How "Great" Was Alexander?

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

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That Alexander's money and favour proved insufficient and discontent grew are proved by the two mutinies which he faced in 326 at the Hyphasis (Beas) river and in 324 at Opis (on the use of the term 'mutiny' see below). In 326 while at Taxila Alexander heard that the Indian prince Porus was defying him, and so marched to do battle at the Hydaspes river. He was successful, and Porus was defeated. Rather than return to Taxila to recuperate and more importantly sit out the monsoon weather, Alexander ordered his men to continue their advance into India. His pothos -- personal longing (note again the personal element) -- to conquer more territory was frustrated when his men mutinied at the Hyphasis river.[16] Perhaps more than just seventy days of marching endlessly through monsoon rains into more unknown territory was at the heart of the issue. After all, Curtius says (9.2.3) that King Aggrammes (sic) was reported to be waiting at the Delhi gap with a force which included 3,000 elephants. Curtius believed this was true, and we know that the Nanda kings of Magadha had a more powerful state than any of the ones Alexander tangled with so far. Thus, another battle loomed, one in which Alexander's men had no desire to participate, and they refused to follow him further. Alexander sulked in his tent like his Homeric hero Achilles for three days, but to no avail. His bluff was called and Coenus, representing the views of the men, prevailed. Alexander was forced to turn back, and by late September 326 he was once again at the Hydaspes. Coenus' defiance of Alexander earned him little in the way of reward as a few days after the Hyphasis mutiny he was found dead in suspicious circumstances (Arr. 6.2.1, Curt. 9.3.20). The coincidence is too much, and, as with others who flouted Alexander (see below), we can see the hand of a furious and spiteful king at work here.

Athough Alexander might try to disguise the lack of advance at the Hyphasis river as due to unfavourable omens (Arr. 5.3.6), no one would be unaware that the real reason was that the army en masse simply did not want to go further.[17] Again needless risk-taking followed: instead of retracing his steps he went for another route, through the Gedrosian desert.[18] Starvation, heat, little water, and flash flooding had their effects, and as the march continued the baggage animals had to be slaughtered for food (Arr. 6.25.2). Plutarch (Alexander 66.4-5) talks of the army reduced to a quarter of its original size; although this is over-exaggeration, there is no doubt that this march was a major logistical blunder on the part of Alexander, and that it unnecessarily cost many lives.

A few years later in 324 Alexander was faced with another mutiny, this time at Opis, not far from Babylon. At Opis Alexander announced that his veteran soldiers and those injured were to be discharged and that he had ordered new blood from Macedon.[19] For some reason the older soldiers saw Alexander's move as tantamount to a rejection of them and of their capabilities, and the remaining soldiers had no wish to remain and fight with Persians and Iranians. For the second time in his reign Alexander was hit with a mutiny, this time over his orientalising policy. Once again, Alexander sulked in his tent for two days, and then he called his men's bluff by announcing that Macedonian military commands and titles were to be transferred to selected Persians. His men capitulated at once, and the clash was resolved with the famous banquet, in which Macedonian, Greek, Persian and Iranian sipped from the same cup and Alexander prayed for homonoia or concord (Arr. 7.11.9).[20]

The term 'mutiny' for the army's resistance to Alexander on both occasions has lately been queried. For example, Bosworth has this to say on the Opis incident: 'This protest can hardly be dignified with the term mutiny that is universally applied to it. The troops confined themselves to verbal complaints, but they were contumacious and wounding.'[21] It is important to look beyond the immediate context of both 'protests' to their full implications. The degree to which the men mouthed insults at the king or criticised his behaviour and plans is irrelevant. The crucial point is that in both instances the army as a whole stood fast against the orders of Alexander. This was outright rebellion against the king and commander; refusal to obey the orders of a superior in this manner is mutiny. The 326 incident ended only when Alexander agreed to his army's demands to turn back. Although Alexander's bluff was successful at Opis, it was only when he cunningly played on the racial tensions that his men capitulated. Until that time they had stood fast against him, and there is no indication of a change of mood until Alexander adopted the strategy he did. The Macedonians might well have needed Alexander in the far east (cf. Arr. 6.12.1-3), but this did not stop them from defying him when they felt the situation demanded it. Both incidents were quite simply mutinies, and as such votes of no confidence in Alexander as a military commander and as a king.[22]

