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The Nature of Alexander
By Mary Renault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Mary Renault
All rights reserved.
On a hot June day in Babylon, in 323 BC, Alexander died. Wailing spread through the city; his body-squires wandered about in tears; the Persians shaved their heads in mourning; the temples quenched their fires. His generals plunged into a dazed and chaotic power struggle. In one of its episodes they fought about his bier, where he may have been still alive in a terminal coma, for the freshness and lifelike colour of his corpse, left some time untended, were much wondered at. At length the embalmers came, approaching him with awe; and "after praying that it might be right and lawful for mortals to handle the body of a god" began their work.
Roxane's child was still unborn. If he named his successor on his deathbed, no one admitted to having heard. There was no established heir whose own prestige would be invested in the splendour of his obsequies; for decades, Greece and Asia would be riddled with intrigue and shaken with the tramp of armies, as his generals tore off their portions of his empire. Yet steadily for two years, as war elephants moved ponderously in the train of war leaders changing sides, gold and gems by the talents' worth poured into the workshop where Greek master craftsmen were perfecting a funeral car worthy of its burden. It was accepted like a law of nature that the catafalque must be unsurpassed in memory, history or legend.
The coffin was of beaten gold, the body within it embedded in precious spices. Over it was spread a pall of gold-embroidered purple, on which was displayed Alexander's panoply of arms. Upon all this was erected a golden temple. Gold Ionic columns, twined with acanthus, supported a vaulted roof of gold scales set with jewels, topped with a scintillating gold olive wreath which flashed in the sun like lightning. At each of its corners stood a golden Victory holding out a trophy. The gold cornice below it was embossed with ibex heads from which hung gold rings supporting a bright, multi-coloured garland. Its ends were tasselled, and from the tassels hung large bells with clear and carrying voices.
Under the cornice hung a painted frieze. Its front panel showed Alexander in a state chariot, "a very splendid sceptre in his hands," attended by Macedonian and Persian bodyguards. Another had a procession of Indian war elephants; a third, cavalry in battle order; the last a fleet of ships. The open spaces between the columns were filled in with golden net, screening the draped sarcophagus from sun and rain, but not from the viewers' eyes. It had an entrance, guarded by golden lions.
The axles of the gilded wheels ended in lion heads whose teeth held spears. Something had been devised to protect their burden from shock. The edifice was drawn by sixty-four mules, pulling on four yoke poles in teams of four; each mule had a gilded crown, a gold bell hanging at either cheek, and a collar set with gems.
Diodorus, who apparently took this description from an eyewitness's, says it was more magnificent when seen than when described. Alexander himself had always buried his dead with splendour. Funerals in his day were more gifts of honour than displays of mourning.
"Because of its wide fame it drew together many spectators; for from every city it came to, the people came out to meet it, and followed beside it when it went away, never wearied of their pleasure in the sight." Week after week, month after month, at the pace of its labouring mules, preceded by roadmakers and pausing while they smoothed its passage, fifteen, ten, five miles a day; stopping at towns where sacrifices were offered and epitaphions sung, the huge gold shrine, ringing and glittering, trundled across a thousand miles of Asia; the shock absorbers, whose construction has defeated scholars, protecting in death the body so careless of itself in life. North along the Euphrates, east to the Tigris; stopping at Opis, that crucial station on the Royal Road to the west; northward to skirt the Arabian Desert. "Ptolemy, moreover, doing homage to Alexander, went to meet it with an army as far as Syria."
Ptolemy's homage was a reverent hijack. Kings of Macedon had been buried by ancient custom at Aegae, its ancient hill-fort capital; there was a prophecy that when this failed the royal line would end. Ptolemy, a kinsman of the house, must have known it well. But he had shrewdly chosen his share of the fissured empire: Egypt, where the Macedonian conquest had been hailed as a liberation; where Alexander had honoured the shrines profaned by a Persian king, and received divinity; where Ptolemy himself had got rid of a bad governor and was very popular. To Egypt, he declared, Alexander had wished to return; where else but to his father Ammon?
Ptolemy was probably right. Since he crossed the Hellespont eastward at twenty-two, Alexander had shown no disposition to go home. He had planned to centre his empire on Babylon; he had turned himself from a young Macedonian conqueror into an impressive Persian Great King; he was déraciné, and so without exception were the ambitious young officers who had followed him. Ptolemy's loyalty had been proved in early years when, materially, he had had more to lose than gain by it. If now the prestige of entombing his friend was immense for Egypt, if it enabled Ptolemy to found a dynasty, he had fair cause to think that Alexander would be grateful. Had his body reached Macedon, sooner or later it would have been destroyed by the implacable Cassander. In Alexandria it would have centuries of veneration.
