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The Blood of Heroes
When Ludwig van Beethoven was eleven years old, he composed some piano pieces too difficult to play with his small hands. His music teacher was said to have remarked, "Why, you can't play that, Ludwig." To which the boy replied, "I will when I am bigger."
History is full of the notable quotes and feats of precocious geniuses. The common thread of such stories is that they foreshadow the great deeds to come. Of course young Beethoven knew that someday he would be able to play the most difficult works for piano; after all, he was Beethoven!
Many such stories were told about Alexander the Great. Most can be found in the first ten chapters of Plutarch's biography. Plutarch relays them to suggest Alexander's future invincibility; his vehement nature (barely controlled by his self-discipline); his self-possession; his confidence; and his wit. The adult Alexander was famous for all of these. It would be a mistake, however, to forget some salient facts about his background and upbringing as we read through Plutarch's delightful litany of youthful triumphs.
Alexander was a prince, with the blood of some of Greece's greatest heroes (real and mythical) flowing through his veins from both sides of his family tree. Moreover, this young prince did not grow up among "barbarians," as some ancient writers have intimated, but at a wealthy, sophisticated royal court filled with great painters, writers, diplomats, and soldiers. He also received the finest education possible. Unless we keep these facts in mind we can never understand how Alexander, the Macedonian prince, eventually became the king of Asia and a god.
The Blood of Heroes
Alexander's mother, Olympias, was a princess of the royal house of Molossia in Epirus (northwestern Greece). Molossos, after whom the royal house was named, was supposedly the son of Andromache and Neoptolemus. It was Neoptolemus who had slain King Priam at the altar of Zeus Herkeios ("of the Household") during the sack of Troy. He also happened to be the son of Achilles. On his mother's side, Alexander was thus a blood descendant of the flawed hero of the Iliad and his savage son. To Alexander, the significance of his descent from the heroes of Greece's epic past was not a matter of passive identification with ancient history; the past was alive, and Alexander was part of a living epic cycle.
Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon, had fallen in love with Olympias when both were initiated into the mysteries of the Kabeiri (earth gods) on the island of Samothrace. Later on, Olympias was known to be devoted to ectastic Dionysian cults. During their ceremonies she entered into states of possession, and to the festival processions in honor of the god she introduced large, hand-tamed snakes that terrified the male spectators.
Strong-willed, intelligent, and ruthlessly committed to Alexander's interests as she saw them, Olympias apparently never read the chapter in the textbook of Greek culture that forbade women to meddle in politics. She also passed along to Alexander her unshakable belief in his special connection to the gods and his unique destiny. Alexander may have been the only man in Macedon who was not afraid of his formidable, some have said terrible, mother.
Olympias probably married Philip in 357. We are told that before Alexander's birth she dreamed that she had heard a crash of thunder and that her womb had been struck by a thunderbolt. There followed a blinding flash of light. A great sheet of flame blazed up from it, spreading far and wide before it disappeared.
Philip, too, had a prophetic dream. He saw himself sealing up his wife's womb; on the seal was engraved the figure of a lion. Interpreting this dream, Aristander of Telmessus, who later served as Alexander's seer during his campaigns, declared that Olympias must be pregnant, since men did not seal up what was empty, and that she would bear a son whose nature would be bold and lion-like.
That bold and lion-like son probably was born on July 20, 356, the very day when the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, burned to the ground. Hegesias of Magnesia claimed that the conflagration was no wonder: Artemis was away from her shrine attending the birth of Alexander.
Philip received the news of his son's birth just after he had captured the important city of Potidaea. In fact, three happy messages were brought to Philip that day: that his one and only general, Parmenio, had defeated the Illyrians in a great battle; that his racehorse had been victorious at the Olympic games; and that Alexander had been born. Philip's soothsayers predicted that a son whose birth coincided with three victories would be invincible.
The soothsayers were right; but of course, they also knew that the blood of some nearly invincible heroes flowed through the infant's veins. Olympias did nothing to discourage Alexander's belief in his descent from heroes and divinities. When she sent Alexander off to lead his great expedition, we are told that she disclosed to him the secret of his conception and exhorted him to show himself worthy of his divine parentage. (Unfortunately, Alexander never revealed what his mother had told him.)
