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Authors: Norman F. Cantor

Alexander the Great

BOOK: Alexander the Great
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Alexander the Great

Journey to
the End of the Earth

F. C

Dee Ranieri

To my students



The Greek World


Who Was Alexander?


The March of Conquest


The Last Years


How “Great” Was Alexander?

in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan have drawn our attention again to Alexander the Great. Three hundred years before Christ, this hero of antiquity led an army of Macedonians and Greeks on a route through the Middle East and Central Asia that intersected with the recent tactical deployment of the U.S. Army and Marines.

The first Western ruler to attempt a war of conquest in the Middle East and Central Asia, Alexander triumphed. But his army was no more comfortable than American forces have been in the difficult terrain and climate of Kabul, Baghdad, and surrounding territories.

In this book I have minimized the romance and fantasies associated with Alexander, trying instead to construct a critical and well-rounded assessment of the man and the world in which he lived.

The Greek World

, extending from the kingdom of Macedonia in the north down to the city-state of Sparta in the south, was a large peninsula or archipelago jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Much of its land was taken up by forests, mountains, and deep valleys—a topography that made unification of the Greek city-states difficult.

Up the coast from Sparta lay the rich and artistic city-state of Athens—distinguished by its Parthenon, navy, democracy, and opinionated orators—with the bustling port of Piraeus some ten miles to the southwest. Thebes and Corinth were other city-states, lying halfway between Macedonia and the well-disciplined but bellicose Sparta.

The two principal forms of Greek culture stemmed from two periods of Greek history. The first, which could be called the Heroic Age (about 1300 to 800 BC), was an era in which kings like Agamemnon and Menelaus ruled, and their successes and failures were recounted in a grand oral tradition of heroic poetry. These rulers held on to a so-called shame culture in which honor and dignity were exalted and in which the worst thing was to be disgraced, to be without honor.

Reflecting this societal norm, the ten-year Trojan War allegedly occurred because a Trojan prince stole Helen, Menelaus’s wife, and honor decreed that the king had to go to war to retrieve her. At the end of this period, around 800, in two epics,
The Iliad
The Odyssey
, Homer set down the oral traditions of the war, thus providing the written material for Alexander’s obsession with Achilles. Homer’s writings were a kind of light at the end of the tunnel of the Greek Dark Age. During this period there had been much jockeying for power among various peoples: the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Mycenaeans.

The years from about 800 to 500 BC are known as the Archaic Age. This was the period during which the city-state, or
, was formed and the cities of the peninsula split into separate governmental bodies. This was also a time of great colonization, of Sicily and southern Italy. In art the human form underwent a transformation from an earlier style, in which it had looked almost like a stick figure, to the realistic portrayal of the human form in all its beauty that characterizes Greek art of the Classical Age.

From 500 to 320 BC, Greek—or at least the Athenian—culture underwent a radical transformation. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, this was the period that gave the world “the glory that was Greece.” It saw the rise of Athens and the building of the Parthenon as well as the democratic ideals and government of Pericles; the drama of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides; and the philosophical schools of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This period also witnessed the development of the conflict between Persia and the Greek cities that finally ended with the rise of Alexander the Great.

For many years the city-states had fought one another over territory and commercial privileges in miserable, bloody wars. No one person had ever come along who was strong and ruthless enough to unite these natural enemies; thus there were only two exceptions to these dreadful—and futile—internecine conflicts. One was the period in the later fifth century BC when Athens and Sparta united during the Peloponnesian War against the menace of the Persian Empire coming over from Asia Minor. The alliance of Athens and Sparta defeated the Persians in the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. After the war had dragged on for almost ten years, the Greeks forced the battle by advancing full force toward the Persian army and surrounding it. The Persians had no alternative except to retreat to their ships, heading south toward Athens to launch a surprise attack on the defenseless city. As they retreated, however, it occurred to the Athenian general that the city of Athens itself was defenseless, its citizens unprepared for an attack. He ordered a soldier named Phidippides to run to Athens and bring them the news of the impending attack. Phidippides ran the distance of twenty-six miles in three hours (this was the birth of the marathon), delivered the message to the waiting city, and then promptly died from overexertion. In some versions of the story, Phidippides had already fought in the battle as well as having run to Sparta and back (about 280 miles in all) in the previous days—all his efforts culminating in his death from overexertion.

