The Carving of the World

The headline reads ‘Vandals paste ‘butcher’ sign on Alexander the Great statue’. You can read the full report here.

Was Alexander the Great a butcher? In answering this question we have to be careful that we don’t do so with a twenty-first century mindset.

The reason for this is simple. If we impose our morality on Alexander we learn nothing about him and only a little – that is not good – about ourselves. Alexander lived, after all, in the fourth century B.C. not the twenty-first A.D.

So what about in terms of fourth century B.C. morality? Was he a butcher? I don’t have a firm answer to this yet, but at the moment I am leaning towards yes. There was no international law that stated what was and wasn’t acceptable in combat back then but there were definitely times when Alexander and his men went too far (e.g. the destruction of Thebes and terrorising of the civilian population in India) in the prosecution of campaign war aims.

No one should be insulted by Alexander being called a butcher. He was a king and a general. That was always going to involve bloodshed. Always. And sometimes, he would go too far. If one wishes to know the real Alexander, one has to accept that this happened.

But also that more happened, or rather, didn’t happen because on other occasions Alexander reigned his men in; prevented blood from being spilt. For example, which was the last city to be sacked before Persepolis? Gaza. Between them, Alexander passed through Pelusium, Memphis, Babylon and Susa without allowing the cities or their citizens to be harmed. He could easily have put any or all of these cities to the sword. His men would have been delighted if he had.

And by-and-bye, though our focus is always naturally on Alexander the conqueror, it is also worthwhile remembering that his life involved more than fighting. We get a glimpse of it in the sources – for example, his love of medicine, of literature, and of philosophy. You may call Alexander a butcher if you like, and in a way, you would not be wrong, but if you do, or if you insist upon its primacy as a way of understanding him you run the very real risk of missing out on the other facets of his character instead revealing only your own prejudices.

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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