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Friday, 3 June 2016

World History: Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great is one of the few people in history who is universally known. At the young age of twenty he had inherited the throne of one of the dominant states in the ancient Mediterranean and by the time he was thirty-two he had ruled an empire spanning from Greece to the Indus River in India. However, does Alexander deserve the title of Great? Also should we look at history only through the life of one individual? Before we look at Alexander and whether the title 'The Great' is justified we have to instead look at Great Man History.

What is Great Man History?
Great Man History was popularized, (but not created), by 19th century historian writer Thomas Carlyle. This idea centers around the notion that history is shaped and moved by 'heroes' or 'great men' whose charisma, intelligence and political skill necessitates this. Although criticized as early as the 1860s, by Herbert Spencer, it has up until this day remained a popular way to look at history. Today there is less emphasis on historical figures being studied alone it is still nevertheless studied in great detail. At my university this year I studied early modern and modern European history and only one lecture could be considered Great Man History, (one about Napoleon), whereas my friend studied Roman history where every other lecture centered on one (or more) figure. This begs the question: should we study Great Man History? I believe yes and no, (with more emphasis on no however). Certain figures in history, such as Alexander the Great, undoubtedly shaped history. With no Napoleon Europe would be a completely different place. However, Great Man History removes everything from history bar the figure we are focusing on. Using the Napoleon example, Great Man History ignores the events of the French Revolution, what was happening in other countries, the people who supported him and the French soldiers who helped him win his battles. The economy, religion, politics, people, culture and society shape history which allows individuals to become 'great'. Also Great Man History has a habit of only focusing on white men who were normally in the social elite. Everyone knows Napoleon but few know Charlotte Corday who assassinated a key Jacobin. Now with that out of the way let's be hypocritical and look at the life of Alexander the Great.

The Life of Alexander
Alexander was born in the capital of the Macedonian Empire, Pella, in 356 BCE to King Philip II and one of his wives, Olympias. As the son of the king he was given the best education, until the age of 16 he was taught by the Aristotle, as well as being taught to fight. Aged twenty he was made king when Philip II was assassinated in 336 BCE, possibly by Olympias, but had to face the revolting of several Greek cities. To the Greeks the Macedons were barbarians and Greece being conquered by Macedon was seen as a disgrace. Despite his young age Alexander brutally crushed the revolt having 6000 men slaughtered at Thebes as well as having the inhabitants sold into slavery. He then invaded the Achaemenid Empire (here's a post about it:, just as his father had planned to. Quite possibly this urge to invade Perisa was due to Macedonian propaganda accusing the Achaemenids of assassinating Philip II. In 334 BCE with an army where a quarter of the soldiers came from Greek cities he went to war. In legend he supposedly cut the Gordian Knot on his way but there is little evidence to support this. In 333 BCE the Macedon army defeated the larger Persian army, (supposedly numbering 600,000 but this is a wide exaggeration), at Issus before sweeping down through Syria until he captured Egypt. Here Alexandria was founded in 331 BCE and would be one of the many cities that he would not only found, but also name after himself. The same year at the Battle of Gaugamela he broke the Achaemenid army (Gaugamala means 'camel's back') so by 330 BCE he had managed to conquer the Achaemenid's capital of Persepolis. The Achaemenid king Darius was murdered by his satraps whom Alexander went after. On his way to India he met Roxana of Bactria whom he married. However, before he could invade India his army 'mutinied' as they were tired of marching and did not wish to face an army of 5000 in the Punjab. He would later marry the daughter of Darius, Stateira II, as well as the daughter of Darius's predecessor, she was Parysatis II. After forging an empire covering two million square miles and founding 70 cities (where twenty were called Alexandria) he died of a fever in 323 BCE. Immediately Roxana had Alexander's other wives murdered to ensure the safety of her unborn child, the Greek cities revolted and Alexander's empire fractured into three 'Hellenistic Kingdoms'.

