HistoryBits: Ancient Greece

History Bits: Ancient Greece

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Education/Gymnasiums

I’ve often wondered about the propensity of the professorial community for Greek and Latin titles and appellations. I always thought it was part of the notorious pomp and circumstance of academe. But as a history teacher, I should know better: everything in the past (however ancient) is alive and kicking in the capacious present moment, in ways we can’t begin to perceive and understand.

Society/Funerary Customs

The myth-bound Greeks were bound to come up with a plethora of legends as to the conduct of the soul to the afterlife. But in doing so, perhaps they realized that the key to understanding life lies in understanding death—that life should rightfully be regarded with the metaphysical perspective that can only come from having one foot firmly planted on the Other Side.

Society/Homosexuality

I’ve come to the conclusion that the unorthodox sexuality of many of the most famous artists, writers, and leaders in history was one of the most critical elements in their creativity—and I wonder if this wasn’t the case with the extraordinary creativity of ancient Greece as well. Given the persecution of homosexuals in the modern era, one could make the observation that it’s the distressed tree that bears the sweetest fruit.

Society/Myth

As to where mythology blends into religion, I would submit that it’s all cut from the same bolt of fabric–the fabric of belief systems. In societies—ancient or modern–that are ordered around divine authority, myth serves that all-important purpose of expressing collective imagination in building culture. Myth is imagination writ large by culture and society, essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature. I’ve always suspected that lightheartedness and joy were the most natural condition for humans, and I believe the Greeks had the right idea: the extraordinary creativity of their religion, with their pantheons of very fallible deities, gave rise to a rich mythology of fables and moral stories that showed time and again that the gods were only human.

Society/Plague

In times of great economic or social stress, disease seems to symbolize the helplessness of the times and offer an exit from those conditions. People have tried to explain the emergence and decline of disease, and whether from divine provenance, biological agency, or some metaphysical principle, epidemics often seem to come about in response to society’s cry for release from an untenable situation. With the onset of the plague, the Athenian Empire found itself on the ropes in its struggle with Sparta, and the plague seems to have come as the coup de grace. But from the depths of ruin, Athens went on to transform itself from an empire that had gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Indeed, the death from plague of its First Citizen Pericles was especially significant; coming as it did after the shattering defeat that Pericles had led Athens into in the Peloponnesian War, it freed Athens from the shackles of war and enabled it to concentrate instead on becoming an Empire of the Mind. So perhaps it was thanks to the plague (in a backhanded sort of way) that the cultural and political values of Athens (democracy, most notably) survived to flourish thousands of years after its empire bit the dust–giving us an excellent example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Society/Social Class

The single most salient feature of early Greek society was slavery—though not of the sort that cruelly bent men and women to the whip on behalf of plantation agriculture. Happily perhaps, the stony and precipitous terrain of Greece generally made large-scale farming impossible, and the master-slave relationships that developed were on a more intimate scale that caused many slaves to become prized as skilled craftsmen, assistants, and companions. Both Greeks and foreigners might be enslaved for the usual reason—indebtedness, though criminals might be banished to the silver mines near Athens in the spirit of true punishment. Personally, I find the Greek model of debt-slavery benign in comparison with the seven years of disgrace and banishment that American society imposes on the uncreditworthy!

Society/Sparta/Children

I can’t help but wonder if the reason Sparta didn’t endure is that its traditions were alien–if not anathema–to the feminine traits that men so admire in women: their nurturing of children, most of all. After all, if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy… right? To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Society/Sparta/Social Mobility

Caste and the absence of social mobility go a long ways toward explaining the degeneration of civilizations. What happened to Sparta is much like what happened to Rome when the agrarian class lost their farms because of military service and were forced into serfdom with the great estates that just kept getting bigger and bigger (and ultimately became governments in themselves). And in a way, the same sort of thing seems to be happening with the widening social and economic gulf in America between Reds and Blues.

Society/Sparta/Women

I’m not sure that we should ever aspire to treating the sexes absolutely the same, as the extreme they went to in Sparta illustrates. Women in history were not only the equals of men, but in many ways their betters, since they at least had the good sense to stay out of the way of male vanity and its many complications (war and much more), and exert their influence in more subtle ways. Women often occupy a badly underestimated role in history, thanks to the behind-the-scenes influence they exert on men who lend a willing ear in the interest of preserving good relations, as it were, and there are countless cases that suggest that the real power of statecraft may just as easily be found behind the throne as upon it. But that’s pretty old-fashioned, isn’t it? Women must have every measure of the same opportunity that men do, and be able to exert their influence as forthrightly as men do.

Society/Sparta/Women

Spartan women needn’t have contributed anything to masculine glories of Sparta. To me, women represent civilization and the conservators thereof, while men, in spite of their much more conspicuous profile in history, have done at least as much to tear down the edifice of civilization as to build it.

Society/Sport and Physical Culture

The preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with physical culture speaks to their notion of the heroic— arête. The devotion to arête says something not about the Greek notion of the heroic, but about the Greek devotion to fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident too in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is an idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. And arête pervaded athletics, with its cult-like exaltation of the human physical idyll. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But the ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Society/Sport/Olympics

The Olympics embodied the preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with physical culture, which in turn spoke to their notion of the heroic— arête. The devotion to arête says something not about the Greek notion of the heroic, but about the Greek devotion to fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident too in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is a idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. And arête pervaded athletics, with its cult-like exaltation of the human physical idyll. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But the ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Society/Women

Gender relations in ancient Greece would surely have reflected the very significant part that women played in the pantheon of Greek deities–Consider Aphrodite, or Athena, the patron goddess of Athens–as well as in the formation of the character of the Greek race. Their gods were remarkably human—Zeus, when he wasn’t busy hurling thunderbolts, was a congenial middle-aged sort who was overly given to chasing goddesses. Greek religion wasn’t threatening, and it was a world apart from the monsters that populated Assyrian and Babylonian religion (which doesn’t lead me to think that Mesopotamia was a very congenial place for women). Were I a woman in ancient Greece, I would like to think that I was a part of the benign Greek view of religion that must have lent considerable support to the remarkable change that Socrates brought upon the Greek nation; he more than anyone (or anything) seems to have responsible for the transformation of Greece from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. And how much more enduring this… than history’s mightiest empires! Surely, women must have found that far more appealing; Aristophanes said it all quite wonderfully in his little comedy of sexual blackmail in pursuit of peace, Lysistrata.

Society/Women

In ancient Greece, women did not question their role—even if their role was inferior to that of men–knowing that men had their specific responsibilities to fulfill as well that were considerably more hazardous than theirs. Even today, people follow society’s expectations of human behavior without realizing it. But apart from exercising basic respect for others and avoiding violence, the less we rely on expectations of normative behavior, the better chance we have of breaking out from self-imposed restrictions. The extent to which society allows experimentation like this, the more it stands to grow. Japan, for instance, places straightjacket constraints on social behavior, and has traditionally been limited to relying on improving of originals invented elsewhere—whether in technology or culture. America, of course, is a very different story.

Society/Women

Gender equality has only seldom been addressed in pre-modern history—Mesopotamia seems to have been one of the few cultures to have taken a stab at it before giving it up to the long march of history. In the Middle Ages, the clergy offered one avenue for women to achieve a certain measure of status, and marriage relinquished whatever slender prospects for advancement might have come with celibacy. In ancient Greece, women did not question their role—even if their role was inferior to that of men–knowing that men had their specific responsibilities to fulfill as well that were considerably more hazardous than theirs. Even today, people follow society’s expectations of human behavior without realizing it. But apart from exercising basic respect for others and avoiding violence, the less we rely on expectations of normative behavior, the better chance we have of breaking out from self-imposed restrictions. Gender relations in ancient Greece would surely have reflected the very significant part that women played in the pantheon of Greek deities–Consider Aphrodite, or Athena, the patron goddess of Athens–as well as in the formation of the character of the Greek race. Their gods were remarkably human—Zeus, when he wasn’t busy hurling thunderbolts, was a congenial middle-aged sort who was overly given to chasing goddesses. Greek religion wasn’t threatening, and it was a world apart from the monsters that populated Assyrian and Babylonian religion (which doesn’t lead me to think that Mesopotamia was a very congenial place for women). Were I a woman in ancient Greece, I would like to think that I was a part of the benign Greek view of religion that must have lent considerable support to the remarkable change that Socrates brought upon the Greek nation; he more than anyone (or anything) seems to have responsible for the transformation of Greece from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. And how much more enduring this… than history’s mightiest empires! Surely, women must have found that far more appealing; Aristophanes said it all quite wonderfully in his little comedy of sexual blackmail in pursuit of peace, Lysistrata.

Society/Women/Prostitution

Whether with Helen’s launching of a thousand ships or Phryne’s upending of the sacred canons of Greek religion, it seems that men will forever be led most of all–not by the gods or great commanders–but by the Dictator in their Drawers.

Society/Minoans/Mystery

The Minoan civilization has achieved near-mythic stature in history because of its cataclysmic demise and its honor of being the birthplace of Western culture. Myth is popular imagination writ large, and is essential to forming the emotional precepts of culture—much as Paul Bunyon signifies the American spirit of man’s primacy over nature. The artwork of the Minoans showcased one of their civilizations’ most prominent myths: the Minotaur symbolized the source of the animal vitality that informed their cultural identity, much as the dragon does that of the Chinese and the eagle does that of the Americans. We are also reminded by the Minoans that antiquity (and modernity) may have little to do with cultural, or even technological, sophistication. After all, the Sphinx that had been commonly understood to be some 5,000 years old has recently been revealed to be more on the order of 25,000 years old! Weren’t we supposed to be running around in skins, chucking spears at mastodons back then? The cave paintings at Lascaux, some 17,000 years of age, demonstrate a refinement of talent and grace that hardly accords with our usual notions of cave-dwelling society. As for the Minoans, we know that their remarkable palace culture at Knossus provides us with yet another example of a highly advanced civilization that was here today and gone tomorrow–by dint of either natural catastrophe or social upheaval. The long age of darkness that typically follows the death of high civilization—whether Egypt, Crete, Rome, Athens, certain of the great dynasties of China, or the empire of Islam—should remind us that the progression of civilization is not linear in nature, but cyclical, and subject to sudden sharp reversals and apparent extinction.

Mycenaeans/Decline

The Mycenaeans offer yet one more mystery of history’s vanished civilizations. Whether the Mycenaeans perished from political infighting, barbarian invasion, natural calamity, or all of these (and more) in combination, no one is quite sure. We do know that they perished suddenly. The moral of the story is that civilizations that take man untold generations to laboriously build—whether Rome, Europe on the eve of the First World War, or Wall Street on the eve of the Great Crash–have a nasty habit of coming undone… virtually overnight. What’s more, they do so in a way that nobody sees coming (which may be the only way that it could happen!).

Culture

Culture/Art and History

I think the whole point of art and history is that art–whether painting, sculpture, music, or otherwise–usually reflects the times. That said, what might account for the preoccupation of Greek art with the ideal human form? Without wanting to detract from the greatness of Pericles’ accomplishments, I think it’s also true–ironically so–that the shattering defeat that he led Athens into in the Peloponnesian War caused Athens to abandon its militaristic empire and concentrate instead on becoming an Empire of the Mind. Thanks to Pericles (in a backhanded sort of way), the cultural and political values of Athens (democracy, most notably) survived to flourish thousands of years after its empire bit the dust–giving us an excellent example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. In this context, perhaps art reflected the determination of Classical Greece to redirect its focus on ideal forms that endure where empire could not.

Culture/Drama/Aristophanes

Aristophanes said it all quite wonderfully in his little comedy of sexual blackmail in pursuit of peace, Lysistrata. Were I a woman in ancient Greece, I would like to think that I was a part of the benign Greek view of religion that must have lent considerable support to the remarkable change that Socrates brought upon the Greek nation; he more than anyone (or anything) seems to have responsible for the transformation of Greece from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. And how much more enduring this… than history’s mightiest empires! Surely, women must have found that far more appealing.

Culture/Drama/Oedipus Rex

The preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with pathos and bathos—as we see them enacted in Sophocles’ tragic masterpiece Oedipus Rex–illuminates Greece as a society steeped in myth, whose pantheon of gods orchestrated every circumstance of the lives of men and women. Life was a morality tale, and the gods saw to it that man never missed an opportunity to learn the moral of the story. Anyone who exceeded his brief was setting himself up for a fall, which the gods delighted in facilitating, and it was only by adhering to the prudence and measured restraint of the Golden Mean that man might avoid the mischievous attentions of the gods. As you might surmise from their toying with Oedipus in a way that set him up for the biggest fall of all, the Greek gods were far more playful and mischievous bunch than the usual dyspeptic tyrant who scarcely suffers mankind to do is bidding on earth.

