Great expectations

Article first published in The Guardian on 8 January 2005.

Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him.

Alexander the Great: The Death of a God
by Paul Doherty
256pp, Constable, £17.99

Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past
by Paul Cartledge
384pp, Macmillan, £18.99

Alexander the Conqueror
by Laura Foreman
212pp, Da Capo, £22.95

Alexander: Virtues of War
by Stephen Pressfield
449pp, Doubleday, £12.99

“You may wonder,” said Arrian in his introduction to his biography “why I am writing another book on Alexander the Great when there have been so many already.” Arrian wrote at the end of the first century AD. By the 1970s, Robin Lane Fox had to read 1,468 books and articles to write his celebrated biography of Alexander. Now, alongside a flurry of books, we have Alexander the movie directed by Oliver Stone, in which Professor Lane Fox (who has written his own film tie-in, The Making of Alexander) is filmed aged 58, dressed as a Macedonian officer in a blonde wig, riding in the front line of every cavalry charge. But the more we produce about Alexander the less we seem to understand him.

For nearly two and a half thousand years, Alexander represented a central vision of mankind. His life has the flavour of a fairy story, in part because it inspired so many. Physically beautiful, a fine warrior, educated by Aristotle, born to a royal court, he chose to risk his inheritance confronting the greatest empire in Europe and Asia. He defeated the Persians in every battle and conquered their territory to the very edge of the known world. At the banks of the last river of the Punjab, we are told, he wept because he had no more lands to conquer.

His soldiers, mostly older than he and desperate to return home, followed him for 10 years across 6,000 miles of Asia. In return, he was prepared to leap into their midst, unarmed, when they threatened to lynch him and to jump unsupported over the walls of Multan, when they held back afraid. The empire he established over a million square miles survived in various forms for 300 years. He introduced a coinage, a legal system, a form of philosophy and a style of art that transformed culture across Asia. All this he achieved before he died at 32. His life was magnificent in scope, scale and conviction. Ancient commentators were prepared to accept this without concealing his flaws.

Classical historians attacked him for massacring populations and destroying ancient cities; for murdering his senior staff and for leading his troops on dangerous and pointless desert crossings. Conservative Athenians saw him as a half-Barbarian, capricious Macedonian despot prone to indecent excesses of intemperance and ostentatious displays of vanity. His Macedonian followers were shocked by the respect he showed to local customs after his conquest of the Persian city of Babylon in modern Iraq. There, he took to worshipping local gods, appointed Persians to key positions, created regiments in which Asians mixed equally with Macedonians and attacked Greeks who insulted Persian custom. He was delighted, according to Arrian, when the Macedonian whom he appointed governor of Persia “liked Oriental ways, adopted Median dress, learned the Persian language and took to living as the Persians lived”. This approach was as unpopular with some Macedonian followers as it might be with some occupiers of Iraq today.

But ancient writers at least had some sense of the temptations that went with being the absolute ruler of a million square miles of Asia and the most successful and wealthy man in the world before you were 30. By comparison with his drunken father, Philip, or his predecessor, the Persian king Darius, who kept 365 concubines and went to battle with a platoon of pastry chefs, Alexander seems relatively ascetic and level-headed. Most importantly, ancient writers were prepared to allow that for all his faults, Alexander was still indubitably a hero. Modern writers such as Paul Doherty take a more negative view.

Doherty introduces Alexander in The Death of a God, as a “ruthless, ambitious, self-centred prig”, sketches his “deep superstition and downright cynicism” and describes, over 200 pages, his love of drink and his “paranoia and vindictiveness”. He conjures up an image of a Hitler or a Stalin. Doherty describes Alexander as “a killer through and through” and says his execution of Philotas “reeks of that terror which so characterises the great political purges of the 20th century – spies, torture… arrest at the dead of night, show trials, the lack of any appeal and immediate execution”. Doherty uses this to argue that Alexander was poisoned by his companion Ptolemy. In fact, the evidence for Alexander’s death is so limited that we can say little more than that he died of a fever. We have no way of telling whether the infection was the result of malaria, typhoid or a kidney stone.

Paul Cartledge’s account is considerably more restrained and disciplined in his use of sources, but he echoes some of Doherty’s criticisms. Part of this may be a matter of Cartledge’s temperament. Cartledge, an eminent Cambridge classical scholar, is particularly interested in the constitutional arrangements of the Greek states and shows little enthusiasm for warfare or the Persian world. This is unfortunate in an account of a man who was above all else a military leader and who did not return to mainland Greece after the age of 21. It makes his biography sometimes read as though it were written by one of Alexander’s conservative Athenian critics – Demosthenes, for example. Cartledge argues that Alexander created a climate of fear, which provoked treachery. He emphasises the tensions between Alexander and the Greeks and the controversy caused by Alexander’s use of Persian court ceremonial and the marriage of 10,000 Macedonians to Persians at Susa. He stresses that Alexander was lucky with the timing of his Greek campaigns and with his naval policy. These are interesting claims but they are, through poor editing, repeated almost in identical words at many different points in the text.

Cartledge’s book has great strengths not only in his analysis of Greek political structures but also in his illuminating and subtle account of Alexander’s religious beliefs. But at times, it combines the themes of an undergraduate lecture series with the language of popular biography. Thus he describes Alexander as “Action Man incarnate”, a “doer rather than a thinker”, and speculates about a “repressed Oedipus complex”. He tells us Alexander was “monumentally superstitious”, endorses the view that he ran a “reign of terror”, reminds us that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and identifies “distinct tinges of megalomania”.

