Ancient History & Civilisation

CHAPTER XXII

Alexander

I. THE SOUL OF A CONQUEROR

THE intellectual career of Aristotle, after he left his royal pupil, paralleled the military career of Alexander; both lives were expressions of conquest and synthesis. Perhaps it was the philosopher who instilled into the mind of the youth that ardor for unity which gave some grandeur to Alexander’s victories; more probably that resolve descended to him from his father’s ambitions, and was fused into a passion by his maternal blood. If we would understand Alexander we must always remember that he bore in his veins the drunken vigor of Philip and the barbaric intensity of Olympias. Furthermore, Olympias claimed descent from Achilles. Therefore the Iliad had a special fascination for Alexander; when he crossed the Hellespont he was, in his interpretation, retracing the steps of Achilles; when he conquered Hither Asia he was completing the work that his ancestor had begun at Troy. Through all his campaigns he carried with him a copy of the Iliad annotated by Aristotle; often he placed it under his pillow at night beside his dagger, as if to symbolize the instrument and the goal.

Leonidas, an austere Molossian, trained the boy’s body, Lysimachus taught him letters, Aristotle tried to form his mind. Philip was anxious that Alexander should study philosophy, “so that,” he said, “you may not do a great many things of the sort that I am sorry to have done.”1 To some extent Aristotle made a Hellene of him; through all his life Alexander admired Greek literature, and envied Greek civilization. To two Greeks sitting with him at the wild banquet at which he slew Cleitus he said, “Do you not feel like demigods among savages when you are sitting in company with these Macedonians?”2

Physically, Alexander was an ideal youth. He was good in every sport: a swift runner, a dashing horseman, a brilliant fencer, a practiced bowman, a fearless hunter. His friends wished him to enter the foot races at Olympia; he answered that he would be willing, if his opponents were kings. When all others had failed to tame the giant horse Bucephalus, Alexander succeeded; seeing which, says Plutarch, Philip acclaimed him with prophetic words: “My son, Macedonia is too small for you; seek out a larger empire, worthier of you.”3 Even on the march his wild energy found vent in shooting arrows at passing objects, or in alighting from, and remounting, his chariot at full speed. When a campaign lagged he would go hunting and, unaided and on foot, face any animal in combat; once, after an encounter with a lion, he was pleased to hear it said that he had fought as though it had been a duel to decide which of the two should be king.4 He liked hard work and dangerous enterprises, and could not bear to rest. He laughed at some of his generals, who had so many servants that they themselves could find nothing to do. “I wonder,” he told them, “that you with your experience do not know that those who work sleep more soundly than those for whom other people work. Have you yet to learn that the greatest need after our victories is to avoid the vices and the weaknesses of those whom we have conquered?”5 He grudged the time given to sleep, and said that “sleep and the act of generation chiefly made him sensible that he was mortal.”6 He was abstemious in eating, and, until his last years, in drinking, though he loved to linger with his friends over a goblet of wine. He despised rich foods, and refused the famous chefs who were offered him, saying that a night march gave him a good appetite for breakfast, and a light breakfast gave him an appetite for dinner.7 Perhaps in consequence of these habits his complexion was remarkably clear, and his body and breath, says Plutarch, “were so fragrant as to perfume the clothes that he wore.”8 Discounting the flattery of those who painted or carved or engraved his likeness, we know from his contemporaries that he was handsome beyond all precedents for a king, with expressive features, soft blue eyes, and luxuriant auburn hair. He helped to introduce into Europe the custom of shaving the beard, on the ground that whiskers offered too ready a handle for an enemy to grasp.8a In this little item, perhaps, lay his greatest influence upon history.

Mentally he was an ardent student, who was too soon consumed with responsibilities to reach maturity of mind. Like so many men of action, he mourned that he could not be also a thinker. “He had,” says Plutarch, “a violent thirst and passion for learning, which increased as time went on. . . . He was a lover of all kinds of reading and knowledge,” and it was his delight, after a day of marching or fighting, to sit up half the night conversing with scholars and scientists. “For my part,” he wrote to Aristotle, “I had rather surpass others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion.”9 Possibly at Aristotle’s suggestion he sent a commission to explore the sources of the Nile, and he gave funds generously for a variety of scientific inquiries. Whether a longer life would have brought him to Caesar’s clear intelligence, or the subtle understanding of Napoleon, is to be doubted. Royalty found him at twenty, after which warfare and administration absorbed him; in consequence he remained uneducated to the end. He could talk brilliantly, but fell into a hundred errors when he wandered from politics and war. With all his campaigns he seems never to have gained such acquaintance with geography as the science of his time could have given him. He rose at times above the narrowness of dogma, but remained to the last a slave to superstition. He put great confidence in the soothsayers and astrologers that crowded his court; before the battle of Arbela he spent the night performing magic ceremonies with the magician Aristander, and offered sacrifices to the god Fear; he who faced all men and beasts with a very ecstasy of courage was “easily alarmed by portents and prodigies,” even to changing important plans.10 He could lead many thousands of men, could conquer and rule millions, but he could not control his own temper. He never learned to recognize his own faults or limitations, but allowed his judgment to be soaked and drowned in praise. He lived in a frenzy of excitement and glory, and so loved war that his mind never knew an hour of peace.

