In the summer of 1956, my father took myself and my younger brother to see Richard Burton play the title role of Alexander the Great. It wasn’t my father’s idea. Alerted by a Dell Comics adaptation, I’d made a pitch for educational value.
The movie was, in retrospect, something of a clunker. Replete with blonde wig, sonorous voice and stern expression, Burton was leaden in the role. Although he was under 30 at the time of filming, he seemed too old for the part.
Those subtleties, however, escaped my 12-year-old attention. I thought it was great stuff, thanks to the plentiful battle scenes and other assorted mayhem. And although my father’s enthusiasm was more economical, he did profess to have learned something new – specifically, Alexander’s claim to divine status.
Alexander (356 to 323 BC) was born in Pella, Macedonia, in what is now northern Greece. His father, Philip II of Macedon, was an ambitious conqueror whose plans for an invasion of the Persian Empire were obviated by his 336 BC assassination. Thus, at 20, Alexander succeeded to the Macedonian throne.
One historian describes Alexander this way: “Ruthless and self-willed, he had increasing recourse to terror, showing no hesitation in eliminating men whom he had ceased to trust, either with or without the pretence of a fair trial.”
And exceptional severity was sometimes deployed. A city that refused to surrender was liable to be razed to the ground and its survivors sold into slavery. Others then got the message.
After forcibly reasserting Macedonia’s pre-eminence in Greece, Alexander turned to his main mission. Crossing the Dardanelles into Asia in 334 BC, he never came home.
Alexander invaded with a considerable force, perhaps as large as 49,000. Still, he faced much bigger armies in many of his victories. His battles were generally won by tactical astuteness, particularly with respect to the use of cavalry.
Alexander’s ambitions went far beyond what you’d expect from a rip-and-run raider. He was out to create not just a territorial empire but a new civilization. Having had Aristotle as a childhood tutor, Alexander brought along surveyors, engineers, architects and the like. Founding new cities was a major interest, Alexandria in Egypt being the most spectacular and durable example.
His triumphal progress took him through what are now the states of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Libya before heading into Iraq for the decisive showdown with the Persian Empire.
Gaugamela wasn’t his first victory over the Persians – that had come at Granicus (in modern Turkey) shortly after crossing the Dardanelles. But Gaugamela in 331 BC sealed the deal.
From there, he occupied the Persian capital of Babylon (south of modern Baghdad) before proceeding east, eventually getting as far as India. Finally, though, his hitherto loyal army refused to go any further. And en route back, Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC. He was in his 33rd year.
Along the way, Alexander put forth the idea that he wasn’t a mere mortal but also a god. He was, in his telling, the son of Zeus. Historians debate whether this was a sincere belief or merely a power tactic.
If the latter, it was the kind of thing that crafty rulers often did. Buttressing your control with appeals to something that transcended mere temporal power was a shrewd move. For instance, the concept of the divine right of anointed kings carried considerable weight for a long time.
But if Alexander truly believed in his own divinity, the modern historian has an interesting dilemma.
The purely rational approach would be to see it as “a symptom of growing megalomania and emotional instability.” After all, the idea of mortals as gods is ridiculous to the modern mind.
That, however, implies plucking Alexander out of the world he lived in. What is incomprehensible to us wasn’t so to people who lived 2,300 years ago. Even very smart people. And whatever one might think of his personality and character, Alexander was nobody’s fool.
What’s an academic dilemma for the modern historian was more acute for Alexander’s contemporaries. To put it bluntly, he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want to gratuitously annoy.
So perhaps the smartest response was that of the Spartans, whose decree read, “Since Alexander wishes to be a god, let him be a god.”
I love the pragmatism.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.
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