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Mental Floss: Cocktail Party Cheat Sheets
Alexander the Great
Name-dropping: Alexander (pronunciation: um, obvious) (356-323 BCE). Noted emperor who once ruled half the world despite never seeing his 34th birthday. Alexander's biggest regret? Not living long enough to forcibly capture the state of California and prevent Oliver Stone from making a wretched biopic of his life.
When to Drop Your Knowledge: Knowledge of Alexander will come in handy if you ever find yourself at a cocktail party with Oliver Stone. Also, when the party goes late and most people have gone home and you and your friends sit around and try to think of ways to take over the world, your strategizing might benefit from knowledge of the Master.
He lived his life, and fought his wars, more like the game of Risk than anyone before or since: Find an army, beat it, leave a couple board pieces to protect your flank, and move on. Alexander the Great to most, to the Persians he was simply Alexander the Please Stop Conquering Us.
The son of Greek emperor Philip II, Alexander grew up under the tutelage of no less a teacher than Aristotle. (In a characteristic act of ingratitude, Alexander later ordered the execution of Aristotle's nephew.) He assumed the throne at age 20, and when some Greek -cities were slow to swear allegiance to him, he ordered the execution of all his rivals to the throne and then marched off to ensure his control of all Greece.
Alexander enjoyed marching through Greece so much that he went on to invade the PersianEmpire. By 332 BCE, he had ÅgliberatedÅh all of Persia and Egypt. His army was the best trained in the world at the time, and he employed a huge cavalry force along with Special Teams Forces-like bands of commandos who attacked at night with javelins. (Although they are now primarily utilized in a universally unwatched Olympic sport, javelins were once considered top-notch weapons.)
After 10 years of constant conquering, Alexander had nearly reached the Ganges River in India when his soldiers decided they were tired and wanted to go home. They mutinied, and although Alexander had the leaders of the rebellion executed, he was sympathetic to his soldiers, forgave most of them, and agreed to stop fighting -- at least for a while. Fortunately for the soldiers and unfortunately for Alexander, the Great Emperor died soon after going to Babylon to regroup and solidify his empire.
Probably the greatest general of antiquity, Alexander was also capable of blind cruelty. He ordered countless executions and preferred invasion to negotiation. But he was also the first great multiculturalist: After conquering the Persian Empire, he adopted Persian dress and many of their customs, and even staged a mass wedding at which his soldiers were married off to (rather unwilling) Persian girls.
Good to Know . . .
Alexander's epitaph is one of the most famous in history: ÅgA tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.Åh But in all likelihood, Alexander's tomb does not contain Alexander himself. The emperor Ptolemy took Alexander's body and brought it to Alexandria, where it was on display for a long time. But the body was eventually lost, and its current whereabouts is unknown.
- W. H. Cobb was a state senator and armchair historian in 19th-century Georgia who'd been reading about Alexander's attack on the city of Tyre when his first son was born in 1886. He thought so highly of the Phoenicians' tenacity in the face of Alexander's attack that he gave his son the unusual name Tyrus. Ty Cobb would go on to be every bit as fierce and nasty as the citizens of Tyre.
- It's well known that Alexander today would be considered bisexual, although in antiquity, same-sex attraction was considered universal and thought to be entirely customary. Alexander's closest relationship, which most historians think had a sexual facet, was with his cavalry commander Hephaestion. He and Hephaestion were so close that when his pal died of an illness, a grief-stricken Alexander did the only thing he could do to cheer himself up: He waged an extermination campaign against the nearest enemy he could find (the unlucky victims were the Cossaens).
- According to the ÅghistorianÅh Plutarch (you'll understand the ironic quotes in just a moment), Phillip II wasn't really Alexander's father. Phillip, Plutarch wrote, feared Alexander's mom Olympias because she apparently liked to sleep with snakes. But there was one Ancient Greek who'd sleep with any woman under any circumstances: Zeus. Plutarch goes on to relay that Zeus impregnated Olympias with his trademark thunder-and-lightning technique, making her son Alexander half-man and half-god.
Attila the Hun
Name-dropping: Attila (pronunciation: uh-TILL-uh) (406-453 CE). Nicknamed Flagellum Dei, Latin for Ågthe Scourge of God,Åh he was the last king of the Huns in Europe, a brilliant general with a deep and abiding fondness for killing people.
Huns: Originally referring to east Asian nomads, the name came to refer to any nomads from central Asia (now known, colloquially, as Ågthe ÅeStansÅh), including those who rose to prominence in eastern Europe during the last days of the Roman Empire.
When to Drop Your Knowledge: Well, it's must-have material if your cocktail party happens to get attacked by a gang of barbarians or possibly Cure-embracing goths. But Attila the Hun is also great joke fodder anytime you're drinking a Bloody Mary. When someone asks what you're drinking, you just say, ÅgIn the great tradition of Attila the Hun, I'm drinking the blood of my children! Ha-ha!Åh That's comic gold.
By the turn of the fifth century, the Roman Empire was in trouble due to poor leadership, gluttony at home, and an -overextended military. (Sure, it sounds familiar, but we don't make those jokes, because this is an apolitical book.) Large swaths of the Roman Empire were ripe for the picking, but, as the world's only superpower, the Romans had only to fear periodic revolts among the lesser barbarians (see sidebar).Mental Floss: Cocktail Party Cheat Sheets. Copyright © by Shirley Editors of Mental Floss. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.