The only regular occasion on which the city-states were united was during the period of the Olympic games. At the games they discussed important political issues, celebrated common military victories, and even formed political and military alliances. Between about 700 BC and AD 400, every four years heralds were sent out from a small town near Mount Olympus declaring an Olympic truce, which lasted for the duration of the games and protected the athletes, visitors, spectators, and embassies from danger during the actual period of the competition. Most competitors were men and boys, but separate track events were held for unmarried girls (married women were strictly barred from the games). The men competed naked, their skin covered with olive oil. It was a highly competitive, heroic, largely masculine world. At the conclusion of the games, the city-states went back to fighting among themselves as usual for the next four years.


What was singular about Athens was its ribbons of colonies extending from the Black Sea to Asia Minor, to Sicily and the south coast of France. Settlers had gone out from Athens, settled these far-distant places, and sent tax money back to Athens. In return they were governed by officials sent by the Athenian government. Though the Athenians’ treatment of these colonies was harshly exploitative, the obvious power and strength of their navy kept most rebellion at a minimum.

In Athens itself at least a third of the population consisted of slaves. Some were domestic servants who were treated quite well; others did hard, forced labor in the mines or as oarsmen in multioared boats. (Some Athenian warships were rowed by as many as 170 slaves.) Athens was distinct in the ancient world because it was a democratic republic, though only about ten thousand adult males held the franchise, and the citizens engaged in noisy politics in a way very similar to the ones we associate with modern democracies.


Sparta, on the other hand, was a fearsome place run by oligarchic families who had experienced a disastrous near defeat by a group of rebellious subject people, the Messenians, and were so terrified by this brush with the obliteration of their society that they instituted what amounted to a military state. The defeated Messenians were made into helots, peasant serfs, forced to work the land under nightmarish conditions. They worked for the Spartan property owners, to whom they gave most of their produce, and were left only enough food for bare subsistence.

The male adolescents and young men in Sparta underwent many years of military training, causing them to regard themselves as very special, in a sense resembling the U.S. Marines of today. Sparta was a society almost totally focused on war. Male children were judged at birth as hardy or weak, the latter being exposed to the elements and allowed to die. Boys remained with their mothers until the age of seven, when they were required to enter military training in special barracks where they would remain until they were thirty. The training, austere at best, taught the boys how to endure deprivation and extreme pain. The Spartan male’s formal military training ended when he was twenty, but he remained a soldier and continued living a soldier’s life. Though encouraged to marry, he could not live with his wife, except for brief periods to ensure pregnancies, until he was thirty. His military duties—like his other duties and responsibilities to the Spartan state—then remained until he reached the age of sixty.

In this militaristic society, interestingly, Spartan women had more freedom than most women in the ancient world. They were free to come and go in the city, perhaps because their husbands were not living at home. Girls were given vigorous athletic training and were also imbued with the idea that their lives belonged to the state.

Because they incorporated austerity, denial, simplicity, and self-discipline into both private and civil life, the Spartans believed that they were the true Greeks. When other so-called civilized city-states declined in strength and vigor, the Spartans pointed to their own “Spartan” lifestyle, which was keeping their city strong. Spartans lived and died for their city.

The rest of the Greek world was very different—consisting by and large of mercenary, highly competitive, violent, slaveholding people. Upper-class Greek men were often bisexual, and with no social stigma attached to being openly homosexual, most of them took their pleasures from prostitutes or pubescent boys or both, treating their wives as mere breeding sows. Greek women had very little freedom, especially after marriage; they were usually veiled, as women generally are in Muslim countries today, and their freedom of movement was strictly curtailed.