Culture/Drama, Lyric Poetry, Architecture

The preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with the ideal in the arts of the Classical Age—whether in the harmony and symmetry of their sculpture and architecture, the pathos of Sappho’s lyric poetry, or the tragedies of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles–speaks to their notion of the heroic: arête. The devotion to arête says something not about the Greek notion of the heroic, but about the Greek devotion to fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident too in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is an idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. And arête pervaded athletics, with its cult-like exaltation of the human physical idyll. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But the ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Culture/History/Herodotus and Thucydides

Herodotus could be forgiven for taking creative liberties with history; with human nature, the more things change, the more they stay the same. That’s why we study history: the reason that history repeats itself is that human nature is so consistent, and we keep making the same mistakes and incurring the same lessons over and over again. Thucydides, however, understood that in order for history to be of any use to us as a roadmap around the mistakes of the past, the record needed to be accurate, rather than imaginary.

Culture/Literature/Homer

I think the whole point of Homer is that–irrespective of the various controversies as to who wrote what, and to the extent that it was fiction or fact–his writings became Holy Writ for the Greeks because they embodied so many of the values that defined their Classical ethos. Their obsession with the heroic spoke to their devotion to fulfilling the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident too in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is an idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But then again, their ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Culture/Literature/Sappho

The preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with the ideal in the arts of the Classical Age speaks to their notion of the heroic—arête–and the fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident in Sappho’s lyric evocation of pathos, as well as in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is an idyllic psychic (and romantic) counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But then again, their ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Culture/Literature/Sappho and Homer

The preoccupation of the ancient Greeks with the ideal in the arts of the Classical Age—whether in the harmony and symmetry of their sculpture and architecture, the pathos of Sappho’s lyric poetry, or the tragedies of Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles–speaks to their notion of the heroic: arête. The devotion to arête says something not about the Greek notion of the heroic, but about the Greek devotion to fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual. As for Homer, I think the whole point of Homer is that–irrespective of the various controversies as to who wrote what, and to the extent that it was fiction or fact–his writings became Holy Writ for the Greeks because they embodied so many of the values that defined their Classical ethos. Their obsession with the heroic spoke to their devotion to fulfilling the highest and best possibilities of the individual. Arête is evident too in Plato, who understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is a idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. A society of dreamers, these Greeks! But then again, their ability to dream is what gave rise to their most enduring cultural and political idylls.

Culture/Hipparchus

Hipparchus’ world abounded with the mathematical ratios found in nature; Kepler, whose universe resonated with the “music of the spheres”; Pascal’s “odds of God”–even Isaac Newton’s embrace of the Hermetic ethos in the formulation of his universal Clockwork Mechanism: the ancients understood mathematics to be the language of magic, and astronomy the symphony of the heavens.

Culture/Parthenon

The Parthenon was the temple of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens and the perfect symbol of its empire as well. Between serving as Goddess of Military Victory and Goddess of Wisdom, Athena was the perfect embodiment of the transformation of Athens from an empire that gloried military conquest to an Empire of the Mind, consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts.

Culture/Philosophy/Aristotle

With his passion for classifying things, Aristotle understood that what you see is what you get. Think about it in terms of people: aren’t they usually how they look? (Admit it—it’s true!) Aristotle knew that the nature of something could be apprehended by careful examination of every aspect of its physical manifestation, and devoted his efforts accordingly to the classification of things. Philosophy, then, is anything but a lot of fusty old bafflegab… but it’s up to you to find your way through the bafflegab and figure out what they’re really saying!

Culture/Philosophy/Aristotle

As to Aristotle’s belief that “bad government is that which subordinates the general good to the good of the individuals in power”, I wonder what he would think about modern democracy, which seems to give the individual the opportunity to place his own interests above those of the common good. Tax cuts, anyone?

Culture/Philosophy/Golden Mean

Greece was a society steeped in myth, whose pantheon of gods orchestrated every circumstance of the lives of men and women. Life was a morality tale, and the gods saw to it that man never missed an opportunity to learn the moral of the story. Anyone who exceeded his brief was setting himself up for a fall, which the gods delighted in facilitating, and it was only by adhering to the prudence and measured restraint of the Golden Mean that man might avoid the mischievous attentions of the gods.

Culture/Philosophy/Plato

The whole point of what the Classical Greek philosophers brought to the table was that there can be a very different way of looking at things than the mindset that most of us take for granted. Plato in particular tried to get us to understand that what we see isn’t necessarily what we get: that for every physical form we see in the world, there’s a psychic counterpart that embodies the values and ultimate reality of that object. If you consider what a tree means–shelter, protection, shady respite, repose, and all those things–you’ve got the idea. Everything means something.

Culture/Philosophy/Plato/Political Philosophy

The whole point of what Plato brought to the table was that there can be a very different way of looking at things than the mindset that most of us take for granted. Plato tried to get us to understand that what we see isn’t necessarily what we get: that for every physical form we see in the world, there’s a psychic counterpart that embodies the values and ultimate reality of that object. If you consider what a tree means–shelter, protection, shady respite, repose, and all those things–you’ve got the idea. Everything means something. Similarly, the priorities of good government as perceived by the common man are blurred by self-interest. They say that people deserve the government they get. While democracy may seem for some the best way to represent the popular will, other societies may regard the popular will as an impediment. After all, how many of us would support something that benefits the community as a whole but does not accord with our self-interest? Would you trade your automobile for purer air? While unbridled self-interest may drive society to achieve a high standard of living, at some we bump up against limits—as evidenced in such pathologies as environmental degradation, crime and homelessness, and traffic congestion-–that a democracy must consider empowering a government that is not beholden to the aggregate self-interest known as popular will. As Plato saw it, the only way to ensure that government was not beholden to self-interest was to entrust it to an aristocracy that was presumably affluent and noble enough to rise above it. (And if you buy that, I also have a bridge that I’d like to sell you!)

Culture/Philosophy/Plutarch

Plutarch’s guidance on raising children is as true today as it was then, for much the same reason that the study of history gives us a crystal ball on the outcomes of present-day developments: human nature is consistent, and in the final analysis, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Culture/Philosophy/Pre-Socratics

It could have been expected that pre-Socratic philosophy would focus less on the underlying truth of the matter than the matter itself, and in attempting to explain the workings of the natural world by observing it. That doesn’t mean they understood it, since what you see is not what you get. Much as Anaximander observed lifeforms and hypothesized about how they came to be what they are, Hippocrates—our first great empiricist—made it his business to observe the world around him, measuring and weighing everything and formulating his worldview as a product of those observations. But did they really apprehend the truth of things? It may be that truth—even truth as it pertains to the natural sciences, is not something that can be measured; we may be barking up the wrong tree altogether. Perhaps truth is something that must be apprehended by the heart.

Culture/Philosophy/Pre-Socratic and Classical

The pre-Socratic era brought an intellectual sea change with new thinking about evolution and cause-and-effect. Much as science has proved inadequate to resolving questions of fundamental reality, these debates eventually gave way to the more penetrating reflection and questioning inspired by Socrates himself. Similarly, our current theories are bound to give way to a new frontier in metaphysical inquiry that lies just beyond the outskirts of logic, science, and religion.

Culture/Philosophy/Pre-Socratic and Classical Compared

“Philosophy”—meaning “love of wisdom”—is a word that I love more than love itself. And what is wisdom? It is an understanding of how everything affects everything else, and ultimately, understanding something can only be accomplished by personally experiencing it… which is why old folks are wise: they’ve experienced life, that others younger than they have only learned about.  Whereas pre-Socratic philosophy sought to explain the world in terms of natural laws, Classical philosophy attempted to peel away the layers of apparent truth to get at the metaphysical heart of the matter. Socrates understood that you can’t tell anybody anything (you can sooner get the sun to rise in the west!), and his Socratic method of questioning and compelling a person to answer arose from his understanding that the only person anyone ever listens to is himself: a most profound insight into human nature. Plato understood that everything means something—not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. There is a psychic counterpart to every physical form, and its purpose lies in what it means to you and to all men. As for Aristotle, he understood that what you see is what you get. Think about it in terms of people: aren’t they usually how they look? (Admit it—it’s true!) Aristotle knew that the nature of something could be apprehended by careful examination of every aspect of its physical manifestation, and devoted his efforts accordingly to the classification of things. Philosophy, then, is anything but a lot of fusty old bafflegab… but it’s up to you to find your way through the bafflegab and figure out what they’re really saying!

Culture/Philosophy/Socrates

As we all know, you can’t tell anybody anything. Perhaps it was because of his famously unlovely appearance and obnoxious deportment that nobody listened to Socrates, and caused him instead to try to get people to listen to themselves–as with the Socratic Method. Once you accomplished that, you’ve got the keys to the Kingdom of Wisdom in your hot little hand.

Culture/Philosophy/Socrates

Socrates’ dictum that “the unexamined life is not worth living” opened up broad new avenues of inquiry into the nature of objective reality. Scientific theory, however, is never based on fact, but only on assumptions that are supported by logic and the five senses—which themselves are only tools that enable us to contend with physical reality as we apprehend it. Socrates and Plato believed in an open-ended interpretation of metaphysics—ultimate reality–that was not hamstrung by logic or the senses, knowing that one’s beliefs are self-created.

Culture/Philosophy/Socrates

Socrates understood that you can’t tell anybody anything (deeming it easier to just go along with whatever his accusers said and then drink his poison), and his Socratic method of questioning and compelling a person to answer arose from his understanding that the only person anyone ever listens to is himself: a most profound insight into human nature.

Culture/Philosophy/Socrates/Legacy

Socrates and his death wrought a remarkable change of heart upon the Greek nation; he more than anyone (or anything) seems to have responsible for the transformation of Greece from an empire that gloried military conquest to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. And how much more enduring this… than history’s mightiest empires! Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for the modest idea that underpinned the social and political organization of the Greek Empire.

Culture/Philosophy/Socrates

Socrates called for people to question and challenge the accepted way of thinking, saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Anything could be improved upon and government—in the wake of Athens’ humiliating defeat by Sparta—was at the top of his list. In challenging authority, Socrates forfeited his life, but with a bit of help from his friends Plato, Aristotle, and others, he caused Greece to change from a culture that glorified conquest and empire to one that was consecrated to democracy, intellectual inquiry, and the arts—a legacy far more enduring than any empire.

Culture/Pottery

Much of what we see today as the incredible artistry of Greek potters in embellishing their vases was actually regarded as humdrum back then—on the same artistic level as cheap wallpaper. I’m sure that if they had any idea of what their stuff would be worth today, the artisans would have peed their pants… or used their urns as chamber pots!

Culture/Science

One thing that intrigues me is that Greek science and technology–and the objective, empirical point of view that guided it–existed so comfortably alongside the metaphysical orientation of Classical Greek philosophy (Plato, especially); the Romans, by comparison, were all business. While the Athenian Empire quickly fell apart, what endured (ironically) was not the armed might that built the empire, but the empire of the mind, in the form of the Greek intellectual and cultural tradition. Empires come and go, but a good idea (like democracy or a clever piece of technology) lasts because it’s good for just about everyone, and not just good for the few.

Culture/Science/Anaximander

Anaximander may well have anticipated the greats of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton), who were both Mechanics and Magicians—architects of scientific theory leavened with a generous dollop of Hermetic magic and alchemy. With both magic and mechanics, we’re really talking about the same thing here: the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Druids saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, and man could use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical and astronomical magic) to control and dominate the natural world–the same objective that was ultimately advanced by the Scientific Revolution.

Culture/Science/Archimedes

The accomplishments of Archimedes anticipated those of Leonardo da Vinci, that other chap who somehow managed to meld the right-brain talents of art with the left-brain skills of engineering, and did so against the background of the rising tide of humanism that helped define the Renaissance. The Greeks of Archimedes’ era were experiencing their own Renaissance in the form of a Golden Age whose values would endure far beyond the fleeting fortunes of the Athenian Empire. While the Athenian Empire quickly fell apart, what endured (ironically) was not the armed might that built the empire, but the empire of the mind, in the form of the Greek intellectual and cultural tradition. Empires come and go, but a good idea (like democracy or a clever piece of technology) lasts because it’s good for just about everyone, and not just good for the few.

Culture/Science/Medicine/Asclepius

The whole murky business of the disfavor of the gods or some murky imbalance of the bodily humors placed Asclepius firmly on one side of the Great Divide between superstition and reason in medicine. It must have taken quite a bit of intellectual courage for Hippocrates, with his assertion that disease came from an identifiable source, to distance himself from the popular preoccupation with the gods as the source of everything good and bad that happened to people.

Culture/Science/Medicine/Hippocrates

Hippocrates’ assertion that disease came from an identifiable source rather than resulting from the disfavor of the gods or some murky imbalance of the bodily humors helped mark the Great Divide between superstition and reason in Western civilization. It must have taken quite a bit of intellectual courage to distance oneself, as Hippocrates did, from the popular preoccupation with the gods as the source of everything good and bad that happened to people.

