Alexander: The Great.
By David Trumbull
By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2006
Plutarch in writing his lives and the companion comparisons of the lives, seems to have
a checklist. It might look something like this:
Some of Plutarch's lives are remarkably deficient in one or two of these points. Intemperance, particularly with regard to improperly ordered affection toward money, sex, or celebrity destroyed several of the men, notoriously the profligate Alcibiades and the miserely Aristides. Lack of education limited the usefulness of his native talents and was, at the last, the undoing of Marius. Plutarch specifically charges that had Crassus gotten a better education he might have been better equipped to shake off the avariciousness that so marred his character. But even the dissolute and unsucessful Antony fits five of the seven points, at lest in part
When we turn to Alexander we see all seven of signs of greatness.
Initiative. Philip, king of Macedon, left to his son Alexander a kingdom he had expanded by conquering surrounding states. And Alexander's mother Olympias was princess of another northern Greek kingdom. But it was Alexander who made Macedonia famous in his own day and for millenia to come. When, upon the death of his father, he ascended to the throne he was merely 20 years old. Furthermore, he had to win the throne away from rival claimants.
Ambition. Before he died, Philip auspiciously said to Alexander, "O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee." Even as a teenager Alexander entertained ambassadors from Persia in his father's absence, impressing them with his intelligence and purpose. At age 16 he was given his first military command, at the battle of Chaeronea, 338 B.C. Plutarch writes of Alexander's successful management of this battle near Plutarch's hometown:
While Philip went on his expedition against the Byzantines, he left Alexander, then sixteen years old, his lieutenant in Macedonia, committing the charge of his seal to him; who, not to sit idle, reduced the rebellious Maedi, and having taken their chief town by storm, drove out the barbarous inhabitants, and planting a colony of several nations in their room, called the place after his own name, Alexandropolis. At the battle of Chaeronea, which his father fought against the Grecians, he is said to have been the first man that charged the Thebans' sacred band. And even in my remembrance, there stood an old oak near the river Cephisus, which people called Alexander's oak, because his tent was pitched under it. And not far off are to be seen the graves of the Macedonians who fell in that battle. This early bravery made Philip so fond of him, that nothing pleased him more than to hear his subjects call himself their general and Alexander their king.
Edcuation. Education recurs as a theme in Plutarch's Lives. Interestingly, Plutarch does not rank birth (that is one parents), wealth, or location (coming from a famous city) nearly as highly as he places education when it comes to character formation. When Plutarch writes of Caius Marius, one of Rome's greatest military leaders and an inspiration for Julius Caesar, he tells us that Marius, for all his incomparable actions in battle, ultimately wrecked himself and ended his years in cruelty and vindictiveness because his passions had never been tamed by a liberal education.
Of Alexander's education what can we say, but that he had the finest available anywhere in the world in his time, or most any time. His teacher was Aristotle, perhaps the widest ranging thinker in human history.
Alexander was, Plutarch tells us, "naturally a great lover of all kinds of learning and reading." When campaigning Alexander slept with a dagger and copy of Homer's Iliad under his pillow. He said that with these two close by he was prepared for come what may. Alexander was also a devoted reader of the great dramatists of the Hellenic world –Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus– and other Greek authors.
Emulation. From his reading, Alexander must have felt he had actually come to know his models, Hercules, Achilles, and Cyrus the Great. That final choice is striking. After all, it was Alexander's defeat of a later Persian king that marks him as the first world (as opposed to local territorial) conqueror. The habits of the mind, developed in Alexander by his tutors and his reading, prepared him to seek the best models wherever they may be found. And he found that model in a foreigner –a barbarian. To be sure, when the Greeks said "barbarian" they merely meant "non-Greek."
Picture Alexander, hot, tired, sweaty, from lightning-swift conquests in Persia. He first rewards his faithful men with portions of the booty. He next looks to his newly acquired Persian subjects and begins to take on the locally expected duties of the king. But then his thoughts bend to his model, Cyrus. He makes a pilgrimage to the tomb of Cyrus the Great who died in 529 B.C., two centuries before the birth of Alexander. Finding the tomb had been vandalized he executes the Macedonian who defiled the tomb of the Great barbarian King. He has the monument painstakingly rebuilt (by his best Architect Aristobulos) and watched over by the local satrap and the proper religious authorities, the magi and priests who were to perform perpetual sacrifices for Cyrus. (Life of Alexander, 69.)
