Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Napoleon had a good run before he met his Waterloo. But when it comes to capturing the popular imagination, they can’t hold a candle to Alexander the Great.
“When you look at the imagination that was necessary to be Alexander, the effect he had on other people’s imaginations — he was head and shoulders above them,” said Thomas R. Martin, author of “Ancient Greece.”
“Alexander is a legend, but he’s not a myth. He’s real. What he did — for better or worse — shows in the starkest and most exciting terms the lack of limits of human possibility.”
One of the most successful (and some would say the most successful) military commanders of all time, Alexander has been inspiring would-be conquerors for centuries. He’s been immortalized in story and song. The latest movie version of his life, Oliver Stone’s epic “Alexander,” opens today with Irish bad boy Colin Farrell (sporting a bad blond dye job) as the Greek hero who never lost a battle.
“He has no failures,” said Elizabeth Carney, a history professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. “That’s the glamour — he’s the invincible, the unconquered one.”
Braving the Unknown
Alexander is a pretty hot property these days. When Stone got the green light for his film, Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) was planning his own Alexander picture, with Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to play the conqueror. (That project has now been pushed back.)
The accomplishments of Alexander still sound pretty impressive today: Born in 356 B.C., he became king of Macedonia when he was 20 years old, on the assassination of his father, Philip II. Not long after, he set out in search of glory and had conquered most of the known world by the time of his death in 323 B.C., just before his 33rd birthday.
“He starts in Greece, crosses over what is today Turkey, gets down into today’s Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Then he heads off into Iraq, which was just as dangerous then as it is today,” said Martin, the Jeremiah O’Connor Professor in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Not only did he get past Iraq, he got into Iran, and he kept going.”
He made it as far as the Indus River, in what is now Pakistan, before his troops demanded they turn back. This is especially impressive, says Martin, because he was taking a leap of faith into the virtually unknown.
“In Alexander’s day, people lived in a world that was conceptually different from ours in the 21st century,” he said. “We know the world is a globe, we’ve seen maps, we have a geographic picture. They didn’t.”
Some latter-day Alexander admirers have posited that the Macedonian set out to bring Hellenistic culture to the rest of world, or to spread Greek ideals of democracy.
Not a chance, says Carney, author of “Women and Monarchy in Ancient Macedonia.”
“He was an absolute monarch,” she said. “He’s conquering to conquer, which is pretty much what conquerors do.”
Good Guy, Bad Guy, Divine Guy?
In fact, some modern scholars consider Alexander an imperialist who committed atrocities as he battled his way east. Others contend he was comparatively humane for a warrior of his time.
Carney sees Alexander as “scary.”
“I’m not sure that he was unusually bad. I’m not saying he was an evil person. I’m saying he was a scarier person than his father,” she said.
Philip (played by Val Kilmer in the movie) was an extremely successful general, and his victories in Macedonia and Greece created a solid foundation for what would become Alexander’s empire. But Philip was easier to get along with.
“Philip is a sort of Lyndon Johnson-y type or Clinton-y type; he’s a glad-hander,” said Carney. “The kid is stiffer, not so much one of the boys, more humorless.”
Alexander was very much a product of the Homeric world of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” “He is very much compelled by the desire to be a hero in the way that heroes were in Homer,” she said.
Alexander’s own personal hero was Achilles, the Greek warrior who is invincible until one lucky Trojan finds the weak spot on his heel. Alexander claimed descent from both Achilles and Herakles (known as Hercules to the Romans).
“He emulates both heroes, and he takes this heroic emulation much further than anyone else had,” Carney said.
Alexander experienced some kind of epiphany during a visit to the shrine of the god Zeus-Amon in the Egyptian desert. “I think he really did believe he could become a god by the remarkableness of his accomplishments,” Carney said. “I think it’s possible that he believed himself to be the son of Zeus-Amon.”
The Relationship Question
Whether or not he believed he had a divine dad, Alexander was certainly influenced by the strength of his mortal mother, Olympias.
“She was one tough cookie,” said Carney, who is working on a book about her. “She certainly kills a few people.”
After Philip’s death, someone disposed of his baby daughter and the child’s mother. That someone was probably Olympias, who would have wanted to rid her son of some potential rivals. “Lots of people think killing the baby is mean and nasty, but it’s clearing off the dynastic ranks,” said Carney. “All the deaths we know her to be responsible for are for political reasons.”
In the new movie, Angelina Jolie plays Olympias as a power-hungry woman who will stop at nothing to turn her son against his father. At 29, the actress is all of a year older than her on-screen son. Since snakes were prominent in the religious rituals the queen practiced, Jolie had to film scenes with serpents writhing at her feet or winding around her neck.
There’s been some controversy over the movie’s treatment of Alexander’s relationship with best friend Hephaestion (played by Jared Leto, wearing gobs of eyeliner). Some have been angered by the film’s suggestions of a sexual relationship between the two men — which almost certainly existed. Others think it should have been more explicit: While there’s plenty of innuendo about Alexander’s interest in men, his only sex scene is with a woman.
Whether Alexander was gay, straight or bisexual shouldn’t be an issue, scholars say, because the ancient Greeks just didn’t think that way.
“You have to remember that ancient conceptions of sexuality don’t map exactly onto ours, and you could have loving, even sexual, relationships with persons of the opposite sex and persons of the same sex,” said Martin.
Scholars think Alexander was probably married three times, mostly for political reasons. He also had a longtime mistress named Barsine (who isn’t in the movie). He had two young sons, neither of whom survived him very long. But Carney thinks Alexander was always more interested in military conquest than in sex of any sort.
Nevertheless, when Hephaestion died, Alexander was consumed by grief. He was already on edge because his army, exhausted after more than a decade of fighting, had flatly refused to push on into India.
“The traditional interpretation is that he worsens in character in the later stages of life,” said Carney. “Most people who want to modernize it go with clinical depression.”
Alexander also — like many of his time — was a heavy drinker. When he fell ill in Babylon, he knocked back a lot of wine, which undoubtedly made things worse. He died in Babylon on June 10, 323 B.C.
No one knows for sure what caused his high fever. At the time, poison was widely suspected. But in an age when there were no antibiotics, any minor illness could prove fatal. The general consensus is that he died of natural causes.
It’s tempting to imagine what else Alexander might have conquered if he had lived longer. One thing is sure, said Martin: “Alexander was never going to stop.”