Culture/Science/Pythagoras

Pythagoras may well have anticipated the greats of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton), who were both Mechanics and Magicians—architects of scientific theory leavened with a generous dollop of Hermetic magic and alchemy. With both magic and mechanics, we’re really talking about the same thing here: the Egyptians, Sumerians, and Druids saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, and man could use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical and astronomical magic) to control and dominate the natural world–the same objective that was ultimately advanced by the Scientific Revolution.

Culture/Science/Thales

It took some doing for enlightened souls like Thales to drag science (such as it was) kicking and screaming into the realm of reason, observation, and experimentation. Even so, the greats of the Scientific Revolution (Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton) would remain both Mechanics and Magicians—architects of scientific theory leavened with a generous dollop of Hermetic magic and alchemy. With both magic and mechanics, we’re really talking about the same thing here: both the Egyptians and the Greeks saw the world as the living embodiment of divinity, but it would take the Scientific Revolution for man to use his own spark of divinity to work magic (especially mathematical and astronomical magic) to control and dominate the natural world.

Religion

Religion

Greece was a society steeped in myth, whose pantheon of gods orchestrated every circumstance of the lives of men and women. Life was a morality tale, and the gods saw to it that man never missed an opportunity to learn the moral of the story. Anyone who exceeded his brief was setting himself up for a fall, which the gods delighted in facilitating, and it was only by adhering to the prudence and measured restraint of the Golden Mean that man might avoid the mischievous attentions of the gods. As you might surmise from this, the Greek gods were far more playful and mischievous bunch than the usual dyspeptic tyrant who scarcely suffers mankind to do his bidding on earth. What’s more, these Greeks didn’t require a priestly class to intercede for them on behalf of the gods and interpret their whims (the occasional oracle would do instead). But just as the educated Greeks didn’t take Zeus and his colleague deities too seriously, neither did Greek religion offer the kind of soul-satisfying spirituality that other religions—most notably Christianity and the mystery cults—would.

Religion/Athena

Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, was the perfect symbol of its empire as well. Between serving as Goddess of Military Victory and Goddess of Wisdom, she was the perfect embodiment of the transformation of Athens from an empire that gloried military conquest to an Empire of the Mind, consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts.

Religion/Dionysus

In drawing the connection of Greek theater to Dionysus (that most fun-loving of gods), I’m reminded that lightheartedness and joy are the most natural condition for humans, and I believe that the Greeks had the right idea: the extraordinary creativity of their religion, with their pantheons of very fallible deities, gave rise to a rich mythology of fables and moral stories that showed time and again that the gods were only human.

Religion/Personal Responsibility

Greek religion was such that pleasing the gods was essential to deflecting misfortune, since people believed their lives were governed by divine caprice rather than free will.

Minoans/Religion

Women were generally accorded their proper place—as the sun is to the planets (at least, I’ve always found it easier to let them run things)–in the society and religion of the Minoans. For as long as farming remained the sort of poking-and-sowing business that women could perform, the status of women rose—giving rise in many societies to a Earth Mother cult that accorded due recognition to women for their role as life-givers, nurturers, and preservers of civilization. But once male strength became necessary to wield oxen and plows, men became the farmers. And once society became settled into agriculture, it began to support cities and their myriad divisions of labor; in the same spirit of diversification, clans organized themselves into specialized labor groups, and families into economic units. All this was reinforced by primogeniture, the custom of decreeing that everything go to the eldest son; after all, daughters were raised only to break their fathers’ hearts (and bank accounts) when they were married off to another family, and as such, were a lost cause from the beginning! But the point is, families became businesses, and anyone who works for the Corporation knows that businesses don’t work very well as democracies (and if you need any proof of that, consider the usual outcome of anything run by a committee).

Power

Power/Delian League

There’s always an ulterior motive, doesn’t it seem, when a dominant power undertakes to form a regional association for the protection of all the lesser lights of the community–like Athens did with the Delian League. Sounds like a racket to me, and sure enough…. Interestingly, it was only when the Athenian Empire had bit the dust that Socrates started asking the kinds of pointed questions that got him in trouble, thereby setting the precedent for an Empire of the Mind that endured long after Athens’ military empire had collapsed.

Power/Democracy

The irony of early Greek democracy–and perhaps this is what nettled Cleisthenes–is that five out of six Athenians were ineligible to vote, because they were women, slaves, or aliens. Democracy’s a fragile thing–tip it too far in either direction, and it doesn’t work. Allowing too few people to vote may be as bad as allowing too many; shouldn’t voters–if they’re going to help shape the influence in the global community of the world’s most powerful nation–be required to demonstrate some understanding of current events… and the lessons and implications of history? The fact that only about one out of six residents of a polis were eligible to participate in government provides us with telling insight into the tenuous nature of Greek democracy. The greatest peril to democracy, though, lay with the fractious nature instilled in the Greeks by the rugged topography that so effectively isolated the various poleis from each other. As a result, the Greeks were never able to get along with each other until some 2,000 years later, when democracy finally re-emerged from its long submergence.

Power/Democracy/Structure

Even in its rudimentary form, early Greek democracy bore a surprising resemblance to the democracy that we practice in the United States. The ekklesia would find its modern-day counterpart in the town council, that forum for free-for-all debate that nominated and filled political offices at the grass-roots level; and the boule, with its council of 500 citizens, gave rise to the tradition of the working congress—though with legislature and executive branch rolled up into one—that hammered out the day-to-day politics and military matters of the polis. All of this was organized around the deme, the equivalent of the precinct or ward that elected a certain number of delegates to the boule, and which enjoyed the same sort of political parity as our states do today in the Senate, regardless of their population. Perhaps it was because democracy lay dormant and untampered with for 2,200 years before re-emerging in the 18th century that these resemblances hold true today.

Power/Democracy/Failings

The fact that only about one out of six residents of a polis were eligible to participate in government provides us with telling insight into the tenuous nature of Greek democracy. The greatest peril to democracy, though, lay with the fractious nature instilled in the Greeks by the rugged topography that so effectively isolated the various poleis from each other. As a result, the Greeks were never able to get along with each other until some 2,000 years later, when democracy finally re-emerged from its long submergence.

Power/Demosthenes

In that sense, Demosthenes may have been howling into the wind—calling for Athens to rise to the defense of liberties that would soon become long swept into the dustbin of history. Asia Minor welcomed their liberation by Alexander the Great–an event that won the loyalty of a Greek populace that had long been marginalized by the corruption of their Persian overlords. Back in Greece, however, Athenian democracy was really a democracy in name only, unavailable to the four out of five members of the population who were slaves, or women, or too young or too old, and it eventually lost out to those who regarded it as “mob rule”… and who banished it into oblivion for the next 2,000 years!

Power/Forms of Government

Monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, even democracy–they were all variations upon the same theme: rule by a favored few. The dividing line in the case of aristocracy was the family you were born into, regardless of how well qualified you were, and that of oligarchy was money (and lots of it). And Athenian democracy was actually unavailable to the four out of five members of the population who were slaves, or women, or too young or too old. Even with those constraints, democracy eventually lost out to those who regarded it as “mob rule”… and who banished it into oblivion for the next 2,000 years! But the fact that it then re-emerged goes to show: you can’t keep a good idea down.

Power/Pericles

Without wanting to detract from the greatness of Pericles’ accomplishments, I think it’s also true–ironically so–that the shattering defeat that he led Athens into in the Peloponnesian War caused Athens to abandon its militaristic empire and concentrate instead on becoming an Empire of the Mind. Thanks to Pericles (in a backhanded sort of way), the cultural and political values of Athens (democracy, most notably) survived to flourish thousands of years after its empire bit the dust–giving us an excellent example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Power/Polis/Athens and Sparta

A couple of things happened around 400 BC that combined to produce a remarkable change of heart upon the Greek nation: the defeat of Athens by Sparta, and the death of Socrates. The extreme to which took the military ethic could be seen in the fact that Sparta even forbade coins in its realm, since the luster of lucre might distract its acolytes from the arts of war. While Sparta was well prepared to conquer and exercise military dominion, it lacked the commercial vitality that fueled the cultural glory of Athens. Much as we sometimes revile the merchant class for its obsession with the bottom line and its philistine contempt for culture and intellectualism, we must always be mindful that culture is a luxury that can only thrive in the medium of wealth; a man who works like a beast all day has little taste for anything but his six-pack and sack. From the depths of ruin, Athens transformed itself from an empire that had gloried military conquest (Athens more than Sparta, in fact) to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, freedom endures; conquest and empire do not.

Power/Polis/Features

It seems that the polis was better defined by what it did not include than by what it did. The Greeks were made fractious by their steeply mountainous terrain that made national or even regional unit an impossibility. As such, the horizons of the average Greek shrunk to the world that he inhabited in his particular polis—his village or town, and its immediate environs of farmland, forest, and field. That was the extent of his political universe as well—there was no nation-state beyond. That stand-apart mindset that defined the narrow political niche that the Greek inhabited extended to his social universe as well, and excluded four out of five residents of the polis—slaves, women, outlanders–from any participation in political life. It’s extraordinary that in the end, the political influence of the polis and its stepchild democracy exercised an influence that was so disproportionate to its restrictive horizons.

Power/Solon’s Reforms

Virtually every society—and the pyramid of any diversified economy–is founded upon a base of agriculture, since it is farming that gives others the leave to make their livings doing other things in the cities, which in turn form the centers of civilization. Once that base erodes through oppressive taxation, debt, or bad policies, it’s only a matter of time before the pyramid crumbles. Solon understood as much, and while he may have alienated those who comprise the apex of the economic pyramid with his debt amnesty, his reforms addressed the right priorities. What this might suggest is that the blatant favoritism that Mr. Bush’s “reforms” has lavished on the wealthy corporations and individuals that pay his political way are looking the wrong way down the spyglass of history.

Power/Sparta

Sparta’s greatest accomplishment may well have been its defeat of Athens, an event which, together with the death of Socrates, produced a remarkable change of heart in the Greeks. From the depths of ruin, Greece transformed itself from an empire that gloried military conquest (Athens more than Sparta, in fact) to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, freedom endures; conquest and empire do not.

Power/Sparta/Government

Was it really worth all that trouble to maintain a slave state? Who was enslaved to whom? While the Messenians worked the fields and other such grunt work, the Spartans were forever defending themselves against their rebellion, and made themselves into a society of soldiers to maintain their privileged position. Young males were shipped off to the barracks at the age of seven to begin their lifetime of service to the state, headed by group of elected officers under a figurehead symbolic dual monarchy. The extreme to which took the military ethic could be seen in the fact that Sparta even forbade coins in its realm, since the luster of lucre might distract its acolytes from the arts of war. While Sparta was well prepared to conquer and exercise military dominion, it lacked the commercial vitality that fueled the cultural glory of Athens. Much as we sometimes revile the merchant class for its obsession with the bottom line and its philistine contempt for culture and intellectualism, we must always be mindful that culture is a luxury that can only thrive in the medium of wealth; a man who works like a beast all day has little taste for anything but his six-pack and sack. Sparta’s greatest accomplishment may well have been its defeat of Athens, an event which, together with the death of Socrates, produced a remarkable change of heart in the Greeks. From the depths of ruin, Greece transformed itself from an empire that gloried military conquest (Athens more than Sparta, in fact) to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, freedom endures; conquest and empire do not.

Power/War/Peloponnesian War

Quite apart from opening the door to the much farther-reaching outcome that Alexander the Great enacted in avenging the Persian invasions of Greece, the Peloponnesian War both sundered Greece and sent democracy into hiding for another 2,200 years. Athens’ victory over the Persians stoked its lust for political ascendancy and empire that led to its arrogant imposition of the Delian League upon its unwilling neighbor-states, and in time to its defeat on the shores of faraway Sicily. From the depths of ruin, Greece transformed itself from an empire that gloried military conquest (Athens more than Sparta, in fact) to a nation consecrated to intellectual inquiry, democracy, and the arts. Consider democracy: at the end of World War II, six nations were democracies; now, some 160 are. That’s a pretty impressive accomplishment for an idea, which suggests that, in the long run, freedom endures; conquest and empire do not.