Alexander's generalship and actual military victories may be questioned in several key areas. For example, after the battle of Issus in 333 Darius fled towards Media, but Alexander pressed on to Egypt. He did not pursue Darius, as he surely ought to have done and thus consolidate his gains, especially when so far from home and with the mood of the locals so prone to fluctuation, but left him alone. He was more interested in what lay to the south: the riches of Babylon and then Susa, or as Arrian describes them (3.16.2) the 'prizes of the war'. However, a war can hardly be seen as won if the opposing king and commander remains at large and has the potential to regroup. Alexander's action was lucky for Darius, then, as he was able to regroup his forces and bring Alexander to battle again almost two years later, at Gaugamela (331). It was not lucky for Alexander, though, and especially so for those men on both sides who fell needlessly that day in yet another battle.

We have also the various sieges which Alexander undertook and which were often lengthy, costly, and questionable. A case in point is that of Tyre in 332 as Alexander made his way to Egypt after his victory at Issus. In Phoenicia Byblos and Sidon surrendered to Alexander, as did the island town (as it was then) of Tyre until the king expressed his personal desire to sacrifice in the main temple there. Quite rightly considering his demand sacrilegious, the Tyrians resisted him and Alexander, his ego affronted and refusing to back down, laid siege to the town.[23] The siege itself lasted several months, cost the king a fortune in money and manpower, and resulted in the slaughter of the male Tyrians and the selling of the Tyrian women and children into slavery. There is no question that control of Tyre was essential since Alexander could not afford a revolt of the Phoenician cities, given their traditional rivalries, as he pushed on to Egypt. Nor indeed, if we believe his speech at Arrian 2.17, could he allow Tyre independence with the Persian navy a threat and the Phoenician fleet the strongest contingent in it. However, there was no guarantee that the destruction of Tyre would result in the Phoencian fleet surrendering to him as he only seems to have expected it would (Arr. 2.17.3). Moreover, laying siege to Tyre was not necessary: he could simply have left a garrison, for example, on the mainland opposite the town to keep it in check. Another option, given that the Tyrians had originally surrendered to him, would have been the diplomatic one: to recognise the impiety of his demand in their eyes and thus relinquish it, thereby continuing on his way speedily and with their goodwill. Ultimately no real gain came from his siege except to Alexander on a purely personal level again: his damaged ego had been repaired; the cost in time, manpower and reputation mattered little.

Alexander's great military victories over his Persian and Indian foes which have so long occupied a place in popular folklore and been much admired throughout the centuries are very likely to have been embellished and nothing like the popular conceptions of them. A case in point is the battle of Issus in 333. Darius threw victory away at that battle and he was, to put it bluntly, a mediocre commander -- the battle might have been very different if Alexander had faced a more competent commander such as Memnon, for example. Alexander was lucky, but this does not come in the 'official' account we have of the battle, probably since he told Callisthenes, the court historian, what to write about it.

Luck again is the principal factor in Alexander's victory at Granicus the previous year (334). His river crossing is commendable, no doubt against that, but against an outnumbered and hastily-levied Persian contingent, and with no Great King present in order to exhort and to lead the troops in person, it comes as no surprise that the Macedonians and their superbly drilled phalanx were victorious. Similarly embellished, perhaps distorted out of all proportion even, is the 'great' battle against Porus in India at the Hydaspes river in 326.[24] Alexander effected a brilliant river crossing against his Indian foe, given the swelling of that river by the seasonal rains and melting of the snow in the Himalayas, but in reality the battle was over before it began. Porus was outnumbered and outclassed, and he and his army never stood a chance. However, we would never know this from our sources or indeed from the commemorative coinage which Alexander struck to mark his defeat of Porus, and which are pure propaganda to exaggerate that defeat.[25]

