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Alexander the Great

January, 2004
By John Huckans

I’m not very up to date when it comes to the latest goings-on in the film industry, but there’s some talk that a new movie about Alexander the Great is in the works. So much has been written about him over the past 2300 years – much of it fanciful – that any liberties a Hollywood director might take would only add to the historical and literary tradition. Nonetheless, when he embarked on his conquest of Asia, from the Hellespont to the Indus Valley in western India, he was accompanied by an “embedded” entourage of artists, poets, philosophers, historians and scientists who recorded with some degree of accuracy much of what they did and what they saw.

Iksander, or Alexander as he is known, was born in 356 B.C., the son of Philip of Macedonia and Olympias, an Epirote princess. His best likenesses, according to my Clough edition of the Dryden translation of Plutarch’s Lives, were the statues of Lysippus which showed “the inclination of his head a little on one side towards his left shoulder, and his melting eye, having been expressed by this artist with great exactness…” Alexander’s physical courage became the stuff of legend and although he sustained many serious wounds and broken bones in the course of his campaigns against Darius and Porus (unlike today’s armchair warriors – politicians and military policy advisors who stand ready to fight to the last drop of someone else’s blood) – he died of a fever and internal complaint in Babylon in 323 B.C., just short of his 33rd birthday.

His father, Philip, by overcoming Athens and Thebes – symbols of the petty city state politics of the time – united the Greeks in a Panhellenic union of sorts known as the League of Corinth. While contemplating whether to march against Darius in Asia Minor to seek revenge for the Persian invasion of Greece more than a century earlier he was assassinated, and it fell to Alexander, as new leader of the League, to decide whether or not to challenge the Persian threat.

Careful planning rather than impulsive behavior characterized Alexander’s next move and so he crossed the Danube and spent a year or two intimidating and pacifying the peoples of the Balkan region before invading Asia in pursuit of Darius. But once under way, he never looked back – although the historical record suggests that except for the seven-month siege of Tyre and numerous guerrilla-type actions, Alexander fought just four major pitched battles during the eleven-year campaign.

The first took place not far from the Hellespont in what is now western Turkey where Darius, who at first didn’t take Alexander very seriously, left it to his generals to be soundly defeated at the Granicus River. The second confrontation occurred at Issus in Syria and this time Darius brought along his family and personal entourage to witness the defeat of the Macedonian upstart. It was perhaps this battle that gave rise to the legend of Alexander’s “go-for-the-head” tactic which was to target the opposing king and by destroying or capturing him, save the lives of countless foot soldiers. At any rate as soon as the going got tough Darius lit out for the tall grass and never looked back, leaving behind his mother, wife, and two unmarried daughters to fend for themselves. Alexander treated them honorably and in later years he would marry Barsine (aka Stateira), one of Darius’ daughters (after he had married the famous Roxana, daughter of Oxyartes, a Sogdian or Bactrian chieftain).

Before pursuing Darius further, Alexander realized he had to cover his back by neutralizing Phoenician naval power which at the time was under Persian control. After the difficult seven-months siege of Tyre that ended with the city’s total destruction – an act that Alexander later bitterly regretted – he was virtually welcomed with open arms by the Egyptians who greatly resented Persian domination. The final battle between the two happened east of the Tigris River at a place called Gaugamela. Although greatly outnumbered, Alexander’s Macedonians headed straightaway for the royal chariot and Darius, reeling from the sudden onslaught, was among the first to leave the field, causing his army to lose courage and take flight.

Before continuing his march east, Alexander explored the immediate area and somewhere near Arbela, not far from Gaugamela, Plutarch tells us that “(Alexander) was much surprised at the sight of the place where fire issues in a continuous stream, like a spring of water, out of a cleft in the earth, and the stream of naphtha, which, not far from this spot, flows out so abundantly as to form a sort of lake. This naphtha, in other respects resembling bitumen, is so subject to take fire, that before it touches the flame, it will kindle at the very light that surrounds it, and often inflame the intermediate air also…” (Plutarch erroneously refers to the location as Ecbatana, a place that Alexander did not reach until much later).