Power/War/Peloponnesian War/Delian League

Quite apart from the much farther-reaching outcome that Alexander the Great enacted in avenging the Persian invasions of Greece, the Persian Wars set the stage for the Peloponnesian War that both sundered Greece and sent democracy into hiding for another 2,200 years. Athens’ victory over the Persians stoked its lust for political ascendancy and empire that led to its arrogant imposition of the Delian League upon its unwilling neighbor-states, and in time to its defeat on the shores of faraway Sicily. One wonders too whether there are not echoes in the present day of the designs of Xerxes, in the second go-round of the Persian Wars, to avenge his father Darius’ earlier defeat at the hands of the Athenians. It seems that in his overweening ambition for vengeance, Xerxes allowed himself to be gulled into going too far, too fast in launching his forces against the Athenians, and as a result fell into their trap at Salamis. Some would say that it calls to mind the similar folly of another modern-day Xerxes, plunging headfirst into a quagmire in his consuming preoccupation to avenge his own father’s earlier humiliation at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Might this too result in democracy entering into another long period of dormancy and hibernation?

Power/War/Persian Wars

Quite apart from the much farther-reaching outcome that Alexander the Great enacted in avenging the Persian invasions of Greece, the Persian Wars set the stage for the Peloponnesian War that both sundered Greece and sent democracy into hiding for another 2,200 years. Athens’ victory over the Persians stoked its lust for political ascendancy and empire that led to its arrogant imposition of the Delian League upon its unwilling neighbor-states, and in time to its defeat on the shores of faraway Sicily. One wonders too whether there are not echoes in the present day of the designs of Xerxes, in the second go-round of the Persian Wars, to avenge his father Darius’ earlier defeat at the hands of the Athenians. It seems that in his overweening ambition for vengeance, Xerxes allowed himself to be gulled into going too far, too fast in launching his forces against the Athenians, and as a result fell into their trap at Salamis. Some would say that it calls to mind the similar folly of another modern-day Xerxes, plunging headfirst into a quagmire in his consuming preoccupation to avenge his own father’s earlier humiliation at the hands of Saddam Hussein. Might this too result in democracy entering into another long period of dormancy and hibernation?

Power/War/Persian Wars

I submit that one of the most intriguing outcomes of the Persian Wars can be discerned in the present day, in the form of the history lesson that came to us from the ill-fated invasion of Greece that was launched by Xerxes, largely on behalf of avenging his father Darius’ humiliation by the Greeks ten years before. As such, it was a war launched for the wrong reasons—retribution and the redress of foolish pride. Consumed by their vengeful spirit, the Persians quickly over-reached themselves, leading them into a cunning trap laid by Themistocles and his fleet of triremes at Salamis. Can you think of another war in the present day that was launched by a son eager to avenge the humiliation of his father, and without sufficient consideration given as to the consequences?

Power/War/Phalanx

The tactical concept of the phalanx represented quite a rung up the ladder in the evolution of warfare; its guiding inspiration of cohesion and centralization of power would not reach its apogee until World War II—the last confrontation (of any consequence) between vast standing armies and their concentrated firepower. But with the United States now the sole remaining superpower, it seems most unlikely that there will ever again be—at least in the foreseeable future—clashes such as what occurred at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The nature of war has changed accordingly—becoming de-centralized as it devolved through guerrilla warfare to the tactics of present-day terrorism–and how are such armies and their modern phalanxes able to respond to the likes of suitcase nukes, smallpox, and exploding shoes? There was a time when we Americans played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we are no longer willing to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming in Vietnam and Iraq from even a casual examination of history. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?

Power/War/Trireme

The trireme represented quite a rung up the ladder in the evolution of warfare; its guiding inspiration of speed of attack and centralization of power would not reach its apogee until World War II—the last confrontation (of any consequence) between vast standing armies and their concentrated firepower. But with the United States now the sole remaining superpower, it seems most unlikely that there will ever again be—at least in the foreseeable future—clashes such as what occurred at Normandy on June 6, 1944. The nature of war has changed accordingly—becoming de-centralized as it devolved through guerrilla warfare to the tactics of present-day terrorism–and how are such armies and their modern phalanxes able to respond to the likes of suitcase nukes, smallpox, and exploding shoes? There was a time when we Americans played the best game of guerrilla warfare in town—against the British—and even if we are no longer willing to empathize with the same nationalist spirit that we once laid our own lives down for, we should have seen the sort of fight that was coming in Vietnam and Iraq from even a casual examination of history. But who cares about history… and all that dead white male stuff?

Economy

Minoans/Trade

One of the lessons of the Minoans is that so much of civilization depends on trade. Had they confined themselves to their barren home island of Crete instead of launching themselves throughout the Mediterranean, the Minoans may never have amounted to much. But trade made all the difference, and the moral of the story is that once a society decides to draw the curtains on free trade, it’s curtains for civilization as they came to know it (as one example among many, consider how the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act hastened the onset of the Great Depression in America).

Hellenistic Kingdoms


Society

Society/Slavery

Slavery in the Hellenistic age was more of a freelance proposition than the usual drudge that it was in the Classical era. By the third and fourth centuries, free persons were increasingly selling themselves into slavery as a tax dodge, so as to avoid paying taxes that a free person had to pay. Should the American Empire one day come to grief on the shoals of oppressive taxation, as did Rome and so many other empires, one wonders if self-imposed slavery might not become the “peoples’ tax shelter”—affordable to one and all.

Society/Women

In Hellenistic times, women did not question their role—even if their role was inferior to that of men–knowing that men had their specific responsibilities to fulfill as well that were considerably more hazardous than theirs. Even today, people follow society’s expectations of human behavior without realizing it. But apart from exercising basic respect for others and avoiding violence, the less we rely on expectations of normative behavior, the better chance we have of breaking out from self-imposed restrictions. The extent to which society allows experimentation like this, the more it stands to grow. Japan, for instance, places straightjacket constraints on social behavior, and has traditionally been limited to relying on improving of originals invented elsewhere—whether in technology or culture. America, of course, is a very different story.

Culture

Culture/Art

The Hellenistic cultural ethos straddled the left-brained business of Roman statism and the high-minded heritage of Greek culture. Hellenistic art reflected the Greek devotion to fulfillment of the highest and best possibilities of the individual, and which held that there was an idyllic psychic counterpart to every physical form– not just ideas, but physical forms like the sun, the sky, and the trees and mountains. At the same time, this is where science–in the service of Alexander’s empire–really acquired the momentum that impelled it towards the threshold of the Scientific Revolution more than a thousand years later. The fund of philosophy and scientific knowledge that proliferated throughout the Hellenistic empire–and which would found Alexandria as the intellectual capital of Western civilization–would help delineate the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Empire of the Mind

Alexander’s empire quickly fell apart after his death, and what endured (ironically) was not the armed might that built the empire, but the empire of the mind, in the form of the Hellenistic intellectual and cultural tradition. Empires come and go, but a good idea (like democracy) lasts because it’s good for just about everyone, and not just good for the few.

Culture/Philosophy/Cynicism, Stoicism, and Epicureanism

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire. But the freethinking philosophies of Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism rose up in reaction to the heavy-handed pall of Roman state religion. Stoicism suited the Roman ethic of service to the state and community admirably–though much as the Romans admired the Stoic renunciation of wealth and power, few were inclined to emulate it, since Rome’s burden of empire and its millstone of ambition weighed too heavily to allow its spirit to ascend to the sublime realms once staked out by the Greeks. With its emphasis on the virtues of intellectual integrity (as Stoicism also upheld)—and its view of life as a random result of colliding clouds of particles–Epicureanism represented an ethical discipline that led its adherents away from the suffocating folds of Roman state religion to gain a toehold on that rarified realm of thinking for oneself. But dear old Diogenes and his fellow Cynics would have none of it—the less of it, the better, in any event. Empire and ego be damned, thought they, since both came to naught in the end.

Cultural/Philosophy/Epicureanism

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. With its emphasis on the virtues of intellectual integrity (as Stoicism also upheld)—and its view of life as a random result of colliding clouds of particles–Epicureanism represented an ethical discipline that led its adherents away from the suffocating folds of Roman state religion to gain a toehold on that rarified realm of thinking for oneself.

Culture/Philosophy/Stoicism

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. The Hellenistic cult of Stoicism suited the Roman ethic of service to the state and community admirably–though much as the Romans admired the Stoic renunciation of wealth and power, few were inclined to emulate it. Rome’s burden of empire and its millstone of ambition weighed too heavily to allow its spirit to ascend to the sublime realms once staked out by the Greeks.

Culture/Science

The Hellenistic belief system straddled the left-brained business of Roman statism and the high-minded heritage of Greek culture. This is where science–in the service of empire–really acquired the momentum that impelled it towards the threshold of the Scientific Revolution more than a thousand years later. The fund of philosophy and scientific knowledge that proliferated throughout the Hellenistic empire–and which would found Alexandria as the intellectual capital of Western civilization–would help delineate the Great Divide between the Old World and the New, between East and West, between Faith and Reason, and between mystical societies who revered man’s relationship with nature, and the scientific societies of the West who manipulated it to their material advantage and spiritual detriment. The trick has been to learn from both, as to how to develop our God-given patrimony without destroying ourselves in the bargain.

Culture/Science/Medicine

The whole murky business of the disfavor of the gods or some murky imbalance of the bodily humors placed Asclepius and most of his contemporaries firmly on one side of the Great Divide between superstition and reason in medicine. It must have taken quite a bit of intellectual courage for Hippocrates, with his assertion that disease came from an identifiable source, to distance himself from the popular preoccupation with the gods as the source of everything good and bad that happened to people. But with that accomplished, the Hellenistics–with their more pragmatic bent of mind–were able to carry the ball into the court of modern medicine.

Religion

Religion/Mystery Cults

The mystery religions of the Hellenistic world gratified the Roman expectation that the gods would grant protection for the community and survival for the individual in return for ceremonial worship and due respect, and the myriad gods of the Roman pantheon—many of whom, such as Jupiter, Apollo, Venus, Neptune, and Mars, were modeled on Greek forebears–were the glue of empire; the public ceremonies dedicated to their worship were more an exercise in patriotism than supplication. The Hellenistic cult of Stoicism suited the Roman ethic of service to the state and community admirably–though much as the Romans admired the Stoic renunciation of wealth and power, few were inclined to emulate it. Rome’s burden of empire and its millstone of ambition weighed too heavily to allow its spirit to ascend to the sublime realms once staked out by the Greeks.

Religion/Mystery Cults

I imagine that the emphasis that mystery cults placed on achieving an altered state through trances and ritual and such was the desire of their participants to communicate and have a dialogue with the gods that Classical Greek religion placed at such a inaccessible remove atop Mount Olympus. That’s what personalized the mystery cults and offered the hope of succor and everlasting life to the otherwise hopelessly insignificant mortal.

Power


Power/Alexander/Acts of Religious Supplication

Altogether full of himself and struck by the possibilities implicit in his resemblance to the heroes of Greek mythology, Alexander viewed each act of religious supplication as an opportunity to close the gap between himself and his divine forebears. His sacrifice at Apis and consultation with the oracle at Siwa affirmed his ancestral lineage to Zeus, and that he was the equal of the legendary heroes of Greece. As the equal of Achilles, Perseus, and Heracles, the son of Zeus now meant to step into the old man’s shoes and rule the world. And now, in addition to being King of Macedon, Leader of Greece, and Ruler of Asia, we have Alexander as pharaoh—a god-king! The Egyptians revered their rulers as living gods, a role that Alexander was coming to wear well, both as the Son of Zeus and the peer of Perseus and Heracles, and now as master of the most prestigious civilization of all! Alexander goes on to build Alexandria—a monument to his own edification, where he builds temples dedicated to Isis and a pantheon of Greek deities, and he acquires the essential habit of honoring ritual, performing the requisite ritual sacrifices that sanctify his bargain with the gods.

Power/Alexander/Avenger of Greek Honor

Heroes like Alexander are always anxious to do others a favor when it serves their own interests to do so. In this case, Alexander needed a “politically honorable” (you’ll forgive the oxymoron) reason to sally forth and wreak havoc in Asia… since bloodlust, plunder, and rapine just wouldn’t do (not even back then). Somehow, I’m reminded of the vows of other avengers of national honor, such as Saddam’s determination to reunite the prodigal Kuwaitis with the Iraqi national fold, and Hitler’s plan to secure for Germany its rightful place in the sun. Anytime one hears vows of higher purpose from wolves, chances are you’re on the menu.

Power/Alexander/Accounts

The men that wrote a record of Alexander were individuals with their own distinctive nationality, professional bias, and reasons for writing. They wrote to a specific audience and from within the own social and political context. All of these influences—both internal and external–affected the perspective of these primary sources. The secondary sources too were not immune from these influences either, so when we compare their accounts with primary sources, it becomes clear that we are regarding Alexander through two sets of distorted lenses. Once we understand the bias of each perspective, we arrive at a more balanced and realistic point of view. In evaluating the credibility of each source, we ask: Why did he write his account? Who did he expect would read it?  Who was the writer and what was his background and beliefs? Each of these sources had their own motives and beliefs, and once we come to a better understanding of the writers, we can use that insight to better evaluate their writing.  Our goal today is to arrive at as balanced and accurate an understanding as can be formulated from a comprehensive view of all available sources, so that we might form our own opinions.  But it’s worth bearing in mind too that even the most sensational and flattering contemporary writings are of interest too, since they help us understand how Alexander wished to be viewed, or how certain individuals wished to view Alexander—all of which adds to our insight.

