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Until recently, popular biographers and most scholars viewed Alexander the Great as a genius with a plan, a romantic figure pursuing his vision of a united world. His dream was at times characterized as a benevolent interest in the brotherhood of man, sometimes as a brute interest in the exercise of power. Green, a Cambridge-trained classicist who is also a novelist, portrays Alexander as both a complex personality and a single-minded general, a man capable of such diverse expediencies as patricide or the massacre of civilians. Green describes his Alexander as "not only the most brilliant (and ambitious) field commander in history, but also supremely indifferent to all those administrative excellences and idealistic yearnings foisted upon him by later generations, especially those who found the conqueror, tout court, a little hard upon their liberal sensibilities."
This biography begins not with one of the universally known incidents of Alexander's life, but with an account of his father, Philip of Macedonia, whose many-territoried empire was the first on the continent of Europe to have an effectively centralized government and military. What Philip and Macedonia had to offer, Alexander made his own, but Philip and Macedonia also made Alexander form an important context for understanding Alexander himself. Yet his origins and training do not fully explain the man. After he was named hegemon of the Hellenic League, many philosophers came to congratulate Alexander, but one was conspicuous by his absence: Diogenes the Cynic, an ascetic who lived in a clay tub. Piqued and curious, Alexander himself visited the philosopher, who, when asked if there was anything Alexander could do for him, made the famous reply, "Don't stand between me and the sun." Alexander's courtiers jeered, but Alexander silenced them: "If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes." This remark was as unexpected in Alexander as it would be in a modern leader.
For the general reader, the book, redolent with gritty details and fully aware of Alexander's darker side, offers a gripping tale of Alexander's career. Full backnotes, fourteen maps, and chronological and genealogical tables serve readers with more specialized interests.
Philip of Macedon
The story of Alexander the Great is inexorably bound up with that of his father, King Philip II, and with his country, Macedonia. Philip was a most remarkable and dominating figure in his own right; while Macedonia, as has recently been observed, 'was the first large territorial state with an effectively centralized political, military and administrative structure to come into being on the continent of Europe'. Unless we understand this, and them, Alexander's career must remain for us no more than the progress of a comet, flaring in unparalleled majesty across the sky: a marvel, but incomprehensible. Genius Alexander had, and in full measure; yet even genius remains to a surprising extent the product of its environment. What Alexander was, Philip and Macedonia in great part made him, and it is with them that we must begin.
On an early September day in the year 356 B.C. a courier rode out of Pella, Macedonia's new royal capital, bearing dispatches for the king. He headed south-east, across the plain, past Lake Yanitza (known then as Borboros, or Mud, a godsend for superior Greek punsters: borboros-barbaros, uncouth primitivism in a nutshell), with Ossa and Olympus gleaming white on the far horizon, as Xerxes had seen them when he camped by Homer's 'wide-flowing Axius' at the head of his invading host. The courier's destination was Potidaea, a city of the Chalcidic peninsula, where the Macedonian army now lay; and he did not waste any time on his journey. Philip, son of Amyntas, since 359 B.C. ruler over a dubiously united Macedonia, was not a man who took kindly to delay or inefficiency in his servants. At present, however, having recently forced the surrender of Potidaea—for over a century a bone of contention between various Greek powers, Athens included, and a most valuable addition to his steadily expanding domains – he was liable to be in a benevolent mood, and very probably drunk as well.
If the courier had not known Philip by sight, he might have been hard put to it to pick him out from among his fellow-nobles and staff officers. The king wore the same purple cloak and broad-brimmed hat that formed the regular attire of a Macedonian aristocrat. He affected no royal insignia of any sort, was addressed by his name, without honorifics, and indeed never described himself as 'king' on any official document. Here, as so often in Macedonia, Mycenaean parallels apply: Philip was an overlord among equals, the wanax maintaining a precarious authority over his turbulent barons. Perhaps he felt, too, that his position, especially in the faction-torn feudal court of Pella, was better not too closely defined. Rivals for the throne had spread a rumour that he and his two brothers – both kings before him, both violently killed – were impostors; accusations of bastardy formed a stock weapon in the Macedonian power-game.
