Saturday, April 05, 2008
Alexander The Tool
(Copied from my goodreads entry)
As the goodreads blurb states, Cartledge is one of the leading experts on ancient Greece. He provides an accessible, not-to-anachronistic biography of one of history's most interesting men. I don't know what the other reviewers are referring to. This book was meant to be an introduction to Alexander the Great. So, of course it's not a detailed discussion. Finishing this book will make you more conversant on Alexander's life and times than probably 95% of the people you meet at the water cooler (unless it's the water cooler in the faculty lounge for the Ancient History dept.!).
Cartledge presents every stage of Alexander's life (as well as the milieu he was born into), and each stage is bound up with fascinating political, social, personal, familial, and psychological energies that contributed to one of history's most enigmatic, and megalomaniacal figures.
Besides the normal factoids and answering historical curiosity, as a Christian my eye is out for other things. One thing that impressed upon me is how respected the historicity of Alexander the Great is, and how this is based off (the best) sources who wrote hundreds of years after Alexander lived. But then I turn around and read other books which undermine the historicity of Jesus Christ, who is much later than Alexander, and who is attested to in print less than a decade or two after his death. But such is "objective" non-Christian scholarship, I suppose.
Cartledge's discussion of the extent of Alexander’s Hellenism is very interesting. I'm inclined to agree with Cartledge that Alexander was not a pro-Hellenistic king. This touchy subject is host to varying interpretations. Why did Alexander don Persian royal regalia, rather than the traditional Macedonian garb, if he were standing in the Hellenistic line? A line that considered Persians et. al. to be "barbarians." Why did more Greeks fight against Alexander than for Alexander? Why did Alexander never return to Macedon after he left on the pan-Hellenic campaign to overthrow Darius III and the Persian empire? Why didn't he use the Athenian Navy or hardly any forces from the League of Corinth? Why did so many Greeks join Athens in the revolt against Macedon shortly after Alexander's death?
But, on the other hand, why did Alexander show so much respect for Greek culture? Why did he send back to Susa the statues stolen by the Persians? Why did he stage athletic contests borrowed from the Greek model when he was in India? And why did he keep the Iliad by his bedside? Lastly, why was the most important city he founded, Alexandria, so Greek in culture? Why did he spare the poet Pindar's house when he burned the Greek city that tried to stage revolt to the ground? Was this showing respect for Greek culture? Or was this sugar coating? Ever the politician? Cartledge says the truth might be somewhere in the middle. Most of all, Alexander was in love with his quest for world domination. Perhaps a bastardization of his teacher's (Aristotle) view of a unified Greece? If this was achieved, then world domination would be acheived. But, Aristotle would not have wanted Alexander to mix so much with the "barbarians."
Also interesting is the question as to who assassinated Philip, Alexander's father. Alexander was not there. And those who murdered Philip were caught. And they never indicted Alexander, though they didn't have much time. But, Alexander had the most to gain. And, it was possible that Alexander believed Philip was trying to get rid of Alexander. Bring in another heir. An heir whose mother was pure-bred. Philip had banned Alexander at the time. He had taken steps to dissolve his alliance with the "Pella Five." Alexander also had the murderers put to death almost immediately, and those who put them to death rose to great power within Alexander's empire. Cartledge doesn't think there's a case for Alexander's guilt that proves his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. But, he thinks a very good and appealing case can be made for the Alexander theory. But, maybe “Alexander was just lucky.” It "just happened at the right time."
Alexander also probably had homosexual relations. He even seemed to mimic his affair after Achilles and Patroclus'. It was not uncommon, though, for Greek men to have homosexual relations, especially when they were young. Some fighting forces were even made entirely of homosexual lovers. Better unity. Alexander also had women too. But, his sex life was minor compared to what most men in his position would have done. It was said that Alexander did to empires what most kings did to women.
And he did destroy empires, kingdoms, and peoples. He was relentless in his pursuit of world domination. It is said that his only defeat was when his own men refused to keep marching on. They would not follow him through India and beyond. They were tired of the combat, pain, and the glory. And in regards to warfare, Cartledge offers unique information on Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals. Those who have read histories of philosophies will remember him. But most of those histories don’t relay that he cut of the nose and ears of the man who killed Darius III, Bessus. Alexander ran a brutal regime and even adopted Persian practices for putting people to death, like Bessus. Perhaps to show that he was now the Great King of Persia, like the Darius', Xerxes', etc., before him.
Alexander died of fever in Babylon on June 10, 323. But some think this was an assassination too. Perhaps he was poisoned by low levels of strychnine. And the fate of his corpse is "one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ancient world." (No mention of Moses' corpse, or Jesus' for that matter!)
Back to Alexander's "Greekness," it is incontestable that he spread Hellenism far and wide. (The details of Alexander’s relationship with his own Macedon, Greece, and the “pan-Hellenistic campaigns,” was fascinating, to be sure.) Now, what is interesting to me, as a Christian who views history as the progression of God's redemptive plan, is how many times Cartledge (and his sources) mentions that Alexander was "lucky." There were many things that could and would have hampered his present-day status, but he was "lucky." As a Christian, who reads history in light of providence, my answer for Alexander's success was found on page 217:
"The dissemination of Greek culture in visual and verbal forms to non-Greeks had, of course, been going on for centuries and had recently been given a further boost by Philip [note: Philip was Alexander's father]. But Alexander so speeded up the process, and spread Hellenism so far and wide, that he made it virtually irreversible. It was ultimately thanks to him that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek at Egyptian Alexandria, and that St. Paul, a Hellenized Jew from Tarsus in Cilicia, wrote in koine, Common Greek, to convert the city-dwelling Gentiles of the Eastern Roman Empire to his new religion of Christianity."
Despite the swipes at Christianity (as if it was Paul's invented religion), and the very debatable point as to Paul's Hellenism, for Cartledge and other historians this is just so much interesting factoid that is due to the "luck" of a non-purposive, chance universe where things "just happen." To the Christian, who views history as having a purpose, this is a wonderful display of God's providence in redemptive history.
Alexander was, ultimately, not so much a Great King, as he was a mere tool in God's hand. Not so much "Alexander The Great," as "Alexander The Tool." :-)