How "Great" Was Alexander?

By: Professor Ian Worthington (University of Missouri-Columbia)
The Ancient History Bulletin 13.2 (1999) internet

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Why was Alexander III of Macedon called 'Great'? The answer seems relatively straightforward: from an early age he was an achiever, he conquered territories on a superhuman scale, he established an empire until his times unrivalled, and he died young, at the height of his power. Thus, at the youthful age of 20, in 336, he inherited the powerful empire of Macedon, which by then controlled Greece and had already started to make inroads into Asia. In 334 he invaded Persia, and within a decade he had defeated the Persians, subdued Egypt, and pushed on to Iran, Afghanistan and even India. As well as his vast conquests Alexander is credited with the spread of Greek culture and education in his empire, not to mention being responsible for the physical and cultural formation of the hellenistic kingdoms -- some would argue that the hellenistic world was Alexander's legacy.[2] He has also been viewed as a philosophical idealist, striving to create a unity of mankind by his so-called fusion of the races policy, in which he attempted to integrate Persians and Orientals into his administration and army. Thus, within a dozen years Alexander’s empire stretched from Greece in the west to India in the far east, and he was even worshipped as a god by many of his subjects while still alive. On the basis of his military conquests contemporary historians, and especially those writing in Roman times who measured success by the number of body-bags used, deemed him great.[3]

However, does a man deserve to be called ‘The Great’ who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own men and for the unnecessary wholesale slaughter of native peoples? How ‘great’ is a king who prefers constant warfare over consolidating conquered territories and long-term administration? Or who, through his own recklessness, often endangered his own life andthe lives of his men? Or whose violent temper on occasion led him to murder his friends and who towards the end of his life was an alcoholic, paranoid, megalomaniac, who believed in his own divinity?These are questions posed by our standards of today of course, but nevertheless they are legitimate questions given the influence which Alexander has exerted throughout history -an influence which will no doubt continue.[4]

The aims of this paper are to trace some reasons for questioning the greatness of Alexander as is reflected in his epithet, and to add potential evidence dealing with the attitude of the Macedonians, Alexander"s own people, in their king"s absence. It is important to stress that when evaluating Alexander it is essential to view the "package" of king as a whole; i.e., as king, commander and statesman. All too often this is not the case. There is no question that Alexander was spectacularly successful in the military field, and had Alexander only been a general his epithet may well have been deserved. But he was not just a general; he was a king too, and hence military exploits form only a percentage of what Alexander did, or did not do -- in other words, we must look at the ‘package’ of him as king as a whole. By its nature this paper is impressionistic, and it can only deal rapidly with selected examples from Alexander’s reign and discuss points briefly. However, given the unequalled influence Alexander has played in cultures and history from the time of his death to today, it is important to stress that there is a chasm of a difference between the mythical Alexander, which for the most part we have today, and the historical.

Alexander died in 323, and over the course of time the mythical king and his exploits sprang into being. Alexander himself was not above embellishing his own life and achievements. He very likely told the court historian Callisthenes of Olynthus what to say about his victory over Darius III at the battle of Issus in 333, for example.[5] Contemporary Attic oratory also exaggerated his achievements,[6] and so within a generation of his death erroneous stories were already being told.

As time continued we move into the genre of pulp fiction. In the third or second century BC Alexander’s exploits formed the plot of the story known as the Alexander Romance, which added significantly to the Alexander legend and had such a massive influence on many cultures into the Middle Ages.[7] Given its life-span, deeds were attributed to Alexander which are unhistorical, such as his encounters with the tribe of headless men, his flying exploits in a basket borne by eagles, and the search for the Water of Life, which ended with his transformation into a mermaid. These stories became illustrative fodder for the various manuscripts of the Alexander Romance -- one of the most popular episodes is Alexander’s ascent to heaven, inspired by the myth of Bellerephon to fly to Mount Olympus on Pegasus, which is found in many Byzantine and later art-works, sculptures and paintings. As a result of the Romance Alexander astonishingly appears in the literature of other cultures: in Hebrew literature, for example, he was seen as a preacher and prophet, who even becomes converted to Christianity. In Persian literature he is the hero Sikandar, sent to punish the impure peoples. In the West he appears as a Frank, a Goth, a Russian and a Saxon.