Southward from Syria, therefore, went the awe-inspiring cortège, augmented now by a satrap of Egypt and his army; past the patched-up walls of Tyre, on through Judaea. At city after city the mingled host of the escort, Macedonian, Persian, Egyptian, set up its tents about the tabernacle of the dead god, from whose divinity Ptolemy, Saviour-Pharaoh to be, would later derive his own. He would take care it was well displayed and its advent heralded. One cannot suppose that Alexander would have wished it otherwise. He had loved his fame. Like Achilles, he had traded length of days for it. He had trusted in the gods to keep their bargain; and, like Achilles, not in vain.
Children who had been unborn or in arms when he rode that way alive gaped at a sight they would still be talking of in sixty years. Pointing to the pictures on the painted frieze, they asked the story, and believed whatever they were told. In that progress must have begun a thousand years of legends.
In Egypt the sarcophagus, still in its famous car, rested some years in Memphis, a magnet for sightseers, while in Alexandria they built The Tomb. (When the mausoleums of the whole Ptolemaic dynasty had been assembled round it, The Tomb it always remained.)
Perdiccas, Alexander's deputy when he died, was extremely angry with Ptolemy, and made war on him in due course. But Alexander's proverbial fortune, which caused people to wear his image cut in rings, passed like a grateful bequest to his boyhood friend. Of all the great generals who contended for his empire after his death, Ptolemy alone died peacefully in bed. He was eighty-four; had kept his people's regard, completed his respected History, and established in his lifetime the succession of his favourite son.
For nearly three centuries, while Macedon became a Roman province, the Ptolemys ruled in Egypt, and the priests of the deified Alexander served his shrine. At last in 89 BC, when the line had grown degenerate, the effete and bloated Ptolemy IX, rejected by his army and needing pay for mercenaries, took the gold sarcophagus and melted it down for coin. All Alexandria was outraged; to no one's surprise, he was killed within the year.
The embalmers had been master craftsmen; Alexander's three-hundred-year-old face had set into distinguished beauty. The Alexandrians piously rehoused him in a sarcophagus adorned with coloured glass. Fifty years later, the house of Ptolemy was extinguished by Cleopatra's asp.
The Tomb remained. Caesar visited it; no doubt Mark Antony too with envy; Augustus left an imperial standard as tribute. The legends gathered.
In his lifetime they had begun, springing up in his wake from the Hellespont to the Himalayas. Through his torn empire and far beyond its fringes they grew like tropical jungle, throwing up exotic flowers of fantasy. Myth says that the robber Sciron, whom Theseus threw off the Isthmian cliff, was rejected by earth and sea, which tossed him back and forth. To possess Alexander, there was an inter-continental tug of war.
Egypt quickly annexed him. He had been thirteen years old when the last native Pharaoh, Nectanebo, fled into exile at the Persian conquest; but now it was told that he had been an adept in magic who, instructed by his art, had voyaged to Macedon, there to beget an avenger of his people's wrong. Olympias, hearing of his fame, summoned him to cast her horoscope. He foretold her a hero son from the seed of Zeus-Ammon; his harbinger would be a monstrous serpent. It appeared, startling the court. Next night, Nectanebo put on the ram-horned mask of Ammon and fulfilled his own prediction. The stars were about to sign a portentous birth; when Olympias was in labour, he made her hold back till they were in the right conjunction.
Alexander had spent a few months of his life in Egypt. In Persia, his adopted kingdom, his memory was fresh and green. Careless of chronology, legend fathered him on Darius II, who had received a daughter of Philip of Macedon after a (wholly fictitious) victory over that king. In spite of her beauty, Darius only kept her for a night because she had bad breath; so Alexander was born in Macedon. Later on she improved her breath by chewing skandix (chervil) after which she called her son Sikandar. Since skandix is Greek, not Persian, the story shows that his work on the fusion of culture had not gone for nothing.
Persia spent upward of a millennium embroidering the story of Sikandar Dhulkarnein, the Two-Horned, the World-Seeker. In the pleasure houses, the bazaars, the inns, the harems, centuries before it got into written form, it collected fabulous exploits from eras before his birth, Märchen with which he himself may have been beguiled by his Persian favourite. Of no one else did they now appear so credible.
Assimilated at last to Islam, the romance spread out to enormous length, every rift loaded with ore, till it could take eighty-five stanzas to describe two opposing armies before the battle began. He was credited with deeds he would have disclaimed indignantly, the tendency being to equip him with whatever qualities seemed admirable to the poet, including religious intolerance. He is found galloping about destroying heathen temples and scattering Zoroaster's sacred fires—he, the most cheerfully syncretist of religious men—in the name of Allah. When he gets to Egypt, it is to rescue the country from the black and hideous invading Zangs, drinkers of blood and eaters of brains. To put them in dread he has a Zang head cooked, and after a deft exchange of dishes affects to eat with relish. Victorious, he leaves the grateful Egyptians (there are still small outcrops of history) and defeats King Dara of Persia, who dies in his arms bequeathing him, in return for avenging his murder, the hand of his daughter Roshanak, who stirs his heart to "tumult like a Russian camel bell's." Dispatching Poros of India singlehanded he takes the surrender of the King of China, who bestows on him the Auspicious Horseman, a gallant warrior later revealed as a lady of dazzling beauty, with whom he spends an elaborately decorated night of love. (So long remembered was his wish to meet an Amazon.) Victorious over monsters and Russian savages, he marches up into the Arctic night, seeking the spring of eternal life, the immemorial quest of Sumerian Gilgamesh. (Probably no part of the legend would have surprised him more than this.)