Even as a young boy, according to Plutarch, Alexander revealed his ambitious nature. He was a fine runner, and when friends asked him whether he would be willing to compete at Olympia, he replied that he would"if I have kings to run against me." He also astonished some visiting Persian ambassadors by questioning them about the distances they had traveled, the nature of the journey into the interior of Persia, the king's character and experience in war, and the nation's military strength. His close interrogation of these ambassadors was later seen as particularly significant.
Indeed, even before he reached puberty, Alexander had already planned his career. Whenever he heard that his father had captured some famous city or won an overwhelming victory, he was annoyed and complained to his friends, "Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for you and me to show the world."
The Taming of Bucephalas
Alexander's precocity and ambition are perhaps best illustrated by the delightful story of the horse named Bucephalas"Oxhead," for the shape of the mark on his forehead. The big black horse had been brought to Philip by Philoneicus the Thessalian, who had offered to sell him for the huge sum of thirteen talents. When Philip and his friends went down to watch Bucephalas being put through his paces, however, they found him quite wild and unmanageable. He allowed no one to mount him; nor would the horse endure the shouts of Philip's grooms. He reared up against anyone who approached him. Angry at having been offered a vicious, unbroken animal, Philip ordered Bucephalas to be led away.
Alexander intervened with a wager: if he could not mount and ride Bucephalas, he would pay his purchase price. Philip's friends laughed at the bet. But Alexander had noticed what no one else had seen: that Bucephalas was spooked by his own shadow. Alexander therefore turned Bucephalas toward the sun, so that his shadow would fall behind him; then, running alongside and stroking him gently, Alexander sprang lightly onto his back. When he saw that Bucephalas had been freed of his fears and wanted to show his speed, Alexander gave him his head and urged him forward at a gallop. As Philip and his friends held their collective breath, Alexander reached the end of his gallop, turned under full control, and rode back in triumph. Philip's friends broke into applause. Philip himself, we are told, wept for joy, and said, "My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you."
Philip was right, of course. But the real significance of this event was not what it revealed of Alexander's ambition; what really set the young prince apart were his keen powers of observation and his ability to draw the correct inferences from what he saw. As a young man, Alexander applied those powers to combat; he was able to observe and then act upon datafeatures of topography, for instancewhose implications no one else could understand as clearly or as quickly.
An Education Fit for a Prince
In charge of the nurses, pedagogues, and teachers expected to educate the tamer of Bucephalas was a certain Leonidas, a relative of Olympias, known as a strict disciplinarian. Alexander's pedagogue (or minder, usually a slave) was an Acarnanian named Lysimachus, who pleased his charge by calling Philip "Peleus," nicknaming Alexander "Achilles," and styling himself "Phoenix," the name of Achilles' old tutor.
Once when Alexander was making sacrifice to the gods and was preparing to throw incense on the altar fire with both hands, Leonidas stopped him: only when Alexander had conquered the spice-bearing regions could he be so lavish with his incense. Later, after he had conquered those regions, Alexander sent Leonidas 500 talents' worth of frankincense and 100 talents' worth of myrrh, explaining that he had sent this abundance so that Leonidas might stop dealing parsimoniously with the gods.
This ending has always appealed to those who have endured a strict teacher. We should attend, however, to the anecdote's opening scene, which provides the real insight into the character of Alexander. Even before he needed their favor to conquer the world, Alexander was extraordinarily pious and generous to the gods.
When Alexander was fourteen years old, Philip brought the great philosopher Aristotle to Pella as Alexander's tutor. In what was probably a consecrated precinct of the Nymphs near the beautiful grove of Mieza, Aristotle tutored the young prince in ethics, politics, and eristics (formal disputation).
Aristotle also annotated a copy of Homer's Iliad for Alexander. He took it with him on his campaigns to the East; it was one of the very few material possessions he ever seems to have cherished. During his campaigns he slept with it under his pillow, along with a dagger.
