April 22, 2007

Meditations on a theme of Alexander and Empire

Having just finished Peter Green's biographical volume about Alexander the Great it occurred to me that it was worth thinking a little in print about Alexander himself and the legacy of empire that he left. Alexander has been adopted by many in their causes- many claim him as a founder of a tolerant quest for unity and the brotherhood of man, others have seen him as a prototype for empire and imperial designs, still more for totalitarian passions and the havoc that they reap. The images of Alexander are worthy of their own history- from the Iskander of the Persian poets to the Alexander of the Romances there is plenty of material for a historian of literature to consider- we hear Alexander's own contemporaries now only in echoes through other sources- Plutarch, Arian and others, echoes coming out of the dark, out of the impenetrable dark and many of the key events of his life, as Green acknowledges, are veiled in mystery- including his succession to the crown and his own death.

Recently since the film 300 came out there have been a never ending series of prognostications on how the West needs to defend itself as the Greeks did all those years ago at Thermopylae. The history of Alexander allows us to defuse some of the more extravagant myths surrounding the Macedonian Kings. For instance Green suggests that the model which sees Alexander as a Greek Westerner invading the evil barbaric East is incredibly incorrect. It is almost certain that more Greeks fought with his opponent Darius against Alexander than fought with Alexander. Constantly the Greek city states thought of and attempted rebellion against Alexander and he repressed their attempts with occasional severity- the city of Thebes was destroyed and wiped from history by the Macedonian King. He himself though was attacked for neglecting Macedonian custom and becoming Persian- his soldiers, battle hardened Macedonians, despised the Persians that Alexander cultivated. Many of those whom he 'liberated' were not so keen on their liberation as the propagandist Alexandrines would let us know, as soon as they could they rebelled against him. His empire was not one of liberty nor was it one of the West- his empire belonged to a set of groups at the edge of the Greek world who succeeded in dominating that world (to the envy and fear of the traditional centres of Greek power) and then through a series of chances and feats of military command succeeded in overthrowing the Persian Empire, that many Greeks supported.

Even this though, is not the most surprising nor the most interesting disorientation for any modern reader about Alexander to go through when trying to reconstruct his biography. Alexander, Green conjectures, built his empire in conscious emulation of the Homeric hero, of Achilles and Hercules with whom he identified and whose blood he beleived that he bore within his veins. Achilles in the Illiad chose to die early and be remembered forever rather than live to a grand old age, with a wife and children. Achilles chose an existance contingent upon the honour that he would receive because of his reputation. Its interesting to read Green's biography in the light of that thought- Alexander cared a great deal for his dignity, a great deal for lese majesty but almost nothing for the continuation of his empire. He showed little concern about who would succeed him- he didn't marry until he reached India and even then waited before he had children. Alexander was always planning further conquests- as Augustine argued a millennia later in the City of God, Alexander was motivated by a lust for domination, a lust for the honour of victory and fame. Neitzsche's suggestion that Greek ethics was the ethic of an aristocracy seems to make more sense in the light of reading about Alexander.

When he constructed his empire- what he did was swiftly move through regions and areas- less than twenty years took him from the Hellespont to the passes of the Hindu Kush, through the deserts of Egypt, the cities of Mesopotamia and the plains of the far north of Bactria. But such an empire was acheived at the price of permanent instability- no sooner did Alexander leave a region than revolution sprung up behind him. Even his own appointed satraps might swiftly rebel as did Harpalus, his own treasurer, in Babylon towards the end of his reign. Indeed it was possibly a plot by his own governors, those whom he had trusted and left behind, which eventually led to his doom. Alexander swiftly rode through, occupied and designated a governor and a garrison before moving on, unlike Augustus he set no structure in place and made no attempt to preserve his empire. At one point, he loosed thousands of mercenaries throughout Asia and Greece to solve a temporary political problem. An empire conquered so swiftly fell apart as swiftly and was swallowed in factional and civil strife.

Alexander's Greece was very different to us, his boundaries were very different from ours. As much as our division between West and East might seem natural- those divisions were different. Alexander's aspiration was different, he sought eternal glory not salvation in the forgiveness of a gentle God or comfort in a brief moment of existance. Alexander wished to be Achilles. The empire that he erected was administratively chaotic, his power depended upon the collection of booty and built so quickly, that it fell apart almost as fast and he bequeathed as a legacy 40 years of civil war to his heirs. It is so easy to remember too much about Alexander, just those three thoughts ought to teach us not to remember too much.


james higham said...

Should the impermanence of the parts of his empire be held as a question mark against his epithet 'Great'? Or does the Hellenistic age give him just claim to the title?

Gracchi said...

Interesting comment. I think its probably the acheivement of his generalship- the fact he conquered so much, so fast that really provokes the word great more than the stability of what he left behind.

Its intriguing what you say about Hellenism- very much it seems from what Green writes an unintended consequence. There is a wonderful incident which I think summarises Alexander rather well- in order to take the town of Tyre which was on an Island, he had to build a mole out to the Island to attack it and he did. But over the centuries the mole became silted up and now Tyre is connected to the mainland- but Alexander never intended that it just happened and I wonder whether the same thing is true of the Hellenism he left behind.

james higham said...

The empire he created was vast but as you rightly said, it sort of closed in behind him whilst another part opened up.

On another issue, how far do you think his 'friendship' was just that, in the Platonic manner or how far was it sexual? Did the recent film play that up too much?

Gracchi said...

Difficult to say at this distance- he definitely seems to have had male favourites but whether he actually slept with them or not is another matter. He definitely had relations wiht women as well- having a son, and also having other possible children. I suspect that we will never know what he precisely was doing sexually.

My own feeling about the film- though I haven't seen it- is that any film is always a reconstruction of events and the problem with events- especially those in bedchamber- its very difficult to know. I remember once having a conversation about why Henry VIII led England into the Church of England- and ending agreeing that there was a significant problem that we don't know what Henry and Anne Boleyn said to each other in bed. I suspect for Alexander where we have so much less knowledge that we can't really say- a director has to say something but really all that we can say is that we don't know.