This book has tried to show what we can say with confidence about Alexander and his world, on the basis of evidence from his own time. Often this has meant challenging commonly held ideas about how he acted, why he did what he did, and even questioning whether he did do some of things attributed to him. But if long-held ideas about Alexander are unreliable or wrong, where did they come from in the first place? In this last chapter we will look at Alexander’s afterlife, and how some of the images of Alexander that are prominent in popular imagination came into existence.
Roman Alexanders: Julius Caesar and others
In 45 BCE the Roman Senate voted to put up in the Temple of Quirinus in Rome a statue of Julius Caesar, with the title Deus Invictus (‘The invincible god’). Caesar, who was to be assassinated the following year, at this point held the position of dictator, with what amounted to absolute political power in Rome. The title Deus Invictus (Greek Theos Aniketos) was identical to that the Athenians had given to the statue of Alexander they voted in 324, ironically also the year before his death. It is unlikely that the choice of title was coincidence. At the time that the statue was voted on, the leading politician (and part-time philosopher) Cicero was attempting to compose a letter of advice to Caesar on how to rule, in deliberate imitation of a letter supposedly written to Alexander by his former tutor, Aristotle. In the end Cicero abandoned the idea, noting in a letter to his friend Atticus that ‘even Aristotle’s pupil, whose temperament and self-control were of the best, became proud, cruel and intemperate once he was addressed as king’. It suited the moralists of the Roman republic, which had an ideology of opposition to monarchy, to see Alexander’s taking of Darius’ throne as the beginning of a decline into tyranny.
Parallels between Julius Caesar and Alexander, the two greatest military figures of their ages, were readily drawn. Plutarch’s Life of Alexander is paired with his Life of Julius Caesar, and several writers tell a story of how Caesar, in Spain, before his career had taken off, saw a statue of Alexander and wept at how little he had achieved by the age at which Alexander had died. He was not the only Roman to see Alexander as a potential model. His older contemporary and rival Pompey, who had annexed the territories of the eastern Mediterranean, which had formerly been part of Alexander’s empire, for Rome, adopted the cognomen Magnus, ‘the Great’, and modelled the hairstyle of his portrait statues on that of Alexander. So Alexander could provide a model for ambitious individuals. The man who commissioned the Alexander Mosaic in Pompeii (see Figure 1 in the Introduction) around the time of Pompey’s birth presumably also saw Alexander as a figure worthy of being depicted in the more public area of his home. The implication might be that visitors would associate Alexander’s virtues with his own.On 15 February 44, at the festival of the Lupercalia, Caesar’s lieutenant Mark Antony offered a diadem to him, which Caesar declined. It was suspected by some contemporaries that Caesar had arranged the event as a way of claiming the title of king, as if by popular demand; others interpreted his action, placing the diadem on a throne next to him, as making a claim for worship as a god, since gods were regularly represented in Romanprocessions by attributes carried on thrones. It is probable that these two interpretations could have been held together. Kingship, in this period, was considered a characteristic of the Persian and Hellenistic east, and Romans were under the impression that in that part of the world, kings were worshipped as gods. Whatever precisely happened, this diadem incident has been seen as a trigger for Caesar’s assassination exactly a month later by men claiming to be defending the republic. It was in the years after this assassination that the earliest of our surviving narratives of Alexander’s life, Book 17 of Diodorus’ Library of History, was written, and memories of Caesar’s life and death must have influenced the way he and his readers will have interpreted the life of Alexander. It will also have influenced Diodorus’ contemporary, Pompeius Trogus, whose history survives now in an epitome, an abbreviated version made around 300 years later by Justin.
Julius Caesar had come to power during the period of political chaos and civil war which led to the collapse of the Roman republic. His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, brought an end to the wars and, while claiming to be restoring rule to the senate and people of Rome, established himself as the first Roman emperor. For Augustus and his successors, the question of how to reconcile the need for a single leader with the Roman tradition of republican rule was an on-going concern, and this is an underlying theme in the stories we find in the narratives of Tacitus and Suetonius, who were writing at about the same time as Plutarch and Arrian, and of Cassius Dio, writing in the early 3rd century CE. Some emperors are portrayed as less successful than others, in particular Caligula, who became emperor in 37 CE. Caligula is said to have taken Alexander the Great’s breastplate to wear when, like Julius Caesar and Augustus before him, he visited Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria. He is also said to have required Roman senators to prostrate themselves in front of him, offering them his toe to kiss instead of his hand. Curtius’ generally negative depiction of Alexander may have been influenced in part by memories and representations of Caligula: Curtius was writing either in the reign of Caligula’s successor Claudius, or under Vespasian a few decades later.
By the time Plutarch and Arrian were writing, under the successful emperors Trajan (98–117) and Hadrian (117–38), it was accepted that the Roman Empire was an autocracy. Alexander came to be presented as a model of correct kingship: these writers emphasized his wisdom and self-control while warning of the potential dangers of adopting the habits of eastern rulers. Both emperors led armies across the Euphrates into Mesopotamia, following in the footsteps of Alexander, so it was appropriate for contemporary writers to present him as both a symbol of military success and a warning about the dangers of luxury and excess.