The king's own men would know. And word would filter through to the Macedonians back home. Alexander's growing orientalism, as seen in his apparent integration of foreigners into his administration and army, was a cause of great discontent as the traditional Macedonian warrior-king transformed himself into something akin to a sultan. He began to change his appearance, preferring a mixture of Persian and Macedonian clothing, despite the obvious displeasure of his troops (Arr. 7.8.2), and he had also assumed the upright tiara, the symbol of Persian kingship (Arr. 4.7.4). Some saw the writing on the wall and duly pandered to the king. Thus, Peucestas, the Macedonian satrap of Persis, was well rewarded by the king for adopting Persian dress and learning the Persian language (Arr. 6.30.2-3). However, he was the only Macedonian to do so according to Arrian.

Significant also was Alexander's attempt to adopt the Persian custom of proskynesis -- genuflection -- at his court in Bactra in 327, and his expectation that his men would follow suit.[26] Proskynesis was a social act which had long been practised by the Persians and involved prostrating oneself before the person of the king in an act of subservience, and thereby accepting his lordship. The custom however was regarded as tantamount to worship and thus sacrilegious to the Greeks -- worship of a god or a dead hero was one thing, but worship of a person while still alive quite another. Callisthenes thwarted Alexander's attempt (Arr. 4.10.5-12.1), something which the king never forgot and which would soon cost Callisthenes his life in sadistic circumstances (Arr. 4.14.1-3, Curt. 8.6.24).

Why Alexander tried to introduce proskynesis is unknown. Perhaps he was simply attempting to create a form of social protocol common to Macedonians, Greeks and Persians. However, he would have been well aware of the religious connotations associated with the act and hence its implications for his own being. It was plain stupidity on his part if he thought his men would embrace the custom with relish, and his action clearly shows that he had lost touch with his army and the religious beliefs on which he had been raised. Evidence for this may be seen in the motives for the Pages' Conspiracy, a serious attempt on Alexander's life, which occurred not long after Alexander tried to enforce proskynesis on all. A more likely explanation for the attempt to introduce proskynesis is that Alexander now thought of himself as divine (cf. Arr. 4.9.9, Curt. 8.5.5), and thus proskynesis was a logical means of recognising his divine status in public by all men (see below).

Indeed, Alexander's belief that he was divine impacts adversely on any evaluation of him. History is riddled with megalomaniacs who along the way suffered from divine pretensions, and the epithet 'Great' is not attached to them. Regardless of whether his father Philip II was worshipped as a god on his death,[27] Alexander seems not to have been content with merely following in his footsteps but to believe in his own divine status while alive.[28]

Alexander had visited the oracle of Zeus Ammon in the oasis at Siwah in the winter of 332, shortly after his entry into Egypt, and there he apparently received confirmation from the priests that he was a son of Zeus.[29] From that time onwards he openly called himself son of Zeus as opposed to descendant of Zeus. It is important to stress the distinction since he was technically a descendant of Zeus through Heracles. That sort of association the people would have accepted, but they baulked at Alexander at first setting himself up as a son of a god even though born from a mortal mother. Later, as his megalomania increased, he would believe he was divine while alive. Thus, during the Opis mutiny Arrian indicates that his men mocked their king's association with Zeus Ammon (Arr. 7.8.3). This took place in 324, so obviously over the intervening years the situation had grown from bad to worse, with little or nothing on the part of Alexander to pour oil on troubled waters.

If anything, Alexander ignored the displeasure of his men if his move to introduce proskynesis at his court in 327, as noted above, was meant to be a means of recognising his divinity. The setback here was soon forgotten as in 326 Alexander was again adamant about his divine status (Arr. 7.2.3). Moreover, Alexander did not restrict his superhuman status to the army with him; by 324 we know from our sources that the Greeks of the mainland were debating his deification,[30] and that there was widespread resistance to it.[31] Evidently his divine status was a serious source of contention amongst his people back home and those with him, yet Alexander ignored it -- hardly the mark of a great king, commander and statesman intent on maintaining the loyalty of his troops and indeed of his people.

