Thursday, February 16, 2012

Alexander the Not-So-Great

Few figures have straddled the region between fact and fantasy as securely as Alexander the Great.  This simple Macedonian lad created an army that conquered most of the known world, leaving behind a legacy that is equal parts truth and myth.  Alexander was a cornerstone figure of the classical Greek period, an era that has had an incredible impact on our contemporary world.

But who was Alexander?  And can we measure him by contemporary standards?  These are questions asked by the late Norman F. Cantor (1929-2004) in his book Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth.  This was Professor Cantor’s last book (Dee Ranieri is also credited on the title page), and it is not a biography in the commonly-accepted sense of the word.  Rather, Alexander reads more like a series of informal talks with a man deeply committed to researching and understanding the ancient world.

Cantor provides a great deal of color to the world of ancient Greek city-states and the kind of life lived there.  He also offers keen insight into Alexander’s family, including his cold and calculating father, and his mother, who was the center of a cult of snake worshippers.  (Needless to say, the distant past is often quite colorful.)

Cantor wisely positions Alexander as a figure of a pagan, pre-Christian world.  As such, it is nearly impossible for us to know him through the prism of our contemporary lives – the people of his era were physically like us, but otherwise may as well have been from Mars.  How can we fully understand a man who, because of omens and other talismans, could believe that he was the son of Zeus?  How can we judge a man who was as much an adventurer/explorer as conqueror when today most of the remotest parts of the world are open to anyone with a credit card?

Cantor walks us through Alexander’s long-term love affair with fellow-soldier Hephaestion and his devotion to the Persian eunuch Bogoas, and maps his brilliant military victories in Afghanistan (even then a graveyard for soldiers), Pakistan, and India.  He tells us of his alcoholism, his heroism, his education under Aristotle and his ability to inspire men.  Because of the conversational tone of the book, one gathers a more familiar, accessible idea of Alexander than might otherwise have been available through a more conventional biography.

However, the real treat of the book comes at the end – where Cantor asks “How ‘Great’ Was Alexander?” – a chapter that puts his personal triumphs and demons, his military coups and administrative failures, into some sort of perspective.  Cantor writes, Alexander emphasized the attributes of courage and strength.  Under the laws of war he leveled cities and sold their inhabitants into slavery.  He was merciless, even to those he cared for.  He risked the dismay of his Companions, and when, in a drunken stupor, he killed one of his best friends, his act ultimately led to an assassination attempt against him … The Athenian tragedians warned against arrogance, and Plato and Aristotle sought the refinements of reason.  But these qualifications to the spirit of paganism did not seem to affect Alexander, although Aristotle had been his tutor in his early years.  He sought glory on the battlefield, stole the Persian emperor’s treasury, and disported himself like a Homeric hero, all without conscience.  In his lifetime he caused the deaths of half a million of his enemies’ soldiers, and accepted without equanimity the loss of at least 25,000 of his own battle-hardened soldiers.

The grief, misery and death that Alexander left in his wake are a little hard to reconcile with our vision of a warrior-hero.  Like many books that cover figures as diverse of Charlemagne, Richard the Lionhearted and Napoleon Bonaparte, we ourselves feel sullied after reading about Alexander when we remember that most of the “great” men of history were professional murderers blood simple on dreams of conquest or religious “liberation.”  Kudos to all historians, novelists and artists who ask the key question of all of our Great Men – what was the cost?


david thompson said...

Well, as William Morris said, 'history remembers kings and emperors because they destroyed, art remembers the people because they created'

James Abbott said...

Many, many thanks for bringing to mind that vital distinction!

Marjorie Savill Linthwaite said...

I disagree with all of the above as I am a direct descendant of Alexander the Great and for the record he was truly great.