Alexander and…

Two Women, One King and Belonging

A week ago, I went to see Disobedience at my local cinema. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka, a British born photographer working in New York who returns home following the death of her father, Rav Krushka.

The Rav* was an Orthodox Jew, much loved and very influential within his community. Ronit, however, is almost persona non grata. Several years earlier her father caught her in flagrante with another woman – her friend, Esti. As a result, Ronit left the community. When she returns, she is barely welcomed, though not spurned. Tolerated about sums it up.

One of the themes of the film is that of belonging. We could ask of Ronit, where does she belong? To whom? Why? But I think the questions apply more to Esti. For her, finding answers is of the uttermost importance: they will define her life, health and happiness. Esti is a lesbian. Her husband Dovid is a good man but she only married him because she had to. She is not happy – it’s why she contacted Ronit to let her know that her father had died (no one else in the community chose to do so). If she doesn’t find answers to the questions that are within her, the rest of her life will potentially be a long defeat to a way of living she does not believe in.

As soon as I started thinking about the idea of belonging, I started thinking about Alexander.

As an Argead prince, Alexander lived at the centre of Macedonian society. He did not, however, enjoy a stable life. He could have been killed in battle at the age of sixteen; his mother, Olympias, loved him, but had things turned out differently, he could have fallen victim to her schemes at any time up until becoming king – and after; he was a target for assassination from others as well; he was for a time forced into exile by his father. Alexander lived in a palace, but that palace was built on a cliff edge. He lived at the centre of Macedonian society, but it ran along a fault line that could have killed him in an instant.

Nothing changed when Alexander became king. For though he was now the most powerful man in Macedonian society, his power depended upon the support of the army. He was now under increased threat from assassination and death in combat. He had to be careful about how he treated people lest he alienate not just individuals but whole sections of his empire.

As Crown Prince no one except the king belonged to Macedon more deeply than Alexander. Thus, when Alexander succeeded to the throne, he – in his very person – became its centre.

However, thanks to the type of society that he belonged to, no one belonged to it less than him. Those under Alexander could afford to be fully themselves. He could not. He tried to be, but failed; he kept trying, and suffered two revolts by his army as a result.

Of course, Alexander didn’t help matters by encouraging people not to see him as one of them. I refer here to his ‘claim’ of divinity. But in a way, that was the most heroic thing he ever did. He could have not gone to Siwah. He could have used any number of other – far safer – methods to keep the support of those under him. Instead, he chose the most dangerous option of all. There is a certain heroism in that even if Alexander was acting cynically.

By and by, I think it is this same desire – to be (herself) rather than to simply belong – that causes Esti to pick up the telephone and call Ronit at the start of Disobedience. It would have been the easiest and safest decision not to call the only person she ever loved. After all, she enjoys teaching, has a good husband, and is a faithful Jew. But as it turns out, these are only roles; they are not her. What is she? As mentioned, she is a lesbian. To be herself, to know herself, she needs the freedom to explore what that means. At the end of the film, and to his immense credit, Dovid gives her that freedom.

In modern terms, Esti is a far nobler person than Alexander. Hers is a spirit of generosity; of giving: to Ronit in their first (and second) affair; to her community, and to her husband, despite the pain it causes her; to her unborn child: the ability to decide where they belong. By contrast, Alexander’s spirit was dominated by a selfish desire for glory. He wanted to be the noblest person alive, the strongest and greatest; true this led him to do good things as well as bad but to want glory for oneself is still essentially a selfish desire. God, however, had the last laugh. After Alexander died, his desire for glory led to a coming together of cultures and civilisations that might never have joined otherwise, causing them to bear new fruit. Think of Greek art in the Indian sub-continent and the spread of the Greek language and the way it helped disseminate Greek ideas (and, of course, Jewish/Christian ones).

Disobedience has a similarly unexpected ending. Orthodox Judaism does not come across very well in the film. While not treated as the bad guy, so’s to speak, it is still what exiled Ronit and wants to keep her and Esti apart. However, at the end of the film, when Dovid gives Esti her freedom (i.e. divorces her), he does so in the synagogue while continuing the homily that the Rav started before his death. Esti’s future ability to be herself, therefore, and her child’s ability to decide where it belongs, comes from within the faith rather than from outside it. Granted that the film is a work of fiction, but unless Dovid’s homily is completely heretical, it shows that even a religion so seemingly set in its ways can bear new fruit. God is certainly not daunted by difficult situations!

*After watching the film I looked up ‘Rav’ on the internet and found that it is a title, meaning teacher, rather than a name. We don’t learn the Rav’s first name during the course of the film

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WordPress tells me that this post is my 500th for The Second Achilles. I’m very happy that I’ve been able to spend it writing about Alexander and a very thought provoking film

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c. 320 B.C.

