What Was So Great About Alexander the Great

Every man fantasizes about being Great. Precious few ever come close to realizing such visions of Greatness, but somewhere deep down in that fetid swamp known as the male psyche there’s an imaginary Napoleon or phantom Julius Caesar charging forth into battle, conquering enemies, establishing empires, etc.

If we’re lucky, we can sublimate some of that ambition into our professions and/or artistic endeavors; if less fortunate, we end up chewing the bitter cud of disillusionment. Admiring Great Men—especially of the military stamp—is probably a bad idea: but if you’ve just got to look up to some past ruler of limitless ambition, let it be Alexander the Great.

Napoleon and Julius Caesar seem aloof, and who knows what Genghis Khan was really like. Alexander the Great, on the other hand, great as he was, exhibited all-too-human vulnerability.

Alexander the Great. Lived over 2,300 years ago. Was kind of, sort of Greek. Had Aristotle as a tutor. Became king when his father was assassinated. Solidified his father’s holdings and went on to conquer most of the known world at the time: Greece, Egypt, the Persian Empire, parts of India. A mysterious something kept pushing him on toward the horizon, and finally his men said enough. Died in Babylon at the age of 33.

The man’s been occupying my mind of late because I recently read The Campaigns of Alexander by Lucius Flavius Arrianus, better known simply as Arrian. Arrian lived some four hundred years after Alexander, but his detailed chronicle of Alexander’s exploits is based on works written by two of Alexander’s close associates. Both those original accounts have sadly been lost to sluttish time—but at least we’ve got Arrian.

I recommend the 2010 edition of The Campaigns of Alexander, which is part of Anchor Books’ Landmark Series. The Landmark Series, which so far features works by the ancient Greek historians Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon, as well as their later Greco-Roman counterpart Arrian, is a collection of ancient works as comprehensive as comprehensive can get: they’ve got maps, they’ve got outlines of battle formations, they’ve got appendices and footnotes galore. I’d say they’d make a good stocking stuffer, but they’re quite bulky.

Back to Alexander. First off, I admire him simply because he comes off as a real human being. Napoleon and Julius Caesar seem aloof, and who knows what Genghis Khan was really like. Alexander the Great, on the other hand, great as he was, exhibited all-too-human vulnerability.

One of the more memorable parts of The Campaigns of Alexander is the one in which Arrian recounts Alexander’s murder of his comrade Cleitus. Cleitus, as Alexander was being slavishly extolled by his followers, tried to bring down Alexander’s ego a notch or two, so Alexander grabbed a weapon and slew the poor bastard. They were both drunk at the time, let it be added.

Now, the ancients—and the later Christians, for that matter—held the correct attitude that in situations such as this, the slayer is more to be pitied than the slain. That is, of course, if the perp has a conscience. If he doesn’t, then it’s definitely worse to be the victim.

But Alexander obviously had a conscience, spending days without food or drink, bitterly weeping into his pillow. Powerful as he was, he couldn’t shake the feeling of great guilt and self-loathing that a normal human being would—or should, at least—feel. Very rare in a Great Man to express such regret.

This reminds me, by the way, of the great leeway the ancient Greeks gave their heroes. Achilles, whom Alexander in many ways patterned himself after, pettily sulked in inaction as his fellow Greeks were being slaughtered, and Hercules—who, like Alexander, was reputed to have sprung from the seed of Zeus—murdered his own wife and children. Yet, in spite of their flaws and crimes, they were still considered heroes.

The other thing I like about Alexander the Great is that he was no xenophobe. The closest equivalent we have to him in modern times is of course Adolf Hitler, but there’s a crucial difference between the two. They both rampaged their way through much of the world, it’s true, but while Hitler ruthlessly killed certain groups he hated, Alexander was more than content to allow the people he conquered to follow their own ways and he even married into the alien dynasties he overthrew.

What’s more, like most Greeks, he was wholly undogmatic in matters of religion and freely worshipped at the altars of whatever gods happened to inhabit the land he was in. Saw them as mere varying reflections of the same spark of divinity. In this age of increasing religious fanaticism, this is an attitude to be extolled.

Alexander’s advisors, no doubt somewhat older, more set-in-their-ways types of guys, actually took umbrage with his openness, especially when he started to adopt Persian dress and began to incorporate Persian soldiers into his phalanxes. The Macedonians were masters of the Middle East and North Africa, but it could be argued that they were being colonized almost as much as they were colonizing.

As a ruler and general, Alexander is the due recipient of esteem because, unlike most generals and rulers, he underwent all the selfsame perils and hardships his men underwent. Didn’t hide out in some tent somewhere as the battle raged. At the very least, if you’re going to start a war, you should be expected to fight in it.

Likewise, he was the dire enemy of ineptitude and corruption, rewarding diligent governors and executing those who had betrayed the public trust—and even though he exacted tribute (as any conqueror would), he still let most cities engage in the very same form of government they had enjoyed previously, including democracies.

Which begs the question: What was the bloody point? And any would-be emperors and/or revolutionaries out there have to ask themselves an additional question: Is the number of corpses I’m going to create going to somehow be offset by the positive changes that will come about both now and far into the future?

Very few—if any—armed conflicts, revolutions, wars, whatever, pass this litmus test. For the gruesome death of one innocent civilian far outweighs the ambiguous political aims of any party or power. Alexander’s military campaigns certainly don’t pass, since his ambitions were alluringly yet troublingly vague.

And they rested too much on his own individual shoulders. Too confident in his own youth and stamina, Alexander seemed to be wholly unprepared for his premature demise. Legend has it that, while he lay on his deathbed, he was asked to whom the diadem should be passed, he simply—irritatingly—said, “To the strongest.”

Predictably, legions of aspirants stepped into the power vacuum which his death created—a vacuum finally filled by Imperial Rome.

  • December 28, 2015
  • Jon Eckblad
  • Comments Off on What Was So Great About Alexander the Great