Philip was now twenty-seven years old: a strong, sensual, heavily bearded man much addicted to drink, women, and (when the fancy took him) boys. Normally of a jovial disposition, he had even more reason for cheerfulness after studying the dispatches which the courier brought him. His most reliable general, Parmenio, had won a decisive victory over a combined force of Illyrians and Paeonians – powerful tribes on the Macedonian marches, occupying districts roughly equivalent to modern Albania and Serbia. In the Olympic Games, which had just ended, his entry for the horse-race had carried off firs! prize. Best of all, on about 20 July his wife Myrtale – better known to us by her adopted name of Olympias – had given birth to a son: his name (two previous Argead monarchs had already borne it) was Alexander.
After he had finished reading, Philip is said to have begged Fortune to do him some small disservice, to offset such overwhelming favours. Perhaps he recalled the cautionary tale of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, who received a letter from the Egyptian Pharaoh Amasis expressing anxiety at his excessive good fortune. 'I have never yet heard of a man,' Amasis declared, 'who after an unbroken run of luck was not finally brought to complete ruin.' He advised Polycrates to throw away the object he valued most; Polycrates tossed an emerald ring into the sea, but got it back a week later in the belly of a fish. Amasis promptly broke off their alliance, and Polycrates ended up impaled by a Persian satrap. It is, therefore, curious – though by no means out of character – that of the three events listed in that memorable dispatch, the only one we know Philip to have publicly commemorated is his victory at Olympia. The Macedonian royal mint put out a new issue of silver coins: their obverse displayed the head of Zeus, their reverse a large and spirited horse, whose diminutive naked jockey was shown crowned with the wreath of victory and waving a palm-branch.
What was it that gave these three particular events such extreme, almost symbolic significance for him? To understand the king's reaction it is necessary to look back for a moment, at the chequered history and archaic customs of Macedonia before his accession.
First – and perhaps most important of all – the country was divided, both geographically and ethnically, into two quite distinct regions: lowlands and highlands. The case of Scotland provides close and illuminating parallels. Lower Macedonia comprised the flat, fertile plain round the Thermaic Gulf. This plain is watered by two great rivers, the Axius (Vardár) and the Haliacmon (Vistritza), and ringed by hills on all sides except towards the east, where the first natural frontier is provided by a third river, the Strymon (Struma). Lower Macedonia was the old central kingdom, founded by semi-legendary cattle barons who knew good pasturage when they saw it, and ruled over by the royal dynasty of the Argeads, to which Philip himself belonged. About 700 B.C. this noble clan had migrated eastward from Orestis in the Pindus mountains, looking for arable land. They first occupied Pieria, the coastal plain running northward from Mt Olympus, and afterwards extended their conquests to include the alluvial plain of Bottiaea – Homer's Emathia – lying west of the Thermaic Gulf. During this process of expansion they also captured the picturesque fortress town of Edessa, on the north-west frontier. The district was so rich in orchards and vineyards that people called it the 'Gardens of Midas'. Edessa also had considerable strategic value, lying as it did above the pass which carried the trans-Balkan trunk road – later the Roman Via Egnatia – through to Illyria and the West. Near Edessa the Argeads established their first capital, Aegae. Even after the seat of government was transferred to Pella, down in the plain, Aegae remained the sacred burial-ground of the Macedonian kings, and all important royal ceremonies were conducted there.
Upper Macedonia and Paeonia formed a single geographical unit: a high horseshoe of upland plateaux and grazing-land, encircling the plain from south to north-east, and itself backed – except, again, towards the Strymon – by mountain ranges. Passes across these mountains are few, the best-known being the Vale of Tempe by Mt Olympus, and that followed by the Via Egnatia. Thus Macedonia as a whole tended to remain in isolation from the rest of the Balkan peninsula; like Sparta, it preserved institutions (such as kingship and baronial feudalism) which had lapsed elsewhere. The highlands lay mostly to the west and south-west of the central plain, and were divided into three originally autonomous kingdoms: Elimiotis in the south, Ores tis and Lyncestis to the west and north-west, the latter by Lake Lychnitis. The northern frontier of Lyncestis marched with Paeonia, and all three cantons shared frontiers with Illyria and Epirus. Indeed, in many ways their inhabitants were more akin to Illyrians or Paeonians or Thracians than they were to their own lowland cousins. The men of Lower Macedonia worshipped Greek gods; the royal family claimed descent from Heracles. But the highlanders were much addicted to Thracian deities, Sabazius, the Clodones and Mimallones, whose wild orgiastic cult-practices closely resembled those portrayed by Euripides in the Bacchae. They were, indeed, partly of Illyrian stock, and they intermarried with Thracians or Epirots rather more often than they did with Macedonians of the plain.
