Alexander the Great, and Greatness

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"Alexander fighting king Darius III of Persia", Alexander Mosaic, Naples National Archaeological Museum

Alexander took part in all of the above activities, yet history still calls him Great: can this judgment be justified by any of his achievements?

Alexander of Macedon is credited with the creation of an Hellenic empire that united two regions of the world, theretofore seen as irreconcilably opposed; with revolutionizing military knowledge and tactics, and being one of the first great captains of human civilization; and with encouraging a world of equality, through promoting multiculturalism, Greek education, and social transformation. How much are these accolades genuinely deserved, and how much are they the product of a history that can be accused of Eurocentrism, of vaunting heroes, of ignoring unseemly details, and celebrating military victory for its own sake?

War

That Alexander was a brilliant military commander is hard to deny. On top of competently commanding his army in orthodox ways, he showed a striking originality and initiative. As Theodore Ayrault Dodge details in his military biography Alexander, Alexander employed such methods as: using improvised hay and leather boats to cross the Danube, even getting many soldiers to swim, to arrive days before the enemy expected him; performing a complex drill before a surrounding, numerically superior enemy to distract them; and, at Gaugamela, taking his cavalry and, leading them himself, striking straight at Darius, making the battle look almost like the three move checkmate Chess strategy.

However, Dodge summarizes these acts in a commonly held sentiment: “To him [Alexander] is due the credit of giving the world, on a large scale, the first lessons in the art of war”(516). The Eurocentric nature of this judgement is hard to bypass: Alexander’s campaigns occur several centuries after the initial publication of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, for instance. Also ignored is the long history of strategic warfare that developed in the empires of the middle east prior to Alexander, empires whose size (particularly in the case of Persian empire under Cyrus and Xerxes) could rival his own. So the question of whether Alexander was the first great commander, or even an exceptionally great one that merits the stature of his legend, must be viewed through a lens that is skeptical of Eurocentric historical writing.

Slavery and Slaughter

Alexander’s army was, as were all of his contemporaries’, populated with slaves. During early campaigns against tribes near the Danube river, as Dodge notes, Alexander readily sold tribes who resisted him into slavery wholesale, followed by the selling into slavery of the entire population of Thebes. Similar punishment was meted out after the Siege of Tyre. At no point during his rule did Alexander seem to genuinely attempt to achieve an alternative economic model.

Moreover, Matthew White states that Alexander’s campaigns were “considered the first war of anihilation [sic] in Greek/Western history”, and that, during his war with Greece alone, “‘[Alexander killed] More Greeks in two engagements than had fallen in the entire history of pitched battle among city-states’”. Estimates that are kept conservative place the number of urban inhabitants killed by Alexander’s army, for punitive reasons, at a about quarter of a million. There is no indication that Alexander personally opposed any of this.

Colonialism

In terms of cultural transformation, Alexander founded many cities, or ‘Alexandrias’, though few of them survive today. The famous Egyptian city is an exception, and it would become, in ancient times, a cosmopolitan, thriving metropolis, the New York of its day: this, more than anything, was a microcosmic realization of the multicultural vision Alexander set forth, though it serves almost as a parody in its small scope, a joke, reflecting the failure of Alexander’s greater mission. He and his successors left behind in the East, not a united nation or a New World, but merely what Dodge termed a ‘Hellenistic flavor‘(521).

Alexander was accused of being ‘Asiaticized’(Dodge, 521) by his peers, and the lack of the moderation which Westerners intended to bring to the east, and that Aristotle will have tried to inculcate as so important to Alexander in his youth, is famously apparent when Alexander, in the spirit of the pharaohs, spent between 10,000 and 12,000 talents (through comparison of wages, this could to be equivalent to 150,000,000 dollars or more, on estimate) on Hephaestion’s funeral, and planned to spend the same again on his tomb. Hence there seems to be no moral principle behind Alexander’s colonialism, only conquest.

So, although Alexander the Great did indeed change the face of much of central Eurasia, it was just that which he changed: the face – not the flesh and blood. His was no revolutionary war, and no great building of cultural bridges, no great wave of emancipation, and no great sense of fiscal or governmental responsibility resulted from his conquest or rule. Despite his undeniable merits as a military commander, the military crown given to him by popular history is in part a false generalization of the advances that came before and happened around him. Great as the head of a force, in terms of quantity, perhaps – in terms of quality, not, certainly, as much as his legend implies.

Sources:

  1. Dodge, Theodore Ayrault, Alexander, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2005.
  2. White, Matthew, ‘Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century’