Power/Alexander/Administration of the Cities of Asia Minor

The glue that bound the Persian Empire together was the autonomy of the satraps, whom the king was content to leave be so long as they saw to it that tribute and conscripts were regularly forthcoming. This seems to have been the inspiration underlying the relationship formed between the satraps and the local fat cats and grandees, fraught as it was with favoritism and inside dealing. The class resentment that resulted ripened popular sentiment into an enthusiastic welcome for their liberation at the hands of Alexander. As always, one never wins the war without winning the hearts and minds of the people.

Power/Alexander/Alexander as God

Altogether full of himself and struck by the possibilities implicit in his resemblance to the heroes of Greek mythology, Alexander saw himself as the equal of Achilles, Perseus, and Heracles, the son of Zeus now meant to step into the old man’s shoes and rule the world. And once in Egypt (in addition to being King of Macedon, Leader of Greece, and Ruler of Asia), we have Alexander as pharaoh—a god-king! The Egyptians revered their rulers as living gods, a role that Alexander was coming to wear well, both as the Son of Zeus and the peer of Perseus and Heracles, and now as master of the most prestigious civilization of all!

Power/Alexander/Alexandria

It’s interesting that Homer had written in his Odyssey of the islands upon which Alexandria would be built. Perhaps it was Homer who had fired Alexander’s imagination to turn one of his hero’s venues into a shining new city and temple of learning, named after him! If literature was the inspiration behind Alexandria, then Alexander’s city would become the paragon of the literary world, with a great library holding a half-million volumes that encompassed the entire galaxy of wisdom and wonderings. Here would gather the greatest minds of the Hellenistic world: Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Euclid, and Hero. In a land of monuments, Alexandria would be a monument to Alexander as pharaoh. The Egyptians knew their rulers to be living gods, a role that Alexander would wear well, both as the Son of Zeus and the peer of Perseus and Heracles, and now as master of the most prestigious civilization of all!

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Changed Goals

It seems that revenging historical wrongs and the murder of a father he had little love for was never a convincing motive for the campaign, just a good excuse. Certainly, Alexander’s actions in Asia Minor were not in keeping with a revenge policy: his tax relief for citizens of Asia Minor and his harsh treatment of Greek mercenaries seem to give the lie to that rationale. Having vindicated his right to rule and immortalized himself after the fashion of his hero Achilles, it was time for Alexander to reappraise the prospects now before him. Persepolis presented an irresistible opportunity for Alexander to punish the Persians for their historic humiliation of Athens (that is, if you want to believe that its destruction was part of a historic plan rather than a drunken impulse). That accomplished, it was time to move on to bigger game: Central Asia, India, the world! It was as if by re-conquering all that the Persians had conquered, it would affirm Alexander as overlord of a new, improved Persian Empire. But the fact that Darius remained at large taunted him, and it would not be for Alexander to kill him. Alexander’s disappointment over being denied his quarry calls to mind his petulant punishment of the page who unwisely pre-empted him in a boar-hunt, and which illustrates Alexander’s obsession with stalking and personally finishing off his prey. But that’s another story. It is at this point that Alexander adopts his new persona as King of Persia and avenger of Darius’ death. Giving his predecessor Darius a hero’s funeral, he re-consecrates his mission to tracking down Darius’ killers and vindicate his own rule over the Empire. But Alexander was nothing if not endlessly adaptable, as his campaign changed from one of revenge to one of liberation to one of fulfillment of divine destiny to one of conquest and empire building.

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Ferocity

Terror serves the purpose of accomplishing most of the battle in the mind of one’s enemy. Alexander’s ferocity in battle allowed him to intimidate and disorient his enemy even when outnumbered or outmaneuvered. And when he does take revenge, it is by way of setting an example, as with the traitorous Greek mercenaries at the Granicus, the stubborn holdouts at Tyre, and poor Batis, dragged to tatters, much as Achilles had done to Hector. Alexander’s fearlessness puts him on par with his heroes, Achilles and Heracles, and it so inflated his reputation that entire cities surrendered to him without battles being fought. The more the world yielded to him, the more certain it became to the rest of the world that it was the only sensible thing to do. It is clear, however, that a desire to plunder and wreak mayhem and is not the driving force here: by liberating cities instead of razing them, Alexander gains an ally, rather than lose an enemy.

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Persian Perception

Darius saw Alexander’s campaign as another knot in the tangle of Greek and Persian conflicts going back several hundred years. Certainly he had every reason to think that he might prevail, given both the overwhelming strength of his empire and the Greek mercenaries who could abet his cause. What’s more, Alexander was an unproven talent and a long way from home. Confident that his forces in Asia Minor would be enough to defeat Alexander, Darius did not contest Alexander’s landing at Hellespont, nor did he move reinforcements to the area or institute the “scorched earth” policy recommended by Memnon of Rhodes. It was only when his forces suffered a stunning defeat at Granicus that Darius realized that he had underestimated Alexander, who had displayed not only an excellent grasp of tactics, but surprising leadership talents in his cavalry attack. It dawned on Darius that this was no localized raid that Alexander had launched, but a war for the empire that was intent on driving him from his throne. Clearly, his mercenaries were not up to the task, and it was time for Darius to take the bull by the horns and grapple with Alexander head-on. Off came the gloves, as Darius assembled the full might of his forces for the showdown. But Issus and Gaugamela went even worse, and the humiliation that Darius had suffered from his inglorious rout and the ransom of his own family was a mortal blow to his prestige, and Darius realized that his gravest menace came now from treachery within his own ranks. His fears were soon realized. With Alexander in the ascendant, the Persians rightfully expected the time-honored tradition of wrathful retribution. But instead of razing their cities and slaughtering their inhabitants, Alexander adopted a policy of liberation and of winning popular support. Clearly, he had arrived not only as conqueror, but as liberator and leader. In retrospect, it seems that Darius had believed that Alexander would be satisfied with the succor of land, money, and a title. This delusion was in keeping with his estimation of Alexander’s incursion as yet another land-grab or petty gesture in an endless cycle of offense and retribution between these ancient enemies. Darius was unwilling to grasp what it was Alexander was hoping to accomplish, and accordingly, his responses to dealing with a local threat with local forces were altogether misguided. And if the locals weren’t able to contend, Darius could always rely on vast stretches of scorched earth to consume the threat, then counterattack when overwhelming force could be mustered and brought to bear. Surely Alexander wasn’t planning to be away from home for too long, since the timeless treachery of the Greeks would surely raise its ugly head against him and compel him to hurry home. But Alexander had prepared Greece for his absence, enabling him to slip the short leash that Darius had depended on to keep Alexander a local threat.

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Psychology of Battle

It comes down to the ability to make the best of what you’re presented with in terms of battlefield conditions, and the artful employment of bluff, bluster, and psychology to take care of the rest. The most timeless canons of guerrilla warfare dictate that one does not engage the enemy on the enemy’s terms; the skillful commander avoids his enemy’s strength, and attacks his weakness, and does so at a time and on terms that are right for him. Alexander was undeniably good at adapting his battle plan to fit the fluid conditions of battle, neutralizing the threat where it existed, attacking where he was least expected, and never giving the Persians what they wanted—which was to face Alexander on the open plains where their superior numbers might be brought into play. Psychology must be used to offset tactical disadvantage. Although the Persian army outnumbered him, it was inexperienced and had not fared well at the Granicus; such an army can be depended upon to assume the worst about its enemy, and this is a weakness that can be exploited. Moreover, one makes one’s own luck, and because of Alexander’s self-assuredness—whether born of beginner’s luck or otherwise—his own men—as well as the Persians—much have assumed he knew something they didn’t! The certainty that Alexander was a god gave his men the absolute assurance they needed to fight with supreme confidence. Otherwise, the campaign might have been indistinguishable from that of any army of plunder, delighted to fight on so long as fortune favored their cause, but prepared to flee at the first sign that fortune had turned against them. Knowing of Alexander’s divine protection, Darius’ army now knew why they were on such a losing streak. Fighting against Alexander was one thing, but against the gods as well? What chance did they have?

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Psychological Warfare

Well-trained troops, leadership, armaments, superior numbers, tactics and strategy all matter. But in history, the instances are legion of a much smaller, poorly trained, and badly equipped force achieving unexpected victory over an enemy superior in all of these respects. Consider the victory of the Americans over the British; of Mao’s Communists over the Nationalists; of the Vietnamese over the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. In each of these cases (and in many others), the common element was the claim that the struggle had on the hearts and minds of the people. As noted above, the hearts and minds of the Greeks of Asia Minor had Alexander’s name inscribed on them by their corrupt and abusive Persian overlords. Moreover, it has a lot to do the ability to make the best of what you’re presented with in terms of battlefield conditions, and the artful employment of bluff, bluster, and psychology to take care of the rest. The most timeless canons of guerilla warfare dictate that one does not engage the enemy on the enemy’s terms; the skillful commander avoids his enemy’s strength, and attacks his weakness, and does so at a time and on terms that are right for him. Alexander was undeniably good at adapting his battle plan to fit the fluid conditions of battle, neutralizing the threat where it existed, attacking where he was least expected, and never giving the Persians what they wanted—which was to face Alexander on the open plains where their superior numbers might be brought into play. Psychology must be used to offset tactical disadvantage. Although the Persian army outnumbered him, it was inexperienced; such an army can be depended upon to assume the worst about its enemy, and this is a weakness that can be exploited. Moreover, one makes one’s own luck, and because of Alexander’s self-assuredness—whether born of beginner’s luck or otherwise—his own men—as well as the Persians—much have assumed he knew something they didn’t! 

Power/Alexander/Campaign/Talents of Military Genius

I think that what they say about genius being 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration is largely true in Alexander’s case. His personable nature and compassion for his troops is taken from the pages of Leadership 101. His command at the front demonstrated his willingness to assume the same risks that he asked his men to—and in doing so, being able to guide the cutting edge of his forces through unexpected difficulties—is courageous but commonsensical. His supreme self-confidence, audacity, and delusions of divinity are a time-honored prescriptive, from Attila the Hun through Douglas MacArthur. His meticulous evaluation of every known tactical consideration in visualizing the entire battle prior to its enactment left as little as possible to chance. But then again, why would any commander leave anything to chance? His tactics made the best use of his strengths–by shortening up the front, for example, he concentrated the effectiveness of his excellent troops and lessened the opportunity of the Persians to outflank him–and of topology by avoiding Darius’ mounted troops and his superior numbers. Well planned… but then again, this was simply a matter of making the best use of what was available. Alexander knew his history: the places where he proposed to do battle were familiar from his study of history, as were the strategies that had used and their outcomes. History had taught him all the feints, dodges, and stratagems that the enemy had employed in these same venues. He knew the strengths and limitations of his enemy’s forces, capabilities, and weapons, and how they might be neutralized or avoided… much as Scipio had done with Hannibal’s elephants. And was not this same historical record available to anyone? Conflict avoidance was implicit in his strategy, much as it was in his tactics. Consider how he contended with the naval threat to his supply lines and his home base. Recognizing that he could not match the Persian fleet’s strength, he effectively neutralized this threat without a single engagement… simply by capturing its home ports. What’s more, his policy of liberation and of winning popular support instead of retribution and oppression–and of using the civil administrations already in place– spoke to an inspired avoidance of conflict where it would likely prove not only unwinnable but even unnecessary. The true genius of Alexander, then, seems to have been in his habit of making the very best use of every possible advantage that was available. And how often can that be said of anyone?

Power/Alexander/Cleitus

What was at stake in Alexander’s confrontation with Cleitus was foolish pride… and what was Alexander– the torchbearer of his father’s vision to conquer the Persian Empire–without his pride? To brook the insult of his father’s memory would have undercut much of what Alexander stood for in this campaign. But what of the pride of the Macedonians that Alexander had sold out in his emulation of Persian ways? Had he not forsaken the honor of the Macedonians who had helped build his empire? And had not his repudiation–-and the murder–of his most experienced Macedonian generals caused them to lose the day to Spitamenes? Such was the stuff of Cleitus’ pride. Alexander may well have seen this confrontation as the Great Divide between his loyalists and the lions ready to pounce on wounded pride.