Then there is Plutarch, writing in the late first and second century AD, who has probably done the most damage to our knowing the historical Alexander. In his treatise On The Fortune or The Virtue of Alexander, Plutarch was swayed (understandably) by the social background against which he was writing and especially by his own philosophical beliefs, and he portrayed Alexander as both an action man and a philosopher-king, whose mission was to impose Greek civilisation on the ‘barbarian’ Persians. Plutarch’s work is essentially a rhetorical exercise, but as time continued

The Alexander legend was a ready feeding ground for artists throughout the centuries as well. When Alexander invaded Persia in 334 he detoured to Troy to sacrifice at the tomb of his hero Achilles. This was a stirring story, which became a model for heroic piety in the Renaissance and later periods; thus, for example, we have Fontebasso’s painting of Alexander’s sacrifice at Achilles’ tomb in the eighteenth century. In modern Greece Alexander became both an art-work and a symbol, as seen in the painting by Engonopoulos in 1977 of the face-less Alexander standing with his arm around the face-less Pavlos Melas, a modern hero of the struggle for Macedonian independence.

Thus, we can see how the historical Alexander has faded into the invincible general, the great leader, explorer and king, as time continued, especially in the Middle Ages with its world of chivalry, warriors and great battles: a superb context into which to fit Alexander, even if this meant distortion of the truth, and history subsumed to legend. Indeed, during the Middle Ages was regarded as one of the four great kings of the ancient world. Let us now consider some specific aspects of Alexander’s reign in support of this.

In 334 Alexander III left home for Asia, entrusting to Antipater as guardian (epitropos) a stable -- for a while -- Greece and Macedon (Arr. 1.11.3). The king also unilaterally made Antipater deputy hegemon in the League of Corinth. Alexander’s ‘mandate’ or prime directive, as inherited from his father Philip II and endorsed by the League of Corinth, was to pursue his father’s plan of punishing the Persians for their sacrilegious acts of 150 years ago and to ‘liberate’ (whatever that meant) the Greek cities of Asia Minor. In other words, a panhellenic mandate. After he had fulfilled it, people quite rightly would have expected him to return home. People were wrong: the king would soon disregard the prime directive for personal reasons, causing discontent amongst the army with him and also, even more ominously, with his countrymen back home.

We have a fair amount of information for events in mainland Greece, especially Athens, during the reign of Alexander, however events in Macedon in this period are undocumented and largely unknown. We certainly cannot say that there was a hiatus in Macedonian history, for Antipater kept Macedon powerful and united while Alexander was absent, so much so that there was economic growth, and education and military training, for example, remained at a high standard.[9] However, appearance is not likely to reflect reality. Macedon in this period may well have been fraught with discontent, and it provides insights into the Macedonians’ attitude to their king and he to them. At the same time a consideration of the Macedonian background also lends further weight to questioning the aptness of Alexander’s title ‘Great’.

Alexander’s military successes throughout his reign were spectacular to a very large degree -- and certainly manufactured by the king to be great (see below) -- and we should expect his people back home to feel proud of their king at the head of his panhellenic mission of punishment and liberation, and to proclaim his victories to all and sundry. His deeds and the geographical extent of his conquests were certainly known for we have references to them in contemporary Attic oratory.[10] However, the impression which strikes us about the Macedonians themselves is that Alexander was far from their idea of an ideal king. Why might they feel this way? In addressing this, we can begin with the vexed question of Macedonian manpower. Did Alexander’s demands for reinforcements from the mainland seriously deplete the fighting strength of the army under Antipater? Did he make these demands regardless of the pressure under which he was putting Antipater and without regard for the lives of his people and the security of his kingdom from external threat? And if so, how did the people feel and how did they react?

