The Meaning of Alexander

Was he nothing more than a military adventurer?

Alexander the Great was a remarkable military commander. He was an impressive leader of men who experienced huge and undeniable success. His conquest of much of the Persian Empire is notable for its dramatic nature and for the rapidity with which that conquest was achieved.

The idea, increasingly advanced, that Alexander was nothing more than an unusually successful military adventurer is a reasonable one; but it has flaws. Most notably, this formulation overlooks the possibility that the reasons for Alexander’s success might put his life in a different category. Alexander succeeded in uncommon ways. Ought this be reflected in a different status? The above also does not adequately distinguish between intention and effect – whether Alexander was opportunistic or not, whether he had ideals and ambitions, and what the reasons for these might be. His military leadership and political ambitions could be categorised in different ways.

Was he fundamentally concerned with unsavoury matters – chaos, massacres, constant war – as has been argued by the historian A. B. Bosworth? Or did he have higher, nobler ideals, as was suggested by W. W. Tarn, whose elegant narrative even includes the possibility of Alexander favouring international unity and a ‘brotherhood of man’. The fact that Alexander was a great military commander separates him in many ways from mere adventurism. And the extent to which he has been portrayed as a ‘great man’ of history accords with this view, though such a framing of Alexander’s life possibly created much of it. Similarly, Alexander’s serving as a fount for later writers and their moralising suggests that there was something either in his life or in what could be drawn from that life of moral value; this suggests that there was more to his character, to his life story, and to his achievements than adventurism.

Writing of Alexander requires immersion in an extensive and well-developed historiography. This cannot all be included or assimilated easily. But its very depth and complexity suggests a similar complexity in its subject. Alexander the man was a complex figure, both in intention and result. Thus he cannot be reduced down to adventurer. His life story is simply too significant, and the writing issuing from it is too voluminous, too complex, to bear out such a reductive characterisation. In the most general terms, one can define a military adventurer as a leader who embarks on expansionist campaigns opportunistically and riskily. But Alexander does not meet these criteria on those limited terms; and there are other factors at play, which differentiate Alexander from others who may have attracted the label.

One question of note concerns the problem of success. At what point does a military adventurer become a conqueror? This is unresolved. Though what is in question is a sense of success, the very fact of Alexander’s great success is difficult to categorise. In that he was one of the most successful generals of the ancient world and possibly of all time means he was ‘unusually successful’ in many ways. But such a thing does not necessitate adventurism, though it may imply it. Instead, one must assess other criteria. At the same time, however, it can be noted that the question at hand contains a great understatement, one which does not effectively represent the nature of Alexander’s success. The difference between Alexander’s success and any other commander of his age is, by a matter of definition, considerable. The distinction between Alexander and the men labelled adventurers is possibly even great. It is not clear that the same adjectives could or should be employed to describe a difference of such magnitude. But it is clear that at some point an adventurer ceases to merit the term. A certain level of success transfigures him. Many military leaders are opportunists. Military leaders in history were, too. They took risks where they could. They seized chances where they felt able. All military leaders did in the process of attaining or exercising their power, unless propelled to that position by forces entirely outside their control and beyond the compass of their agency, was almost by definition opportunistic. In acknowledging this, one opens up the possibility that all military leaders who took part in aggressive action and attempted to take opportunities were therefore adventurers. But this widens the definition so far as to render it nonsensical. It does not account for success; it only implies a differentiation. In short, more criteria must be applied before determining whether Alexander was an adventurer, unusually successful or not.

More specifically than this, then, one can argue that the question of adventurism does not differentiate effectively between intention and effect. If Alexander’s intention was unclear or not articulated, or in some way mindless and opportunistic, it would suggest that he was more a military adventurer than a man with a mission or higher purpose. This is as much to do with his ideals or his lack of them. A man without ideals can still be trusted to act in his own interest. Alexander’s more brutal actions were often undertaken in his own interest, but in a manner which seems opportunistic. It is possible that this may fit the adventuring archetype. Alexander’s defence of his hegemony over the Greek states was pragmatically necessary. No invasion of Persia, which was planned from the moment he ascended to the throne, could occur without quiescence from Macedonia’s neighbours. Thus the young king’s bloody destruction of Thebes, and the subsequent enslavement of its people, can be justified, if not morally, then in practical terms as a sad necessity.

