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Alexander the Great - Heroic villain or villanous hero?

Alexander is a character who has been associated with the word ‘Great’ for centuries. Does he really deserve this title and how can we come to a decision. Most of us, when we are trying to make a decision, get out a piece of paper and divide it into two columns with headings ‘for’ and ‘against’, let’s try this with our heroic villain or our villainous hero.

For Against
young and intelligent  

In the positive column we could start with young and intelligent; Alexander brought a fresh approach after the intrigues of his father Philip II. Alexander was not quite twenty when he succeeded to the throne in 336 BCE. His tutor had been Aristotle, a man to whom is credited great knowledge and wisdom. So it could be said that Alexander was well-grounded educationally, this thirst for knowledge continued as his campaigns were sometimes more like expeditions as individuals made notes as they moved east.

For Against
young and intelligent  
stopped the Persians  

Also in the positive column could be put stopping the Persians encroaching further upon Greece and also pushing them back and releasing the Greek cities of western Asia Minor. He crossed the Hellespont, the Dardanelles, in 334 BCE with a mixed army of about 40,000, less than half were Macedonians while a quarter were Greeks. He did liberate these Ionian cities and he dispensed with Persian power, starting with the Battle of Issus in 333; the Persian King Darius fled and was eventually murdered by one of his own satraps (governors) therefore we can perhaps deduce that there must have been some unhappiness with Persian rule. Alexander moved through Syria, Egypt and then into Asia Minor.

For Against
young and intelligent  
stopped the Persians  
kept local administration  

Another positive point is that he didn’t sweep away local administration and bring in his own. He left matters pretty well intact although he had some of his own people to act as governors especially regarding financial matters.

Did the people who had lived under Persian rule view Alexander as a liberator? Of course, the army would have been quite happy initially, and for quite a while, because they were a conquering army. They had licence to rampage sometimes and sack cities, to let off steam and to take goods for themselves e.g. Persepolis in 331 BCE after the Battle of Gaugamela. For those on the receiving end, they would not be so happy and this certainly would not be positive for Alexander.

For Against
young and intelligent sacked Persian cities
stopped the Persians  
kept local administration  

The international idea was also tried in the new cities that were constructed: approximately two dozen cities called Alexandria were built with the biggest one being in Egypt. In each of these cities there was a Greek agora but local gods were accommodated therefore there was a fusion of cultures. Such fusion was experimented with elsewhere in this new Alexandrian society as the Macedonian king tried to link his army to the local people legally; at Susa a large number of his army were married to local women, this included some of his generals. This being one the first steps to making Asia more federal rather than being individual kingdoms, there would be no boundaries to his international empire and this included mixed marriages.

For Against
young and intelligent sacked Persian cities
stopped the Persians ‘international’ idea unpopular
kept local administration  

However, this is where we can now turn to the negative side as many of these men were not happy to ‘get hitched’ to local women. Amongst Alexander’s companions it was only Seleucus who kept his Asian bride after Alexander died in 323 BCE.

His army were kept generally happy but as they moved further east and further away from home there were instances of mutiny e.g. Hyphasis in 326 BCE as Alexander planned to move into India. The push through India was asking too much for his tired and home-sick army, it was a step too far. Alexander was maddened because his army would not obey. His attempt to persuade them in a speech failed so he sulked in his tent for three days but finally had to accept that it was time to turn back.

For Against
young and intelligent sacked Persian cities
stopped the Persians ‘international’ idea unpopular
kept local administration India a step too far

The further east Alexander went the more he started dressing and acting like an eastern potentate, he liked people to prostrate themselves before him; this was not part of Greek-Macedonian custom, his companions were not very keen on this development.

These negatives are sharpened by his personal behaviour. He was apparently a very heavy drinker and was prone to fits of temper. He did not like people disagreeing with him or crossing him. He did murder a man with his own bare hands he struck Cleitus, the commander of the cavalry, fatally with a spear in a fit of anger and was responsible for other deaths.

For Against
young and intelligent sacked Persian cities
stopped the Persians ‘international’ idea unpopular
kept local administration India a step too far
  erratic behaviour - drinking, temper, murder ...

So was Alexander a hero or a villain? It could be suggested, like most great people, that there are elements of both. We could also say that he was a typically Greek, even a Homeric hero who had a brief but full life dying in 323 BCE at the age of thirty three.

Liz Mayor
Associate Lecturer Classical Studies OU
Lecturer in Classical Studies, LEARN Cardiff University


 

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