The Alexander that has come down to us in the ancient historical narratives grew under particular circumstances. He is the creation of Roman authors (even if several of them wrote in Greek), writing for a Roman audience. Roman concerns, about how to be a ruler, and how to live as a subject under an autocracy, which are central themes in Roman histories of Rome, are equally present in histories of Alexander the Great, as is a suspicion and hostility of their eastern neighbours. In more recent times these concerns have sometimes arisen again: the period of dictatorship in Europe in the second quarter of the 20th century, and the rebirth of the idea of the ‘clash of civilizations’ in the wake of 9/11 have both had their impact on Alexander studies, as the prejudices of the Romans have seemed to pre-echo the politics of the 20th and 21st centuries.
If we want to know about Alexander today, it is to the Alexander historians of the Roman period that we turn for our information. However, for most of the period between Alexander’s death and the present there was another tradition of stories that was much more prominent. In his Monk’s TaleChaucer gives a brief account of Alexander’s career and comments that:
The storie of Alisaundre is so commune
That every wight that hath discrecioun
Hath herd somwhat or al of his fortune.
The story that the Monk is referring to is known as the Alexander Romance, an account of Alexander’s life that had its origins in Egypt in the 3rd century BCE, and was developed over the following centuries, translated into numerous languages, until versions of it were known from Iceland to India.
The earliest version of the Alexander Romance that we can read comes from the 3rd century CE. It tells the story of Alexander’s life, with fanciful elements that became even more exaggerated in later versions. Alexander is said to be the son of the last Egyptian pharaoh, Nectanebo, who is also a magician, and who comes to Philip’s court and seduces Olympias by disguising himself as the god Ammon in the form of a serpent. Nectanebo acts as Alexander’s first tutor, but Alexander kills him when he reveals himself to be his father. In later Persian tradition, as recorded in theShahnameh, or Book of Kings, written around 1000 CE, Alexander has become Sekandar, supposedly son of Philip, but actually the son of Darab, king of Persia, and therefore half-brother of his opponent Dara (Darius III). These alternative filiations tie Alexander more firmly to the kingdoms he comes to rule. Other elements of his early life are made more fantastical: for example in the Romance his favourite horse, Bucephalas, is depicted as not just untameable by anyone but Alexander, but also as a man-eater. Another story tells of the young Alexander going in disguise to spy out the court of the Persian king before he begins his campaign. In versions of the story told after the Arab conquests of the 7th century CE, Alexander is said to have gone in disguise to the royal court of Islamic Andalusia, where the queen immediately sees through his disguise.
Many of the events recorded in the more sober accounts of Alexander’s career are also described in the Romance, although not in the same order. In particular Alexander’s siege of Tyre is described with considerable detail. Later versions of the Romance include more miraculous tales: Alexander is taken up into the sky in a chariot drawn by griffons, and goes down to the depths of the sea in a glass diving bell; he visits paradise and has his own death foretold. Over time the story told in the Romance tells more and more about Alexander’s search for wisdom, and in the versions written down in medieval western Europe Alexander becomes a symbol of chivalry and goodness.
It is through this Romance tradition that Alexander, under the name o Megalexandros, continued to be known in Greece through centuries when knowledge of classical history and mythology was lost. An early modern Greek version of the Romance, the Phyllada, orBook of Alexander the Great, was published in Venice in 1670, and remained in circulation continuously from then onwards. Alexander also became, uniquely among figures from classical antiquity, a character in a number of Karagiozis shadow-puppet plays. This form of popular entertainment grew out of an Ottoman Turkish tradition, developing its Greek character through the 19th century, and reaching the peak of its popularity in the first half of the 20th. O Megalexandros appeared in several plays, most notably in ‘Alexander the Great and the Cursed Snake’, in which, in keeping with the development of his character into that of a brave warrior righting wrongs, he kills a dragon which is terrorizing a kingdom: he has become a version of St George.
The presence of Alexander in Greek popular culture in the role of a largely Christianized warrior hero may be part of the explanation for the strength of the reaction in modern Greece to the deployment of the image of Alexander. This has been a particular issue in the relationship between Greece and the (former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia, where the decision in 2006 to name the airport at Skopje after Alexander the Great, and to erect a huge equestrian statue of him on the site, led to protests from the Greek government.
