Finding Alexander

Considering ‘the Great’

We are accustomed to calling Alexander of Macedon ‘the Great’ even though this title was never used by his Macedonian subjects. Should we, therefore, avoid it? No, of course not. The final word on what to call a person does not rest with those who knew him. Every generation has the right to decide what, if any, epithet is used.

In regards Alexander’s Macedonians, although they – as far as we know – never called him ‘the Great’, we do know from the sources that they loved him dearly, and esteemed him most highly. If you went back in time and asked a member of his army, ‘is it legitimate to call the king megas alexandros?’ I would bet my last penny on them saying ‘yes, and more besides.’

Our generation, as with every generation before it (going back to the Romans of the late third and early second century BC who were the first people known to use the epithet), calls Alexander ‘the Great’ on account of his brilliant military record.

That is good. But as often as we call him Alexander the Great, though, we ought to reflect on the fact that this epithet comes from Alexander’s hard work, determination, and sacrifice. We should also remember that Alexander owes the epithet not only to his own own actions but also to those of his father, Philip II. Alexander, after all, won every battle with the army that his father founded, using weapons (e.g. the sarissa) and tactics that Philip perfected.

This is important because it helps keep before us the Alexander who was rather than the Alexander of our imagination. For example, it reminds us that when Alexander was born, he was a baby like any other. And when he was a boy, he had to learn the art of war just like everyone else. It reminds us that his future success was not written in stone. At any point – from his first known combat operation against the Maedians in 340 BC* (aged 16) to his last against the Cossaeans in the winter of 324/3** – he could have failed. This is the Alexander of history, the one who we should always be aiming to find.

Why is keeping the historical Alexander before us so important? Because it’s the only way to give Alexander the credit he is due. If we just focus on Alexander as the Great we effectively say that all the effort he put into becoming a great general doesn’t matter. This diminishes the humanity of the man we profess to like, and makes mere glory hunters of ourselves. At best, this makes us look silly. At worst, we make a cypher of him, no more than a projection of our own beliefs, something that is both selfish as well as ahistorical.

* Plutarch Life of Alexander 9
** Arrian VII.15.1-3

Categories: Arrian, Finding Alexander, On Alexander, Philip II, Plutarch | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Images of Alexander

In this post, I would share a few pictures of Alexander from my Pinterest page (link in the sidebar).

I chose representations of him from the Fourth Century B.C. to the First A.D.

Fourth Century B.C.
As you can see, it is a bust of Alexander in profile. I chose it for three reasons.

Firstly, the view is in profile. Most pictures of Alexander are done face or side-on so the look in profile immediately made the picture stand out.

Secondly, the fact that the bust has been so firmly sliced (or was it meant to be like that?) down the back gives the image a very vulnerable appearance. One minute Alexander is there; the next, gone.

Thirdly, I really like the way the sculptor has him looking upwards – staring into the distance, wondering what is out there, how he might find it (and, perhaps, how he might conquer it). That’s Alexander – always looking to what lies just beyond.
Third Century B.C.
This next picture is a personal favourite of mine, as it shows Alexander looking very heroic, and, I have to say, lush, too. However, do you see the line along the bottom of his neck? I am wondering if the body originally belonged to someone else and Alexander’s head was placed on it. Also, notice the object that he is holding in his left hand. I can never look at this photograph without wondering what that is.


Second Century B.C.
Two centuries after his death, Alexander still retains his leonine (or just plain shaggy) head of hair, tilting head and liquid looking-into-the-beyond gaze. This head also seems to represent Alexander as a young man as it has a freshness and vitality to it that he surely did not possess in his later years.


We move on either to the First Century B.C. or First Century A.D. and a mosaic that was found in Pompeii. Does it deserve its place on this list? The man on the left is said to be Alexander but I don’t think we know for sure. The woman on the right might be Stateira II or Roxane.

As for Alexander, he looks very tanned here. I don’t know if the artist intended to show him that way, but it certainly seems a more realistic representation than the reconstruction of his skin colour, below. By contrast, Stateira II/Roxane has very pale skin – perhaps meeting a Roman ideal of how women’s skin should look?


Added Extras
The Alexander Sarcophagus never belonged to Alexander. It was once thought to have held the body of Abdalonymus, the gardener-made-king but according to Wikipedia, that has been disproved.

Whoever the sarcophagus was meant for, it is an expertly sculpted coffin. Below, you can see a picture of a Macedonian cavalryman, identified as Perdiccas. Amazingly, after 2,300 years some of the original colour still remains…


… and it no doubt inspired the reconstruction of Alexander’s colour scheme (You can tell it is him by his lion-helmet).