It is misleading of Doherty and Cartledge to ascribe modern delusional states such as “paranoia” and “megalomania” to Alexander. It is not paranoia to suspect plots when people are trying to kill you, particularly when your father was assassinated. Many anecdotes show Alexander as trusting. Arrian reports that he was given a letter saying his doctor was about to poison him, just as the doctor had handed him a cup of medicine. Alexander passed the letter to the doctor and drank the potion before the doctor had time to read the letter. It is not megalomania to imagine yourself a world historical figure of unparalleled wealth, power and success, when you are.

Curiously, it is a coffee table book with few academic pretensions, which seems most comfortable balancing Alexander’s crimes with his greatness. Laura Foreman’s Alexander the Conqueror is a good example of popular history. It is excellently illustrated, including photographs from modern Turkey, Syria and Afghanistan, and even a picture of the remote oasis of Siwah in Libya where Alexander led a near-disastrous desert pilgrimage. She writes well and the editing is good (though not flawless – she is wrong about the site of Ecbatana). She finds his deeds appalling but she concedes that these were “if not survival traits, at least requisites for extraordinary accomplishment”. Ultimately, however, she describes him as “perfidious, devious, cruel and murderous, willing to sacrifice anything on the altar of his unquenchable lust for glory”.

Doherty, Cartledge and Foreman, like many modern writers, find it difficult to forgive Alexander’s ambition. They see such ambition as a weakness in his claim to be a true Hellenic hero. Cartledge writes that Alexander would not allow his promotion of Hellenic culture to get in the way of his “one overriding ideal, the power and glory of Alexander”. But few classical critics would have drawn such a distinction. They grasped that Alexander’s love of glory was a reflection of his Hellenic background and an essential component of his heroism. His glory lay in personifying the highest virtues of Homeric culture. He wanted to be regarded as the epitome of his tutor Aristotle’s virtuous man: generous, brave in war and great in soul, magnificent in gesture, proud and obsessed with honour. But most of all he wanted to be Achilles and that meant wanting, in his favourite words from Achilles, to be “the best, the best among the best: now and in perpetuity”. Achilles, like Alexander, aimed not to be simply the fastest runner, though he was quick, nor a successful warrior, though he fought well. He wished to be acknowledged absolutely as our superior not just in body or in mind but in the very essence of his character. He tried to live like a god.

Alexander quite consciously aimed to be a hero, imitated other heroes and promoted himself as a hero. This underlay the scale of his achievements, the extremity of his courage and his charisma. And such ambition could be seen as a form of insecurity. Certainly, because he was not a god but only playing one, there was a gap between the real Alexander and his image as a hero, which could only be bridged by role-playing, exaggeration and rhetoric and by a culture which tolerated this kind of self-projection.

His contemporaries, and indeed audiences as late as the 19th century, saw nothing inconsistent in the coexistence of self-promotion, fantasy and greatness. They were prepared to allow that real merit could coexist with dreams and showmanship.

We are no longer prepared to accept this. Competitiveness, egotism, self-promotion and rhetoric are seen as weaknesses. Concepts of honour, nobility and magnificence, appropriate to male, aristocratic warriors, seem ridiculous and irrelevant. Our values are now too diverse for us to agree on who might be “the best of men”. We are not prepared to acknowledge other men as “great” or our moral superiors. There are now more famous people than ever: some are famous for their plastic surgery or their skill with their right foot, some are famous for nothing in particular. We write about them with an easy familiarity, focusing on their flaws and ordinariness. Modern celebrities are not terrifying exemplars and we do not credit them with honour, nobility or greatness of soul. We acknowledge self-sacrificing heroes such as the 9/11 firemen but we emphasise their modesty. We like our heroes to be accidental heroes. We can no longer accept or create the conditions of Alexander’s heroism.

Only a curiously antique historical novel by Stephen Pressfield captures something of Alexander’s glamour and appeal. A close study of pre-modern battles has allowed him to evoke with precision and plausibility the experience of a classical cavalry charge. He emphasises the risk Alexander took in leading an army of 40,000 against the Persian king on his home ground. Darius had been training between a quarter of a million and a million men on the plains outside Babylon for 18 months, having even gone so far as to manicure the ground like a putting green for his scythed chariots. His battle line must have overlapped Alexander’s by hundreds of yards on either side, making it easy for him to envelop both wings.

Pressfield brilliantly illustrates Arrian’s description of Alexander’s successful strategy, which was to draw off Darius’s cavalry at an oblique angle and then concentrate his forces in a single wedge, charging straight at the Persian king. And he expands convincingly on the charisma Alexander must have exerted to persuade his troops to follow him against such odds. But even Pressman does not entirely escape modern, anachronistic perspectives on Alexander. His description of Alexander’s campaigns in the Hindu Kush reads too much like a documentary on Taliban guerrillas and he does not attempt to explore what it meant for Alexander to take seriously the idea that he was a god. Outside the pages of historical romance, it seems the old heroes are dead. We don’t permit them to exist. We tend to agree with a more recent global hero, Charlie Chaplin, who wrote: “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be emperor. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone.”

This is in some ways a tribute to the maturity in our society. The classical hero was driven, from an early age, by a false and lonely conception of himself. Alexander strove to forge an image and attract worshippers. He was haunted by the competition of dead men and the need to out-do everyone who had ever lived. He was half-aware that his own greatness was partly an act and he gave his life with a social fiction called “honour” for a fantasy called “heroism”. To move beyond this is a partial enlightenment.

Yet what is its replacement? The old idea gave a purpose and possibility to human life – it celebrated humanity through the idea of super-humans. We are all now reduced to the last moments of Don Quixote. We still fantasise about heroes like Alexander but when we try to realise our fantasies, we do so half-heartedly – pursuing an idea which we suspect is not only impossible but also ridiculous.

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