Originally, too, the three cantons had been independent kingdoms, each with its own ambitious and well-connected royal house. Efforts to preserve that independence – or to reassert it – naturally drove them into alliances with the Epirots, Paeonians or Illyrians. The sovereigns of Lower Macedonia were equally determined to annex these 'out-kingdoms', whether by conquest, political persuasion, or dynastic inter-marriage. Lyncestis was ruled by descendants of the Bacchiad dynasty, who had moved on to Macedonia after their expulsion from Corinth in 657 B.C. Excavations at Trebenishte have revealed a wealth of gold masks and tomb furniture of the period between 650 and 600; these were powerful princes in the true Homeric tradition, like the kings of Cyprus. The Molossian dynasty of Epirus, on the marches of Orestis and Elimiotis, claimed descent from Achilles, through his grandson Pyrrhus – a fact d estined to have immeasurable influence on the young Alexander, whose mother Olympias was of Molossian stock.
The Argeads themselves, as we have seen, headed their pedigree with Heracles, and could thus (since Heracles was the son of Zeus) style themselves 'Zeus-born' like any Mycenaean dynast: both Zeus and Heracles appear regularly on Philip's coinage. It is clear, however, that there were other clans whose claim to the throne of a united Macedonia could at least be urged with some plausibility. From the Argead viewpoint no real advance was possible until Upper Macedonia had been brought under some sort of central control. Paradoxically (but for obvious enough reasons) the nearer this aim came to fulfilment, the greater the danger of a palace coup d'état by some desperate out-kingdom prince determined to keep his crown at all costs.
At least as early as the fifth century B.C. the Argeads were claiming' traditional' suzerainty over Upper Macedonia – again, on quasi-Homeric lines. The overlordship much resembled that of Agamemnon over his fellow-kings: each canton gave just as much allegiance to the Argead throne as any individual monarch could exact. The out-kingdoms were quite liable to connive at Illyrian or Paeonian invasions, if not to give them active backing. Add to this the endless intrigue – often ending in bloody murder and usurpation – which took place at the Argead court, and we begin to see why Macedonia, before Philip's time, played so insignificant a part in Greek history. The country was frankly primitive, preserving customs and institutions which might have made even a Spartan raise his eyebrows. To achieve formal purification of the army, a dog was cut in two by a priest, and the troops then marched between the severed halves. Various ritual war-dances, mimetic in nature, have an unmistakably Zulu air about them for the modern reader.
The attitude of city-state Greeks to this sub-Homeric enclave was one of genial and sophisticated contempt. They regarded Macedonians in general as semi-savages, uncouth of speech and dialect, retrograde in their political institutions, negligible as fighters, and habitual oath-breakers, who dressed in bear-pelts and were much given to deep and swinish potations, tempered with regular bouts of assassination and incest. In a more benevolent mood, Athenians would watch the attempts of the Argead court to Hellenize itself with the patronizing indulgence of some blue-blooded duke called upon to entertain a colonial sugar-baron. No one had forgotten that Alexander I, known ironically as 'the Philhellene ', had been debarred from the Olympic Games until he manufactured a pedigree connecting the Argeads with the ancient Argive kings.
