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Why Alexander really was great.

Sep 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 02 • By J.E. LENDON
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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.