Much of Alexander’s military actions in Asia cannot be so described. The invasion of Asia Minor could be easily considered adventuring. Though Alexander saw it partially through the prism of revenge, W. W. Tarn astutely notes that there was more to it than that. It is possible that Alexander’s primary reason to invade Persia was that ‘he had never thought of not doing it’. Alexander’s father, Philip II, had wanted to invade Asia Minor. It was, the evidence suggests, expected of powerful Hellenic rulers in this era. As such Alexander can be absolved of the charge of adventuring, especially if he was merely living up to expectations placed on him as hegemon of Greece, or as the son of his father. The war was not begun by Alexander or even by his father, though both escalated their respective situations. Desires to invade Asia Minor predominated in the Greek world. So too did willingness for conflict with the Persian Empire. Alexander carried out these ambitions, actively pursued such hopes. On those terms, he cannot be convicted of adventurism.

One ought to consider whether Alexander orchestrated military campaigns for vainglorious, namely egotistical, reasons. If so, he could be cast as an adventurer. But also, there is some limited evidence, particularly in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander but also in Arrian’s history, that, far from being entirely vain and self-regarding, Alexander was willing to sacrifice himself or risk humiliation or death. Alexander risked wounding at Granicus; he received serious wounds, according to Arrian, at Issus, during the siege of Gaza, and notably during the Mallian campaign. Is this another sort of vainglory? It could certainly be. But it could also be an indicator, distinctly, of a death-or-glory attitude, which Arrian attempts to describe.

Can this death-or-glory idea, with its thin regard for personal safety and high possibility of failure, be disentangled from vainglory? It is possible but the two are linked. All answers to these questions could indicate traits congruent with adventurism. But each would not make such a judgement inevitable. Bravery is often a precondition to military command, let alone military success. Many generals in the ancient world put themselves in danger to fight at all. They were not all adventurers. Alexander’s unique willingness to fight personally seems strange and reckless, but it could also be a construction by latter Roman historians, as Cambridge classicist Mary Beard notes in her excellent summative essay on Alexander in Confronting the Classics, aimed at having the historical Alexander embody Roman ideas of bravery.

There is an inherent value judgement involved in much of the historiography surrounding Alexander. It concerns his ambitions and his effects. Was he good or bad? Such things are difficult to determine, as what one might reasonably assess to be deeply negative may seem normal, or may have been necessary to win victories at all. To believe Bosworth, one would have to accept that Alexander’s rule was about chaos, massacres, and the state of constant war. Alexander was certainly bloody. Dante confines him to the same circle of Hell as Attila. But was this that atypical? It does not seem to be. Democratic Athens continually voted to go to war. Sparta fought yearly wars with its own subject Helot population. Warfare was a part of ancient life. So too was the hope for securing strategic objectives through warfare. This was not all adventurism and it was not all vicious and evil.

Bosworth’s suggestion that killing was all Alexander knew how to do is one thing; it is not correct on its own terms, but more importantly, had it have been, it would still be inapt. Killing was an essential part of statecraft. Peace was almost not an option. If this sort of warfare was the preserve of adventurers, there were a lot of them around. The alternative to this thinking is equally reductive. Tarn suggests that Alexander was interested in an idea of universal brotherhood, the promotion of harmony thought the unification and fusing of cultures. This is an attractive idea and allows the historian to view his aggressive wars in a different light; but it is not evidenced, either in Tarn’s book or in his Raleigh lecture on the same subject. Alexander’s co-opting the Persian elites was more about firming up his position than an attempt to create a brotherhood of man. His taking of a Persian wife may well have been, as James Davidson suggests, more to do with his under-explored sexual appetites than any grand statement of idealism. Tarn’s argument, if proven, would suggest that Alexander had a moral core and a great mission. These would necessarily exculpate him from the charge of adventurism. But because the argument does not convince, these do not and cannot result.

Alexander’s morality or lack of it matters. As has been stated, Bosworth argues repeatedly that Alexander’s ambitions were his own; that there was nothing morally noble in his use of violence; and that killing, as the only thing he was good at, was deployed skilfully but randomly, capriciously and with obvious brutality. Alexander’s morality was hymned by later writers but is less in evidence than Plutarch’s panegyric would suggest. Amoral leaders are more likely to be opportunistic; they are more likely also to be adventurers in that sense. But there is a disconnect separating the two. That Alexander acted with brutality does not mean he was that rare thing, a successful thug, as Mary Beard once stated and does not recant in her essay.

Allowance might be made for his other traits. Alexander may not have begun his campaign after real consideration and probing of the possibilities, but he exhibited real vision. He was able to conquer the Persian Empire, or much of it, not just through a series of well-executed set pieces, but rather through strategic planning and tactical calculation. This suggests that he was not an adventurer. Though it is, of course, possible that his foresight and talent at planning meant that he was still an adventurer, but one unusually successful in that pursuit. Again, Alexander’s skill as a commander is relevant here. Is the fact that he was a great commander and ‘great man’ enough to differentiate him from adventurers of the era? This line of reasoning is inherently circular. He was not an unusually successful adventurer in part because of his unusual success. But there is some truth in attempting to understand the personality of the man. He was a chancer, but one whose instincts repeatedly proved to be correct. They paid off. He repeatedly succeeded when mere balance of probability would not support such an outcome. This suggests a depth to his strategic skill and success which is above that of mere adventurism. But this argument is, like the implied statement, reductive. It is as important to think of the historical Alexander, as well as the one which lived.

