: I haven’t read Homer’s Contest. It may be that Nietzsche develops his argument later on; I don’t know. This blog post, therefore, is simply an observation based on the above quotation.
So, to continue. Alexander did not have ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. His desire was to conquer. If it took fighting to to achieve that aim, then he would fight; if the aim could be achieved through diplomacy, then he would talk. If his enemy surrendered and he was able to accept their surrender, then that is what he would do. Alexander was not a simple destroyer. Yes, he destroyed, but he did not invade Thrace, Greece, the Persian Empire or India with that aim in mind. His purpose was to conquer and create – an empire.
Nietzche’s comment is the nineteenth century version of any made since 1945 that equates Alexander with Hitler. And both depend upon a deliberate suppression of contrary evidence for their validity. Michael Schmidt, in his introduction, joins in the game when he claims that ‘Alexander re-enacted, with deliberation and conceit, what Achilles after ten years’ deprivation and struggle, had done instinctively’ (ibid). This is not the whole truth.
According to Curtius (IV.6.7-29) the Siege of Gaza (which took two months) followed a fairly normal pattern: the Macedonians mined the city but for a time were forced to retreat due to the difficulty of protecting the soldiers engaged in the operation. This gave the Gazans the confidence to launch a sortie. In the end, Alexander won the siege by building a mound to create a path to the top of Gaza’s fortifications. This allowed the Macedonian siege towers to fire at those in the city. Meanwhile, Macedonian sappers succeeded in undermining Gaza’s walls. They fell, and Alexander’s men poured into the city, taking it after a fight.
So far, so ordinary. But two things happened to Alexander during the siege to give a fuller reason for his harsh treatment towards Batis. Firstly, he was injured twice. Once by an arrow to the shoulder. This injury was serious enough to make him faint and make Batis believe that his enemy had died. Then, by a rock to the leg. The injury does not appear to have broken it but it was enough to force Alexander to support himself on his spear during the fighting. Secondly, during a lull in the fighting, Alexander received a deserter who he allowed to join his own army. The deserter, however, was an assassin. Only Alexander’s quick reactions saved his life when the man, having paid homage to him, lunged at the king’s neck with his sword.
If Alexander really did execute Batis by dragging him around Gaza then this was a terribly cruel act. It was not, however, simply ‘a revolting caricature’ of what Achilles did, nor a ‘crude literary gesture’ (The First Poets p.xxxviii). If the event even happened (I believe not all scholars believe that it did?) it was an act informed by the frustration, pain and betrayal that Alexander had faced during the siege rather than being simply a re-playing of Achilles’ action as recounted in The Iliad. Nietszche’s seeming failure to recognise this (allowing for the proviso mentioned above) devalues his comment.