Alexander the Great: Hunting for a New Past?

Paul Cartledge goes in search of the elusive personality of the world’s greatest hero.

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, representing Alexander the Great on his horse Bucephalus.

Once upon a time, in the public square of the ancient city of Corinth, Alexander – already king of the Macedonians, but not yet ‘the Great’ – encountered the notoriously unconventional Diogenes the Cynic. Before he could engage the sage in any sort of philosophic dialogue, however, Diogenes curtly told him to go away, as he was blocking out the sunlight. First blood to Diogenes. Alexander,  by no means unintelligent, was later questioned about the encounter, and is supposed to have responded: ‘Had I not been Alexander, I should have wished to be Diogenes’.

Ben trovato, no doubt, though Alexander (356 BC to 323 BC) could of course afford to say that. He was Alexander, after all. Or rather: before all, before all else, and before all others. For Alexander personally embodied to the utmost degree the Homeric injunction ‘always to be the best and excel all others’ (in the words of E.V. Rieu’s translation). Paradoxically, though, that is one of the very few things we can know for certain about Alexander the man (as opposed to Alexander the world-conqueror). For the evidence for his personal life and inner motivation is not at all extensive or reliable. Nor are the available sources for his public career much better. Perhaps borrowing a leaf out of his tutor Aristotle’s book, Alexander took unusual care to try to ensure that his deeds were reported and recorded. He also tried to make sure they were interpreted correctly among the various constituencies to which they were broadcast: Macedonians, Greeks, Persians, and the countless other subjects of his vast empire. Yet no contemporary narrative account of his career exists, and what is generally reckoned to be the most persuasive of those that do survive was written by Arrian, a Greek from Asia Minor, well over four centuries after Alexander’s premature death, aged thirty-two, at Babylon in 323 BC. This situation makes the search for the ‘real’ Alexander almost impossibly difficult.

For this reason, and because Alexander soon passed from the territory of factual history proper to the plane of myth and legend (thanks, not least, to his own self-propagandising efforts), the search for him has been likened to that for the historical Jesus. Much was written about both men, but practically nothing contemporary has survived, and very little indeed without a severely prejudiced axe to grind.

The risk, therefore, as well as the opportunity, is that we tend to create the Alexander of our dreams – or nightmares. There have been as many Alexanders as there have been students of Alexander.

My own version of him seeks to do some sort of justice to the many facets of this multi-talented individual. In my search for what made him ‘tick’, I draw, both literally and metaphorically, on the semantic field of the chase. Hunting wild game was not just an optional pastime in ancient Macedonia. It was integrated organically into the education and elevation of the aristocratic elite. It was therefore a relatively short step, I argue, for Alexander to go from  hunting for game to hunting for undying glory, and to aim to achieve that goal by trekking to the very ends of the earth and hunting down many thousands of human beings and wild animals en route.

Alexander’s mother Olympias (after whom a reconstructed trireme commissioned in 1987 into the Hellenic navy is named) was a Greek princess from Epirus, in the northwest of the Greek peninsula. Her marriage to the far-from-monogamous Philip of Macedon was reportedly a love-match, although in this marriage as in his other six Philip was no doubt fighting his wars by matrimony, as an ancient biographer put it: using marriage alliance as a diplomatic tool. Not the least of his wars, though, was fought within the tempestuous marriage to Olympias. In one of the more remarkable moves of their incessant marital combat, the hyper-religiose Olympias ventured to claim that Alexander had been fathered by a snake – not a reference to her human husband, but to the Egyptian god Ammon (Amun) in disguise. Whatever his true paternity, Alexander was born in 356 at the Macedonian capital, Pella, about the time of the Olympic Games at which one of his father’s racehorses carried off an olive crown.