Nor was Macedonia's record in the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars liable to improve her standing with patriotic city-state Greeks. Alexander I had collaborated whole-heartedly with the Persians, marrying his sister to a Persian satrap, and accompanying Xerxes' army as a kind of liaison officer – though he was not above hedging his bets discreetly when a Greek victory seemed possible. After Plataea, he turned on the retreating Persians and carved up a large body of them at Nine Ways (Ennea Hodoi) on the lower Strymon. From the spoils he then set up a gold statue of himself at Delphi, to emphasize his having (even at the eleventh hour) fought on the right side, against the Barbarian. As though to add insult to injury, he profited by the Persian retreat to subjugate the tribes of the Pindus in the west and the Thracian Bistonae and Crestonians in the east, thus almost quadrupling his royal territory. From silver mines on the Lower Strymon he now drew revenues amounting to one silver talent daily. He began to strike coins in his own name, the first Macedonian monarch to do so. These were sizeable achievements, but not of the sort to win him popularity among the Greek states. His successors presented an even shadier picture. His son Perdiccas II switched his allegiance so many times during the Peloponnesian War that one modern scholar thoughtfully provides a tabulated chart to show which side he was on at any given point. What, Athenian democrats must have said, could you do with a man like that? Not to mention the unspeakable Archelaus, Perdiccas' illegitimate son, who reached the throne by murdering his uncle, cousin and half-brother, proceeded to marry his father's widow, and was finally murdered himself as a result of his lurid homosexual intrigues.
Yet it is, precisely, the careers of Perdiccas and Archelaus which hint at Macedonia's true potential. Perdiccas' remarkable tergiversations were mostly due to his possessing, in abundance, a basic raw material which both sides needed desperately: good Macedonian fir for shipbuilding and oars. Upper Macedonia has a continental rather than a Mediterranean climate, and its mountains still show traces of the thick primeval forests which covered them in antiquity. Perdiccas was at pains to establish a treaty of alliance and friendship with Athens (Thuc. 1.57.2), though this was an agreement which both sides honoured in the breach rather than the observance. If the Macedonian king showed himself a slippery customer, it was not for lack of harassment on Athens' part. The foundation of Amphipolis in 437 and the acquisition of Methone three years later enabled the Athenians to put direct pressure on Macedonia; by 413 they were prohibiting Perdiccas from exporting timber without specific permission from Athens (who held the monopoly). However, it was Perdiccas who got the best of the exchange in the long run, playing Sparta and Athens off against each other with cool cynicism, selling timber to both sides, making and tearing up monopoly treaties like so much confetti. He also contrived to keep Macedonia from any serious involvement during the Peloponnesian War, thus preventing that ruinous drainage of manpower which so weakened both main combatants. It was surely Perdiccas' example that Philip had in mind when he said: 'Cheat boys with knucklebones, but men with oaths.'
It is hard to see what else Perdiccas could have done; Macedonia during his reign was still so weak and disunited that effective resistance, let alone any kind of expansion, was out of the question. At least he managed to safeguard the country's natural resources – in the circumstances no mean achievement. But it was Archelaus who, with realistic insight, first formulated the basic problems which had to be dealt with before Macedonia could become any kind of force in Greek affairs, and who seriously applied himself to solving them. Alexander I had, of course, pointed the way, and not merely in the field of territorial expansion. He worked hard to get Macedonia accepted as a member of the Hellenic family (mainly by establishing a fictitious link between the Argead dynasty and Argos), and encouraged Greeks to domicile themselves on Macedonian soil, a policy which both Perdiccas and Archelaus followed. In particular, he offered attractive patronage to such distinguished artists as Pindar and Bacchylides. His general policy was clear enough: extend the frontiers while polishing up Macedonia's cultural image abroad.
Excerpted from Alexander of Macedon 356â?"323 B.C. by Peter Green. Copyright © 2013 Peter Green. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted March 2, 2005
Dr. Peter Greene has written an astounding biography of the Macedonian conquerer. Alexander was envied by Julius Caesar, wondered at by Napoleon: Dr. Greene gives us reasons. Alexander's life was complicated by his bisexuality and his desire to wage war for the sake of waging war. Only a man doing the research that Greene has could paint such a clear picture of a subject lost in the myst of over 2500 years of history. A remarkable read for anyone interested in the saga of humankind.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 4, 2004
This is an excellent biography of Alexander and not only shows his tactical genius but also his luck in battle. No topic is left unexplored and after reading this book, you almost feel as if you were there marching alongside Alexander as he travelled as far east as India and Afganistan.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 13, 2009
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