The Loneliness of Alexander the Great

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

Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power, by Ernst Badian, paints a picture of Alexander the Great that focuses not on his military prowess but rather on his isolation as king. The portrait that one receives from reading Badian is not an especially flattering one and Alexander does not come off as all that great, except maybe to a follower of Nicolo Machiavelli, yet the idea of Alexander that Badian presents rings true. Alexander was at once the most powerful and the loneliest man in the world. Here we will explore how Badian’s ideas about the Macedonian king are intermeshed with Alexander’s motivations and successes, and ultimately with the difficulties that followed after his death and 323 BCE.

The roots of Alexander’s motivations can be found in his upbringing as the son of Philip II and potential king of the Argead line. This upbringing directly motivated his desire for military conquest, and also stood behind his self-imposed isolation from all others as king. The Argead kings of Macedonia typically did not have long, stable reigns, with the only thing separating a current king from a former one a single dagger thrust or cup of poisoned wine.

This is a lesson that Alexander learned well in 336 when his father fell to an assassin. Whether or not Alexander had anything to do with Philip’s assassination, the young king would not forget about it, and this would be one of the chief reasons for the loneliness of isolation that he would subject himself to. By keeping every one, apparent friend and enemy alike, at arm’s length Alexander hoped to avoid his father’s fate.

Alexander took this lesson to heart and Badian shows him to be, at best, extremely cautious degenerating into outright paranoia as his reign progressed. Only Hephaestion was allowed to get relatively close to the monarch, and Hephaestion who he even ran naked with in a race around the tombs of Achilles and Patroclus (Green) was a very close friend from childhood, and “the only man he fully trusted” (Badian). Other than Hephaestian, anybody that got overly familiar with Alexander, such as Clitus having the temerity to remind Alexander that it was the army that had gotten him everything he had so far obtained, would be marked as a traitor and quickly put to death. Similarly, anybody who seemed to be amassing to much personal power, or becoming too popular with the soldiers, would find themselves accused of treason and slated for execution. These actions began to move Alexander further and further away from the ‘first among equals’ position that Macedonian rulers had traditionally held, and more and more toward the ‘great king’ position as it existed in Persia. After Hephaestions’s death in 324, Alexander was truly alone in the last year of his life.

Alexander’s isolation can help to explain his amazing success as a military leader, and conversely these successes can help explain his ever greater isolation and loneliness as well. As the son of Philip II and Olympias, descended from both Herakles and Achilles, Alexander was born for success on the battle field, and the training he received as a youth of the Argead line in Pella only served to accentuate those traits passed down to him by his glorious ancestors. Being special can often lead to isolation, and being descended from the two greatest heroes of their respective generations makes one special if nothing else.

Success in war was just as important to Alexander as it had been for his father Philip, because Macedonian kingship relied to a large extent on success in war. The king of Macedonia, though always drawn from the Argead line, was acclaimed by the military. If the current king was not an effective war leader, the military had the power, and occasionally had used it during the course of Macedonian history, to replace the ineffectual king by simply proclaiming another Argead in his place (Thomas). This fact is what drove Philips amazing strides over the course of his reign, and it was also one of the driving forces for Alexander, especially during the early part of his rule.

By not turning the military leadership role over to such people as Parmenio, Alexander increased his isolation from others while at the same time increasing his personal power. Had Alexander given “practical charge of the war against Persia” to Parmenio as “was no doubt expected” because of “Parmenio’s experience and Alexander’s age” (Badian) it would have been easy for his enemies to show him as a weak king who relied upon others to win his wars. Had this occurred it would have significantly weakened Alexander’s hold over the military, and made both his future successes and his future kingship uncertain. Alexander even saw Parmenio’s position as second in command as a weakness, and thus had rumors started about his battle prowess faltering and having to be rescued by Alexander, when in fact the battle plans called for Parmenio to have the tough job of being the anvil against which Alexander would smash with his hammer, and thus had Parmenio not been doing his job the battle plan could have not succeeded. Alexander’s ordered execution of Parmenio shows that he still felt that the old general was a threat much later in his reign, after Parmenio had been left behind to be in charge of logistics.

Alexander’s isolation is also one of the main causes for the troubles of succession that followed his death in 323. Because the king had nobody that was close to him, there was no clear successor. Alexander’s paranoia, by this point, would not allow him to name an heir for fear that the heir would want to take up his throne sooner than Alexander was willing to give it up. One of the lessons about Alexander that can be learned from Badian is that the Macedonian king was supremely self-centered, and this can be seen as both a cause and an effect of his loneliness. At the time of his death “Alexander was, essentially, not interested in a future without himself” (Badian). Alexander’s isolation was such that he simply did not have anybody left to care about after Hephaestion died, and thus who would rule after him was not a concern of his.

Alexander was lonely. He so isolated himself away from the world, in order to protect his position as king, that it could be said that he lost touch with humanity. Whether Alexander really thought of himself as a ‘god’ can be debated, but that he thought he was more than mere human is beyond question. This ‘loneliness of power’ affected every part of Alexander’s personal world, and is very evident in his motivations, military successes, and the turmoil following his death.

References

  1. Badian, Ernst. Alexander the Great and the loneliness of Power. (Oxford 1964).
  2. Green, Peter. The Hellenistic Age: A Short history. Random House, New York. 2007
  3. Thomas, Carol. Alexander the Great in His World. Blackwell Publishing, Malden MA, 2007
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