Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge
Book Review by Ursus
The legacy of Alexander the Great should be apparent to any Romanophile. While there had been cultural diffusion occurring between East and West for some time, Alexander’s politico-military schemes radically facilitated the trend. The subsequent Greco-Oriental fusion of the Hellenistic era penetrated Rome, and through it Western Europe. It is hard to think of Roman imperial era religion in general, and Christianity in particular, developing as it did without Alexander. Alexander’s legacy also created an imperial idea that influenced Romans such as Pompei and Caesar. Alexander’s former domains would later form the basis of the Eastern half, and many would say the culturally and financially richer half, of Rome’s vast dominion.
While this much is certain, much about the man himself is not so conveniently manifest. The ancient sources themselves are sometimes contradictory. He furthermore has been reinterpreted constantly through the ages depending on the needs and agendas of the interpreters. After 9/11/2001, the trend seems to be to analyze Alexander (and the Greco-Persian conflict in a wider sense) in terms of what might be relevant to a contemporary “clash of civilizations.” Paul Cartledge, one of Cambridge’s foremost experts on Ancient Greece, concludes his Alexander the Great with a wish that we could perceive Alexander as the creator of a vast polity beholden to different ethnic and religious groups. Such sentiments are conciliatory in the face of modern geopolitical reality and its inherent internecine dichotomies. But while Cartledge does an excellent job sifting through the various layers of Alexander to approximate the “real” historical individual, the conclusions that can be drawn from his study are perhaps not the ones he wants.
Cartledge begins the story, appropriately enough, with Alexander’s father. Phillip managed to bring all of Macedonia under his sway. While Macedonia was considered by other Greeks to be on their cultural as well its physical hinterlands, Macedonia was rich in resources and hardy people. Phillip used both to create a superior military machine that crushed a mainland Greece exhausted by generations of factional strife. Phillip had most likely intended to use Greece to attack Persia for quite sometime. Yet his only scheme for his son was to rule as regent of Macedonia - the guardian of Phillip’s rear flank, in other words. Conveniently, at just the right moment, Phillip was assassinated, leaving the “panhellenic” war machine in the hands of the equally ambitious Alexander. Cartledge points out that while it cannot be proven Alexander had a hand in the murder, he was the one to most benefit from his father’s death. Alexander’s debt to his father was enormous in retrospect.
Cartledge establishes the character and upbringing of a young Alexander, including his tutorship by that famous fellow of philosophy, Aristotle (Alexander, however, took more after his father in being a man of action rather than thought. The only thing that seems to have rubbed off from Aristotle on Alexander was a love of biological sciences). Cartledge also vividly provides more of a background on the cultural and geopolitical world that confronted Alexander. His prose is excellent. As he weaves the tale of politics and personality, one is sucked in almost as if into an exciting novel rather than a historical treatise.
Cartledge then delves into Alexander’s military history and tactical prowess, for which the Ages have left him renowned. I shall not recount the details here, as they are well known to military buffs. I only mention one thing as a reference to Alexander’s personality – he fought in the thick of battle, receiving more wounds than his front line troops. Clearly he simply loved the sting of battle and inspiring his soldiers with acts of daring. Centuries later a certain Roman proconsul of Gaul would emulate his leadership style.
But aside from this obligatory chapter on pre-industrial military paraphernalia, Cartledge focuses on what really matters: Alexander’s personality and how it impacted his relations with allies and enemies.
Let us consider, for example, Alexander’s religion. He was, in a sense, a mystic, and so pious as to seem superstitious or even fanatic. As a youth he read The Iliad with delight, and fancied himself the new Achilles. Later, he identified with Heracles, a legendary ancestor of his family. Still later he sought to outdo Dionysus. With all this accomplished, there was nothing left to do but let his subjects proclaim him a god on earth. He had been marching in this direction for sometime, for the Egyptian oracular god Ammon had famously proclaimed him a divine son (another parallel is drawn to that Proconsul of Gaul, the Darling of Venus).
Consider his treatment of Greeks and Persians. Panhellenism had been the rallying cry for his war machine to overthrow the sacrilegious and despotic Persian Empire. But once overthrown, he clearly left panhellenism behind and embraced Orientalism. By forcing his officer corps to marry Persian nobility, he planned to fuse Macedonian and Persian into a new master race, quite against the wishes of either group. Alexander clearly had more respect for alien peoples and customs than his Greek contemporaries. But he was partisan to neither Greece nor Persia. He placed first and foremost his own exalted status and universal empire, and both Greeks and Persians were simply pieces in a chess game for global domination.
Some have proclaimed Alexander an apostle of Hellenism, on a divine mission to spread Hellenic culture to barbarians. The pages of Cartledge suggest convincingly that Alexander was no such missionary. He was a megalomaniac bent on conquest. The cities he founded merely served strategic and commercial interests. Hellenization was simply a product of Macedonians and Greeks moving to these new urban centers and becoming the overlords of the local culture. Alexander certainly internalized those aspects of Hellenic culture with which he could identify (Homeric warrior arete, for example), but he placed his own glory above cultural fusion.
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We thus arrive to Cartlege’s concluding wish – Alexander perceived as the creator of a vast empire, populated by all sundry manners of peoples and religions. But looking closer, we see an ugly truth. The Greeks did not wish to be united by a Macedonian overlord, the Macedonians did not wish to share their spoils with defeated Persians, and certainly the Persians did not wish to be overthrown. Peace came only at the tip of a bloodstained sword. Unity was imposed not by the common consent of all, but from above by a megalomaniac bent on his own predominance in the new international system. Appeals to one’s cultural traditions were masks for personal agendas. For good or for bad, there are obvious parallels here to Roman history.
Furthermore - and take this however you like it – if we are to apply history’s lessons to current geopolitics, perhaps there is still an echo of the past resonating into modern times. In any event, I heartily recommend Alexander the Great. Its scholarship is sound, its prose is delightful, and its analysis usually penetrating.