One thing is constant; in the terms of each epoch, Sikandar is the supreme hero. "To iron men he is iron, but gold towards the golden." When the Dauphin sent Henry V a bat and ball in scorn of his youth, he must have chosen his ill-judged gift with some vague recollection of Dara's challenge to Sikandar. He founds Sikandria, "a city like the joyous spring." He is full of cunning devices, not all of which he would have approved. He invents the mirror—for strategic reasons, but not without some unmeant psychological truth. He venerates the tomb of Cyrus the Great; this was never forgotten in Persia. His tactics are likened to skilful chess, his troop dispositions to enamelled miniatures. Indeed the miniaturists never tired of depicting him, elaborately Persianized with chain mail, pointed helm and scimitar; using a horseman's bow, or catching a giant with an expert lasso; wearing the regal moustache and beard obligatory where a smooth face marked the eunuch; lamented at his death by the sages Aristo and Aflatun (Aristotle and Plato); the Happy World-Possessor, whose cavalcade is like a rose garden. No victor in world history has left an image comparable with this in the land he conquered. Coeurde-Lion, it may be remembered, survived in Arab memory as a bogyman with whom mothers threatened bad children.
Meantime, while Persian folk memory and fable were putting down the earliest pieces of this extraordinary mosaic, a quite different process, sophisticated and purposeful, was going on to the westward. In Macedon the formidable Antipater, Regent in turn for Philip, Alexander, and the shadowy boy Alexander IV, died like some great rock releasing landslides. His son Cassander, Alexander's bitterest enemy, future murderer of his mother, widow and son, settled down to the serious work of murdering his reputation.
A willing tool was the educational establishment of Athens, bitter at the collapse of the city-states from within, which had left them open to Macedon; blaming on Alexander his Regent's stern hegemony which he had been trying to loosen when he died; smarting at the death of Demosthenes whom he had spared all his life in spite of much provocation, and of the dubious Callisthenes, whose provocation had been too much. They had expelled Aristotle for his links with Macedon. Cassander made it clear, to the lesser men left as opinion formers, that enemies of Alexander were friends of his; and he was a powerful friend. With his encouragement—probably fed by him with misinformation they believed, for he had visited the court at Babylon—they set to work on their own Alexander legend; no organic growth like the Romances, but efficient hatchet work, producing vicious caricatures of an Orientalized, lecherous despot, incongruously active among excesses which might have exhausted Sardanapalus. His failure to beget by this mode of life a horde of bastards was put down to alcoholism; drink made his semen watery, pronounced Theophrastus, Professor of Science at the Lyceum—who, in common with the rest of Athens, had not set eyes on him since he was eighteen.
All this time the involved Wars of the Successors were going on; his former generals were further polluting history by issuing bogus last testaments of his to support their claims. He was a favourite set subject, too, for the schools of rhetoric, which industriously wrote letters for him, describing the marvels of India, lecturing Aristotle, or telling his mother how he was getting on. Modern scholarship has had to labour at extracting these burrs from the cloth of history, in which some of the most striking had become firmly wound.
Romance, however, still kept pace with propaganda. Judaea in the harsh grip of Antiochus thought nostalgically of the Beast with Two Horns who had harmlessly passed that way, and soon pictured him on his knees before the Torah, honouring the One God. The Ethiopians, original models perhaps for the fearful Zangs, evolved their own Alexander story in which, besides conversing with an angel who supports the world, he kills an enormous dragon by getting it to swallow a kind of bomb, and blowing it up. "How is the great Alexander?" the two-tailed mermaid would demand of Aegean sailors, who must hasten to answer "He lives and reigns" if they wanted to save their ship.
In Rome Caesar was struck down in the Forum, to save the Republic, which promptly died of it. Under Divine Augustus, no one had a motive for praising Alexander. Caesarians cared to eulogize no rivals. Greeks, in Roman prejudice, were lightweights, Greeklings, slick Levantines; panders, procurers and profiteers. To the learned world, on the other hand, Athens was the university where they sent their sons to pick up the intellectual polish of the conquered; and there the dead hand of the Lyceum still wrote on.
But among the republicans, in their bitter underground, interest in Alexander was keen and active. Had he not lived, it would have been necessary to invent him. His was an imperial effigy which could be safely burned.
Excerpted from The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1975 Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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