Alexander acquired great prestige and importance in the years following his death. His successors fought not only over him empire but over his name and legacy. He was honoured by later Roman generals and Roman writers. Much of our understanding of Alexander was shaped and cultivated but such admiration. In this telling, Alexander was a complex man who achieved much, a truly great, colossal figure. Arrian writes of his immense ambition, something which could have taken in lands then occupied by Rome. Alexander may have looked to turn west, he said, something also considered by Livy. This has affected the way latter generations think about Alexander. His ambition would have been viewed more positively in a more militarist, imperial culture. His boldness would not have been seen to be reckless and adventurist. It was necessary in the business of building empires. It was vital. But more than that, Alexander was also a moral figure.

Not only were Alexander’s immense success and obvious talents enough to turn him into a practical lesson in military campaigning; in Plutarch he was also a repository for moral tales and moral lessons. Plutarch’s Alexander was regretful when he killed out of turn. He spared those who had killed if they had done so justly; he treated his captives well; he was not luxurious; he was abstemious, at least initially; he was possessed of great potential. The Alexander portrayed by Plutarch is obviously fanciful. It is evident that Plutarch’s use of his life for moral instruction was more undertaken to suit the writer’s own ends – writing Parallel Lives, something of use to those seeking instruction and edification from the past – than to conform to modern ideas of historical accuracy. Thus Plutarch’s Alexander cannot be taken as a repudiation of the immorality and recklessness associated with adventurism. But it is reasonable to conclude that Plutarch’s moralism had some antecedents. And it was followed by other traditions. Alexander has a favourable place in Islam. Nineteenth century Christian imperialists spoke of his ‘civilising mission’ – which is, of course, quite opposed to the idea posited by Tarn of his sense of common humanity. But of these portrayals, though they took Alexander on their terms and gave him the positive traits they wished their societies reflected, saw a germ of something in his character which was of value. They were not merely appropriating an adventurer.

What matters here is how Alexander was perceived, not just what he did. Such things shaped the latter day historiography. The legend of Alexander – him as military colossus as well as moral exemplar – is well known. It must have had some truth to it. Such legends cannot be sustained entirely by wish-thinking. It may be partially a Roman invention, as Mary Beard suggests; but this cannot account entirely for Alexander’s hold on so much in the way of common and collective culture in the millennia since his death. There are practical reasons to suggest that he was more than a marauder who became lucky and achieved more than any other had done. In the periods when he was not at war Alexander did govern with some skill. The collapse of his empire after his death posits two opposing perspectives: either he was so untalented that he could not build an arrangement that lasted, or that he was so preternaturally talented that no other person was capable of carrying on in his wake. The latter seems more reasonable, especially considering the young age at which he died and the real suddenness of his death. That Alexander did not live long enough to demonstrate that his system had permanence does not make him an adventurer by default.

The Romans wanted to portray Alexander as a brave fighter with inexhaustible ambition and also a moral lesson. His bloodiness was never far away, as Dante’s damning of him representation shows. But largely the view of generations of historians, from many different societies, has been positive. Such were the scale of his successes that historians attempted to appropriate them, to rationalise them in favourable ways, and to prompt new generations to emulate the man whose achievements they were.

The contemporary age is different. We are not militarist; we have turned our collective back on expansionism. Empire appals or embarrasses us. War is seen to be wicked, starting wars doubly so. Alexander was a militarist because his life was one of fighting; it was one spent in the pursuit of empire; his was a life of bloody conflict in pursuit of advantage. To have had such a life, Alexander was necessarily opportunistic. He was brutal and cruel both as a consequence of what he perceived to be strategic imperative and during moments of moral lapse. After the Second World War, Alexander retaining his popularity, he was re-imagined as a man after global unity, a man concerned with establishing brotherhood of men. But this thought, though attractive, has been subject to revision. Since it did not prove entirely credible, more recently historians have taken an entirely different tack. Rather than attempt to fit Alexander into contemporary morality, he has been cast out entirely, deemed unsuitable and morally evil. There are no lessons to be learnt from him any more. He is morally beyond the pale. Hence a trend within the scholarship to compound his unsuitability by considering him one of a disreputable collection of historical figures. This denigrates Alexander’s achievements by comparison and does not do justice to the complexity of the man. Thus though he shared traits with military adventurers of the past, he cannot be one of them.

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