Alexander, the Enlightenment, and empire
The chivalrous Alexander of the Romance suited the medieval world, and the courts of the absolutist monarchs like Louis XIV and Catherine the Great. New Alexanders emerged in the Age of the Enlightenment, the period from the late 17th until the early 19th century. Initially in France, but then in Scotland and England, and eventually Germany and elsewhere, philosophes and historians brought a more critical approach to the study of ancient history and of Alexander the Great in particular. New editions and translations were made of the Greek and Latin Alexander historians, and their reliability was held up to scrutiny. At the same time Alexander was reconsidered as model ruler. Some writers chose to stress his negative characteristics, his cruelty, and, not least, his persecution of scholars like the court historian Callisthenes. But this was a period of European expansion overseas, and for others Alexander’s campaigns were seen as bringing the benefits of a lively and progressive European civilization to the slothful and unchanging east. For such writers there was effectively no difference between the empire of Darius III and the Ottoman Empire of their own time. The most positive assessments of Alexander can be found in a number of essays by Voltaire and in the treatise on The Spirit of the Laws by the Baron de Montesquieu: they suggest that Alexander’s greatest achievement was to open up the east to trade and commerce, through his city-foundations, and the naval voyages he organized.
For writers in England and Scotland, the loss of Britain’s American colonies in the War of Independence was the impetus for renewed study of ancient Greek history. In 1786 the Scottish historian John Gillies published a two-volume History of Ancient Greece, its Colonies and Conquests. Dedicated to the king, George III, it was written in reaction to the events in America with the explicit intent of demonstrating the dangers of democracy or republicanism and the superiority of constitutional monarchy. Two years earlier the English Conservative MP William Mitford had published the first volume of his eight-volume History of Greece. By the time he published his last volume, the French Revolution had taken place, offering an even clearer lesson about the dangers of the unrestrained rule of the people. For Gillies and Mitford democratic Athens, defeated in the 5th century by monarchic Sparta and in the 4th by the Macedonians under king Philip, represented all that was wrong with democracy, and in contrast the career of Alexander was the best example of what monarchy could achieve. For Gillies, Alexander was ‘this extraordinary man, whose genius might have changed and improved the state of the ancient world’.
Alexander’s ‘civilizing mission’ was a theme that was used to justify British involvement in India, which after the loss of the American territories became the main focus for colonial expansion. Following the example of earlier French writers, advocates of imperialism depicted the British as Alexander’s heirs, bringing European energy and civilization to Asia, sunk in lethargy. But Alexander’s legacy could be claimed by others too. Sir Alexander Burnes, who was British political agent in Kabul before he was assassinated in 1841, shortly before the British forces were driven out of Kabul and destroyed at the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839–42), travelled widely in central Asia in the 1830s. He took with him texts of the Alexander historians, and went in search of the sites they mentioned. But he also noted that in parts of the region Alexander was considered an Islamic prophet, and mentions in his memoirs the (unprompted) claim of a local ruler to be a direct descendant of Alexander. These ideas of Alexander would probably have come through the Romance tradition as transmitted in Persian texts.
Hero or villain
Perhaps the most influential study of Alexander to emerge from this period was that of the German historian Johann Gustav Droysen, whose Geschichte Alexanders des Grossen (History of Alexander the Great—a work never translated into English) was published in 1833. Droysen studied in Berlin, and was influenced by the philosopher Hegel and the geographer Alexander von Humboldt. Enlightenment scholars in Germany identified their country closely with ancient Greece, not least because both were made up of a large number of small states surrounded by larger kingdoms. Droysen supported the cause of German unification, and his Alexander was also a unifier, not only of the warring Greek city-states, but of the whole of western Asia. For him the period that followed Alexander’s death, until then seen as a time of decline in the Greek world, was actually one of triumph, as Greek culture sprang up in the territories through which his army had passed. What is more, Droysen suggested, Alexander’s welcoming of men from many cultures into his court encouraged them to think about what they shared, including the idea of a single god: and therefore, perhaps, he paved the way for Christianity.
Alexander’s contribution to civilization was depicted less positively by George Grote, a friend of the political philosopher John Stuart Mill and a radical MP, in his very popular 12-volume History of Greece. For Grote, Alexander represented all that was worst about autocracy and imperialism:
As far as we can venture to anticipate what would have been Alexander’s future, we can see nothing in prospect except years of ever-repeated aggression and conquest, not to be concluded until he had traversed and subjugated all the inhabited globe … Now, how such an empire thus boundless and heterogeneous, such as no prince has ever realized, could be administered with any advantage to subjects—it would be difficult to show.
The terms of the modern debate about Alexander were set in the Enlightenment. Historians still try to decide whether he was a romantic hero or a bloodthirsty tyrant, and whether or not his campaigns brought more good than harm. This is because, to a great extent, the arguments are based on the same limited collection of texts—the Alexander historians we considered at the start of this chapter. It is not my intention, at the end of this Very Short Introduction, to offer my own judgement on Alexander or his legacy. The surviving narratives can be interpreted to support a variety of assessments. It has been my aim, however, to show that these narratives are not necessarily reliable enough for us to use them to draw any clear conclusion at all. Material from Alexander’s own time, in the form of the Greek and Egyptian inscriptions, the speeches of Athenian politicians, and the diaries of Babylonian scholar-priests, as we have seen, can offer some limited alternative perspective. Before asking, ‘What should we think of Alexander the Great?’, we should perhaps ask, ‘What did his contemporaries think of Alexander the Great?’. That question has not yet been convincingly answered, but this book has been a start in that direction.