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Footnotes

  1. Diod. 17.94.3 ff., Arr. 5.25.2 ff., Curt. 9.3.3-5.

  2. See now Philip O. Spann, 'Alexander at the Beas: Fox in a Lion's Skin', in Frances B. Titchener and Richard F. Moorton, Jr. (eds.), The Eye Expanded. Life an the Arts in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Berkeley 1999), 62-74, puts forward the highly unlikely view that Alexander himself encouraged the mutiny because he did not wish to proceed further into India yet had to save face amongst his men. He concludes (p. 69) that the mutiny was a 'perfect piece of public relations bunkum.' Coenus would not be alone in disagreeing with this view!

  3. On this march see A.B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great (Cambridge 1988) 139-146, citing sources and modern bibliography.

  4. Arr. 7.8.1-12.3, Diod. 17.109.2-3, Plut. Alexander 71-.2-9, Curt. 10.2.3 ff., Justin 12.11.

  5. On the incident see Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 159-161, citing sources and modern bibliography. See further below for this prayer being mistaken for part of a brotherhood of mankind 'policy'.

  6. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 160; on p. 133, Bosworth's treatment of the Hyphasis mutiny makes it sound like a mere dispute between management and union executive.

  7. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 160, goes on to talk of the Opis 'protest' as a challenge to Alexander's regal authority, yet continues to deny the term mutiny for it! It should be mentioned that Alexander was never faced with a large-scale desertion as had happened to his father following his defeat by Onomarchus at the Battle of Crocus Field in 352 (Diod. 16.35.2). However, Diodorus states specifically that military defeat not any pothos or orientalising policy had caused this desertion, and he goes on to imply that Philip soon rallied his men. Their loyalty to him stayed assured after this.

  8. Arr. 2.1 5 ff.; Curt. 4.3 ff.; Diod. 17.42 ff.

  9. On the battle see Bosworth, Conquest and Empire, 126-30, citing sources and bibliography.

  10. On this see in detail Bosworth, Alexander and India, 6-21.

  11. Arr. 4.10.5-7, Plut. Alexander 54.3-6, Curt. 8.5.9-12.

  12. E. Fredricksmeyer, 'On the Background of the Ruler Cult', Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honour of C.F. Edson, ed. H.J. Dell (Thessaloniki 1981) 145-56 (arguing for divine honours on Philip ), and E. Badian, 'The Deification of Alexander the Great, Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honour of C. F. Edson, ed. H.J. Dell (Thessaloniki 1981) 27-71 (arguing against).

  13. On this see further below, with E. Fredricksmeyer, 'Alexander and Philip: Emulation and Resentment', CJ 85 (1990) 300-15.
     

     

  14. Callisthenes, apud Strabo 17.1.43, Arr. 3.3-4, Plut. Alexander 27.8-10, cf. Diod. 17.51, Curt. 4.7.25, Justin 11.11.2-12. See P.A. Brunt's excellent discussion of this visit in the Loeb Classical Library Arrian Vol. 1 (London 1976), Appendix V, 467-80.

  15. Athenaeus 12.538b; cf. Hyp. 5.18-19, Diod. 18.8.7, Curt. 10.2.5-7, Justin 13.5.1-6. See E. Badian, 'The Deification of Alexander the Great', in Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of C. F. Edson, ed. H. J. Dell (Thessaloniki 1981) 27-71, G.L. Cawkwell, 'The Deification of Alexander the Great: A Note', in Ventures into Greek History. Essays in Honour of N.G.L. Hammond, ed. Ian Worthington (Oxford 1994) 293-306, and E. Badian, 'Alexander the Great Between Two Thrones and Heaven: Variations on an Old Theme', in Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity, ed. A. Small (Ann Arbor 1996) 11-26.

  16. Polybius 12. 12b3, [Plutarch] Moralia 219e, 804b, 842 and Aelian, VH 5. 12 show that the Greek states had attempted to resist Alexander's deification. Demades, who proposed Alexander's deification in Athens, was later fined ten talents.


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