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Allan Powell: Alexander - a study in greatness

June 21, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

Those acquainted with world history have encountered several leaders who have “the Great” after their name. Cyrus the Great, Darius the Great and Catherine the Great come to mind. It is arguable that Alexander is properly ranked first. The title may be offered for social reforms, superior administration or military prowess, but it appears to be scarcely awarded. One can but stand in awe at the military accomplishments of Alexander, but, as his personal traits unfold, “greatness” takes on a questionable complexion. A “normal” person might cringe at his lack of self control, capacity to inflict pain or death on others and obsession for world conquest.

Author Bill Yenne, in his “Alexander the Great,” gives an interesting and lucid story of an amazing military personality. Yenne has written no fewer than three dozen military- oriented books. Gen. Wesley K. Clark gives a glowing endorsement of this biography. Surely, there are lessons and insights to be gleaned from such a successful and magnetic ancient figure as the empire builder from Macedonia.

Alexander was the son of a very able ruler and soldier, King Philip of Macedonia. He prepared his son for greatness by a program so intense that he became mature enough to lead a wing of the army by the age of 16. While modern commanders direct their forces from a distance of battle sites, Alexander was visible at the front line of battle. He never lost a battle in his many combats. His hectic, aggressive and brilliant career was dominated by the reality that a huge portion of the eastern Mediterranean and beyond was under the rule of the Persian Empire.

Leaving nothing to chance, Philip, in 343 BCE (Before Common Era), brought Aristotle to Macedonia to be Alexander’s teacher. No other philosopher was a match for the most learned mind in Greece. By the summer of 338 BCE, Philip had subdued all of Greece and Alexander, now 18, was tested in battle. With a victory at Chaeronea, the warriors from Macedonia could make plans to confront their Persian overlords. Alexander, now 20, became king when Philip was stabbed to death at a party. It was now time for Alexander III to face Darius III.

Alexander’s style of entry into his exalted status was typical of the rest of his shortlived career. He gave all of his property to friends. He then killed all relatives of his stepmother because they were potential pretenders to the throne in his absence. Next, he made sacrifices to the gods and visited Delphi to consult the famous oracle for advice. He was declared to be invincible and could now set his sights on Persia.

Between 334 BCE and 330 BCE, Alexander’s army engaged in combat with several enormous Persian armies that he defeated in order. As his reputation spread, many cities thought it wise to avoid conflict and agreed to pay tribute. At Gaza (where Samson was alleged to have pulled down the pillars of a temple), Alexander displayed his gifts as an engineer and his capacity for brutality. The defeated general did not show sufficient humility to the mighty victor, so Alexander had holes cut in his ankles, leather throngs threaded through and his body pulled through the streets by a chariot.

Alexander continued his campaign of conquest into the edges of India and Asia, consistently a winner, plundering and carrying women and children into slavery. His successes ended in the ancient city of Babylon in 323 BCE at the age of 32, only a month short of his 33rd birthday. Though there are stories that Alexander’s death was due to drunken binges, it is supposed that he died after 14 days of sickness. His empire was divided between several of his officers.

There continues to be heated debate about “the Great” affixed to Alexander. There is general agreement that his military skills were sufficient to warrant such a lofty title. Certainly, a campaign lasting 12 years under aggravating and dangerous conditions merits recognition. This, however, must sit alongside character traits not so admirable. One historian took note of his fiery temper and binge drinking. Others record his capacity for brutality and plunder. His obsession for conquest and recognition resulted in death and destruction. Years later, a poet, Thomas Gray, got it right: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

“Greatness” surely must mean more than conquest and power.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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