- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 15, 2005


By Paul Cartledge

Overlook, $28.95, 352 pages


It’s a shame that Oliver Stone couldn’t have made a better movie about history’s greatest world conqueror, Alexander the Great. Shameful because, as actor Colin Farrell, who plays Alexander in the film, dryly noted, his life has all the qualities of “bad fiction.”

If you haven’t seen the movie — and judging by its quick departure from the theaters, you haven’t — Alexander’s life is simplicity cast on a global scale. The death of his father, the king of Macedon, when Alexander was just 20, left the young man heir not only to his father’s kingdom, but also his grand vision of invading Persia. Needless to say, Alexander didn’t let his father down. And when he had finished his conquests, he conveniently died at 32, seemingly taking his newly acquired empire with him.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Where those trying to constrict Alexander with a beginning, middle and an end get into trouble is with Alexander himself. It is the question that has puzzled both ancient and contemporary biographers — and now Hollywood directors. Paul Cartledge phrases the question this way: “But just what sort of man was he, in so far he was a man (and not a god or hero)?”

To Cartledge, author of “Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past,” Alexander was a hunter. His new biography stresses Alexander’s “predilection, or rather grand passion, for hunting game: human as well as animal, and the bigger, more numerous and more dangerous the better. For that offered him a greater chance for enhancing his standing and his fame.”

Mr. Cartledge, chairman of the Classics Faculty at Cambridge University, is on firm ground in his appreciation of the ancient mind set. He quotes Arrian, a Roman biographer of Alexander, commenting on the king’s early death: “For my part I cannot determine with certainty what sort of plans Alexander had in mind … but I can say one thing without fear of contradiction, and that is that none was small and petty, and he would not have stopped conquering even if he’d added Europe to Asia and the Britannic Islands to Europe. On the contrary, he would have continued to seek beyond them for unknown lands, as it was ever his nature, if he had no rival, to strive to better the best.”

This understanding might not please those who see Alexander’s wild and often conflicting character as suggesting there was something more driving him. Yes, there were the personality traits, the so-called details that comprise “bad fiction:” the homosexual affair with boyhood friend Hephaestion; the drinking bouts, during one of which Alexander killed his trusted adviser Cleitus in a fit of rage; and the growing megalomania that slowly consumed him toward the end of his life, to name but a few.

But “to seek beyond” and “to better the best” is for Mr. Cartledge the best interpretation, and not just because it’s the simplest. As he notes, Macedonian youths were required to skewer their first wild boar before being allowed to sit with the adult males at symposiums. Hunting was a rite of passage that Alexander never relinquished. And it is this idea of hunting, which so infused Macedonian society, that Mr. Cartledge believes drove much of who Alexander was and what he did.

Yet the author doesn’t limit himself to just this one theme. Rather, he explores the entirety of Alexander’s life, seeking motives behind some of the king’s more eccentric decisions and usually falling on the side of practicality. This helps explain his ordering of the book, which is thematic rather than linear.

For readers unfamiliar with the history of ancient Greece or the conquests of Alexander, the two opening chapters setting the scene and summarizing his subject’s life might seem inadequate. Mr. Cartledge acknowledges this, but points out that there are layers of Alexander that must be delved if any coherent idea of who he was is to be achieved. Not to mention the fact that even the ancient sources do not agree on almost everything about Alexander except the bare facts.

A rough overview of Alexander’s life, then, is quite easy. After his father, Philip II, was murdered in 336 B.C., Alexander quickly consolidated his claim to the throne of Macedon. Readying his kingdom before the coming invasion of Persia, the first few years of Alexander’s reign were already outlined from what Philip had left him. Appropriately, Mr. Cartledge gives Philip his due.

Once a backwater of the Greek world, Macedon under Philip’s rule became the strongest Greek state, with Philip as head of the League of Corinth, a loose alliance of the Greek city-states. It was Philip who reorganized the Macedonian military, established his authority over his borders and convinced the other Greek cities to embark on an invasion of Persia to liberate the Greek cities under its control. All these accomplishments greatly eased Alexander’s ascension to power, and allowed him to act quickly. By 334, Alexander was able to invade Persia. Four years later, he was the undisputed master of Greece and Asia.

Although Mr. Cartledge doesn’t dwell on Alexander’s military genius, the major battles in the Persian campaign (334-331) are explained beyond being mere strategic victories. Interestingly, as Mr. Cartledge points out, Alexander fought against more Greeks aligned with the Persians than there were Greeks who fought for him. This is just one of the problems Alexander had to deal with while his “liberation” of the Greek cities in Asia Minor turned into an outright land grab.

The further Alexander pressed into the heart of modern-day Iran, the less he upheld the facade of being a liberator. In 330, he literally left the Greeks behind, dismissing the Greek allied contingents of his army, much to his advisers’ dismay. At this point, the popular view of Alexander, expressed by the ancient writers who both admired and despised him, becomes very much like Kurtz’s experience in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”

Like Kurtz by the Africans he lived with, Alexander is slowly consumed by the exoticness of his Eastern subjects. The further Alexander went East, the less Greek he became, until that fateful moment when those whom Alexander once conquered, conquered him. Mr. Cartledge doesn’t dispute this story line on its surface, yet he is rightly suspicious of an explanation that may be too neat and simplistic.

Mr. Cartledge’s explanation, however, isn’t much better. He argues that Alexander knew what he was doing, and had a very good reason for doing it. By the time Alexander returned from his campaign into India (327-324), he faced an empire that badly needed managing. Through his conscious assumption of Persian culture, and his orders that his Macedonians do the same, Alexander was trying to build a truly Hellenized civilization, a peaceful empire that brought West and East together.

But Mr. Cartledge may go a bit far when he speaks of Alexander as a modern-day internationalist, someone who can symbolize for us a “peaceful, multi-ethnic existence.” Maybe, but this enlightened Alexander hardly bears any resemblance to Alexander the hunter.

It’s unfortunate that Mr. Cartledge reaches this far to “modernize” his subject with a contemporary moral lesson. By definition, a hunter is not an administrator, and when thinking of Alexander it’s perhaps best to remember Arrian’s words: “to seek beyond” and “to better the best.” Whether by design or by accident, Alexander the Great did transform the ancient world. Mr. Cartledge ends his very fine examination exploring some of Alexander’s legacies, both real and imagined, and those that are with us still today.

Blake D. Dvorak is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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