What modern God-fearing world leaders can learn from Alexander the Great

June 05, 2006

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usWhen Alexander of Macedon set out from Pella three hundred and thirty-four years before the Common Era he said his intention was to exact revenge from the Persians for their destruction of Athens a century and a half previously. Persia was the largest empire that had ever existed, as far as both they and the Greeks knew, and their borders reached the ends of the known world. Beyond them lay wastelands, and then the Great Sea that encircled the world.

He would never return to the city of his birth. By the time he died at the age of thirty-three, he had exacted his revenge and extinguished the Persian Empire. Not only that, but he had expanded the borders into the unknown territory of the Punjab and was making plans, as he lay dying, for the invasion of Arabia. He was the king of an ever-expanding world, and he wanted to be worshiped as a god.

In secular Western society any political leader who claims that they are doing the will of God is an anomaly. But in the ancient world it was a given. Only those on whom the gods smiled were worthy of great deeds and heavy responsibility. And Alexander was the son of a god. His mother, Olympias, proclaimed that he was the son of Zeus.

As he conquered realm after realm, it seemed as though he really were the gods' favourite. Within a year he had wrestled Asia Minor from the Persians. By the following year he had taken the eastern Mediterranean coast. Soon after he was greeted up and down the Nile as a liberator from the Persians, whom the Egyptians despised.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usThe gods spoke for him. The Oracle at Didyma, destroyed one hundred and fifty years previously, suddenly re-awoke when Alexander entered and prophesised that he would vanquish the Persians. Who else but the son of a god could undo the Gordion knot that, it was said, could only be undone by the next ruler of Asia? When he entered the Temple of Ammon, as the Egyptians called Zeus, the priests proclaimed that here was the son of the god.

By the time he had destroyed the Persian Empire and had conquered all the way to what is now Southern Afghanistan, he informed his stunned generals that he wanted to be worshiped as a God. He was already on shaky ground with them, having adopted Persian dress and customs. In Maracanda (now Samarqand) Clitus, friend to his father and trusted general throughout the campaign against the Persians, protested Alexander's decision to repress rebellions in Bactria and Sogdiana, a pursuit he considered a waste of time and beneath the dignity of the Macedonians. Alexander's heated response was to run the general through with a spear. Two plots against Alexander's life were foiled during the Bactrian and Sogdian campaign and the participants were brutally tortured to death. Persia was his, but those close to him began to fear him as a vicious and violent man

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBut Alexander survived the plots on his life and suppressed the rebellions. The last outposts of the Persian Empire had fallen to him and he was king of all he knew. Greek revenge against the Persians had been exacted. But this was now longer good enough. Across the Hindu Kush from Bactria lay the sultanates of India, and beyond them was China. He had heard of these lands, but he knew almost nothing about them.

And so Alexander turned his eye - and his worldview of leading a gargantuan multi-ethnic, multicultural empire - southward and, despite the pleadings of his weary soldiers, set up the seven thousand metres vertical of mountain range dividing what he knew from what he did not know. He was the son of a god and he deserved these lands. In any case, his tutor Aristotle had taught him that India was a small land and so he knew that he would soon reach not just the end of the world that he knew, but the end of the world altogether, bound by a vast ocean.

Once across the Hindu Kush in what is now Pakistan his army was immediately set upon and Alexander's campaign of massacres began in earnest. This was the man who had given Darius III, King of Persia a lavish funeral; the man who had, against all custom, refused to sell Darius' wife, mother, and sisters into slavery and who had ended the Sogdian campaign with a marriage (to Roxana, daughter of the Sogdian satrap) rather than with a bloodbath, who ran an empire where all ethnicities where considered more or less equal, and who now slaughtered the Indians at Aornos even after they had sued for surrender. He massacred the civilian inhabitants of Multan, just as he had done a year earlier in Bactria when every last Branchidae was executed and the city levelled although they were waving palm and olive fronds as a gesture of peace. He founded his twenty-fourth city of Alexandria and another city, named after his horse.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usBut it was here that his army had had enough. They were tired and suffering from battle fatigue. They had endured great hardship. They hadn't been home in eight very long years and it was now becoming very clear that India was much larger than they had thought. A campaign to conquer it would last years and they were uncertain they could even survive a war with the next kingdom, or the next one after that, or after that. On the banks of the river Beas near modern Amritsar - almost five thousand kilometres - and Alexander's entire army set down its arms at refused to move any farther.

At first he pressed them to move onward, but finally he relented and turned his massive army south where they fought their way down the Indus valley, west along the Persian Gulf, and then across the treacherous Makran, a rugged desert region spanning modern Baluchistan in Pakistan and Iran. According to Plutarch, only one quarter of the army that had conquered all of the known world and a little bit more survived the march across the Makran before finally arriving in Babylon, where they finally stopped, after almost nine years of constant warfare.

When Alexander died at the age of thirty-three, he was a changed man from the eager twenty-four-year-old who had set out from Pella to see and triumph over the world. He was broken. His lover Hephaestion was dead. His son was dead. His adopted Persian dress and mannerisms disgusted his Macedonian and Greek compatriots. Depressed and disillusioned, he fell ill after a night of heavy drinking, a frequent pastime of his and was dead within a matter of weeks.

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Modern leaders could learn much from Alexander. Convinced he was doing what the gods had set for him, he gained no happiness from his triumph over what he thought was almost the whole world. Was it hubris or self-delusion that fueled his downfall? As his obstinacy turned to megalomania, was he haunted by the atrocities he ordered, that were done in his name? Trusted friends and allies had died at his hand, and those who had survived were afraid of him and repulsed by him. And in the end, all that he accomplished vanished. After his death, his empire was divided and broken, and convulsed with wars. One by one the remaining bits were conquered and absorbed by a never-ending stream of new empires, of new kings.

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For more on Alexander of Macedon: here and here

posted by GreyGuy on 5.6.06 | Permalink |

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