His moral character hovered between similar contradictions. He was at bottom sentimental and emotional, and had, we are told, “melting eyes”; he was moved sometimes beside himself by poetry and music; he played the harp with great feeling in his early youth. Teased about this by Philip, he abandoned the instrument, and thereafter, as if to overcome himself, refused to listen to any but martial airs.11 Sexually he was almost virtuous, not so much on principle as by preoccupation. His incessant activity, his long marches and frequent battles, his complex plans and administrative burdens, used up his resources, and left him little appetite for love. He took many wives, but as a sacrifice to statesmanship; he was gallant to ladies, but preferred the company of his generals. When his aides brought a beautiful woman to his tent late at night he asked her, “Why at this time?” “I had to wait,” she replied, “to get my husband to bed.” Alexander dismissed her, and rebuked his servants, saying that because of them he had narrowly escaped becoming an adulterer.12 He had many of the qualities of a homosexual, and loved Hephaestion to madness; but when Theodorus of Taras offered to sell him two boys of great beauty he sent the Tarentine packing, and begged his friends to tell him what baseness of soul he had shown that anyone should make such a proposal to him.13 He gave to friendship the tenderness and solicitude that most men give to love. No statesman known to us, much less any general, ever surpassed him in simple trustfulness and warmheartedness, in open sincerity of affection and purpose, or in generosity even to acquaintances and enemies.14 Plutarch remarks “upon what slight occasions he would write letters to serve friends.” He endeared himself to his soldiers by his kindliness; he risked their lives, but not heedlessly; and he seemed to feel all their wounds. As Caesai for gave Brutus and Cicero, and Napoleon Fouche and Talleyrand, so Alexander forgave Harpalus, the treasurer who had absconded with his funds and had returned to beg forgiveness; the young conqueror reappointed him treasurer to all men’s astonishment, and apparently with good results.15 At Tarsus, in 333, Alexander being ill, his physician Philip offered him a purgative drink. At that moment a letter was brought to the King from Parmenio, warning him that Philip had been bribed by Darius to poison him. Alexander handed the letter to Philip, and as the latter read it, Alexander drank the draught—with no ill effect. His reputation for generosity helped him in his wars; many of the enemy allowed themselves to be taken prisoner, and cities, not fearing to be sacked, opened their gates at his coming.—Nevertheless, the Molossian tigress was in him, and it was his bitter fate to be ruined by his occasional paroxysms of cruelty. Having taken Gaza by siege and assault, and infuriated by its long resistance, Alexander caused the feet of Batis, its heroic commandant, to be bored, and brazen rings passed through them; then, intoxicated with memories of Achilles, he dragged the now dead Persian, tied by cords to the royal chariot, at full speed around the city.16 His increasing resort to drink as a means of quieting his nerves led him more and more frequently, in his last years, to outbreaks of blind ferocity, followed by brooding fits of violent remorse.

One quality in him dominated all the rest—ambition. As a youth he had fretted over Philip’s victories: “Father,” he complained to his friends, “will get everything done before we are ready, and will leave me and you no chance of doing anything great and important.”17 In his passion for achievement he assumed every task, and faced every risk. At Chaeronea he was the first man to charge the Theban Sacred Band; at the Granicus he indulged to the full what he called his “eagerness for encountering danger.”18 This, too, became an uncontrollable passion; the sound and sight of battle intoxicated him; he forgot then his duties as a general, and plunged ahead into the thickest of the fight; time and again his soldiers, fearful of losing him, had to plead with him to go to the rear. He was not a great general; he was a brave soldier whose obstinate perseverance marched on, with boyish heedlessness of impossibilities, to unprecedented victories. He supplied the inspiration; probably his generals, who were able men, contributed organization, training, tactics, and strategy. He led his troops by the brilliance of his imagination, the fire of his unstudied oratory, the readiness and sincerity with which he shared their hardships and griefs. Without question he was a good administrator: he ruled with kindness and firmness the wide domain which his arms had won; he was loyal to the agreements which he signed with commanders and cities; and he tolerated no oppression of his subjects by his appointees. Amid all the excitement and chaos of his campaigns he kept clearly at the center of his thoughts the great purpose that even his death would not defeat: the unification of all the eastern Mediterranean world into one cultural whole, dominated and elevated by the expanding civilization of Greece.

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