Power/Alexander/Conspiracy/Pages

The pages, it would seem, were just bit part players in a crisis of confidence that had opened up some perilous fault lines in the ranks. The initial inspiration for the conspiracy of the pages arose from an innocuous incident: the page Hermolaus had stolen Alexander’s thunder by killing a boar on a hunt before Alexander himself had the opportunity to strike. In a fit of pique, Alexander had the boy stripped. Shamefully humiliated, Hermolaus told his friend Sostratus that he planned a murderous revenge. As their intrigue widened, their conspiracy attracted others–Antipater, Epimenes, Anticles and Philotas–whose grievances were rooted in a myriad of charges that might be laid against Alexander’s arrogance and his abandonment of the early ideals of the campaign: the executions of Philotas, Parmenion, and their officers, the murder of Cleitus, his orientalizing, his practice of prokynesis, his pretensions to divinity. These were charges that resonated with those who had seen the king change gradually from a champion of the Macedonians and Greeks to a flatterer of the hated Persians. This was no drunken argument, but a conscious decision by the pages to commit regicide. But as luck would have it, our Accidental Alexander avoided the attempt on his life. And with luck like that, what could stop him?

Power/Alexander/Conspiracy/Philotas

If Philotas’ loyalty was in question here, it was a question of loyalty to his father Parmenion, who in turn harbored an increasingly evident disloyalty to Alexander’s aspirations for empire. Believing that he might be in danger of coming to the same fate as Darius, it’s possible that Alexander might have pre-fabricated the whole thing as his own plot to get rid of Parmenion. But that’s a bit of a stretch, and somehow it doesn’t quite accord with the pattern of happenstance that shapes the saga of our Accidental Alexander. My guess is that this was just another opportunity to apply the exigencies of the moment in support of Alexander’s burgeoning appetite for empire.

Power/Alexander/Credibility of Ancient Sources

The men that produced a record of Alexander were individuals with their own distinctive nationality, professional bias, and reasons for writing. They wrote to a specific audience and from within the own social and political context.  All of these influences—both internal and external–affected the perspective of these primary sources. The secondary sources too were not immune from these influences either, so when we compare their accounts with primary sources, it becomes clear that we are regarding Alexander through two sets of distorted lenses. Once we understand the bias of each perspective, we arrive at a more balanced and realistic point of view. In evaluating the credibility of each source, we ask: Why did he write his account? Who did he expect would read it?  Who was the writer and what was his background and beliefs? Each of these sources had their own motives and beliefs, and once we come to a better understanding of the writers, we can use that insight to better evaluate their writing.  Our goal today is to arrive at as balanced and accurate an understanding as can be formulated from a comprehensive view of all available sources, so that we might form our own opinions.  In that respect, Arrian may most resembles us in our search for truth, and as a result is regarded as our best source on Alexander. But it’s worth bearing in mind too that even the most sensational and flattering contemporary writings are of interest too, since they help us understand how Alexander wished to be viewed, or how certain individuals wished to view Alexander—all of which adds to our insight.

Power/Alexander/Dissipation

The charms of Bagoas notwithstanding, Hephaestion (another dude) was the true apple of Alexander’s eye. Must say, the course of ancient affections took some pretty peculiar turns, did it not? While Alexander may have been largely indifferent to the ladies, he did have a genuine jones with the bottle, and the likelihood of serious substance abuse on his part could well explain the twisted vision of conquest that only a drunk or a madman could take to the farthest corners of the known world.

Power/Alexander/Gaugamela

Darius did everything right: he brought vastly superior manpower to the table, and his lances were longer and his swords sharper—to say nothing about his fleet of scythed chariots and 15 elephants. Drawing upon the lessons of Issus, Darius resolved to fight Alexander in an area large enough to allow his army to simply swallow up Alexander’s in a freewheeling romp of cavalry charges and charioteering. But where Darius overwhelmed, Alexander outsmarted. The night before the battle, Alexander’s force encamped in full view of the Persian army, with every intention to invade in evidence. This audacious display unnerved and exhausted the Persians, who stood to arms throughout the night. But most decisive was Alexander’s ingenious organization of his forces into rectangle rather than the traditional lineup, which meant that Alexander’s men could fight and defend themselves in any direction at once. Simple, but terribly smart. It just goes to show that brute force counts for nothing against a better idea.

Power/Alexander/Granicus

The discrepancies in the accounts of Diodorus and Arian just go to show how the petty politics of the moment clouded the objectivity of the historical record back then. Being at the respectable distance that we are, historians today have the luxury of objectivity in their appraisal of events that unfolded long ago. Historians back then, being caught up in the heat of the moment, were as much cheerleaders as chroniclers; their accounts reflected the sentiments prevailing at the time, ranging from quiet confidence or hand-wringing—anxiously awaiting the outcome of each battle–to adulation or opprobrium. Without being certain of their man’s success (or failure), they wouldn’t have been able to allow such certainty to color their judgment as historians. Historians then knew those who died—not just their names, but they knew them as friends, family, and contemporaries, and they no doubt had very personal stakes in the politics and controversies of their times. Old Man Time strips us of all that makes the great events of history personal.

Power/Alexander/Graveyard of Empires

The clan hatreds, blood feuds, and cat’s claw of conspiratorial intrigue that have long plagued the political loyalties of Central Asia all reared their ugly heads to greet Alexander’s invasion. While they may have tolerated the Persians—mere occupiers–Alexander and his Empire were a different proposition: the locals hereabouts don’t march in anyone’s parade. In a land supremely well suited to guerilla warfare, they harried Alexander’s legions to distraction. The logistical complications of their advance reduced his troops to plunder, which hardly endeared them to their unwilling hosts–all in all, a superb case study in the old saw that no war is ever won without capturing the hearts and minds of the people. Given the poisonous hatreds of the locals, their seething resentment of Persian rule, the terrain, its remoteness, its harsh climate, you’d have to wonder why anyone would covet the place… except that it lies square in the path of the ebb and flow of empires throughout history.

Power/Alexander/Hephaestion

One could be forgiven for wondering if Alexander’s hubris was pathological. If so, it seems doubtful that the death of Hephaestion would have made much difference; after all, he had cut loose some of his closest friends and supporters in the past—Cleitus and Parmenion–without a second thought. Having Hephaestion’s doctor done away with and barbering his horses in tribute to his fallen friend are a bit odd, but there’s nothing that suggests anything more than the petty derangement of grief. The question really seems to be whether Alexander had lost his marbles long before. His pretensions to divinity were delusional; his reputation for reprisal and ferocious audacity in combat suggest an inspired madness; his destruction of Persepolis an act of appalling impetuousness; his predilection orientalizing was bizarre; his leap into the jaws of death at the fortress of the Mallians unaccountable; his fits of pique were puerile; and his plans for continued conquest were obsessive. Was it all the result of hubris, or was there a serious screw loose? Does it matter? I realize that it doesn’t quite come with the job description, but is there not a time-honored role for madmen in the senior ranks of such a hazardous calling as combat and conquest? Would MacArthur, Hitler, Napoleon, Caesar, and Attila have gone half as far had they run their campaigns by the numbers? Would Alexander have been Great… or just okay? Alexander the Okay??

Power/Alexander/Historians/Responsibility

You’ve made a number of good points herein, but I submit that the one element that the historians of ancient times best appreciated (for all their faults of gilding the lily) and which sums it up best is vision–the one indispensable element of leadership that defines the role of the individual in history. Because greatness requires charisma, inspiration, and genius, greatness cannot flourish without vision. Perhaps because of the countless compromises—large and small–that are implicit in group-think, vision cannot be a product of a committee—any more than a committee can paint, sculpt, compose, or write a masterpiece; it is for the individual that to articulate the vision that forms the unifying theme that is embraced and lent force by popular support.

Power/Alexander/India

With much of his army on the verge of mutiny, Alexander—like the drunk on a roll at the craps table—found himself at the brink of an all-or-nothing proposition: if he folded and acceded to his men’s demands to head home, it was no longer his show, but theirs, and his orchestration of the whole business would have been upended by the change of conductor. That’s the problem with monomania—charismatic leadership of a Great Cause such as Alexander’s simply does not admit of a committee approach. Like the shark, Alexander had become consumed with the imperative to keep moving forward… or die. Would Alexander have been satisfied with India? Given the likelihood that his army would have grown all the more mutinous with the passage of more time and territory, I suspect that the same My-Way-or-the-Highway mentality would have obtained. And with India was under his belt, would Alexander have acquired a taste for the riches of Khmer, the Indies… China?

Power/Alexander/Instituting Democracy

The essential difference, it seems, is that Asia Minor welcomed Alexander’s liberation, an event that won the loyalty of a Greek populace that had long been marginalized by the corruption of their Persian overlords. And loyalty was what Alexander most needed in order to move on in his campaign of conquest. Back in Greece, by comparison, Athenian democracy was really a democracy in name only, unavailable to the four out of five members of the population who were slaves, or women, or too young or too old, and it eventually lost out to those who regarded it as “mob rule”… and who banished it into oblivion for the next 2,000 years!

Power/Alexander/Issus/Right Strategy?

By the time Alexander decided to head south, he was feeling pretty good about things. He had won Issus, he had driven Darius into hiding, and he had the women of the Persian royal family to toy with, as the cat with the cockroach. Giving chase to Darius at this point would have involved an unnecessary risk: Darius still had most of his army, and the wealth and weight of the Persian Empire behind him. By heading south, Alexander would not just stymie Darius’ navy and forestall any possibility of harassment by the Persian fleet, but he could take control of the allied sailors and soldiers once ruled by Darius. In keeping with his role of liberator, he could install sympathetic regimes, and open up supply lines from coastal cities like Tyre. What’s more, had Alexander taken the opportunity to plunge into the heart of the Persian Empire in pursuit of Darius, he might have tired of the game, and he would never have had reason to commemorate his exploits in this course! But Egypt refreshed him, and reinvigorated his sense of destiny.

Power/Alexander/Issus/Momentum

Darius correctly anticipated every move that Alexander would make. He knew his own strengths and how to use them. Doing everything by the numbers, Darius trusted that everything would add up. The tactics that had worked before ought to work now, especially against Alexander’s smaller, less experienced force. But perhaps because Alexander didn’t know the risk he was taking, Darius hadn’t reckoned on Alexander’s audacity, and the luck that so often endows the unknowing beginner; Darius—the more seasoned and cagey—was too mindful of it. But there’s a crucial difference between a performance that is merely competent and one that is simply inspired. When Issus didn’t go as planned, it was a surprise that must have tipped Alexander into hubris as much as it had disconcerted Darius. Imagine having Darius on the run… and in such a hurry that he left behind his own family! With this sudden, unexpected, and revealing demonstration of such feeble resolve on the part of his enemy, who would stop Alexander from rolling on to the ends of the earth? Psychology is a game where winner takes all, and for Alexander to have deprived his men of this windfall of momentum would have squandered everything.

Power/Alexander/Makran

As was so often the case with out Accidental Alexander, it all seems to have made sense in hindsight. If his army was successful in opening up a route through the Makran, the untold spice wealth of India could be his. But his lunge into the Makran may just as well have been sheer impulsiveness, precipitated by doubts that had been gnawing away at Alexander ever since the mutiny at the Hyphasis. It’s just possible that Alexander might have ordered the trek through the Makran out of sheer spite, to punish his rebellious troops outright and show himself to be a better man than they, and to leach the mutiny out of their hearts through the sheer desperation of the ordeal, so that purpose and discipline might be restored to the ranks, and his army made ready to resume its advance with no further thought of sedition.

Power/Alexander/Mallians

Whatever possessed Alexander to take that leap into oblivion–or glory—that lay within the fortress of the Mallians? Impatience with the progress of the assault, possibly. And being marooned atop the fortress walls as the ladders give way beneath him… that would have provided some impetus as well. It may have been sheer impulsiveness. But impulse is often precipitated by forces that are formed deep down inside, forces that in this case were gnawing at Alexander. There are times, he must have realized, when everything must be put on the line and wagered in a bid to regain hearts that had grown heavy with doubt. Alexander had been on the verge of losing his grip on his campaign of world conquest. Having been denied his quarry Darius, and with various conspiracies having been hatched against him, fighting an ever-rising tide of discontent and sedition, and now the mutiny at the Hyphasis… it may well have impelled Alexander to the point of lunging for the brass ring—a desperate, last make-or-break gesture for the hearts and minds of his men. Jump… and let the gods decide whether I’m to live to fulfill my destiny! Let this be the acid test! If my men are still mine, this is their chance to prove it! Alexander’s passion was battle: he lived, breathed, and ate the stuff… even if his men had lost the candle. And here was a chance to show his men what he lived for, and to bring them back to the cause. Indeed, the magic worked. As soon as they saw their leader beset upon, flailing away for his life, a yard-long arrow protruding from his shoulder, his men went berserk. Having been retrieved from the jaws of certain death, Alexander rallied from his wounds. When he recovered, his generals and friends castigated him for his rashness–they decried his actions as being those of a “soldier, not a general.” But how much better their opprobrium than indifference! Indeed, an elderly Greek man had assured him that “the man of action is the debtor to suffering and pain.” Alexander’s impulsiveness has saved the day: his men were motivated anew, and purpose and discipline were restored to the ranks. All the old doubts and differences were put aside, and soon his army was ready to resume its advance with no further thought of mutiny. Alexander would never again command such devotion. Such is the stuff of charisma and leadership: while not a requisite leadership skill, this is the stuff of Greatness, the Right Stuff of the warrior culture of the ancient world. Alexander, a god, would have taken his cue from his counterparts of heroic legend, and trusted in Heaven to see him do right by it.