Philip was not alone in finding the fiery Olympias difficult. Alexander once allegedly remarked that through her antics she made him pay a high rent for the nine months she had housed him in her womb. Indeed, he tried to distance himself so far from his natural mother that he had himself adopted symbolically by Queen Ada, the non-Greek ruler of Caria, the area around Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum in Turkey), and later formed a close, possibly even intimate, relationship with the mother of his defeated enemy, Great King Darius III of Persia. Yet it can be argued that, but for Olympias, Alexander would not have become king when he did: in 336 at the relatively early age of twenty, following Philip’s assassination during the wedding celebrations for his and Olympias’ other child, Cleopatra. And to Olympias, probably, is to be traced the streak of passionate mysticism that led Alexander to claim to be more than merely mortal, thanks to his supernatural birth as well as his superhuman achievements.

At a young age (perhaps even before his teens) Alexander is said to have singlehandedly tamed an unusually fiery and exorbitantly expensive Thessalian stallion called Bucephalas (‘Ox-Head’ – probably named for the shape of the white blaze on his muzzle). He rode Bucephalas both in war (for example, at the battle of Issus, 333 BC) and when indulging his insatiable passion for hunting wild animals in the rare intervals of rest between campaigning and marching.

Alexander was indeed almost inseparable from Bucephalas until the steed’s death in Pakistan at the ripe age of around thirty. The Roman emperor Caligula later made one of his horses a consul of Rome; Shakespeare’s Richard III would have given his kingdom for a horse; and Lt Col Rodolph de Salis of the Balaklava Light Brigade awarded a campaign medal to his charger Drummer Boy; but only Alexander founded a city in honour of his favourite mount and named it after him as a public memorial. The site of Bucephala has not, however, been identified.

Alexander was appointed regent of Macedon at the age of just sixteen, when father Philip was abroad on one of his many campaigns. The precocious Alexander seized – or created – the opportunity to wage war on a local non-Greek Thracian people and to establish a new city on the site of their former capital. That was not all. Philip had already founded two cities and named them after himself: Philippi (later celebrated for the Pauline epistle) and Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv in Bulgaria). Not to be outdone, Alexander named his new Thracian city after himself, Alexandroupolis – as it is  still called. What the masterful Philip thought of his son’s teenage presumption is not recorded.

In his formative years Alexander triumphantly passed two of the crucial tests of Macedonian manhood – hunting and killing a wild boar and a human enemy; ‘being a man’, in ancient Macedonia, had a more savage ring to it than the modern usage of the phrase might suggest. These feats of hunting prowess entitled Alexander to wear a distinctive kind of belt and to recline rather than sit during the symposia (drinking-parties) that were a prominent feature of Macedonian court life. In most of Greece the consumption of alcohol at symposia was normally quite carefully regulated. But Macedonians – at least so it seemed to Greeks – drank to get drunk. One recent historian (J.Maxwell O’Brien) has followed the lead of Alexander’s Greek critics  and given this a modern ‘scientific’ spin, claiming that Alexander  became a clinical alcoholic. This claim cannot be proven today, but there undoubtedly were episodes in which Alexander acted unfortunately when under the influence of alcohol – most disastrously in 328, at Samarkand in central Asia, when in a drunken fit he killed ‘Black’ Cleitus, a senior cavalry commander who had been a personal companion since boyhood. His own early death, too, may well have been precipitated by unwisely immoderate consumption of alcohol.

From the age of thirteen to about sixteen Alexander was tutored at Mieza, away from the royal court, by Aristotle, the greatest intellectual of his day. But who influenced whom most, it would be hard to decide. Perhaps it was something of a dialogue of the deaf. Aristotle wrote at length about kingship in his treatise entitled Politics, and had some interesting things to say about a figure whom he called ‘All-King’, so wise and beneficent that his commands should unquestioningly be obeyed to the letter. But that figure, clearly, was a theoretical construct rather than an allusion to the living and breathing Alexander. On the other hand, Alexander shared his teacher’s passion for Homer, treasuring a copy of the Iliad that Aristotle had personally annotated, and sending back botanical and other specimens from Asia to Aristotle’s Lyceum institute for advanced study in Athens.

