Alexander the Great-Or the Terrible?

By Allen, Brooke | The Hudson Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Alexander the Great-Or the Terrible?


Allen, Brooke, The Hudson Review


Alexander of Macedon died more than 2300 years ago, but he is a subject of perennial fascination. This year alone has seen the publication of at least seven mainstream books about his life, based not on new material (barring the unlikely discovery of the conqueror's long-lost corpse, it seems dubious whether there ever can be much new material) but essentially rehashing and redigesting the old, familiar sources-Plutarch, Arrian, Quintus Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, et al. Alexander is also the subject of Oliver Stone's latest effort, a big-budget epic in the Cecil B. DeMille tradition.

Why the continuing obsession? It derives, I think, from the fact that posterity has never been able to decide whether Alexander was a good guy or a bad guy. As with Napoleon, his genius had both good and evil sides, and though he has gone down in history as "the Great," he might just as easily have been known as "the Terrible." In Asia, as a matter of fact, in the territories he conquered, he is frequently referred to as "the accursed one" or "two-horned Satan." Europeans have chosen to see him as "the best of the West," spreading the joys of Hellenic culture over a benighted part of the world (the former Persian Empire) enslaved by Oriental despotism. But to Asians he was a dispenser of death and destruction on a gigantic scale that the world would not see again until Genghis Khan.

Each succeeding era seems to re-create Alexander in its own image. To nineteenth-century Britain, itself a conquering power with an ostensibly civilizing mission, Alexander was a secular saint: this view was most notably expressed by the Victorian historian Sir William Tarn and was still the authorized version when Mary Renault wrote her extremely popular historical romances about the conqueror. Even Robin Lane Fox, writing as late as the 1970s, has told Alexander's story as one of inspirational heroism on the Homeric scale-very much as Alexander himself would have wanted it told, steeped as he was in the Iliad and determined to model his life on that of the glorious Achilles. The opposing view, disseminated by the German historian Ernst Badian and picked up by contemporary writers who have witnessed the disastrous legacy of Western imperialism in the Middle East, has emphasized Alexander's dark side. This interpretation sees him as a precursor of Hitler and Stalin, the inventor of political purges, show trials, and systematic genocide.

There is much truth in both views, though each is, on its own, a caricature: Alexander was no saint, though as the historian Frank Holt has complained, "The danger now . . . is that the new orthodoxy-a reprehensible Alexander beset by paranoia, megalomania, alcoholism, and violence-may gather a deleterious momentum of its own." Let's take Oliver Stone's film, in which Alexander is portrayed as a sensitive visionary whose dreams of a benign, multiracial empire are destroyed by his crass and earthbound companions. This version is so patently ridiculous that even the audiences in the 42nd Street Loews seemed to know better, snickering audibly whenever he embarked on his idealistic flights of fancy. Stone has claimed Robin Lane Fox as his historical mentor, but he takes his positive spin on Alexander even farther than Lane Fox, editing the tale so that every brutal act of Alexander's life-and there were very, very many-is omitted.

What about Alexander's wholesale destruction of Thebes, when he razed every house in the city (with the exception of the poet Pindar's), killed all the men and enslaved 30,000 women and children? Many historians have called this, not unreasonably, an atrocity. Not shown in the movie. What about his burning of the magnificent holy city of Persepolis, the symbolic heart of the Persian Empire? Whether this was done from policy or in a moment of drunken yahooism-both theories have been persuasively argued by historians-it was a dreadful act. Not shown in the movie. What about the murder of Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon? …

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