Alexander's new look
Young, beautiful, brave, brilliant, charismatic, chivalrous. What's not to like about Alexander the Great? In just 13 years in the fourth century B.C., he built a vast empire that stretched from the Balkans to the Indus River, encompassing, among other lands, what is now Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India. And if that feat weren't enough, history also has credited him with bringing Greek learning to the "barbarians" in the East--thus transforming the world's cultural and intellectual landscape.
Next week, a new Oliver Stone film about Alexander debuts, starring Colin Farrell as the great man and Angelina Jolie as his infamous mother, Olympias. But historians and archaeologists are also re-examining Alexander, and, unlike Stone, many argue that he may not have been quite so great after all. Prompted in part by fresh archaeological finds, the reappraisal reveals a man both self-indulgent and cruel. Yes, he was a charismatic commander, but he inherited a virtually invincible army from his father, Philip II of Macedonia. And although he has long been celebrated for spreading Greek ideas throughout Asia, new scholarship shows that cultural exchange between East and West had started long before Alexander's reign.
Born in 356 B.C. in Pella, Macedonia, Alexander was only 18 when he distinguished himself as a commander at the bloody Battle of Chaeronea, in which Philip defeated the Greek city-states to the south, bringing them under Macedonian rule. When he became king of Macedonia at age 20 after his father's assassination, he moved swiftly to quell rumors that he and his mother had plotted to kill Philip, executing several nobles--some of whom were potential rivals--as coconspirators. Soon after, the Greek city-state Thebes revolted, and he razed it, killing or enslaving 36,000 citizens. Other rebellious city-states came quickly to heel.
The conqueror. After consolidating his position at home, the fresh-faced monarch turned his attention to the wealthy Persian Empire. His avowed reason for a campaign was "freeing the Greeks" in Asia, notes Oxford University historian Robin Lane Fox, who was a consultant on the new film. He said he wanted to punish the Persians for past offenses during their invasion of Greece a century and a half earlier. But Alexander, in fact, meant to conquer all lands out to the eastern edge of the world, which he mistakenly believed ended somewhere before modern-day Burma and China. In the spring of 334 B.C., he crossed the Dardanelles into Asia with an army of 35,000 men. After the ancient equivalent of a quick photo op in Troy, where the image-savvy king stopped to honor the tomb of his hero Achilles, he swept down the Ionian coast, liberating Greek towns and recruiting additional soldiers.
He trounced an advance Persian force at the Granicus River in what is now Turkey--a victory that opened up much of western Asia Minor to the Macedonians. The next year, he finally met his archrival Darius III, king of Persia, at Issus, also in present-day Turkey; the battle turned into a rout. Darius fled to fight another day, abandoning his wife, mother, and children. Historians have applauded Alexander for treating his opponent's family with respect and courtesy--indeed, Darius's mother was said to have wept years later when she heard of the Macedonian's death. But this gentlemanly behavior is better seen as a claim to the throne than an act of chivalry, argues Jona Lendering, author of the new book Alexander de Grote . "In the ancient Near East," he writes, "a new king took care of the harem and family of his predecessor." Other women in Alexander's path were not so lucky. After Issus, he turned over the wives and children of the Persian soldiers to the Thessalian horsemen as a reward for their gallantry in battle.