Alexander's Rule
If we only look at how much Alexander conquered we can easily award him the title of 'The Great'. However, if we look at his ruling of the empire that he founded it is hard to justify this. For one, his empire collapsed barely ten years after he had died. Alexander only focused on forging an empire, not building one, so when he died with Roxana still pregnant his leading generals clashed, the diodochi war, over who would succeed him. Even during Alexander's life was his rule not that secure. While warring against the Achaemenids Agis III of Sparta rose up alongside Thrace. They were crushed but the fact that they managed to do so in the first place showed the weaknesses in Alexander's rule. This can be shown also with the city of Aspendos. Aspendos was a Greek city in Turkey which Alexander took from the Achaemenids. As it was a Greek city he gave it autonomy in return for an occasional tribute of 50 talents (silver) and horses. The city eventually defaulted on payment and Alexander had to send troops to make it a subject city again. His rule was dependent on his army. After all the reason why he didn't invade India was because his army didn't want to. He was well aware of this as he knew that any military setbacks would encourage Greek revanchism at home.

However, there is an idea that Alexander wanted his empire to engage in: integrating cultures. Referred to as Hellenization Alexander encouraged his troops to marry women in conquered lands. At Susa in 324 BCE Alexander not only married the Persian Stateira and Perysatis but also had his soldiers marry Persian women. Around 10,000 marriages between Macedons, Greeks and Persians took place where the ceremony itself mixed Persian and Macedonian customs. Coins found in Afghanistan bare Greek designs and the successive Greco-Indian and Greco-Bactrian Kingdoms were heavily influenced from Greek administration and culture. Buddhism was even influenced by this Hellenization with the anthropomorphising of the Buddha possibly coming from Greek influence. At the same time eastern goods became in demand in the west with there being a huge demand for Chinese silk in Rome during the first century BCE. In fact the ancient historian Diodorus claimed that one of Alexander's generals, Perdiccas, produced papers following his death claiming that Alexander wanted a mass intermarriage of Europeans and Asians (as well as to conquer Carthage and build a tomb for his father greater than the Pyramids of Egypt).

Alexander, his Legacy and Great Man History
Does Alexander and Great Man History fit together. If we only look at his conquests then we can say that he proves that Great Man History is a thing. At such a young age he conquered so much land as well as toppling one of the most powerful empires in history. However, looking at a wider picture his exploits may not have been that great. Alexander fought against an empire not fully mobilized where it was rare in their history to actually fully mobilize. He had inherited an already powerful army and state from his father who had done much hard work for him by conquering the Greek states. He had no administration so his empire barely lasted twenty years after his death, (in some places less), and his death before the birth of an heir lead to his generals squabbling over his empire and, his first wife having the others murdered. Alexandria in Egypt was not finished in his lifetime and the two wonders of the ancient world located there (the library and lighthouse) were not built until many years later. Why then is he known as Alexander the Great instead of Alexander III? The simple answer is he did an astounding feat at a young age. A young man conquering so much would capture the imagination of any other would be conqueror. The founder of the Mauryan Empire in India, Chandra Gupta Maurya, claimed to have met Alexander (the founding of the empire was only possible thanks to the power vacuum left by Alexander's death), Julius Caesar admired him and conquered Alexandria to copy his actions and Napoleon was so eager to fight the British in Egypt was because he could emulate his idol.

Alexander is only great in the eyes of the individual. If you see greatness as conquering the world at a young age then he was great. If you see greatness as forging and ruling a multicultural empire successfully then he was not great. Regardless of whether he was great or not his actions were only possible thanks to the climate that he was in. Maybe in some strange alternate dimension where Alexander and the Macedonian Empire was around at Rome's height of power we may not refer to him as 'the Great'. There is more to history than just great men.
Thanks for reading. The sources I have used are as follows:
-Alexander the Great and his Empire by Pierre Briant
-The Penguin History of the World by J.M. Roberts
-History of the World edited by John Whitney Hall
-1001 Days that Shaped the World edited by Peter Furtado
Next time on World History we'll look at the Silk Road. Thanks and goodbye.

For a list of other World History posts please see here

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