Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alexander And A Fuckwit

As readers know, FLG is a great admirer of Alexander. In fact, if there's anything that gets FLG's blood boiling more than dissing Plato, then it's dissing Alexander. So, this post over at The Duck raised his blood pressure a bit:
The urge to project humanist ideals onto Alexander and his brethren is odd but enduring. Oliver Stone has dabbled in it, as did W.W. Tarn, a classicist and liberal gentleman who saw his own liberal and gentlemanly values reflected in the world conqueror, whom he recast as the forerunner for twentieth century dreams of enlightened internationalism.

This is odd, because Alexander’s activities and temperament were not exactly in the spirit of the League of Nations at prayer. This was a man who annihilated Thebes. In the name of Pan-Hellenic vengeance he went on a murderous and enslaving blitz through the Persian empire. Beyond winning consent and obedience, he showed little interest in the art of government, was only turned back from his endless expansionist project by a disgruntled army whom he punished by force-marching through a desert, and who was so unbothered about the long-term stability of his new multi-civilisational empire that he refused to name a successor. The man who fancied himself a god-king who reincarnated the spirit of Achilles was not centrally driven to the cause of human emancipation.

In short, he was a conqueror and bringer of death on an epic scale. Sure, his exploits might have excited some philosophers to dream of the unity of mankind, but the lived experience of his rampages might have tasted a little different.

Look, people take the idea of Alexander's fusion policy, as it's usually called, too far. As far as FLG is concerned, Alexander wasn't a cosmopolitanist as we understand it today, by which FLG means Alexander didn't view the world through anything like a Kantian lens.

Likewise, Alexander did some things that strike FLG as downright vicious, cruel, and sometimes completely irrational. As FLG has written multiple times on this blog, the burning of Persepolis doesn't make much sense beyond Alexander, who was 26-27 and drunk, acting like a frat boy. But this Patrick Porter guy is also off-base.

Don't get FLG wrong, Alexander is responsible for tons of deaths. But if Alexander was never born it's not like the ancient world would've been peaceful. Or that it was peaceful before him. Moreover, in this light, some of his cruel and vicious streak isn't, in fact, irrational.

The Siege of Tyre offers an example here. Alexander demands Tyre surrender. Tyre refuses. Alexander orders a land bridge, a mole, constructed. Alexander's troops are harassed while building it. Long story short, however, land bridge works, Alexander's naval forces show up at the same time as it's completed, Tyre is taken. Everybody in Tyre, with a few exceptions, is killed or sold into slavery. It's horrible. But only if you look at the proximate death and destruction.

Seeing what Alexander had done at Tyre, everybody else capitulated to him on his way to Egypt. Thus, the bloody and horrific precedent may have actually resulted in less loss of life and brutality overall.

FLG has found that this argument does sway some people. But they then ask by what right did Alexander embark upon this conquest in the first place?

Well, that's a bit trickier. The simple answer is that powerful civilizations in proximity, especially in the ancient world, ended up in conflict. It's not like Alexander picked conquering Asia out of the blue. Let's not forget that there were battles between Greeks and Persians long before Alexander.

Also, it bugs the shit out of FLG when people apply their modern norms to those that came before them. (Rufus over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen is the worst at this. His entire series of posts about the canon does this and is consequently insufferable.) When Porter writes that Alexander was a conquer, he's using it with the modern connotation that this is wrong and immoral. But, at that time and for a long time afterward, conquest was viewed far more positively. Roman Triumphs weren't earned for basket-weaving.

The big issue with Alexander is this -- his story is both history and myth. Plus, it's got a little bit of everything. Therefore, people can see whatever it is they want to see. In large part, that's why FLG thinks Alexander is such a towering figure. His story is so powerful and so amazing that it has this sort of universal relevance, in an admitted weird sort of way, that he is representative of Western civilization. Throughout time people focus on the aspects that they want to focus on. So, for British imperialists, Alexander's legacy was one of spreading Western culture. For others, Alexander aspired to fuse a multinational, multicultural world upon the foundation of rational, Greek culture. For others still, he's a blood-thirsty, petulant conquer who exemplifies all that is wrong with Western civilization.

Did he kill lots of people? Certainly. See any chronicle of his life.

Was he a conqueror? Yes, in fact, the greatest conqueror, as conquerors go, ever. See a fucking map.

Did he act like a drunken frat boy? Yes. See Persepolis and the murder of Cleitus the Black.

Was he a great leader? He almost certainly was. Sure, as Porter mentions, Alexander didn't stop conquering until his army basically mutinied. But they mutinied only after Egypt, Persia, Bactria, and crossing the Hindu-Kush and Indus river for fuck's sake. Now, maybe great leader and frat boy aren't exactly mutually exclusive, but Alexander had something going for him.

Was he an egotistical maniac who believed himself divine? FLG doesn't know if Alexander really thought he was divine. Maybe he did. Maybe he didn't. But FLG has got to say that when a person conquers most of the known world before thirty, then they've got something to be egotistical about. Nevertheless, see proskynesis. See proclaiming himself son of Zeus Ammon.

Did Alexander have a fusion policy? Yes. See proskynesis again. See proclaiming himself son of Zeus Ammon again. See dressing in Persian fashion. See marrying Roxanne. See having his companions marry Eastern women.

Did he spread Hellenistic culture? See Alexandria. See the artifacts from the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom. See the importance of Greek speakers in the East, even through the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. Obviously, not all of that can be attributed solely to Alexander, but his conquest cannot be considered insignificant.

Why didn't he focus on governing? Why didn't he appoint an heir? Great questions. Maybe he was an egotistical nutjob. Or maybe, as FLG is wont to believe, Alexander was focused on conquest. He was still a young man, he'd have time to consolidate his conquest later. Until he could consolidate them, either because he was an egotistical nutjob who believed himself divine or from a sound analysis of the matter, he believed he was the only person that could hold his kingdom together. As you can probably guess, FLG thinks it's the latter. And, in fact, his empire immediately fractured. Given the difficulty that the successors had keeping their smaller empires together, it's hard to believe anybody but Alexander could keep it together.

For example, Ptolemy ran for Egypt. Why? Because it was wealthy, defensible, and had a great internal communication network. That was smart because his empire lasted the longest of any of them.

If he had named an heir or had his son already been born, then would it have made for a better transition? Perhaps. But FLG is doubtful. It's one thing to pay homage to a man who has conquered the known world by the time he was thirty and was undefeated in battle.

Alexander wasn't perfect, but to dismiss him as merely an evil madman or a bringer of death, is to see but one part of the picture -- the bad part. And applying certain modern norms without any attempt to understand the contemporaneous ones.

Lastly, as FLG mentioned before, he thinks what people see in Alexander actually says more about them than it does about Alexander. Consequently, this Patrick Porter guy is a small-minded, myopic fuckwit.


arethusa said...

In fact, if there's anything that gets FLG's blood boiling more than dissing Plato, then it's dissing Alexander.

Somewhere, Withywindle breathes a sigh of relief.

If it's any comfort, this guy is hardly being original, but rather echoing lots of twentieth-century, post-World War II classical scholarship.

FLG said...

"If it's any comfort, this guy is hardly being original, but rather echoing lots of twentieth-century, post-World War II classical scholarship."

Yes, and that post-World War II classical scholarship bugs me just as much.

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