The influence of the Iliad upon Alexander cannot be overestimated. To begin with, it supplied a model of a war of revenge against Asia. And Alexander seems to have been deeply moved by the heroic example of his kinsman Achilles: when he visited the site of Troy in the spring of 334, he honored Achilles and the other Greek heroes buried there with sacrifices, and proclaimed Achilles happy in life, since he had, while he was alive, a faithful friend, and after death, a great herald of his fame.
It was Achilles' acceptance of the inevitability of his own death, however, that most inspired Alexander. According to Homer, both Thetis (Achilles' mother) and Achilles knew that once he had avenged Patroklos by killing Hektor, his own death would be near. But in avenging his friend he would win the only kind of immortality available to mortals: excellent glory.
Alexander too seems to have been willing to accept death, at a time of the gods' choosing, in exchange for the everlasting glory that came from achieving great deeds of arms. That acceptance explains best the pattern of Alexander's actions throughout his life. Like Achilles, to gain all, Alexander was willing to risk all. In combat, that was his great advantage over those who wanted to live longerand therefore were destined to live shorter and less glorious lives.
Homer may have given Alexander some ideas about how to fight as well; Alexander reportedly regarded the Iliad as "a handbook of warfare." Since there are no completely convincing examples in the epics of the massed hoplite warfare typical of Macedonian practice during the fourth century, we can only assume that what Alexander meant by his remark was that, like Achilles, he should fight glorious duels with his enemies out in front of his supporters. This is exactly what he did. And we know that Alexander justified some of his more controversial actions, such as marrying "barbarian" women, with references to the Iliad.
As for Aristotle himself, what influence he had on Alexander's thinking otherwise is debatable. According to some sources, he advised Alexander to treat the conquered peoples of his empire like plants or animals. There is really no good reason to doubt this story; the general sense of the advice is completely consistent with known Aristotelian theories about the natural and desirable submission of slaves to masters, and of the conquered to their conquerors. Fortunately for the conquered peoples of Asia, Alexander ignored his teacher's counsel, preferring to treat at least some of them as human beings.
From between the lines of Plutarch's predictive account of Alexander's early years, then, a picture of the young prince comes into focus: a competitive and ambitious young man, pushed and pulled between equally strong-minded parents, blessed with keen intelligence, pious in a traditional fashion, sensitive and well educated, but with an independent streak, and, most important, fired by a passionate engagement with Greece's heroic past. Much of that past had been defined by violent encounters with Greece's powerful neighbor to the east, Persia.
Impiety for Impiety
The tribes of northern Greece had surrendered in 480 b.c.e. without a fight. The Thebans and the Boeotians had offered earth and waterthe ancient tokens of submission. The Spartan king Leonidas and 300 of his city's bravest lay dead in the pass at Thermopylae. Now, as the enormous host of the Persian king Xerxes neared Athens, the Athenians abandoned their city.
Only a few temple stewards and poor old men remained on the Acropolis, huddled together in the temple of Athena Polias. They had barricaded the gates to the Acropolis with some planks and timbers, trusting in the oracle from Delphi, which had promised that "the wooden wall would not be taken."
But some Persians discovered a way up the steep cliffs of the Acropolis by the shrine of Kekrops' daughter Aglauros. They flung open the gates to their fellow soldiers. All those who had taken refuge inside the sanctuary were slaughtered. The Persians looted Athena's temple and then burned the entire Acropolis to the ground.
By the will of the wise god Ahuramazda, Xerxes had punished the Athenians for giving aid to the Ionian rebels almost twenty years before. Truth had triumphed over falsehood. The world had been put back in order.
The Athenians and their Greek allies saw the destruction of the temples rather differently. The Persians had committed perhaps the gravest impiety in history. Such sacrilege required revenge; and the Greeks swore a solemn oath to the gods not to rebuild the sanctuaries, but to leave them as a reminder to coming generations of the impiety of the "barbarians." True to their oath, the Athenians did not begin to rebuild the temple of Athena until 447, by which point they had been fighting Persia for nearly half a century. Even then, many considered that the Persians still had not paid for what they had done. Almost exactly 150 years after Xerxes destroyed the temples on the Athenian Acropolis, a young Macedonian king burned down the palaces of Ahuramazda's divinely selected rulers, returning impiety for impiety. His name was Alexander.