Text Messages | Alexander, the great or not so great?

Biographers and historians through the ages have veered from admiring the Macedonian leader ungrudgingly to questioning the nature of his character and achievements.

1 October 2020 marks the 2 351st anniversary of the Battle of Gaugamela, where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian armies of Darius III, breaking the Achaemenid Empire and seeming to set up a new world order. Near what is now Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Macedonians under Alexander routed a far larger opposing force on this day in 331 BCE.

Less than eight years later, Alexander’s empire stretched from Illyria in the west to Kashmir in the east, with the significant dog’s leg of Egypt (where he had founded Alexandria) and what today are Palestine, Israel and Syria. The sweep from west to east included modern-day Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Iraq, Iran, the Central Asian states, Afghanistan, northwest India and Kashmir.

Related article:

Neither deserts nor jungles deterred Alexander. Mountains were to be ascended and rivers forded, miles and miles of endless plain subdued by relentless determination. On the way, he established many cities, all bearing the name Alexandria. He strayed from that convention only once, with Alexandria Ultima in the Scythian mountains of Sogdiana, east of today’s Samarkand. It was the farthest northeast that he and his armies reached, effectively an end-point of the world.

Not all was fighting and conquering, acquiring and extending an empire for his small homeland of Macedonia. Alexander had an ideal of a homogenous entity under his rule where the local and the Macedonian would mix and mingle and eventually become one, a new one. For the time, it was an ultra-revolutionary idea and not much liked by his Macedonian army, their place in the world and view of it conditioned by the remote and isolated mountain fastness of their native land.

Indeed, when Alexander began to adopt the royal finery and customs of the Persian kings, his men grew restive. For Alexander it was assimilating something of a more refined culture than his own; for his men it was adopting “barbarian” customs, implicitly inferior. The ideological and cultural rift was patched up only when Alexander turned his eyes eastwards again and the army – now made up of a minority Macedonian core and a majority of troops from the Achaemenid Empire – set off for Central Asia, the Hindu Kush and the plains of the Hydaspes and Indus rivers in India.

It took almost 2 250 years for Alexander’s achievements and his by-name – “the Great” – to be challenged in the West. In the lands he had subdued, occupied, taxed for produce and money and levied for men, he was never “the Great”. English historian Michael Wood, in his magnificent television series In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, recounts how to this day in Kurdish territories, Iraq and Iran, Alexander is described in song and folktale as “two-horned”, that is, the devil. The series shows countless songs from two millennia ago that are still sung and recited, all depicting an evil, inhuman figure, as well as the use of Alexander as a terrifying bogeyman to frighten naughty children, even in this day.

A superhuman force of personality

But it was HG Wells, possibly the most learned man of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and far more than a creator of science fiction, who attacked the myth of Alexander. In his magisterial compression of the history of the universe and the world, The Outline of History (1920), Wells asked “Was Alexander Indeed Great?” It was like hurling a huge boulder into a still pond. After all, Hellenic culture underpinned that of Western Europe – and it continues to be the foundation stone of “the West”.

Commenting on Alexander’s death (on 13 June 323 BCE, about five weeks short of his 33rd birthday), Wells writes: “Forthwith the world empire he had snatched at and held in his hands, as a child might snatch at and hold a precious vase, fell to the ground and was shattered to pieces.”

That the new polity Alexander created could not outlive him is one of the faults that Wells and others have laid at his door. Only his ego – or, if you will, his superhuman force of personality – had held it all together.

Related article:

Naturally, Alexander’s many biographers from the ancient and classical worlds had anticipated such scepticism. Perhaps his stoutest defender was Arrian, a Greek in the Roman imperial service, born just before AD 90. Although working at a terrible historical remove from his subject, four centuries on, his The Campaigns of Alexander is the most carefully researched and trustworthy account. Most tellingly, Arrian had been a military commander who had driven the invading Alans from Armenia in AD 134. The final page of his work contains this:

“In the course of this book I have, admittedly, found fault with some of the things that Alexander did, but of the man himself I am not ashamed to express ungrudging admiration.”

The problem of Alexander – great or not, man of vision or expedience – is best captured by the Alexander expert and novelist Mary Renault:

“Filtered and refracted by these layers of fable, history, tradition and emotion – a thing inseparable from him alive and dead – the image of Alexander has come down to us.”

And that image is somewhere between icon and nightmare spectre, a mix of the great and the gory.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.