Alexander the Great’s consolidation of an empire that stretched 22,000 miles from the Balkans to northern India some 300 years before Christ still resonates today, intersecting our cultural, geopolitical, military, historical, sexual and religious landscapes.
Indeed, the very fact that we call Jesus Christ “Jesus Christ,” a Greek name, is because of Alexander, whose conquest of the Persian Empire (334-331 B.C.) spread Greek culture, ushering in the Hellenistic age. Before Alexander, culture flowed east to west. After Alexander, it reversed its course, creating a tension that has lasted through America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – Alexander’s old stomping grounds.
But it’s not just on the battlefield that Alexander’s name is invoked as our soldiers tread in his footsteps. It’s also in the boardroom, as business leaders parse a management style that could be by turns ruthless and brutal or chivalric and enlightened.
And in the bedroom, where his presumed bisexuality is a sometime rallying point for gay rights.
Face it: It’s still Alex’s world in many ways. We’re just living in it.
He was bred for the power trip. His mother, the imperious, dynastic northern Greek princess Olympia (think Princess Diana crossed with Medea) believed that she had conceived him with Zeus, king of the gods. His real father, the shrewd, lusty Philip II of Macedon (think an ancient Henry VIII), scored victories on the battlefield and the racetrack the day he was born, probably July 20 or 22, 356 B.C. in Pella, the Macedonian capital. It was the same day the great temple of Artemis in Ephesus burned to the ground. Clearly, this was a child destined for greatness.
But first he would have to survive the harsh tutors and early military training that would one day enable him to fight with a punctured lung and cross a desert with no water. A stroke of luck: Among his tutors was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who recognized a keen mind if a passionate, unruly heart and taught him to think on his feet and always have Plan B.
Was it Aristotle who Alexander anticipated the day he tamed his great black steed Bucephalus – one of the few cinematic moments from his life that historians believe actually happened? Philip was ready to give up on the idea of buying the wild stallion, when his tween son noticed that the horse was just afraid of his shadow and, approaching carefully, turned his head so he couldn’t see it.
It was that combination of cool perception and bold action that enabled Alexander to withstand his parents, who viewed their son as a pawn in a power game that would be resolved only in death. When he was 20, Alexander’s father was assassinated and he inherited the kingdom of Macedon, the hegemony of the Greek city-states and the dream of Persian conquest.
Some 150 years before, the Persians had invaded Greece, burning the Acropolis and the Parthenon in Athens. But Alexander wasn’t interested merely in avenging the Greeks, although that was the motivation he laid out in his letters to the Persian emperor Darius III. Rather Alexander was moved by an ineffable longing for the ever-elusive horizon and a quest for the Homeric ideal of “arete,” or excellence, as embodied by his great ancestor, Achilles. So he flung his spear across the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) – which separated Europe from Asia, the past from the future – leading an army no bigger than the New York City Police Department, about 35,000 strong, to face a force of a quarter-million men. Hell of a gamble.
But then, as he told his troops, they had Alexander, a man who like Mozart or Einstein could see time in spatial terms and a battle laid out like a chess game.
At the River Granicus in what is now Turkey – site of the first of the four pitched battles he fought and won – he drew first blood and showed the Persians that he could be respectful to all of the fallen. At Issus, he engaged Darius for the first time, but he got away, leaving behind his family. In a mistaken attempt to ingratiate, the members began to pay homage to Hephaestion – Alexander’s best friend and, some historians think, lover – as he was the taller and handsomer of the two. Rather than take offense, Alexander laughed and bid them rise with the words, “He, too, is Alexander.”
Tyre wasn’t so lucky. He savaged the port (in what is now Lebanon) in a long, difficult siege that showed his single-mindedness and ingenuity in the use of a causeway. In Egypt, where he lay the seeds for Alexandria, he was proclaimed pharaoh; in Jerusalem, the fulfillment of a prophecy in the Book of Daniel; in Libya at the oracle of Siwa, the son of the god Amun.
And then came Oct. 1, 331 B.C. and the Battle of Gaugamela (in northern Iraq), where it all came together for Alexander – Aristotle’s teaching; Philip’s finely honed fighting force, the block-style phalanx wielding its long, pointed sarissas; and Alexander’s own charismatic leadership, in which he put his men first and shared their suffering. Though Darius would escape again, briefly, Alexander rode into the Las Vegas-style Babylon with another title – lord of Asia.
It wasn’t enough. After avenging Darius’ murder at the hands of his treacherous kinsman Bessus, Alexander pushed on through Central Asia – waging a long guerrilla war in Afghanistan and acquiring a chief wife in the process, the princess Roxane. In northern India, he defeated King Porus and his elephants at the Battle of the Hydaspes (326 B.C.). In all these campaigns, Alexander acted as an explorer and ecotourist, sending back plant and animal specimens to Aristotle. Using another Persian conqueror, Cyrus the Great, as his role model, Alexander could be kind and merciful, particularly to women and children. He punished rape, abhorred pedophilia, championed strong older women, retained local authority, respected the various religions and cultures he encountered and melded Greek, Macedonian and Persian influences.
Yet he was capable of stunning cruelty, murderously lashing out at Black Cleitus, the soldier who saved him at the Granicus, and burning the proud city of Persepolis to – take your pick – avenge the Persian invasion of Greece, fulfill a drunken promise to a courtesan or express his outrage at the mutilation of Greek prisoners.
Alexander began to exhibit the kind of imperial behavior that did not sit well with his highland countrymen. In any event, his soldiers had had enough and forced him to turn back. He in turn made them march through the searing Gedosian Desert (in Pakistan), where his legend was cemented. When his soldiers brought him what little water they found in a helmet, he held it high and poured it into the ground. If they couldn’t drink, neither would he.
It was one of his last bravura gestures. At Ecbatana (Hamadan in Iran) – site of the Persian treasury and summer palace – Hephaestion took ill and died. Alexander crucified his doctor and staged a funeral the likes of which the ancient world had never seen.
It might as well have been his own. Not long after, Alexander died in Babylon a month shy of his 33rd birthday on June 10 or 11, 323 B.C. Historians will tell you it was from old wounds, a broken heart, exhaustion, alcoholism, typhoid, West Nile virus or poisoning. But his symptoms seem most closely to align with cerebral malaria.
Should it surprise you that this restless spirit was hijacked on the way back to Greece by his general (and, some say, illegitimate half-brother) Ptolemy, who founded a dynasty in Egypt that lasted until Cleopatra? Since then, his golden sarcophagus, recreated in the movie “Cleopatra,” has disappeared. Some archaeologists believe it lies under a mosque in Alexandria; others, in Siwa. The only thing that’s clear is that finding the tomb would be a Holy Grail, touching off a firestorm. The Greeks – whose ancestors didn’t much care for Alexander or his rowdy Macedonians – claim him as their own. The Egyptians have said they’ll never give him up.
In death, he remains a divisive figure. Was he a monster (biographer Ian Worthington) or a universalist (biographer W.W. Tarn)? Perhaps the truth always lies somewhere in-between.
We’ll never be certain of his motives, beyond an Achillean glory that he surely has. Here’s what we do know:
He never lost a battle.
He always led from the front.
He lived the life he saw in his head.