Not long ago, somebody who didn’t know history very well, asked me the damnest question. We were talking about movies, in particular, historical sword and sandal epic movies. On the topic of Oliver Stone’s $150 million extravaganza Alexander, this person stated:
“He liked girls, he liked guys, he rode around and did stuff, but I just didn’t get what the big deal was about. Why was Alexander the Great . . . so great?”
Now, I don’t expect everybody to be experts with a detailed understanding of all the minutia of history, but I do expect everybody to have a basic grasp of History 101. I’m talking about the movers and shakers of our world, the figures that in one way or another shaped our civilization and affect our lives.
Jesus of Nazareth. Everybody knows him. That one’s easy. They know his life (and death) left a lasting impression on the world. We see his influence all around us. And I’m sure it will be a shocking revelation when I say this, but Alexander the Great left a greater impression on the world than even Jesus.
In fact, without Alexander, we may never have even heard of Jesus.
Let me explain that.
Alexander only occupied this world for 32 years, approximately the same amount of years the Jewish carpenter would live some three centuries later.
During his short life, nothing stopped him. And I mean, nothing. Huge armies with elephants, impregnable fortresses, vast distances, dizzying mountains, impossible rivers, uncrossable deserts, hunger, thirst, the sea itself, the uttermost extremes of physical hardship and war. His body was littered with scars, everywhere that is, except his back. That’s because history’s greatest commander never retreated, and he never lost a battle, not a single one.
Nothing on earth could control Alexander the Great.
After more than 2,300 years, his name still rings in memory, and such is his glow that his legendary exploits still exhaust superlatives. He was a human flame.
Here’s a short video from the film Alexander to get your juices flowing. The movie is the latest, bedazzled homage to the young man whose brief, meteoric life still astounds us. To give this a little context, Anthony Hopkins plays an elderly Ptolemy, childhood friend of Alexander and who later served as a young general in Alexander‘s conquest of the ancient world. When Alexander died, his empire was carved up and Ptolemy took possession of Egypt where he was crowned Pharaoh and ruled from the seaport city that Alexander established there. It was Ptolemy who founded the Great Library of Alexandria and if you watch the beginning of this clip, you’ll notice the world’s first lighthouse in the distance. (see my blog of October 20, 2011, THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD, for reference).
THE GREATEST LEGEND OF ALL . . . WAS REAL, the movie boasts.
For once, a movie’s tag line is true.
By the time Alexander was 25, he had consolidated all the city-states of Greece under his Macedonian banner and unified his nation. He had conquered the Persian empire, the largest on earth, comprising modern Turkey, Egypt, the Mideast, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of Central Asia and even China. He had won all the coastal cities of Asia Minor and modern Syria, Lebanon and Judea.
He was welcomed into the fabled city of Babylon as the undefeated master of the known world. When Darius, the fleeing King of the Persians was assassinated by his own few remaining soldiers, Alexander was outraged. “Only a King may kill another King!” he proclaimed, and then went off with his army in pursuit of those who had robbed him of his glory.
He stormed eastward.
He pushed into Central Asia, now part of the former Soviet Union, captured the assassins and had them executed, then rushed through Afghanistan, into what is now Pakistan where he won and married the princess-bride Roxanne.
But Alexander didn’t see limits.
He saw no borders, no fences, no walls. He was unbound.
Alexander marched all the way to the jungles of northern India and, on a night of squalls and thunderstorms, defeated the strange and exotic warriors there, whose forces included battle elephants.
At this point, his army, not he, was exhausted and implored him to finally return them home. Alexander and his men had been on the march for 22,000 miles. It had taken them a grueling, blood-soaked decade to expand his small Greek kingdom into a world dominating empire.
For the only time in his life, Alexander stopped and turned around. It may have been the death of him, because when they made it back to Babylon, he fell ill with fever and died a few days later.
He is everywhere today. He’s mentioned in early Christian texts, even in the Koran. His name still exists, most famously in his namesake, the city of Alexandria in Egypt, and even popularly in the way people still name their boys Alexander and their girls Alexandra.
In a historical context, Alexander was a tremendous human lightning-bolt that flashed across our planet. He was a visionary internationalist, bringing his democratic Greek culture and ideas everywhere he went.
Why was Alexander the Great so great?
Because no one, before him or since, has done what he did.
He seemed to dare the whole world to oppose him, to show him the limits of ambition, strength and courage. The world, as if dazed and dreamstruck, bowed down and yielded everything to him.
Alexander won the lottery, so to speak, just by being born. His father was King of the Macedonians and probably the most brilliant military commander in Greek history up to that point. Alexander learned how to wage battle from the best and then his innate strategic genius expanded it further. Under his leadership, the Macedonian army became the most ferocious fighting machine the world had ever seen.
Alexander also received the best education money could buy. He had several distinguished tutors, the most famous being the philosopher Aristotle, who was himself taught by Plato. Alexander was immersed in Homer’s Iliad. He slept with the book under his pillow and dreamed of the ancient glories of history’s most legendary war, the Battle of Troy. As he grew, he gradually came to see himself as a modern-day Achilles, who would someday invade Asia and perform deeds of valor.
Alexander’s reign began when his father was assassinated and the 20-year-old son took command of Macedon, its conquests, and its army. He immediately turned his thoughts to unifying Greece under one banner. When that was done, he turned his eyes to Greece’s ancient foe to the east, massive Persia, the world‘s superpower at the time.
In ages past, valiant warriors from Athens and Sparta had tried to defend Greece from incursions by the Persian forces, most famously at the Battle of Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, 300 Spartans delayed the enemy in one of the most famous last stands in history. They all died, but their sacrifice allowed Greece to survive.
Alexander was not content to wait for the next inevitable attack. With dreams of Achilles in his head, he readied his fleet and sailed for Asia Minor.