Aristotle is also said to have advised Alexander to treat all non-Greeks as slavish ‘barbarians’, advice which Alexander – to his credit – conspicuously did not follow. Indeed, he married, polygamously, three ‘barbarians’ – the daughter of a Sogdian warlord and two Persian royal women – and encouraged his closest companions to take foreign wives too. No doubt, as with Philip’s marriages, these were predominantly motivated by realpolitik . It is notable that, unlike his father, Alexander married no Macedonian nor Greek woman. Moreover his marriages were designed to further a policy of orientalisation, the playing down of an exclusive Hellenism and the promotion of Graeco-oriental political and cultural mix.

The question of Alexander’s sexuality – his predominant sexual orientation – has enlivened, or bedevilled, much Alexander scholarship. That he loved at least two men there can be little doubt. The first was the Macedonian noble Hephaestion, another friend from boyhood, whom he looked on – and may actually have referred to – as his alter ego . The Persian queen mother, it was said, once mistook the taller Hephaestion for Alexander, who graciously excused her blushes by murmuring that ‘he too is Alexander’. Whether Alexander’s relationship with the slightly older Hephaestion was ever of the sort that once dared not speak its name is not certain, but it is likely enough that it was. At any rate, Macedonian and Greek mores would have favoured an actively sexual component rather than inhibiting or censoring it. Like hunting, pederasty was thought to foster masculine, especially martial, bravery.

The other non-female beloved of Alexander’s was named Bagoas. He was not just a ‘barbarian’ (Persian) but also a eunuch. There was a long Middle Eastern tradition of employing eunuchs as court officials, especially where a harem system was in place, as at the Achaemenid royal court (witness the Biblical book of Esther). Bagoas was not the first Persian court eunuch, either, to act as a power-broker between rival individuals and factions. A homonymous predecessor had done his murderous worst through the arts of poison, paving the way for Darius III’s immediate predecessor to assume the Persian throne. The methods of Alexander’s Bagoas were no less effective, if less violent, and Alexander’s personal commitment to him seems to have attained levels of sexual intimacy that his Greek and Macedonian courtiers found embarrassing.

Yet in terms of his known activity, as opposed to his possible preferred orientation, Alexander was undoubtedly bisexual. He fathered at least one child, with his Sogdian wife Roxane. But perhaps sex as such did not hold as much attraction for him as other passions did (the Greek word eros could cover other strong desires too). Arrian, at least, thought that fighting and conquering gave him the same sort of thrills and satisfactions as sex did other men. By the age of twenty-six (in 330 BC) Alexander had conquered most of the known ancient world – that is, east of the Adriatic and as far east as modern Pakistan.

As a conqueror, Alexander is in a stratospheric league with Napoleon, Genghis Khan and few others. A combination of boldness of strategic invention, unshakeable personal courage, dashing leadership from the front, willingness to share the toughest rigours suffered by the ordinary soldiers, and a liberal dose of sheer good fortune ensured his stature as a great general. He was as magnificently successful in coping with the grim necessities and improvisatory diversions of sieges (as at Tyre in 332) and guerrilla warfare as he was in executing theatrically staged set-piece pitched battles (the River Granicus in 334, Gaugamela in 331, and River Hydaspes in 326, as well as Issus). In terms of his prowess in military command he truly earned his title ‘the Great’.

Alexander made it clear from early on that he intended to go to the outermost edge of the inhabited world, to what he conceived to be the girdling Ocean. For him, as for his latterday fictional avatar James Bond, the world was not enough. But in 326 his mainly Macedonian troops, on reaching the river Hyphasis (modern Beas in Pakistan), declared ‘Not a step more!’, and in 324 at Opis (near modern Baghdad) they again rejected his plans for permanent conquest,  first of the Arabs and then, perhaps, the Carthaginians, and then ... who knows? Those two mutinies prompted the adage that the only defeats Alexander suffered were at the hands of his own men, most of whom were most of the time fanatically loyal.