His progress through central Asia – crossing the Bactrian Desert and the Hindu Kush – to the Indus Valley was also, in many ways, a journey of exploration. But far from being a cultural imperialist, Alexander respected the people and honored the customs of the nations he encountered along the way. As far as we know his father Philip had managed to overcome a sense or feeling of cultural inferiority and was able to instill in most Greeks that they were one people and that as part of a Panhellenic entity had much in common, whether they were Athenian philosophers or Macedonian mountain men. I think Alexander carried this policy or ideal to the next level because as Plutarch commented about his conduct “… nothing gains more upon men than a conformity to their fashions and customs…” Alexander not only encouraged his men to marry Asian women, but “As for his marriage with Roxana … it gratified the conquered people to see him choose a wife from among themselves, and it made them feel the most lively affection for him…” (Plutarch).

Alexander’s last major battle was against the Indian Rajah Porus, near the Hydaspes (Jhelum) River, a tributary of the Indus. Here he encountered unfamiliar military tactics, including the use of elephants, and although the Macedonians prevailed, the opposing armies were of similar size and the battle was not easily won. At this point his men, accustomed to victories against overwhelming odds, were unwilling to go any further and after years of campaigning they simply wanted to go home.

He then formed an alliance of convenience with Porus and began a three-year journey homeward by way of the Indus River valley and a southerly route not far from the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. In establishing his authority over some of the towns en route, Alexander laid siege to a town of the Mallions, being the first over the wall with a scaling ladder (followed shortly by Peucestes and Limnaeus), and the three men fought off defenders until reinforcements arrived. During this hand-to-hand combat an arrow penetrated Alexander’s breastplate and lodged in his rib cage. After the battle “…when they had with great difficulty and pains sawed off the shaft of the arrow, which was of wood, and with much trouble got off his cuirass, they came to cut out the head of it, which was three fingers broad and four long, and stuck fast in the bone…” (Plutarch). The point of mentioning this is that Alexander was not in the habit of expecting foot soldiers to do what he was unwilling to do himself – he didn’t spend his time beating the drums for war while hiding out in a think tank in Athens or his hometown of Pella.

Most authorities, including C.A. Robinson, Jr., (formerly Professor of Classics at Brown University), have commented that Alexander’s vision of empire was not to occupy much of Asia in order to create an expanded homeland for the Greeks – ethnic cleansing was not part of the plan. According to Robinson “Alexander’s idea of a fusion of races did not mean that he planned a deliberate Hellenization of the East… those who wished were free to pursue their own national life – and they represented the overwhelming majority – but at the same time there was to develop a new life based on an interchange and mixture of customs and blood. This new attitude towards the world was to be the driving and unifying force of his empire.” Alexander’s admiration of the East was reciprocated – to this day there are people in parts of Asia who proudly claim lineage going back to Alexander and his men. And the earliest representations of Buddha in painting or stone were “clearly modeled on Apollo…(depicting) the Greek profile and topknot” (Robinson) and a more slender, almost athletic appearance.

After the vigorous eight–year campaign of military conquest Alexander began a more stately and measured return journey, dying in Babylon three years later. His final resting place was to be in Alexandria (Egypt), but at some point in the second or third century A.D. his body disappeared.

Book Row America

Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade by Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador [New York, Carroll & Graf, (©2003, 2004)] will be officially published on January 4, 2004, but signed advance copies have been on sale at the Strand Bookstore in New York since early December. Also, several book wholesalers throughout the country are stocking the title, indicating their confidence in the general public’s interest in New York City history and lore.

A review copy arrived here today and before the evening is over I expect to be off on a magic carpet ride, reveling in what it must have been like exploring that most bookish of enclaves during the early part of the last century. A trip down memory lane for some, a vicarious experience for others who are reminded that there was a time, before the Internet, when there were places that permitted customers to browse through immense stocks of used, out-of-print, and antiquarian books – repositories of “infinite riches” flowing from the minds of men and women from every time and every place.

For collectors and bibliophiles it may also be of interest to note that the idea for the book grew out of the enthusiastic response to Roy Meador’s “Book Row, When Serendipity Was in Flower” which appeared in the April 2000 issue of this magazine.