I take as my example the abortive war of Agis III of 331. This is the only Greek attempt at the overthrow of the Macedonian hegemony which we know about from the time Alexander left for Persia until his death, and therefore it is significant. It is impossible to determine the fighting strength of Macedon at this time,[11] and Badian’s most recent discussion of this complex issue, which effectively rebuts the views of others, will no doubt be itself challenged at some point.[12] While Billows and Badian argue that the fighting strength of Macedon was never depleted to the extent that there was a serious manpower problem, numerical accuracy is not the issue here. It has to be said that Agis III had posed no small threat to Antipater, and that the latter’s forces were not at full strength (Diodorus 18.12.2 says that Antipater was short of ‘citizen soldiers’, i.e. Macedonians proper), and he had just sent 6,500 Macedonians to Alexander. Alexander had left Antipater with only 13,500 Macedonians (12,000 infantry and 1500 cavalry), and when the king needed reinforcements the first year he crossed into Asia he had had to resort to somewhat hastily-levied local troops (Arr. 1.24.2). In 332 Alexander needed more men (Diod. 17.49.1, Curt. 4.6.30), this time from the Greek mainland; in 331, 500 cavalry and 6000 infantry arrived after the battle of Gaugamela (Diod. 17.65.1, Curt. 5.1.40), and as late as 324 Antipater had orders to bring more men to him (Arr. 7.12.4). Antipater was never able to rebuild his manpower significantly. Even in the so-called Lamian War, which broke out on Alexander’s death and lasted about a year, he had only 600 cavalry and 13,000 infantry and was forced to recruit soldiers from elsewhere -- and we know what a detrimental impact on his forces the desertion of the 2,000 strong contingent of Thessalian cavalry was and how Antipater only just managed to struggle to Lamia for refuge (Diod. 18.12.3-4). Moreover, it was only the timely arrivals of Leonnatus and then Craterus with several thousand Macedonian veterans that saved the day.

Agis III had accepted ten ships and money from Persia to hire 8,000 mercenaries (Diod. 17.48.1, Curt. 4.1.39), with which he occupied Crete, and so in late 331 Sparta was able to mobilise a fairly formidable force. Then in the same year Memnon, the general of Thrace, and in command of a powerful army (Diod. 17.62.5), leagued with some Thracians and rose in revolt, thereby stretching Antipater’s own army further. Antipater had to lead all his army into Thrace to put down this rising (Diod. 17.62.6). This episode shows not only the ever-present danger of external threats to the kingdom’s security but also the need for an adequate army -- something denied to Antipater. Although Antipater dealt with Memnon and with Agis successfully, his manpower reserve had been depleted since he had need of a large sum from Alexander (Arr. 3.16.10) to boost his small force of 1500 cavalry and 12,000 infantry (Diod. 17.17.5), and we later find -- in 325 -- Memnon leading 5,000 Thracian cavalry to Alexander in Asia since Macedon could not then have raised such a large force of cavalry.

Alexander’s money on this occasion had helped to save the day, but money cannot be the answer to solving problems: the king should not have continued to demand troops which could, and did, weaken Antipater’s position. Take the Thracian discontent at this time, Agis’ insurgence, Peloponnesian stirrings, and throw in a potential revolt of the Greek states (as Agis must have intended) and we have a recipe for disaster.[13] These threats would not have been lost on the Macedonians, and we simply cannot imagine they would not have been worried by them.

Perhaps Alexander relied too much on money buying his way out of trouble. Whilst he may be acclaimed for rewarding his men with high pay, various bonuses, remission of taxes in certain cases, cancellation of soldiers’ debts and various signs of royal favour (Arr. 1.16.5, 7.5.1-3, 12.1-2), the argument can be made that such measures were to ensure the loyalty of his men, especially as he pushed further eastwards after defeating the Persians so decisively. And the question is, what happened when money and favour were no longer enough, especially when we consider the ‘down side’ such as the huge numbers of casualties stemming from Alexander’s battles,[14] the numerous demands for reinforcements, and especially the forced settlement from Macedon and Greece to the newly-founded cities at the farthest ends of the world?[15] There was also the worrying news from those who did return home of Alexander’s drunken rages which resulted in him killing -- either by his own hands or from false implication in conspiracies -- some of those close to him, his paranoia, his orientalism, and even his belief that he was divine as a son of Zeus. Another factor too is that his people back home did not know Alexander as a man and a king: he had only been home as king for about two years before he left his country, and he showed no signs of coming back until his men forced the issue with a mutiny (see below). Macedon needed a king, and Alexander was not there.

