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