I was looking at pictures for The Second Achilles‘ Pinterest page this morning, and came across this one of Hephaestion.
HephaestionThe head is owned by  J Paul Getty Museum. Here is their description of it,

This head of Hephaistion, broken from a full-length statue, was originally part of a multi-figured group, which might have depicted a sacrificial scene. The J. Paul Getty Museum has more than thirty fragments of this group. The participants include Alexander, Hephaistion, a goddess, Herakles, a flute player, and several other figures, as well as animals and birds. This group may have served as a funerary monument for some nobleman who wanted to associate himself with Alexander, or it might be a monument erected in response to Alexander’s call for the creation of a hero cult.

I have to admit, I’ve seen the bust before and not given it too much consideration. This time, however, my attention was immediately drawn to the date of its carving; according to J Paul Getty, the statue was carved c. 320 B.C.
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If that is correct (and I am not in a position to say otherwise) the statue was carved as few as four years after Hephaestion’s death and, of course, three after Alexander’s.
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For me, the statue’s production after Hephaestion’s death is very significant as it provides proof that Hephaestion was remembered after his death, which is not an impression I get from the books I have read about Alexander’s life and times. Of course, that may be because I have not read enough or, understandably, because the writer’s focus has been elsewhere.
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Happily, though, someone,  somewhere (according to the text accompanying the head of Alexander [below] the group was found in Megara, Greece) thought either that Hephaestion’s presence was necessary to a correct remembrance of Alexander or that he – Hephaestion – was worth remembering in his own right (as Alexander wanted): as a hero.
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This knowledge makes feel as if I have – even if just for a moment – gone below history: past the partisan writings of people like Ptolemy and Aristobulos and their successors, Arrian and Plutarch, which are prone to blank out events and forget people not relevant to their agenda, and into someone’s actual life; out of the library and right up to someone’s doorstep. Alas, for the want of knowledge which means I can go no further!
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Sadly for me, I am probably romanticising the truth. According to J Paul Getty, the head of Alexander is an idealised image. If that is the case, I expect the head of Hephaestion is as well. In fact, I would be most surprised if it was not. It is as partisan an image, therefore, as Ptolemy et al are writers.
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But maybe I shouldn’t worry too much. The head, after all, is still proof of Hephaestion’s continuing importance after his death and that is something that – up until this morning – I did not have a great sense of.
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I may not have gone below history but I have taken a further step into it, which is no less thrilling.
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Wu of Han a Very Manly Man – More So Than Alexander

I first ‘met’ Edith Hall in 2011 when she and her then colleagues at the Royal Holloway Classics Department put on some meetings to support the Department against the RHU bean counters who wanted to close it. I wrote about them on my general literary blog, here, here, and here).
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Happily, the university eventually decided to keep the Classics Department going. Sadly for her colleagues, though, Professor Hall decided to move on; today, she is professor of Classics at King’s College, London.
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Thanks to Blazeaglory, a commenter to this blog, I now ‘meet’ Professor Hall again; this time, I am pleased to say, in more playful mood. On 29th March this year, she posted an entry to her blog with the neatly provocative title Making Alexander the Great Look Like A Wimp.
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The man with this honour is Wu of Han, a Chinese Emperor of the second century B.C.
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His claim to fame is that he ‘vastly expanded’ China’s borders. This puts him on the level of Philip II. Alexander created and immeasurably expanded the borders of his empire.
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He embraced Confucianism and ‘killed tens of thousands’ (in support of it). Alexander, of course, was open to all religions. We must admit though, Alexander was not averse to bloodshed.
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Wu also founded ‘an Imperial Music School’, which really puts him on the level of Ptolemy I Soter and Ptolemy II Philadelphus.
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Wu ruled for 54 years, and in that time ‘developed weirdness and paranoia’. In respect of the latter, this puts him on the level of those Roman Emperors who wanted to be Alexander but were also mentally unhinged.
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Wu executed his magicians who could not make him immortal. Silly man for not following Alexander’s lead and going to Siwah.
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He also executed his infertile wife’s attendants after accusing her of witchcraft. This puts him very firmly below Alexander who respected women greatly – even if, as I sometimes think, it was for egotistical reasons.
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Wu ‘went on expensive imperial tours with a vast entourage’. This reminds me more of Demetrius the Besieger than Alexander. Wu also ’emptied the national treasury’ which puts him on the level of Harpalus.
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Wu ‘suppressed’ peasant revolts. Here, we must again admit that he is the equal of Alexander. And he suffered ‘psychotic delusions’. Alexander was never mad, and neither did he drive anyone to suicide (Wu’s wife and heir both died this way).
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On the issue of Alexander’s mental health, since finishing my reading of Arrian for the Letters series, I have been thinking about the view that he became a megalomaniac in later life. I didn’t sense that from Arrian. Though, perhaps that is not a surprise as he is very pro-Alexander, as were his sources. But this is certainly something I’d like to look into more. Through Curtius, for example?
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But going back to Edith Hall – obviously a direct comparison between Wu and Alexander is impossible. They lived in different ages with different motivations and circumstances to influence their behaviour.
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Apart from the opportunity to learn about another historical figure what makes Professor Hall’s blog post really valuable today is the reminder it gives me to look at Alexander’s mental health. On another day, it might suggest another new line of thought or study. The ability to open doors – the beauty of blogs and books.