He would never return home.
Historians talk about Alexander’s furious desire. Most of his portraits, sculptures, and coins all reflect a kind of upward gaze as if he were staring into the very heavens, yearning for something unreachable.
His whole life became devoted to the struggle against insurmountable odds. Alexander was great because he surmounted them all.
After visiting the ruins of Troy, where he anointed the tomb of Achilles, Alexander and his men began an extraordinary 22,000 mile foot march, defeating the Persian army in key battles along the way. He spent seven months besieging the impregnable island-fortress of Tyre off the coast of modern Lebanon. Alexander built a huge jetty of rocks and mud out to the city, built mobile siege towers, overcame a hellish fire-ship the Tyrians launched to destroy his scaffolds, endured showers of kiln-heated sand that fell on his men like hot sparks. When he finally smashed down the walls, he dragged the Tyrian commander behind his chariot, as Achilles did Hector, until his skin, skull and spine were torn to pieces.
After the conquest of Tyre, Alexander made short work of Gaza and marched down into Egypt where he was welcomed as a liberator from the oppressive Persian rule. With his eagle glance, he saw the unrivalled advantage of the spot where he would build his Alexandria, a symbolic point of union between the two continents of Asia and Africa, held together by the culture of Greece.
It is here in Egypt, historically speaking, that Alexander became the influence we still feel today. Hero, warrior, king, holy man, Christian saint, the new Achilles, philosopher, scientist, prophet, and visionary. He undertook a strange journey across the great sand sea of the Sahara to an oasis on the border near modern Libya, where an ancient temple to Ammon existed. There, ancient priests proclaimed him a living god and he absorbed the experience like an epiphany. This event is generally regarded as the key to Alexander’s life, just as “Rosebud” is the answer to the riddle of Citizen Kane, the thing that nearly explains all things.
Later, after Alexander’s death, Ptolemy would have Alexander’s embalmed corpse entombed in the Great Library of Alexandria. For six centuries, kings and Roman emperors made pilgrimages to worship at his remains. His body was visible into the third century until the library was destroyed. What happened to Alexander after that remains a mystery.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in the graveyard scene, is just one illustration of the fact that Alexander has featured and continues to live in the art and literature of some 80 countries, stretching from Europe to Asia.
When he left Egypt, Alexander moved on relentlessly in pursuit of King Darius, suffering as his men suffered, and was successful in finally crushing the Persian empire. Persia, Afghanistan, India followed in his wake. Awe accompanies his eastward march and a wider world opens up and swims into his view. His passage still echoes today in Buddhist cave paintings in northwestern China and all the scattered cities he created and laid out like Greek ones.
When he finally stopped moving in the jungles of India, it was because his army’s vision was exhausted, not his own.
He was only 30 years old and had accomplished more than any warrior in history. Burning with vision and the desire for conquest, it must have shriveled him inside to stop moving forward. In anger, he brooded in his tent for days until reluctantly agreeing to his army.
He ceased his advance, turned his back to the unknown, and began returning to Persia. Perhaps as a last condemnation and punishment for lacking his vision, he marched his army through the horrible deserts of western Pakistan, where he lost more men to thirst than he had in any of his battles.
Once back in Babylon, Alexander succumbed to his own success. He ordered 3,000 of his men to take Persian brides and they did, in a mass-wedding that astonished both the participants and the onlookers. He declared he wanted to be bowed down to, in a kind of kneeling and head-lowering ceremony practiced at the Persian court. His oldest friends found this excessive, servile, un-Greek. He rarely ate, drank constantly, and was consumed by foul moods. Modern psychiatrists today might describe him as suffering “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Then, quite suddenly, Alexander contracted a fever and died.
Scholars have sifted through every symptom reported for Alexander’s final 10 days on earth, and generally agree he succumbed to malaria.
Alexander the Great, history’s greatest warrior, the man who conquered all the known world and never lost a battle, was slain by a mosquito.
On his deathbed, he left his empire “to the strongest.”
But none of his leaders were foolish enough to believe they could rule the world. Only Alexander had the strength to believe that. They carved his empire into pieces and Alexander’s body was brought back to Alexandria in Egypt by his loyal general, Ptolemy. Ptolemy is less remembered today than his famous descendant, Cleopatra, the last ruler of Egypt. He was the greater influence, but she had the glamour of seducing Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Such are the cross-currents of history.
No such problems exist for Alexander. His world empire fractured away, but his linguistic and cultural impact on history is still echoing through the ages.
By bringing Greek ideals to the Mideast and Egypt, it became the dominate civilization and established the foundation of western society. He built the cultural highway by which Christianity spread. The oldest published version of the Old Testament was done by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria. The country where Christianity was spreading fastest was Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) from where the four Gospels were preached far and wide, in Greek, thanks to Alexander‘s conquests.
In a strange way, the teachings of Jesus Christ, the prophet who predicted the meek shall inherit the earth, came to us thanks to Alexander’s bloody conquests and his limitless worldly ambition.
Alexander paved the way for Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
This is the bare-boned outline of Alexander’s life, but even if provided with a volume of tomes, it would be impossible to sum him up. It’s not really possible. He was a once-in-history phenomenon.
Why was Alexander the Great so great?
Our culture descends from Rome, and Rome was influenced by Greece. Had Alexander not done what he did, it is entirely probable that Persians rather than Greeks would have dictated Western thought. Everyone reading this can thank him. We’ve probably done about fifty things today we take for granted, but wouldn’t have been possible, had Alexander not existed. We ourselves may have never existed.
Why was he great?
Until his premature death, he held in his hands a power that no man, before or since, has ever known.
He gave the ancient world universal peace and brotherhood.
Only Alexander united the known world under one banner.