Power/Alexander/Maracanda

Alexander had clearly overestimated the ability of his commanders… and underestimated the enemy. While Alexander was contemplating whether to expand his ever-widening horizons of conquest in Scythia, or remain content with his current holdings, unforeseen reinforcements to the enemy commander Spitamenes—combined with the poor decisions on the part of the combined command of his relief force–spelled trouble. Alexander also committed the cardinal sin of failing to secure his supply lines, which Spitamenes was soon dogging. Had he simply dispatched Spitamenes prior to moving on to the Jaxartes River, the massacre could have been avoided and he could have given the Scythians his undivided attention. Regardless of which account is correct, the failure to provide for of a clear-cut command structure is entirely Alexander’s, and contributed to the bickering and lack of coordinated action that spelled doom for the relief force. Aristibulus ascribes the reluctance of the Macedonian commanders to take charge to their fear of the consequences, which cost not only their lives but the lives of the most of their men as well. Here, then, is one of the consequences of all-embracing command: it suffocates the secondary talent, and in the absence of micro-management from the Main Man, there is both a reluctance to take command and an inability to make the bold decisions that are needed in combat.

Power/Alexander/Mutiny at the Hyphasis

We know that the Nanda kings of Magadha had a more powerful state than any of the ones Alexander fought with so far. Thus, another battle loomed, one in which Alexander’s men had no desire to participate, and they refused to follow him further. Alexander sulked in his tent like his Homeric hero Achilles for three days, but to no avail. His bluff was called and Coenus, representing the views of the men, prevailed. Alexander was forced to turn back, and by late September 326 he was once again at the Hydaspes. Coenus’ defiance of Alexander earned him little in the way of reward as a few days after the Hyphasis mutiny he was found dead in suspicious circumstances. The coincidence is too much, and, as with others who flouted Alexander, “we can see the hand of a furious and spiteful king at work here”. Although Alexander might try to disguise the lack of advance at the Hyphasis river as due to unfavorable omens, no one would be unaware that the real reason was that the army simply did not want to go further. Again, needless risk-taking followed: instead of retracing his steps he went for another route, through the Gedrosian desert. Starvation, heat, little water, and flash flooding had their effects, and as the march continued the baggage animals had to be slaughtered for food. Plutarch talks of the army reduced to a quarter of its original size; although this is over-exaggeration, there is no doubt that this march was a major logistical blunder on the part of Alexander, and that it unnecessarily cost many lives. A few years later in 324, Alexander was faced with another mutiny, this time at Opis, not far from Babylon. At Opis Alexander announced that his veteran soldiers and those injured were to be discharged and that he had ordered new blood from Macedon. For some reason the older soldiers saw Alexander’s move as tantamount to a rejection of them and of their capabilities, and the remaining soldiers had no wish to remain and fight with Persians and Iranians. For the second time in his reign, Alexander was hit with a mutiny, this time over his orientalising policy. Once again, Alexander sulked in his tent for two days, and then he called his men’s bluff by announcing that Macedonian military commands and titles were to be transferred to selected Persians. His men capitulated at once, and the clash was resolved with the famous banquet, in which Macedonian, Greek, Persian and Iranian sipped from the same, cup and Alexander prayed for homonoia or concord. Alexander’s great military victories over his Persian and Indian foes which have so long occupied a place in popular folklore and been much admired throughout the centuries are very likely to have been embellished and nothing like the popular conceptions of them.

Power/Alexander/Mutiny at the Hyphasis

It’s hard to imagine outdoing Alexander’s own audacity, but that’s what happened at the Hyphasis: Alexander simply could not imagine anyone not sharing his enthusiasm for conquest (but then again, he was the guy that pocketed all the marbles). Yes, there was that unpleasantness with Philotas and Cleitus and the pages, and then there had been discontent, even sedition, over orientalizing and conscripting the Persian lads—the epigone—into the army. But what was that among friends, especially when one’s friend was as great as Alexander? Yes, the men were tired and longed for home– seventy straight days of slogging through the monsoon rains and mud could wear down the most resolute of men, and Plutarch and that devil Porus were warning of an enormous enemy force that awaited them in India–but mightn’t they be expected to rise above some earthly travails and concerns? After all, this was not just some campaign in Macedonia’s backyard, but a campaign for the hearts and minds of the whole world! Well, maybe it was time for some R & R: let the men plunder a bit, then fire them up again with visions of conquest to the banks of the Ganges itself… then on to Libya! Now there was mutiny, with Coenus going on about going home… and the men cheering him on for it! Fine. Let them go on home, and explain to their friends and loved ones–and indeed to the nation itself–that they had abandoned their king and subverted the destiny of all Greeks to rule the world. And so Alexander sulked, thinking that conscience might prevail. And if sulking didn’t do the trick, Alexander would commend the whole business to the gods, with sacrifices. But the sacrifices didn’t produce quite the readings that Alexander had bargained on, and his men rejoiced at the omens that dictated homeward-bound. Would Alexander listen? He would, and he would learn from all of this that indulgence had its limits in hearkening men to the cause of immortals such as he. Men had their limits, and Alexander would pay closer attention to those dark mutterings when they came to his attention. At the same time, he would never forget this act of betrayal, and the next time it happened—as he was sure it would, with these shameless ingrates—he would make it known that he had limits as well, and that they had crossed the line.

Power/Alexander/Mutinies at Opis and Hyphasis Compared

Once the army had moved on to Opis after the mass wedding at Susa, Alexander once again exceeded his brief in the eyes of his men by proposing to dismiss those who he deemed unfit for further service on account of age or disability.  Predictably, the troops construed this as a plot to undertake yet another purge of the ranks, and another opportunity for Alexander to further ingratiate himself with his Persian hosts. The old warhorses who had served him so loyally were to be sent home in disgrace, while the young bloods seethed with jealous resentment at the prospect of being forced to stay behind. With the troops already in a mutinous turn of mind over the Persian companion-conscripts, the Macedonians now demanded that everyone be sent home, leaving Alexander to press on with whatever foreign troops he could rally to his cause. With his attempt to compromise by proposing that the terms of discharge veterans should be based on years of service having fallen on deaf ears, Alexander threw a tantrum. He had the ringleaders rounded up and treated to haircuts, then treated his troops to a proper harangue, telling them they could go where they wished, but reminding them that he and his father had enabled them to rise from peonage to service in history’s most glorious empire, and that he had never shirked from sharing the suffering that had brought them this far. In this fit of pique, then, Alexander retreated to the seclusion of his tent and churlishly refused to wash for two days… thereby assuring their mutual alienation! At length, though, he emerged to meet with his Persian officers, only to apportion the highest commands of his army amongst them. His redolent condition notwithstanding, Alexander called upon the Persians to kiss him and embrace him as kinsman. At this point, having pushed Alexander into the embrace of the Persians, the Macedonians realized that they had pushed him too far. They renounced any further talk of mutiny, and indeed refused to budge until Alexander had accepted their apologies… even going so far as to stoop to the despised Persian practice of kissing his feet. On that tasty note, the banquet of reconciliation proceeded.

Power/Alexander/Myths

Having cut his teeth on the Homeric epics and acquired a taste of the heroic tradition, Alexander’s persona waxed ever more grandiose as it progressed from mere Macedonian to avenger of the Greeks to liberator of Asia Minor to pharaoh to redeemer of the Persian Empire and ultimately to King of Asia; his consecration of temples and sacrifices and consultation with oracles throughout his campaign were milestones in that progression. Our Accidental Alexander was on a roll that could do no wrong, and I imagine that the more he thought about it, the more sense it made sense for him to tap into the wellsprings of myth and divinity wherever they might present themselves, and fill the role that fate seemed to have ordained for him. Nothing less than deification and divinity would suffice.

Hellenistic/Political/Alexander/Olympias

I’m not surprised that there was little love lost between Alexander and his mother. Olympias had a thing for snakes (as you may have seen in the movie), and I suspect that the affinity owed itself to her own reptilian nature! And as for Hephaestion–yes, there was the true apple of Alexander’s eye. Must say, the course of ancient affections took some pretty peculiar turns, did it not? While Alexander wasn’t terribly interested in the ladies, he did have a genuine jones with the bottle, and the likelihood of serious substance abuse on his part could well explain the twisted vision of conquest that only a drunk or a madman could take to the farthest corners of the known world.

Power/Alexander/Opis

The banquet at Opis was less a nod toward universal unity than a somewhat more pragmatic gesture of reconciliation. Once again, Alexander had exceeded his brief in the eyes of his men by dismissing those who he deemed unfit for further service on account of age or disability.  Predictably, the troops construed this as a plot to undertake yet another purge of the ranks, and another opportunity for Alexander to further ingratiate himself with his Persian hosts. The old warhorses who had served him so loyally were to be sent home in disgrace, while the young bloods seethed with jealous resentment at the prospect of being forced to stay behind. In a fit of pique over the general air of ingratitude, Alexander retreated to the seclusion of his tent and churlishly refused to wash for two days… thereby assuring their mutual alienation! At length, though, he emerged to meet with his Persian officers, only to apportion the highest commands of his army amongst them. His redolent condition notwithstanding, Alexander called upon the Persians to kiss him and embrace him as kinsman. At this point, having pushed Alexander into the embrace of the Persians, the Macedonians realized that they had pushed him too far. They renounced any further talk of mutiny, and indeed refused to budge until Alexander had accepted their apologies… even going so far as to stoop to the despised Persian practice of kissing his feet. On that tasty note, the banquet of reconciliation proceeded.

Power/Alexander/Parmenion/Darius’ Peace Offer

Alexander would have been in turn amused and offended by Darius’ offer to settle, with its implied insult to his divine sanction. The fact that Alexander could never accept power-sharing with anyone was a poor excuse for strategy, but more and more, Alexander’s strategy was taking the shape of an afterthought. Darius’ letters blame Alexander for the war with Persia. Funny you should say that, said Alexander, responding that the war was Darius’ just dessert for his own sins against the Greeks and the murder of his father. And what’s more, if you want your women back, you’d better be prepared to come crawling on your hands and knees to ask for them! As with most great generals, Parmenion was a reluctant warrior. Darius’ offer must have seemed the most sweetly reasonable thing that one could ask for: Alexander would receive all the land west of the Euphrates, 30,000 talents of silver, and marriage to one of Darius’ daughters. As Darius’s son-in-law, Alexander would be heir to the entire kingdom. Perhaps Parmenion had a problem as well. Perhaps he feared that Alexander lust for conquest wouldn’t end until the entire Macedonian army–himself included–was lying dead on the battlefield. But most of all, Parmenion just didn’t get it. While the idea of settling with Darius had its practical appeal, practicality does not make one great. It merely makes one commonsensical… and common. The Persian Empire was ripe for plucking, and the Persians would be back if they were not utterly destroyed. The fact that Alexander chose to roll on in utter defiance of the law of gravity—and other such earth-bound considerations—made his ultimate victory all the more undeniable. Success breeds more of the same, and for a leader to deprive his men of the momentum and certainty of victory that comes from being on a roll would have squandered his greatest advantage. No, Parmenion just didn’t get it. This was no ordinary war. This was a ticket to glory!

Power/Alexander/Persepolis

There is the usual temptation, with our Accidental Alexander, to credit various acts of impulsiveness to a higher strategy. Ptolemy would have us believe that the torching of Persepolis was part of a carefully contemplated policy of revenge and retribution for the Persians’ burning of Athens and all of that, since such an action would no doubt have disconcerted Darius to the point of distraction. It’s just as possible, however—as Plutarch, Curtius, and Diodorus would concur—that the burning was purely for sport. And why not? These things happen in war. Against the background of games and sacrifice and general jollification, the burning of the royal palaces was just part of the fun. But if we are to credit the destruction of Persepolis to a higher plan, we must then ask why Alexander, now king of all Asia and not merely of Macedonians, would purposely wreck his own palace-to-be? This is where the Thais alibi comes into play: supposedly she put him up to it. Ever since Adam and Eve, women have been blamed for compromising the best intentions of men.

