Thursday, October 13, 2011

The greatness of Alexander of Macedon - or as I call him, Sandy Mac

Mary Beard (and who if not she?) has taken some writers on Big Al (or Sandy Mac) to task in the current New York Review of Books. (

The conquests of Alexander of Macedon (note: hard "c") were so extraordinarily vast in large part because he did not conquer twenty different nations - the Persians (Cyrus, Darius, Xerxes) had already done that, and ruled their empire for two hundred years. Alexander conquered their hapless heir, Darius III, and the centralized power fell to pieces. He took over all of the nations so included and then marched (which took three years) through its eastern marches and down the Indus to the Arabian Sea, sailing home. Much of the heavy work had been done for him. But he led the army and founded the colonies and distributed the spoils.

Alexander's pretensions to greatness owe much to his uncompleted project to unify the Greek and Persian worlds (with some Egyptian influence), turning his conquests into a universal state. This could never have lasted in the technological spirit of the time and, without him, it fell to pieces almost immediately. But the Greek cultural influence on the Far East (Buddhist sculpture, e.g.) and on trade in the Levant, plus the introduction of Chaldean mathematics and astronomy (and astrology) into the Greek and Egyptian (and Jewish) worlds grew directly from his actions and transformed the world. For one thing, this new "Greek-speaking" universe was absorbed by Rome, and then absorbed Rome in turn, proving the basis for an empire that lasted until the fifteenth century of our era. For another, the multiplex religious theories interacting throughout the region in Alexander's wake eventually produced the two major monotheistic religions that still occupy Europe and the Middle East (as well, as is often forgotten, as thousands of other faiths, extinct or surviving or heretical).

Alexander's legend endures in the mythologies of so many lands (Greek and Persian merely the most notable) because of his generalship and early death. But his greatness is the cultural bequest that derives from his visionary imagination as much as his martial abilities.

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