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Alexander and… Leaf by Niggle

A man spends his life dedicated to a single work. When he dies suddenly, the work remains unfinished. After his death, it is broken up and eventually lost.
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This could be a summary of the life of Alexander the Great but is actually the plot of Leaf by Niggle by J. R. R. Tolkien.
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Well, I say ‘the plot’; in fact, the story goes much further as we find out what happens to Niggle after his ‘death’. It is, at least on one level, a meditation on purgatory.
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The reason I focus on Niggle’s painting, though, is that its fate invites comparison with the fate of Alexander’s empire after 323 BC. It, too, was fragmented; and in time, it too was lost forever.
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Admittedly, there are some ways in which Niggle and Alexander are decidedly unalike. After his death, Niggle and his work are forgotten about. No one has forgotten – or ever will – Alexander or his empire.

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link belw)

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link below)

Their differences notwithstanding, it is interesting how two totally different subjects can be connected at all. Indeed, the connection goes further than their life’s work; there is also something to be said about their similarities of character.
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One reason why Niggle never finishes his painting is because of the intrusions of daily life. These often come in the form of neighbours-in-need. Niggle doesn’t want to help the annoyingly needy Parish but he does so anyway. When we think of Alexander’s character, his kindness won’t necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind – and no wonder, for he could be very haughty sometimes. But this over proud Alexander was also the man who, unfashionably for his age, had a deep respect for women, loved as much as he was loved by his men, and was always prepared to be clement and reward brave enemies.
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I would like, however, to come back to their legacies. The painting and empire. That neither Alexander in reality, nor Niggle in fiction, was able to finish their work makes me wonder if any man can ever achieve his aims in life. If neither the greatest or the most lowly can what hope is there for the rest of us in between? Well, when the last human being dies we’ll know if it really was impossible. Ah.
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So, we’ll never know the answer to that question. It doesn’t matter, though, because it is irrelevant. What does matter is that although Alexander’s empire may be lost he lives on in the memory of those who admire and study him. Niggle’s painting was lost, but he (sub) created a new work even after his time in the purgatorial hospital. Death need not be the end. It may, just may, be a new beginning. ‘And that,’ said somebody else of Tolkien’s acquaintance, ‘is an encouraging thought’.

  • To read the Oxford Inklings blog, click here
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Alexander and… Grand Theft Auto V

The release of Grand Theft Auto V on 17th September will no doubt be greeted with great glee by lovers of shoot ’em up games and great distress by people who love to be outraged.
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I am being a little unfair. While GTA is not the video game equivalent of a chess match there is much more to it than simply blasting your enemies and innocent pedestrians away with an Uzi or AK-47. For example, Grand Theft Auto IV and Tales of Liberty City, the two games in the GTA series with which I am familiar, are brilliant satires on American culture and politics in the post-9/11 world.
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I am also being unfair towards people who dislike the game. Of course, there are those whose outrage is only a cynical attempt to gain attention and / or more readers if they are newspaper columnists. But there are also people who are genuinely concerned by the game’s violence and apparently reckless attitude to life. They should be taken seriously; the fact is, people have committed crimes and cited Grand Theft Auto as an inspiration. Anyone who dismisses at least the possibility of a connection between the two is being either naive or dishonest. That Grand Theft Auto might inspire people to commit crimes should not be a surprise. It is a work of art. If it is does not move us in some way it is an artistic failure. But what are we to call a work of art that inspires people to act badly? Nothing good, that’s for sure. In this light, you may reasonably ask ‘what do I call Grand Theft Auto…?’

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Actually, I call Grand Theft Auto a very noble work of art. Yes, it is violent; yes, the satire can be very rude and vulgar. But there is still more to GTA than we have hitherto described. Like all works of art, it implicitly holds up a mirror to our hearts and gives us the opportunity to discover what lies therein. It may be good. It may be bad. Chances are – in common with everyone else – there is a mixture of both within us. The knowledge that we gain from this exercise enables us to correct what is wrong and nurture what is right. I hesitate to use the word ‘redemption’ in this post as it seems far too grand a word for the purpose but there is definitely a sense in which Grand Theft Auto has a redemptive (enabling) quality to it.
Now, what has all this to do with Alexander?
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Sometimes, the question of whether he was really so great comes up. He had too little time for the day-to-day work of a responsible king, drank far too much, murdered a friend, assassinated innocent people, made unnecessary war on others etc etc. In other words, he was a deeply flawed person.
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But just as Grand Theft Auto‘s redemptive quality comes from what seems to make it an artistic failure, so Alexander’s greatness comes from his apparent failures as a person. After all, if he was perfect in all respects, what would be so great about the way in which he conquered the world and spread Hellenism? Such an achievement would simply be par the course for him. No, it was because he achieved what he did despite being such a flawed person that we call him, rightly, Great.
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Alexander and the Grand Theft Auto series may be unlikely bedfellows but together they show us that even within ugliness and failure beauty and triumph may be found. All we need to do is be prepared to look for it. That is their connection, and it is a very encouraging one.

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