Alexander here is surely much too pale skinned for someone who spent a great deal of his life outdoors but what about the colour of his clothing? Whether it is realistic or not, it is certainly very striking (and let’s not even talk about the Persian soldier’s trousers).

I suppose the purpose of the reconstruction is to bring us closer to Alexander. I have to admit, though, I find him more in the more idealistic portrayals. Perhaps I am more interested in the heroic Alexander rather than the realistic one. But if the real Alexander is in both, I’m sure that doesn’t matter.


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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 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 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 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

An Empathetic Leader

“Risible” isn’t a word that should be used lightly, but the Indian online newspaper Patna Daily and 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

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

The Road to Marakanda – Spring 328 B.C.

In the Spring of 328 B.C., the Macedonian army campaigned in Bactria and Sogdia. The native people had closed the gates of their forts to Alexander and needed to be reminded who was in charge.

I say ‘the Macedonian army’ quite deliberately for it does not appear as if Alexander himself took part in the operation.

At least, not according to Arrian. He recounts how, after leaving Zariaspa, the Macedonian king put Attalus, Gorgias, Polyperchon and Meleager in charge of subduing Bactria, and Coenus and Artabazus (together), Hephaestion, Perdiccas and Ptolemy in charge of subduing Sogdia.

As for Alexander himself, he

… proceeded with [the rest of the army] in the direction of Marakanda, while the the other four commanders carried out offensive operations.

It is possible that he attacked Sogdian settlements along the way, but the fact that Arrian distinguishes between Alexander’s actions and those of his four commanders suggests to me that Arrian didn’t think so.

This passage has been on my mind for a while for it seems quite strange that Alexander would choose to miss an opportunity to win take part in a military operation.

Did he see the ‘offensive operations’ as no more than a bit of mopping up, and so unworthy of his attention?

The fact that Alexander had to split his army into as many as nine divisions, excluding his own, would suggest that the threat posed by the Bactrians and Sogdians was no small matter, if anything, the reverse.

Perhaps he had business to take care of in Marakanda? Arrian doesn’t mention any. However, the city had been put under siege twice by Spitamenes the previous year (Arrian IV.5,7). I am guessing, therefore, that Alexander wanted to assign new men to the garrison (Curtius VII.10.11*) that had held it over the winter. This, of course, is a job that could have been done by one of the king’s generals – Hephaestion, for example, whom some scholars tell us was not a particularly good soldier.

At first sight, the other sources are not helpful in working out what Alexander was up to in the Spring of 328 B.C. Plutarch covers the period of the Bactria-Sogdia campaign in Chapters 50-58 of his Life but says nothing about the army’s military operations. The same is the case with Justin (who covers the same period in XII.7 of his epitome). Diodorus might have done but unfortunately, the relevant section of his account has been lost.

That leaves us with Curtius. After bringing Alexander out of his winter quarters at Zariaspa (VII.10.13-16), Curtius appears to confuse the early 328 campaign with another set of events** before having Alexander build some cities and move on to the Sogdian Rock.

This most famous siege took place in 327 B.C. It appears, therefore, that Curtius has misdated it. Thus, at the start of Book Eight, he follows in Arrian’s footsteps by describing how Alexander divided his army into three (between himself, Hephaestion and Coenus***) and with his men ‘once more subdued the Sogdians and returned to Maracanda’ (VIII.1.7) (my emphasis]).

So, if Curtius is to be believed, Alexander did take part in the campaign before reaching Marakanda. And, I have to admit, that seems the more believable version of events.

However, if asked to chose who I believe – him or Arrian – I’m not sure that I wouldn’t stick with Arrian. Curtius can be such an unreliable historian.

As already mentioned, he gets the date of the Siege of the Sogdian Rock wrong. After bringing Alexander to Marakanda, Curtius has him speak to Derdas, whom he sent into the territory of the Scythians over the Tanais River the previous year (VII.6.12) as well as ‘a deputation of that people’ (VIII.1.7) who offered him their allegiance and the hand of the king’s daughter. Arrian, by contrast, places these events in Spring, while Alexander was still in Zariaspa (A IV.15).

As can be seen, Curtius appears to have a particular problem with accurate dating. In this light, I wonder if his account of Alexander’s actions in Sogdia at VIII.7 could be a reference to Alexander’s Autumn 329 campaign against the Sogdians, subsequent arrival in Zariaspa and meeting with the Scythians per Arrian.

