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Why Alexander really was great.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By J.E. LENDON
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‘Entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon’ by Johann Georg Patzer (1704-1761)

‘Entry of Alexander the Great into Babylon’ by Johann Georg Patzer (1704-1761)

World History Archive / Newscom

Four years ago, at the climax of fashionable handwringing about the war in Iraq, there was rushed into print a crabbed and cranky book entitled Alexander the Great Failure, a volume whose author portrayed the conqueror as the Donald Rumsfeld of the ancient world. Too arrogant and feckless to care about the rule or the future of the titanic empire he had won by the spear, this NPR Alexander died leaving his conquests both ungoverned and ungovernable. The pointed parallel seems rather quaint now that the progress of our arms has rendered most of Iraq safer than Duluth, and the United States has nearly brought to a quiet end one of the most successful anti-insurgency campaigns in the history of the world.

Yet even that angry author’s indictment of Alexander the Great by recounting the wars fought between his successors could not conceal the fact that those successors were Macedonian—that for centuries Macedonians of Greek speech and culture ruled most of the realm Alexander conquered from what is now western Turkey to what is now Pakistan. The Macedonian achievement in establishing long-term, stable rule over bloodied and alien extents—even over districts through which Alexander himself merely galloped, and where few Macedonians were left behind to sniff the ozone of his thunderbolt—is one of the abiding marvels of history.

To Alexander’s conquests and their legacy, Philip Freeman’s new Alexander the Great is a more useful guide. Born of the author’s own wonder at the achievements of the greatest soldier in the history of the West, Freeman’s book has, unlike Alexander the Great Failure, no tedious political agenda. Clear, concise, stripped-down, and in prose with little unnecessary ornament, it does not soar and wheel like Robin Lane Fox’s immortal Alexander the Great, perhaps the best-written book on ancient history since Gibbon, but neither does it creep and grovel and seek ticks in its tail like Alexander the Great Failure. In his choice of anecdote—a historian of Alexander must decide how many of the countless stories told about Alexander to believe and recount—Freeman uses a sieve neither so generous as to try the reader’s credulity nor so stingy as to deny the reader the story’s joy.

The part of Freeman’s tale of particular interest at this hour is Alexander’s 329-327 b.c. conquest of Afghanistan, a tract of his empire which by the 250s had evolved into an independent Macedonian kingdom extending north to the Aral Sea, and whose kings subjugated much of northern India early in the next century. This so-called Greco-Bactrian Kingdom survived until the late 100s b.c., the origins of its rulers regularly marked on their handsome coins by their confident Macedonian sun-hats. Alexander and his successors were perhaps the last people in history to establish an untroubled dominion over this tragic territory, and in the Thousand Cities of Bactria a Hellenic civilization rooted, budded, and flowered, and when winter finally came, left things of beauty to mark its passing. Even now, when one sees an unprovenanced “Greek” sculpture in the window of an antiquities dealer, it is likely to come from one of the successive sacks of Kabul’s National Museum in the 1990s. And one hardly knows whether to thrash the dealer or shake his hand: for much that was too heavy to be carted away into the illicit antiquities trade was destroyed by fanatical sledgehammers in 2001, when the Taliban belatedly decided that Muslim hostility to icons extended to classical statuary.

How did Alexander control the regions he conquered? He understood naturally what Americans have learned in Iraq and Afghanistan: that in a traditional society power lies in the hands of individuals rather than institutions, and so can far more easily be found already in existence than created anew. As he marched east into strange territories, Alexander did all he could to keep the existing local authorities in place. Many a proud satrap of Persia—if he surrendered his province to the Macedonian with alacrity enough—emerged from a single brief interview with his conqueror a satrap still, but serving a new master. And so the satrap, perhaps with a Greek or Macedonian left to look over his shoulder, continued to rule as he always had, as a local magnate who happened to be satrap, putting his great personal power in the service of government, since the office of satrap had little power of its own. Some of these men proved monsters to their subjects, and others—not surprisingly—traitors to Alexander: Those Alexander was obliged to depose. But that risk had to be taken, because appointing as ruler a person without locally rooted power would usually mean that he had no power at all.