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  1. I thank Professor A.B. Bosworth for his comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

  2. N.G.L. Hammond, ‘The Macedonian Imprint on the Hellenistic World’, in Hellenistic History and Culture, ed. P. Green (Berkeley & Los Angeles 1993) 12-23.

  3. The first attested reference to Alexander as great is found in Plautus, Mostellaria 775, where Tranio compares himself to Alexander ‘the great’ (magnum) and to Agathocles of Syracuse. The casual, non-explanatory, nature of the exchange here would indicate that Alexander had had this title for some time, and that the audience knew it. Besides, it would be hard to ascribe the start of a tradition to someone like Plautus! When was Alexander saddled with this title? Perhaps during the reign of Ptolemy I, at the time when he kidnapped the funeral cortege of the dead Alexander, which proved so useful in promoting his rule.

  4. The most recent biography of Alexander, written by N.G.L. Hammond, is ominously titled The Genius of Alexander (London 1996).

  5. See D. Golan, ‘The Fate of a Court Historian: Callisthenes’, Athenaeum 66 (1988) 99-120.

  6. See L.L. Gunderson, ‘Alexander and the Attic Orators’, in Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honour of C.F. Edson, ed. H.J. Dell (Thessaloniki 1981) 183-92.

  7. See for example R. Stoneman, ‘The Alexander Romance: From History to Fiction’, in Greek Fiction. The Greek Novel in Context, edd. J.R. Morgan and R. Stoneman (London 1994) 117-29.

  8. The historical accuracy of this work was attacked by E. Badian in his classic article ‘Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind’, Historia 7 (1958) 425-44. See more recently S. Schröder, ‘Zu Plutarchs Alexanderreden’, MH 48 (1991) 151-7 and A.B. Bosworth, Alexander and the East (Oxford 1996) 2-5.

  9. On Macedon during Alexander’s absence and especially the disunity, potential and otherwise, cf. N.G.L. Hammond and F.W. Walbank, A History of Macedonia 3 (Oxford 1988) 86-94 and R.M. Errington, History of Macedonia (Berkeley & Los Angeles 1990) 104 and 114-15.

  10. Aes. 3.65, Din. 1.34; cf. Hyp. 5.31-32. On the Dinarchus passage see Ian Worthington, A Historical Commentary on Dinarchus (Ann Arbor 1992) ad loc., with references there cited.

  11. On troop numbers see the discussion of R. Billows, Kings and Colonists (Leiden 1995) 183-212. Billows believes that Macedon did not face a manpower shortage at this time, although I disagree.

  12. E. Badian, ‘Agis ’, Ventures into Greek History. Essays in Honour of N.G.L. Hammond, ed. Ian Worthington (Oxford 1994) 259-68, who is right to stress that precise figures will never be known. For an opposing view see A.B. Bosworth, ‘Alexander the Great and the Decline of Macedon’, JHS 106 (1986) 1-12.

  13. Though the Greeks may well have come to accept the Macedonian hegemony, at least while Alexander was alive: see Ian Worthington, ‘The Harpalus Affair and the Greek Response to the Macedonian Hegemony’, Ventures into Greek History. Essays in Honour of N.G.L. Hammond, ed. Ian Worthington (Oxford 1994) 307-30.

  14. Professor Bosworth cautions me here on the extent of the casualties. He believes that there was regular attrition, no major disaster (except at the Persian Gates), and that the casualty rate may have been ‘as low as 30%. Nearly 20,000 out of 30,000+ seem to have survived’ (personal letter). Admittedly, in battles using arrows, sarissas, and short swords, the prediction of dead and wounded is impossible, but for over one third of Alexander’s combat troops to have been killed or maimed is hardly a low percentage! If a figure of 30% represents those actually killed, then at least the same number would have been wounded, which for an army amounts to an annihilation.

  15. On cities founded by Alexander, see now P.M. Fraser, Cities of Alexander the Great (Oxford 1996) who limits Alexander’s genuine foundations to eight (excluding Alexandria in Egypt).

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