And yet… and yet… As you can see, I am Hamlet-like in my indecision! The reason for this is that I just can’t think of a convincing reason why Alexander would not have joined the campaign while he was on his way to Marakanda.

Actually, there is one possible reason – injury and/or ill health. The previous year, Alexander’s leg was broken by an arrow (A III.30); he also suffered a slingshot blow to the head and neck (A IV.3) and a severe bout of dysentery but surely he would have recovered from the worst effect of these by Spring 328?

* Curtius says that Alexander left a 3,000 strong garrison in Sogdia. I take it that some even if not all of them stayed in Marakanda
** The Notes in my edition of Curtius say he could be thinking of the rebellion of Arsaces in Aria and Barzanes in Parthia and their capture by Stasanor
*** I don’t count this as an error on Curtius’ part – it could be him ‘telescoping’ the story in order to focus on the principle player(s) in it

Categories: Arrian, Finding Alexander, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Finding Alexander: In Philippopolis

I have written a few times already on this blog about Patrick Leigh Fermor, the Englishman who walked across Europe in his teens and led a daring raid to capture a German general in Crete during World War II. After the war, Leigh Fermor returned to travelling but eventually made his home in southern Greece.
In September last year I bought The Broken Road, which is the third and final volume of his account of the walk (I wrote about it here). Of course I intended to start reading it then but a couple of false starts followed before I came back to it properly. And even then… I must stop being distracted and learn to sit down and concentrate!
Anyway, I digress. The reason why I am mentioning the book here is to share with you a reference to Alexander that I found on page 33 (hardback edition). Leigh Fermor has just arrived in the ancient city of Philippopolis which, as you may know, was (re)founded by Philip II of Macedon in 340 BC. Nowadays, it is called Plovdiv. But just as Leigh Fermor calls Istanbul Constantinople, we’ll stick with Philippopolis. Leigh Fermor continues,

I drank in a composite aroma which seemed the substantive essence of the Balkans, compounded of sweat, dust, singeing horn, blood, nargileh-smoke, dung, slivo, wine, roasting mutton, spice and coffee, laced with a drop of attar of roses and a drift of incense, and wondered whether Alexander, as a boy, had ever seen this town which his father fortified on the eastern march of his kingdom against the Thracian tribes.

Leigh Fermor’s question is impossible to answer. We simply do not know enough about Alexander’s childhood to know where he travelled. Having said that, unless the Thracians were allies of Philip’s at any given point I doubt Alexander would have gone there. And even then his only reason for going would be as a hostage, and I am fairly sure that never happened to him.
What about when Alexander was grown up? That is, between 340 when Philip conquered the city (before which, according to Wikipedia, was called Eumolpias) and 334 when he crossed the Hellespont and left Europe forever? Well, Arrian is pretty good as a record of Alexander’s campaigns but to the best of my knowledge he doesn’t mention Alexander visiting the city when he campaigned in Thrace in 334.
Of course, it is quite possible that he may have done and the information was either lost to the historians of antiquity or they just didn’t record it. Unless that is the case, I think that the answer to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s question is probably if not definitely in the negative.

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Finding Alexander: In the Old Testament

If you attend Mass today at a Catholic church be prepared for a familiar name to pop up at the start of the First Reading. It comes from 1 Maccabees. Here are the opening lines as given on the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

[From the descendants of Alexander’s officers]
there sprang a sinful offshoot, Antiochus Epiphanes,
son of King Antiochus, once a hostage at Rome.
He became king in the year one hundred and thirty seven
of the kingdom of the Greeks…

The first line is in square brackets because it is a truncated version of a much longer passage. Livius gives the longer version of the book’s opening:

After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.

After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died.

Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth. From them came forth a sinful root…

As we know, Alexander didn’t divide up his empire at all – it might have been better if he had – and I can’t help but note the writer’s sweeping statement that the diadochi ’caused many evils on the earth’. This makes me want to try and find out more about the situation of the Jews in the Successor empires – especially Egypt as I am most interested in Ptolemy I and his descendants.
The reason I would like to do so is because I had the impression that – by the time that 1 and 2 Maccabees were written, in the second century BC – Jews were well established in Alexandria having (under the patronage possibly of Ptolemy I and certainly Ptolemy II) translated the Septuagint. Perhaps life had been and still was bad for them despite this or maybe the writer was speaking from the perspective of his own age and location. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to say.
Anyway, it was a nice surprise to see Alexander’s name this morning. I believe he is referred to more allusively in the Book of Daniel and even in the Quran. If I can locate the references I will certainly mention them here.

Categories: Finding Alexander | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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