How Great Was Alexander the Great?

Alexander Mosaic

As we bid farewell to the old humanities program and prepare to teach the new one at Saint Anselm College, it seems to make sense that we contemplate some of the questions raised in this recently re-issued book review by Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at Cambridge University) that was originally published in the New York Review of Books almost three years ago:

Beard points out that the historiography regarding Alexander the Great has not changed much over the years. In fact, we ask many of the same questions about Alexander that the Romans did. Such a tendency should come as no surprise, she argues, because our Alexander is largely a product of Roman historians. New material and information have emerged over the years, including the “Alexander Sarcophagus” and material excavated near Vergina. For the most part, though, we still rely on Roman descriptions of Alexander. The Romans themselves relied on earlier documents no longer extant. However, these earlier documents were refracted by Roman experience.  As Beard puts it, the Romans “depended on the writings of Alexander’s contemporaries. . . . But they are bound to have seen this story through a Roman filter, to have interpreted and adjusted what they read in the light of the versions of conquest and imperial expansion that were characteristic of their own political age.” Since our Alexander is the product of Roman sources, we see him in much the same way as they did. The Romans were ambivalent about Alexander. So are we. Like the Romans, we wonder whether or not Alexander was admirable or deplorable.

Beard implies that scholarship about Alexander remains in a kind of Roman prison and that it would be best if the field broke free. Fair enough. But it strikes One Thing after Another that academics who study Alexander do much the same good work that our students did in the second year of the old humanities program—admittedly on a more sophisticated level. Since the program was entitled “Portraits of Human Greatness,” much as we often tried, it was impossible to avoid discussing whether such-and-such figure was “great.” One of the first pieces of advice the blog master of One Thing after Another received upon arriving at Saint Anselm College was, “Don’t ever assign a humanities paper asking whether so-and-so was a portrait of human greatness.” This was sound advice, because students invariably felt compelled to respond in the affirmative to this question (and to lay it on a bit thick). It was not difficult to see why: figures would not have been included in a program entitled “Portraits of Human Greatness” unless they were great, right?

Invariably, though, the question of greatness involved a multitude of problems. The most important of these consisted of determining a standard by which to measure greatness. This difficulty did not merely divide the students; it split the humanities faculty as well. By “human greatness,” did one mean a saintly person, an influential person, or a high-achieving person? Disagreement over this issue was reflected by the diverse types of figures who ended up in the program. At one time or another, Maximilian Robespierre, Dorothy Day, and Pablo Picasso became portraits of human greatness. Frequently, members of the humanities faculty would muse provocatively that if influential people qualified as portraits of human greatness, then it was not entirely clear why we had never developed a Napoleon, Hitler, or Stalin unit (aside from the fact that it would bring the college a hurricane of bad publicity). Surely these people, particularly the latter two, were monstrous, but they had changed the world.

These thoughts bring us back to Alexander. In 335 BC, during one of his earliest campaigns after his father’s death, he defeated the Thebans, killed almost all of their men, looted their property, burned the city down, and sold the remaining women and children (around 30,000 people) into slavery. The story was similar in Tyre: after a lengthy siege in 332 BC, Alexander slaughtered 6,000 soldiers within the city walls, crucified 2,000 men on the beach, and sold another 30,000 people into slavery. Ditto in Gaza that same year. In 330 BC, after conquering Persepolis, the Persian capital and perhaps the most magnificent city in the Near East, Alexander had it looted and may have been responsible for the fire that utterly destroyed it. Alexander was also responsible for mass killings in the Punjab as he attempted to conquer that region after 327 BC.

As Beard points out, it will not do to say that people at the time judged Alexander by a different, laxer standard. Even contemporaries expressed dismay at Alexander’s antics. Consider the response of the pirate who was asked by Alexander what drove him to terrorize the seas: “The same thing as drives you to terrorize the whole world.” The Romans were hardly a squeamish people, but they too appeared uncomfortable with Alexander’s behavior. It is instructive that Dante Alighieri, who lived in rough-and-tumble times himself, had Alexander occupy the Seventh Circle of hell in the Inferno, “screaming in pain, up to his eyebrows in a river of boiling blood, spending eternity alongside such monsters as Attila the Hun and Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily.” Alexander’s conquest of the known world was an unparalleled feat, and such feats require violence in the same way that an omelet requires the breaking of eggs. But in this case (as with, say, Napoleon), does the violence of the achievement destroy the value of the achievement itself? Especially if that achievement was temporary (Alexander’s empire barely survived his death) and inadvertent (the spread of Hellenistic culture was a byproduct of that empire)?


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