Before battle, Alexander would invoke the memory of the legendary deeds of the demi-god Hercules. Alexander claimed that he descended from Hercules. He lived in an age when such claims were the ticket to fame, not the nut house. Perhaps he really believed it. We do know that he had silver coins struck depicting Alexander as Hercules. Now that's audacity of spirit that goes deep to one's bedrock belief system.
Finally, Alexander looked to the Greek hero Achilles, as celebrated in Homer's epic poem. From Achilles Alexander learned to conquer fear, embrace danger, disregard death, and seek the immortality of fame and conquest. He also learned a lesson in friendship and partnership. (Life of Alexander, 15.)
However, envy, which ever tries to tear down a great man, attacked Alexander. At the battle of Guagamela, Alexander was ill-served by his lieutenant Parmenio who, out of envy of Alexander, held back from fighting as vigorously as he might and even hindered Alexander's own advance against Darius. (Life of Alexander, 33.) Later, Alexander's man Philotas, unable to manage the envy of others, became suspect in another's plot against the life of Alexander; Alexander, believing the false accusations had Philotas and his father Parmenio (one of Alexander's oldest friends) put to death. (Life of Alexander, 49.) Plutarch, even generous in his assesment of the great men whose lives he records, forgives these missteps as aberations. He judges Alexander on the whole of his life and on the scope of his accomplishments.
Vision. The grand scope of Alexander's achievement speaks for itself. But we might inquire as to how he managed to instill in his men that same passion for conquest and distinction . Well, Alexander shared his men's hardship and thus earned their loyalty:
...in eleven days he marched thirty-three hundred furlongs, harassed his soldiers so that most of them were ready to give it up, chiefly for want of water. While they were in this distress, it happened that some Macedonians who had fetched water in skins upon their mules from a river they had found out, came about noon to the place where Alexander was, and seeing him almost choked with thirst, presently filled a helmet and offered it him. He asked them to whom they were carrying the water; they told him to their children, adding, that if his life were but saved, it was no matter for them, they should be able well enough to repair that loss, though they all perished. Then he took the helmet into his hands, and looking round about, when he saw all those who were near him stretching their heads out and looking, earnestly after the drink, he returned it again with thanks without tasting a drop of it, "For," said he, "if I alone should drink, the rest will be out of heart." The soldiers no sooner took notice of his temperance and magnanimity upon this occasion, but they one and all cried out to him to lead them forward boldly, and began whipping on their horses. For whilst they had such a king, they said they defied both weariness and thirst, and looked upon themselves to be little less than immortal.
He also looked always to the future. The schools that he established in conquered territories diffused Greek thought through the ancient world and left a legacy of a Hellenistic world that even we are heirs to. (Life of Alexander, 47.)
Character. Plutarch believed that true greatness required virtuous character. Low, mean, unfaithful, or immoral men will, over time, wreck their own accomplishments. Of his conduct toward to women Plutarch remarks that "Alexander, esteeming it more kingly to govern himself than to conquer his enemies," sought no intimacy with any of the female captives. He was also, Plutarch reports, generally temperate with regard to food and drink. That's why it so shocks us to read that one evening at a dinner where both Alexander and Clitus drank too much wine Clitus, in his speech, abused Alexander, and Alexander, in a fit of anger Alexander slew Clitus, one of his closest friends. He immediately repented him of this impetuous act. (Life of Alexander, 51.) Plutarch observes that the only blemish on Alexander's record in military actions is his slaughter of certain defeated and surrended enemy in India. (Life of Alexander, 59.)
Sacrifice. Plutarch also believed that true judgment can be passed on a life only when we know the whole of the life, including the manner of death. Alexander died not gloriously in battle, but at age 33 in a remote part of the ancient East of a fever. However, his death was note-worthy, for he was, in the opinion of many of his followers, the son of God. His life marks a transition from one age to another, the Hellenistic age, of which the modern West is a direct descendent. He had human failings as we have noted. Nevertheless is was, and is, inevitably, styled The Great.
Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Alexander the Great.