Alexander the Great has gained an immortality in his strong presence in our minds as well as in the history books. Known for a greatness of military genius and diplomatic skills, he conquered most of the known world of his time and brought on a new era of the Hellenistic World. But who really was Alexander, the man?
The intention of this article is not to go into the whole history of Alexander’s invasion and conquest of the Near East, but rather to look at the man himself. In doing so, we will understand why Alexander invaded and will dispel some of the myths about Alexander’s intentions, in turn helping us to understand why the Greco-Macedonian Empire broke apart a little over a hundred years after his death. Nearly all traces of his once glorious empire had been tossed into the ash heap of history.
A bust of Alexander the Great (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The War Business
The army that King Philip II of Macedon left to his son Alexander was semi-professional and a paid fighting force. In order for Alexander to pay for this army, either he had to disband a portion of it to save money, risking much in doing so, or he had to go on the march to save his kingdom. Alexander chooses to save his kingdom at another empire’s expense. Alexander needed to pay the bills and would do so by looting Persia.
He proved what Randolph Bourne once stated; “War is the health of the state.” Alexander was the state, and war was his business. Therefore, revenge was the excuse to avoid personal monetary debt. Besides Alexander’s dilemma in possibly going into debt within a matter of weeks, he also had a rather large personal ego to contend with as well.
Upbringing and Education
Alexander’s ego is said to have been rather massive. His mother had huge expectations for him and led him to believe that he would conquer Persia. If you think about it, the only huge deed at the time in proving one’s destiny was to conquer Persia, for it was the biggest challenge at the time in the known world, at least in the Greco-Macedonian sense. Besides being hounded about his destiny, he also was a competitor from birth, as he would try to outdo his father in combat, being more aggressive in battle and showing absolute courage in the face of danger just to win Papa’s approval. Alexander worried that nothing would be left to achieve beyond the successes of his father, Philip.
Bust of Philip II of Macedon, a 1st-century Roman-era copy of a Greek original. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Besides his home life, Alexander was enthralled by the epic poems of Homer and his detailed journeys into war and individual heroism. These themes fueled the young Alexander’s imagination as he grew, along with the help of his tutor, Aristotle. The works of Homer instilled the romantic rebels of the Greek legends, such as Achilles or even Hercules—who Alexander modeled himself after and who he claimed to be descended from—while Aristotle provided the reasoning in Alexander’s curriculum. Alexander’s father, Philip, taught him war.
Aristotle tutoring Alexander. (Public Domain)
However, once Philip was dead, Alexander set off on his journey and the rest is history. What set Alexander east was due to debt, but had his ego not been so bold and his character not so for risk-taking, history would have been very different. Like Achilles, Alexander died before he accomplished his dream or destiny, but the outcome was necessary. Achilles died at Troy before he could see it fall, but his name lived on, while Alexander died before he could conquer the entire world, but his name is forever etched into mankind’s memory.
Triumphant Achilles dragging Hector’s lifeless body in front of the Gates of Troy. (Public Domain)
Alexander has indeed left a rather memorable account that has survived down through the ages. However, many do not consider his actions and the consequences that would afflict the Near Eastern region after his death. Therefore, it is important to examine his views about those he conquered.
Upheaval in the Orient
This battle for supremacy over the Orient started when a young Alexander first stepped foot on Persian soil. The readings Aristotle assigned to him when he was a youth were now real and the adventure ahead was unknown. Alexander could only rely on the readings and the philosophers who would later travel with him. As Alexander moved forward with his ambitions, his achievements rocked not only those in the Orient but also those back home, let alone his own men and officer staff, particularly the future Diadochi or “successors.”
Alexander’s dream was to unite east and west, but even this notion of a united east and west is in dispute, due to his prayer that insisted on harmony “between Macedonians and Persians.” In reality, this prayer was nothing more than a shadow in that it favored the Macedonians and Greeks over the Persians. Alexander must have understood that when you are burning down the house you conquered there is going to be little room for unity and trust.
The Persian palace he set on fire; though General Parmenion urged him to save it, arguing, among other things, that it was not seemly to destroy what was now his own property, and that the Asians would not thus be induced to join him, if he seemed determined not to hold fast the sovereignty of Asia, but merely to pass through it in triumph. Alexander, on the contrary, replied that he proposed to punish the Persians in recompense for what they had done in their invasion of Greece; for their wrecking of Athens, their burning of the temples, and for all the other cruel things they had done to the Greeks; for these, he said, he took vengeance.