Power/Alexander/Perspective of the Past and Present

Being at the respectable distance that we are, historians today have the luxury of objectivity in their appraisal of events that unfolded long ago. Historians back then, being caught up in the heat of the moment, were as much cheerleaders as chroniclers; their accounts reflected the sentiments prevailing at the time, ranging from quiet confidence or hand-wringing—anxiously awaiting the outcome of each battle–to adulation or opprobrium. Without being certain of their man’s success (or failure), they wouldn’t have been able to allow such certainty to color their judgment as historians. Historians then knew those who died—not just their names, but they knew them as friends, family, and contemporaries, and they no doubt had very personal stakes in the politics and controversies of their times. Old Man Time strips us of all that makes the great events of history personal.

Power/Alexander/Political Evolution

Alexander’s experience makes the point that societies need to evolve their political systems at their own pace, in accordance with the evolution of their cultural beliefs. Despite the far-reaching effects of Hellenization, Alexander attempted to graft an alien system onto a native rootstock that ultimately did not take. Similarly, Peter the Great of Russia, the Meiji leaders of Japan, and the American Occupation authorities in postwar Japan all tried to graft Western institutions onto a native ethos that wasn’t ready for it–much as Mr. Bush is trying to do in Iraq today. Leave people alone, and societies will generally come around on their own to embrace the values and institutions that make sense for them once the time comes. Consider the fact that after World War II, just six nations were democracies, and now more than 120 are. You can thank the many incentives of globalization–material and otherwise–for that (and by the way, check out Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree for an excellent read on globalization).

Power/Alexander/Proclivities

I’m not surprised that there was little love lost between Alexander and his mother. Olympias had a thing for snakes (as you may have seen in the movie), and I suspect that the affinity owed itself to her own reptilian nature! And as for Hephaestion–yes, there was the true apple of Alexander’s eye. Must say, the course of ancient affections took some pretty peculiar turns, did it not? While Alexander wasn’t terribly interested in the ladies, he did have a genuine jones with the bottle, and the likelihood of serious substance abuse on his part could well explain the twisted vision of conquest that only a drunk or a madman could take to the farthest corners of the known world.

Power/Alexander/Product of Greek Heroic Tradition

One would have to assume that the scope of Alexander’s ambition, vision, and divine pretensions must have stemmed from more than just an urge to wreak vengeance. The Iliad and Odyssey were so much more than poems—they were the embodiment of the values and history that Greeks lived and died for. Insofar as The Iliad was most especially an epic of vengeance, it practically had Alexander’s name on it. Seeing himself as a descendant of the warrior-hero Achilles, Alexander found in Achilles’ own experience with avenging treachery ample pretext for avenging the Persian invasions and his father’s death. Yes, everything means something. Alexander’s presentation of a suit of armor said to have been from the days of the Trojan War represented yet another connection to The Iliad, and his gift of several hundred suits of armor to the Temple of Athena at Athens after defeating the Persians at Granicus–a site fraught with historic significance— communicated a message to all concerned that this was a war of revenge, much as the Achaeans had wreaked revenge against the Trojans, and represented a closing of the great circle of history.

Power/Alexander/Prowess or Persian Incompetence

Well-trained troops, leadership, armaments, superior numbers, tactics and strategy all matter. But in history, the instances are legion of a much smaller, poorly trained, and badly equipped force achieving unexpected victory over an enemy superior in all of these respects. Consider the victory of the Americans over the British; of Mao’s Communists over the Nationalists; of the Vietnamese over the Chinese, the French, and the Americans. In each of these cases (and in many others), the common element was the claim that the struggle had on the hearts and minds of the people. As noted above, the hearts and minds of the Greeks of Asia Minor had Alexander’s name inscribed on them by their corrupt and abusive Persian overlords.

Power/Alexander/Reign of Terror

Nothing is so deleterious to effective government than corruption and disloyalty, which those who suffered the supreme penalty seem to have been abundantly guilty of. The purge was an acid test of the loyalties of those who had sided with Alexander in certain of his more controversial actions, such as the murders of Philotas and Parmenion, and it served to make an example of those who had committed more pedestrian offenses, such as rape. What’s more, it seems to have gone over well with the troops, some 5,000 of whom had been marshaled to witness the executions. Alexander’s appointment to Peucestas, who had learned to speak Persian and who had adopted Persian dress in keeping with Alexander’s orientalizing policies, as the new satrap of Persepolis, proved especially pleasing to the locals. In this, Alexander was not merely purging bad apples; he was pruning the orchard, and replacing his senior command with those whose loyalties were untainted. Apart from the some 600 soldiers who were punished, it turned out that only the satraps and other senior sorts were treated to the executioner’s axe. However, it’s also true that more people were killed on the way to India than during the Reign of Terror—none of whom had been members of Alexander’s senior command or in any way close to him. It seems that we’re always inclined to attribute foresight and visionary qualities to the actions of our Accidental Alexander, no matter how impulsive. Some would have it that his Reign of terror was a well calculated purge of disloyal satraps that he had left behind to look after his newly conquered subjects, when it might have been little more than a fit of pique brought on by his terrible slog through the Gedrosia. In this case I’m inclined to go along with the prevailing verdict that Alexander’s orgy of retribution was both well conceived and well deserved.

Power/Alexander/Relationship with Philip

The hornet’s nest of complications introduced into Alexander’s family by the political alliances contrived by marriage, the clouds on political legitimacy cast by ethnic dilution, Philip’s dismissal of his first wife Olympia, sibling rivalries to the throne, and myriad palace conspiracies all combined to produce fertile ground for lethal intrigue. Alexander’s complicity would seem to have been inevitable, much as his subsequent course of action in Greece and Asia Minor were necessary to vindicate his claim to the throne. So often throughout history, empires rise and fall on the whim of family foibles and personal idiosyncrasies, rather than as the consequence of some grand course of state policy.

Power/Alexander/Role of the Individual in Making History

The one element that sums it up best is vision–the one indispensable element of leadership that defines the role of the individual in history. Because greatness requires charisma, inspiration, and genius, greatness cannot flourish without vision. Perhaps because of the countless compromises—large and small–that are implicit in group-think, vision cannot be a product of a committee—any more than a committee can paint, sculpt, compose, or write a masterpiece; it is for the individual that to articulate the vision that forms the unifying theme that is embraced and lent force by popular support.

Power/Alexander/Siwa

The secret of battlefield success lies to a large extent is successful stage management! The consultation with the Oracle of Siwa is fateful in several respects. It affirms Alexander’s divinity and his destiny. It provides tremendous assurance to his men—knowing they are one with a god and both invincible and undeniable, and by the same token presents a devastating psychological nuisance to the army of Darius—knowing their cause is hopeless. And, it casts the die of empire building. As a god, Alexander could never accept co-equal rule with Darius… or anyone else. Perhaps this explains why he was determined to plunge ahead, to the ends of the earth, so that he might eliminate any merely mortal rival to his divinely ordained absolutism. Once the Oracle affirmed that Alexander’s divine and divine mission, his army could do no wrong. The certainty that Alexander was as a god gave his men the absolute assurance they needed to fight with supreme confidence. Otherwise, the campaign might have been indistinguishable from that of any army of plunder, delighted to fight on so long as fortune favored their cause, but prepared to flee at the first sign that fortune had turned against them. Knowing of Alexander’s divine protection, Darius’ army now knew why they were on such a losing streak. Fighting against Alexander was one thing, but against the gods as well? What chance did they have? What’s more, this would have been the understanding of the subjects of the realm as well, making it much easier for them to surrender peacefully and rally to Alexander’s cause. Using this to his advantage, Alexander made a great show of giving thanks and offering grateful sacrifice to the gods for their support, for his good fortune, and for the ill fortunes of his enemies.  The fact that Alexander continues to roll on in utter defiance of any and all rules of gravity—and other such earth-bound considerations– is what makes him divine and his ultimate victory undeniable. And by now, Alexander has come to realize as much.

Power/Alexander/Skills

It comes down to the ability to make the best of what you’re presented with in terms of battlefield conditions, and the artful employment of bluff, bluster, and psychology to take care of the rest. The most timeless canons of guerilla warfare dictate that one does not engage the enemy on the enemy’s terms; the skillful commander avoids his enemy’s strength, and attacks his weakness, and does so at a time and on terms that are right for him. Alexander was undeniably good at adapting his battle plan to fit the fluid conditions of battle, neutralizing the threat where it existed, attacking where he was least expected, and never giving the Persians what they wanted—which was to face Alexander on the open plains where their superior numbers might be brought into play. Psychology must be used to offset tactical disadvantage. Although the Persian army outnumbered him, it was inexperienced and had not fared well at the Granicus; such an army can be depended upon to assume the worst about its enemy, and this is a weakness that can be exploited. Moreover, one makes one’s own luck, and because of Alexander’s self-assuredness—whether born of beginner’s luck or otherwise—his own men—as well as the Persians—much have assumed he knew something they didn’t! 

Power/Alexander/Susa

It was an offer than none could (or would dare) refuse: a gala wedding of ninety-two of Alexander’s best (including Alexander himself) to the flower of Persian and Medean nobility, done in the grand style and replete with dowries and debt forgiveness for all. Something had to be done to soften his men’s hatred of the Persians, and what better way to do that than to work out one’s differences in the marital bed! As with hybrid marriages everywhere, the best of both worlds would result: Greek civilization… and Persian compliance. And Alexander’s own marriage would ensure his transformation from conqueror to beloved king. He needed all the help he could get: a potentially dangerous opponent had arisen in the form of one Orxines, a descendent of Cyrus, the first Persian emperor. The fact that Orxines had ostensibly welcomed Alexander as he re-entered the Persian Empire might well be written off to Oriental guile, and Alexander was skeptical of his good intentions. Speaking of Cyrus, the old boy’s tomb had been pillaged, and Alexander had the good sense and decency to have it restored to its original splendor. Placating latent Persian hostility through such nods to local tradition and culture was a high priority with Alexander, since his control of the Empire could not simply depend upon his own garrisons and governors. Alexander recognized that it was more important for the Greeks to accept the Persians as equals than it was for the Persians to accept the Greeks as such. Mindful of the contempt that the Greeks and Macedonians harbored for their Persian hosts, Alexander hoped to mitigate this antagonism and perhaps even cultivate a certain measure of support that he might look to in the event of rebellion. And his own marriage to both sides of the Persian royal line would help legitimize his reign as emperor. Still, the mass wedding at Susa was by no means a precedent: some ten thousand of Alexander’s Macedonians had taken local brides, and their marriages were now to be made official and commemorated with a gift, as well as with Alexander’s payment of their debts. This may have been intended to offset the resentment of the integration of the epigone–the Persian boys who were to become the traveling companions of his troops—into his army. In fact, it seemed as if another mutiny was close at hand; the mutiny at the Hyphasis had taught Alexander to deal more proactively—and less imperiously–with resentment in the ranks.

Power/Arsinoe

Arsinoe’s story offers an excellent case in point of how statecraft was conducted back in those days. In addition to sustaining all the usual indignities, women were made to facilitate the dark cabals of diplomacy by anchoring marriages between dynasties… and were made to suffer the consequences when the anchor chain broke, as it often did in the treacherous crosscurrents of court intrigues.

Power/Family Feuds

The hornet’s nest of complications introduced into ancient families by the political alliances contrived by marriage, the various clouds on political legitimacy cast by ethnic dilution, sibling rivalries to the throne, and myriad palace conspiracies all combined to produce fertile ground for lethal intrigue. So often throughout history, empires rise and fall on the whim of family foibles and personal idiosyncrasies, rather than as the consequence of some grand course of state policy.

Power/Hellenistic Kingdoms

Alexander’s empire quickly fell apart after his death, and what endured (ironically) was not the armed might that built the empire, but the empire of the mind, in the form of the Hellenistic intellectual and cultural tradition. Empires come and go, but a good idea (like democracy) lasts because it’s good for just about everyone, and not just good for the few. All of this makes the point as well that societies need to evolve their political systems at their own pace, in accordance with the evolution of their cultural beliefs. Despite the far-reaching effects of Hellenization, Alexander had attempted to graft an alien system onto a native rootstock that ultimately did not take. Similarly, Peter the Great of Russia, the Meiji leaders of Japan, and the American Occupation authorities in postwar Japan all tried to graft Western institutions onto a native ethos that wasn’t ready for it–much as Mr. Bush is trying to do in Iraq today. Leave people alone, and societies will generally come around on their own to embrace the values and institutions that make sense for them once the time comes. Consider the fact that after World War II, just six nations were democracies, and now more than 120 are. You can thank the many incentives of globalization–material and otherwise–for that (and by the way, check out Thomas Friedman’s book The Lexus and the Olive Tree for an excellent read on globalization).

Power/Pergamum

History’s various dynasties are replete with philosophers and scholars who, like Attalus, concluded upon assuming the reins of power that the game of empire wasn’t worth the candle, and gave it up to go back to their books. Considering that not a single empire, from Rome to the Soviet Union, has ever endured, perhaps they knew something that political ambition has blinded others to seeing.


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