This is not to say that Alexander did not experience opposition to his person, his status, or his inferred programmes and plans. On the contrary, his career as king opened in a flurry of accusation and counter-accusation (whole books have been written to exonerate him from the charge of patricide-regicide). And it continued as it had begun, punctuated at regular intervals by plots, real or alleged, followed by exemplary treason trials and executions, or even straightforward assassinations of perceived rivals and enemies. His drunken manslaughter of ‘Black’ Cleitus was occasioned by taunts of tyrannical rule and excessive orientalism. The judicial murder of the cavalry commander Philotas and the consequent assassination of the latter’s father Parmenion (Alexander’s – and Philip’s – premier general) were due more to concern for his personal authority and standing than to the need to extirpate genuine treachery. The execution of his official historian, the Greek Callisthenes (a younger relative of Aristotle), followed a highly controversial attempt by Alexander to have himself kowtowed to in public in the Persian manner, to which Callisthenes had led the – all-too-successful – Greek and Macedonian court opposition.

Not the least of the many extraordinary facts about Alexander is that both in his lifetime and after his death he was worshipped as a god, by Greeks and Macedonians as well as, for example, Egyptians (to whom he was Pharaoh). The episode that led to Callisthenes’ death in 327 was connected to this fact. Greeks and Macedonians believed that formal obeisance should be paid only to gods. So the refusal of his Greek and Macedonian courtiers to pay it to Alexander implied that they, at any rate, did not believe he genuinely was a living god, at least not in the same sense as Zeus or Dionysus were. Alexander, regardless, did nothing to discourage the view that he really was divine. His claim to divine birth, not merely divine descent, was part of a total self-promotional package, which included the striking of silver medallions in India depicting him with the attributes of Zeus. Through sheer force of personality and magnitude of achievement he won over large numbers of ordinary Greeks and Macedonians to share this view of himself, and to act on it by devoting shrines to his cult.

The divine worship of a living ruler was one of his few unambiguous legacies. Another is his fame. That his legend has spread so far and so wide – from Iceland to China – since his death in 323 BC is due very largely to the Alexander Romance. This fabulous fiction took shape in Egypt, mostly some three or more centuries after Alexander’s death. The text, originally in Greek, was disseminated in several languages, both Indo-European and Semitic, throughout the old Greco-Roman world and the newer Muslim-Arabic Middle East. Partly thanks to this work, Alexander became in various countries and times a hero, a quasi-holy man, a Christian saint, a new Achilles, a philosopher, a scientist, a prophet, and a visionary. He has featured prominently in both the secular and the sacred visual art of numerous cultures.

Through his conquests Alexander ended the Achaemenid Persian empire that had been founded by Cyrus the Great more than two hundred years previously, in the mid-sixth century. He created the conditions for the development of new Graeco-Macedonian territorial kingdoms based on Macedonia, Syria and, most famously, Egypt – the Pharaoh Cleopatra, who committed suicide in 30 BCfa, was the last ruler of the Egyptian dynasty established by Alexander’s boyhood companion and posthumous historian, Ptolemy son of Lagos (the Greek for ‘hare’). Alexander is thus one of the few individuals in history who literally changed the world and was epoch-making.

But his achievement was also  inchoate. Part of Alexander’s enduring fascination, indeed, is that he died at the age of just thirty-two, at the height of his power and glory, with the world at his feet, full of plans, alleged or genuine. The new empire he had created was unlikely to have proved very lasting in any event. But it crumbled all the sooner once his centripetal force was removed. Perhaps the brute imperialism that was involved in its creation is not something to be mourned, but Alexander’s apparently sincere notion of ethnic fusion, or at least co-operation, at the top of the administrative pyramid across cultural and political divides, is one surely to be  welcomed – and maybe even imitated.

Alexander the Great remains, for many, an iconic figure in everyday life, prayed to by Greek fishermen, hymned by Turkish storytellers, and anathematised by Zoroastrian followers. If the modern secular equivalent of ancient divinity is to be featured as a brilliantly glowing star of the silver screen, it is apt that at least one more Alexander movie is in active production as I write. And this is to say nothing of the number of books about him, including novels and how-to business primers as well as ideally more reliable histories ... The Alexander legend lives on. The hunt for a new Alexander is a vital part of living history today.

Paul Cartledge is Professor of Greek History in the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge. The Spartans by Paul Cartledge is published by Pan books priced £7.99. His new book,Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past will be published by Macmillan in August, £18.99.