The Search for Alexander

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Do the times make the man, or does the man make the times? This question is the major one to be faced in a “search for Alexander.” The question is as old, perhaps, as the legends surrounding Alexander, who had all of, part of, or none of the following attributes: son of a god, supreme tactician and besieger, murderer of friend and of foe, avenger of the Greeks, successor to and heir of Darius III as ruler of the largest empire of antiquity. It is the problem of dealing with antiquity which impels Robin Lane Fox to state repeatedly: “Alexander is the subject of a search, not a certain narrative... .”

Lane Fox begins his work with a summary of the place Alexander holds in history and legend. Most certainly, whatever the Macedonian king’s other claims may have been, his story holds the record for transmission throughout the world, from China to Iceland, as the most “cosmopolitan tale in world history to have spread without a religious message.”

The tale, itself, has often been shaped to fit the needs of the tellers. In the Hindu Kush regions of ancient India, the area where Alexander reached his easternmost penetration, contemporary tribal leaders trace their ancestry to Alexander and the invading Greeks. When Alexander burned Persepolis as part of his sweep through the Persian empire, he burned the holy books of the prophet Zoroaster; hence Alexander is the “force of evil” cited by the Zoroastrians. Such an explanation is a fabrication according to Lane Fox, for “the priests had then been illiterate,” but Alexander provided a convenient post hoc rationalization for a lack of early writings by the prophet.

Just as the historian must sift through the stories and histories and artifacts which came after Alexander in the “search,” so must the time before Alexander be scrutinized for facts and legends.

Socrates once said to his friends: “We sit like frogs around a frog-pond.” Such a comment seems at first glance to belittle the accomplishments of the Greeks of the time, Greeks who had ventured to the east to serve powerful Persian kings, had sailed north on the Black Sea, and had traveled west on the Mediterranean to Spain. Thus, although the “frog-pond” may have been largely limited to the Mediterranean, the “frogs” had produced artistic ideas and political solutions which still fascinate and awe our greatly expanded “frog-ponds” of today. Although the Greeks of Socrates’ time knew nothing of the Jews and Jerusalem and little of northwest India, they still had “the liveliest culture in the world,” a culture which had already produced drama and the theater, athletics, and democracy.

The city-states of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes developed sporting games, with the results based upon athletic prowess, not military strength, and political expedience based upon “conflict and a widened social self-confidence.” The city-states had a long and glorious history well before Alexander became a political-military force. In fact, it was the city-states which first felt the extended power of the Persians through invasions led by Darius I and Xerxes I, whose forces captured Athens and burned the Acropolis about 480 B.C. Ironically, that destruction was to provide a rallying cry and justification for Alexander’s invasion of Asia, for he said he sought to avenge the barbarian atrocities upon the glories of Greece.

Certainly the Athenians were willing to be avenged, but another irony of history is that when the Acropolis was burned, Macedonia—Alexander’s power base—was not considered part of the civilized Greek world, only a loose federation of tribes far to the north. As the city-states consolidated power and treaties and cultured refinements, they became less powerful militarily. They could and did raise troops when necessary, but military excursions were no longer the prime activity of most of the cities by the middle of the third century B.C. In addition, although there was a feeling of common culture, there was no Greek nationalism in the contemporary sense. This guarded, laissez-faire approach actually allowed the rise of King Philip II of Macedonia to a position of power.

In regard to Philip, Alexander’s father, the answer to the question about the man and the times is more easily answered. Certainly he was a powerful ruler, a shrewd politician, and a brilliant creator of military power. In fact, he was “the greatest builder of a kingdom and army in the ancient world.” In twenty years he doubled the size of Macedonia and made the former upstart kingdom the “protector” of all Greece. Philip required the sons of leading men to be sent to Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia, for their education. Thus, he began the inculcation of his viewpoints early in the lives of future leaders, and he also acquired handy hostages should any of the fathers of the young men decide to revolt against Macedonia. Yet, for all his power and cunning, Philip was a product of his times, whose “early rise owed most to historical coincidence, the fatigue and preoccupation of almost every neighbor.”

In 336 B.C., Philip was murdered, and Alexander became king, although not without the usual struggle within the group of potential successors. Alexander, himself, never doubted his right to rule and to conquer. From childhood he had kept a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow each night. He wanted to be...

(The entire section is 2228 words.)