Ruins of the Palace of Artaxerxes I, Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Interestingly enough, there were those who felt that Alexander did not do as Aristotle taught him (even though the burning of Persian property would seem fit in what Aristotle would want against the barbarians). It seems that this action may have been a little too much, for Plutarch states:
For Alexander did not follow Aristotle’s advice to treat the Greeks as if he were their leader, and other peoples as if he were their master; to have regard for the Greeks as for friends and kindred, but to conduct himself toward other peoples as though they were plants or animals.
The Great Double Staircase at Persepolis. (CC BY 2.0)
Alexander did treat others as Aristotle advised; he just kept it concealed by promising the illusion of unity between east and west— like when the Macedonians were said to have taken Persian wives, but one will see that there is not a trace mentioned of Persian nobles being offered the women of Macedonia for marriage.
When one takes another look at Alexander’s empire after his death, his name is scattered all about the Iranian landscape, as is the Hellenistic culture he brought with him. All things Persian remained in the countryside, unseen and out of mind while Hellenism took root in the urban centers of civilization. The historian Ehsan Yarshater makes the distinction between the genuine Iranian aspects, which later mixed in with the romantic, when he states:
According to genuine Iranian tradition, Alexander destroyed the integrity of the Iranian empire by undermining the authority of its kings and dividing the land among feudatory lords. Further, he ruined fire temples, killed Zoroastrian priests and destroyed their manuscripts, transferring Persian science and philosophy to Rum (Greece). On the other hand, the legendary tale of Alexander, written by pseudo-Callisthenes sometime before the 4th century, was translated into Middle Persian during the 6th century, and its content, with some modifications, was later adopted by the body of Iranian historical traditions. In the Iranian form of the romance, Alexander becomes a son of Dara I and a half brother of his adversary, Dara II.
Alexander the Accursed and the Sacking of Persepolis
Alexander’s conquest of Persia and the sources that speak against him also have labeled him, according to Zoroastrian sources, as gojastak or “the accursed.” These mention Alexander as “the great destroyer” due to the murdering of Magi priests. It’s written that he “killed the magi … many teachers, lawyers, Herbats, Mobads.” In addition, much of the literature in Persia was burnt during the conquest, including the sacred Avesta text. Alexander’s men burned copies of the original Avesta texts kept at Dez-Nepesi, the ‘Castle of Inscriptions’ or ‘Fortress of Archives’. From then on Zoroastrian priests would memorize the text and pass on the information through oral tradition, until the Parthian king Vologases I had them written down again.
Ruins of the Tachara, Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
If destroying literature was not enough, Alexander also looted the treasury. Thousands of pack animals were utilized in the removal of 2500 tons of gold at Persepolis! A staggering amount. Alexander would take part of the treasury with him to fund the war while depositing the rest in Susa. Adding insult to injury, Alexander also allowed his:
soldiers to plunder, all but the palaces. It was the richest city under the sun and the private houses had been furnished with every sort of wealth over the years. The Macedonians raced into it slaughtering all the men whom they met and plundering the residences; many of the houses belonged to the common people and were abundantly supplied with furniture and wearing apparel of every kind. Here much silver was carried off and no little gold, and many rich dresses gay with sea purple or with gold embroidery became the prize of the victors. The enormous palaces, famed throughout the whole civilized world, fell victim to insult and utter destruction.
Alexander’s men were getting rich quickly at the expense of the locals, but even that was not enough, for many of Alexander’s men turned on one another, and began to kill each other in the name of profit due to one fellow soldier having more than the other. Moreover, the Persian males whom the soldiers encountered were murdered and the women were taken to be made slaves.
Bull capital at Persepolis. (CC BY 2.0)
The sacking of Persepolis went beyond greed and momentarily resembled a landscape of unbridled nihilism. Alexander had effectively taken Persepolis, a city that he “described it to the Macedonians as the most hateful of the cities of Asia” and rendered it useless after all was looted of its former glory. This was not the official end of Persepolis, but as a city of importance, its light quickly dimmed. However, Alexander gave the city one last “hoorah” in which he held a great funeral party at the people’s expense. “As Persepolis had exceeded all other cities in prosperity, so in the same measure it now exceeded all others in misery;” Miseries along with poverty, for the people were raped of their land and their self. However, with such great turmoil comes lasting hope that those affected will be redeemed. If Alexander felt that unity was close, the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau would not forget the sacking of Persepolis among other distasteful actions before and after.
Gate of All Nations, Persepolis. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: Detail of the Alexander Sarcophagus located in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Here Alexander fights the Persians at the Battle of Issus. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
By Cam Rea
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