An exception to the rule concerning freedom for women was the leading Greek woman poet, Sappho. Although she was married to a wealthy aristocrat, Sappho was able to live pretty much as she pleased. She chose to move to Lesbos, an island on which she lived with a group of young women and composed her lyric poetry (Lesbos, of course, is the source of the word “lesbian”). Because of some political intrigue in her family, she was forced into exile for a period of time, but eventually she came back.


In general the Greeks’ attitude toward their deities was extremely negative: Whoever did not propitiate the gods could expect punishment. Therefore most Greeks made strenuous efforts to satisfy and placate the gods—led by Zeus—in their polytheistic pantheon. Some were aware of the concept of dying and reborn savior gods, but at the time of Alexander’s birth in 356 BC, these were still local cults. For example, the worship of Mithras, originally the Persian god of light, was a minor cult in the Greek world. After 200 BC, however, in the culturally atomized environment of the Roman Empire—in which foreign religions were generally accepted as long as they did not interfere with the prescribed worship of the emperor—he became a major god.

A second minor cult that became more popular during the Roman Empire was that of Cybele. She was the goddess of nature and fertility, and her worship was conducted by eunuch priests who led the faithful in frenzied, bloody orgiastic rites. A third minor cult was that of Dionysus, whose worship was very meaningful to Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Meanwhile, the average Greek was more interested in warding off the potential mischief of the gods than in praying to, or maintaining a personal relationship with, any of them.


Around 450 BC, especially in Athens, there emerged two countervailing temperaments or cultural movements that were to have a distinct influence on the Western world until the present.

The first was that of Greek tragic dramatists, led mainly by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Their collective message was chastening to the Greek character, warning against arrogance and willfulness. In a series of plays presented each year at the festival of Dionysus, these competing playwrights attempted to teach the Greeks how terrible was the punishment for disobeying the gods. They harped particularly on the trait they called hubris, or a blatant elevation of human will over that of the gods. The tragic dramatists warned the Athenians against such arrogance: Whether it was by the anger of the gods or the hinge of fate, proud, heedless people would be cast down.

Prizes were given for the best plays, and all playwrights were in competition with one another. The subject matter of most plays originated in mythology, and much license could be taken with the story, because generally the audience was familiar with it. In most cases a chorus acted as the narrator, and the roles were played as types, the actors wearing masks that fit the types. The plays frequently dealt with human frailty and wickedness. Their protagonists were highborn citizens who suffered from one character failing or another—which Aristotle referred to as a “tragic flaw”—that proved to be their undoing. Sometimes even the gods entered into the fray and influenced the outcome one way or another. Generally, though, the hero had to prove himself better than most humans, thus representing the ideal of humanity. Because of its humanistic values, Greek drama would prove to be a lasting gift to the Western world.

A second countervailing temperament was inculcated by the philosophers Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Socrates taught Plato, who in turn taught Aristotle—and Aristotle taught Alexander. The philosophers’ teachings were slightly different, but they all taught that the human mind could and should be used to temper the Greek bent toward passion and to focus on reason as an alternative to violence.

Socrates never put any of his teachings into writing, leaving it to his pupils, most notably Plato, to immortalize his words—and he never had an official school, but rather spent his time walking around Athens, questioning and teaching the young (and anyone else who would listen) about religion and government. He wanted no one just to accept the opinions or beliefs of any other person, not even himself. His way of answering a question with a question, which forced the students to investigate
they believed what they thought they believed, or what was generally accepted information—the Socratic method—became the basis of an entire teaching mode that is practiced even today in many universities. “Know thyself” and “Nothing to excess” became catchphrases that he attempted to instill in his audience. He was forced to commit suicide after being found guilty of crimes against the state and the state religion, and of contributing to the delinquency of minors.

Plato, a follower of Socrates, was so disillusioned by Socrates’ death that he went into voluntary exile. When he returned to Athens in 387 BC he established his school, the Academy, in which emphasis was placed on the sciences and philosophy. He introduced the works of Pythagoras to Greece, and taught that mathematical learning must be used to attain philosophical truths. Plato’s
were a series of essays on various subjects, many of which attempted to justify and preserve for posterity the teachings of Socrates.

BOOK: Alexander the Great
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