- Alexander the Great
Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, author of many books and articles on classical Greece and a preeminent authority especially on the fourth century BC, has given us a new interpretation of one of the most extraordinary and enigmatic figures in world history in a work of high scholarship that is also accessible to the general reader. No historical figure has inspired more divergent interpretations than Alexander. The idealized portrait presented by W.W. Tarn in the 1930s – Alexander as a perfect English gentleman and a philosopher who invented the idea of universal human brotherhood [End Page 551] – cannot now be taken seriously, but recent historians tend to go to the opposite extreme and reduce Alexander to an alcoholic or psychopath. Cartledge argues that his complex character is best understood as a combination of two seemingly contradictory traits: on the one hand a ruthless, often brutal pragmatist, on the other a romantic visionary with a streak of mysticism. If the reader thinks that this description could also fit Adolf Hitler, that only reminds us how attractive Alexander seems by comparison.
Cartledge thinks the main thread in Alexander's life was his conflict with his father, Philip II of Macedon, and his father's legacy. When he became king upon Philip's assassination in 336 BC (Alexander's complicity in the murder is possible) he was dependent on Philip's old guard, especially the senior general Parmenion. He finally freed himself from them in 330 by the murder of Parmenion and a shakeup of the high command. Alexander was determined to forge a new kind of polity, which conservative Macedonians could never have approved. He did not conceive of this as a continuation of either the Macedonian kingship or the Achaemenid empire. He called himself Lord of Asia; if it is true that he planned the eventual conquest of the western Mediterranean he might have become Lord of the World. This empire was to be governed by a new elite created by the racial and cultural fusion of Macedonians and Iranians. He seems to have been virtually unique among Greeks in his freedom from ethnic prejudice. One doubts his orientalizing policy could have succeeded even if he had had a normal life span.
By the end of his life Alexander was accepting, perhaps demanding, divine honors from his Greek subjects, and this was once thought further evidence of oriental influence; but there is now epigraphic evidence that Philip II was also worshipped as a god in his own lifetime, which makes the divinization issue seem just another aspect of Alexander's long rivalry with his father.
There is an excellent discussion of the complicated problem of the sources for Alexander's career. One might have asked for more attention to strictly military matters, but there is a good chapter on Alexander's generalship. This lucid book is only slightly marred by a murky conclusion telling us "this is the time for all of us . . .to recover an Alexander who can symbolize peaceful, multi-ethnic coexistence" (p. 266). One hopes that those who pursue this utopian goal will not imitate Alexander's methods.
Seoul, South Korea