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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.

In a traditional society a position in government (as one of my teachers used to say) is like a pretentious hat: It acknowledges the existing power of its holder, but gives him little power to govern that he does not already possess by virtue of his own private resources. The strategy of Alexander and his successors was to entwine Macedonian authority around existing local power like a clinging vine, depending on it and taking nourishment from it while Macedonian power was new and weak. When the Macedonians had lived long in the east and gathered their own power—not least by founding colonies of far-from-home Greeks and Macedonians in their domains—the vine of their rule might finally strangle the supporting tree of native power and stand, ghostly, on
its own.

If the power to govern was the property of individuals rather than of the offices that adorned them, it followed that hostile power was held by individuals as well. If great inimical personalities could be destroyed, broader resistance to the new rulers would collapse. Alexander had an easier time defeating the Great King of Persia, Darius, in battle, than he did pursuing him, after his defeat, through Persia and over the high Caspian Gates. After the fugitive monarch was murdered on the verge of capture, Alexander chased his murderer—Bessus, who had proclaimed himself Great King in turn—over the mighty Hindu Kush from Kandahar to Kabul and on into the plains of central Asia, north towards Samarkand. Once Bessus was finally captured (and flogged, and mutilated, and handed over to the family of Darius to be finished off), Alexander fought a counterinsurgency campaign, which historians regard as the hardest of his wars, in Sogdiana—the plain north of today’s Afghanistan, now split between several former Soviet republics. This came to an end (in one version) when his opponent Spitamenes, a local dynast and sometime ally of Bessus, was finally murdered by his own wife, with whom he had made the error (fatal to a resistance leader) of being in love.

Whatever the hardships of his four-year chase over some of the cruelest landscape in the world, Alexander knew that enemy chiefs had to be hunted down, for the power to oppose him lay in men—not in states, not in peoples. Nor have things changed very much in the realms Alexander conquered: The much-mocked deck of playing cards adorned with the faces of Iraq’s fugitive Baathist leaders, intended to aid Americans in Iraq in identifying and arresting them, in fact represented a good rough-and-ready understanding of the realities of power in Iraq. And similarly sound in principle is the use of guileful drones to kill individual Taliban leaders in Pakistan. This tactic may fail for lack of political will or good targeting data, but it is based on perfectly valid ethnographical assumptions about the structure of power among our enemies in that part of the world.

The ancients paid a curious tribute to the troubles of Alexander’s Afghan campaign, for it was about his adventures in that region that later men spun fantastic legends: Here it was that Alexander met with giants, and centaurs, and headless men, and three-eyed lions, and fleas as big as frogs, and fish that cooked themselves in a bucket. This was the land where the Alexander of story learned the limits of what is allowed to man, where he gave up his yearning to descend to the bottom of the sea in a glass jar, and despaired to reach the heavens in a bag pulled by great white birds of carrion.

“Turn back, wretch! Turn back!” cried other birds with human heads and an eerie command of Greek. “Turn back, O mortal, and tread upon the land that has been given you!” And so Alexander turned back from the Isles of the Blessed (as we all must) and returned to the realms of our own troubles, the realms that the Macedonians conquered so quickly and ruled so subtly, in times so long ago.

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.