“There is nothing impossible to him who will try” – Alexander the Great
We all remember Alexander the Great as the ultimate hero who was able to achieve his dreams conquering half of the known world. Though, my essay will focus on a darker, less known aspect of his adventurous life: the dramatic consequences his almost unlimited power had on his behavior and the changes his character went through as he continued on his epic journey towards his dream of conquest. In this essay, I am going to analyze whether he had the potential to handle the greatness he achieved, concluding that he fell victim to power. In order to weigh the influence power had on Alexander’s life, I will embark on a great journey which starts from his first steps as a king.
During the 4th century BC, when Alexander was still a crown prince, his father Philip II tried to Hellenize his court because the Greeks considered Macedonian upper classmen barbarian and uncivilized. Also, he wanted to improve the relationships between Macedonian and Greek noblemen at his court. Alexander grew up in a court environment characterized by frequent intrigues. These led to a serious estrangement between Philip, Queen Olympias and Alexander himself, ultimately leading to Philip’s mysterious assassination in 336 BC. It is implied that Olympias and Alexander were heavily involved in the murder plot. In fact, Alexander was the one who profited the most from Philip’s death. With the help of Antipater, he secured his power. The king was safe but far from powerful. We must not think of this boy of less than twenty years old as the great leader he turned out to be. At the time, he was a youngster raised to power by a group of powerful nobles who certainly expected to rule through him. During this time, Alexander managed to overcome his numerous external problems such as barbarian invasions, insurrections and the newly started conflict against Persia as well as his most formidable domestic problem: gaining his independence as a king from the powerful influence of the Macedonian noble families such as those of Parmenio and Attalus.
When Alexander crossed to Asia in 334 BC, he brought with him a great army, led by his childhood friends. Most of them were tutored together with him by one of the most brilliant thinkers of the time, Aristotle. At the beginning of this journey, the young king could rely on his generals’ faith. The men were enthusiastic, motivated and ready to fight for their leader. Starting from the battle of the Granicus River, Anatolia in 334 BC, Alexander managed to open the path for the conquest of the Achemenid Persian Empire led by the great king Darius III. After the great victories at Issus in 333 BC, Gaugamela in 331 BC and endless siege battles such as those at Halicarnassus and Tyre, Darius was left as a fugitive and Alexander became the uncontested master of the lands west of the Euphrates.
Alexander was ably supported by his commanders and full of pride. However, despite showing exceptional qualities such as authority and courage, Alexander also began displaying a darker and more threatening side of his personality, undermining the life of his generals and followers and eliminating his political rivals to secure his great power. Why did he do that? Was something bothering him? As the glorious advance continued into Iran, the pulsating heart of the Persian Empire, tensions between Alexander the Great and the Greek-Macedonian allies grew because Alexander’s general did not have the same mindset as their king: in fact, they wanted glory, plunder and wealth.
On the other hand, Alexander had a greater, more glorious vision. He considered himself to be the new Persian king of kings, seeing Darius as an usurper. He wanted to push himself and his followers to the limit by reaching the ends of the empire, all the way up to India and its dusty royal palaces. This is not the way of thinking of an ordinary man. This is the tale of an individual who found himself alone with his dream of success and power. Moreover, he knew he had to conciliate his new Persian subjects and win over their support. This applied particularly to Persian aristocrats, who were the real administrators of the empire. Alexander started to behave like one of the great Persian kings. This policy could not have been carried out until Parmenio’s increasing power had been dealt with. His family and supporters were in fact among the strongest objectors to Alexander’s revolutionary policies because of their traditional Macedonian upbringing. It is hard to separate personal antagonism from political opposition in all this. As a result, tensions increased and conflict became inevitable.
In Media, Alexander took an important step; he left his general Parmenio behind, in charge of the supply lines. The general did not object this decision but the king had effectively got rid of his powerful presence. Soon after, Parmenio’s younger son died. A few days later, Philotas, the older brother and commander of the famous Macedonian noble cavalry called “Hetairoi”, was somehow implicated in a “conspiracy” against the king. A great description of it can be found in the writings of several Greek and Roman authors such as Arrian and Curtius Rufus. The king put him on trial for high treason before the army. Although no evidence of Philotas’ implications in the plot could be produced, Alexander demanded the death sentence for him. Now the king had another matter to deal with and wanted to do it using the army once again. It is incredible how both in politics and war, Alexander’s personality appears consistent and unmistakable. He never rushed things, always had a plan in mind and never missed the chance of finishing off an enemy leaving him with no hope of resistance or recovery because he was essentially insecure. Parmenio however, could not be tried before the army for actions there was no evidence he had committed. Aware of that, Alexander chose the swiftest and most efficient way of getting rid of him: assassination.
Having dealt with Parmenio’s influence, Alexander finally gained his long-wanted independence. A series of great trials of Parmenio’s supporters followed. All the Macedonian nobles somehow implicated in Parmenio’s faction were ruthlessly murdered. Alexander then assigned the command of the “Hetairoi” to his most trusted confidant and perhaps lover, Hephaestion. Though, discontent over the killings of generals and officers prevailed among soldiers. Shortly after, this bitterness led to a horrific incident at Samarkand, modern day Uzbekistan. At a banquet, common at the Macedonian court, Clitus the Black, a military officer, clashed with Alexander. Fueled by the alcohol, the king’s anger grew uncontrollably leading him to kill Clitus with his own hands and cry over his body afterwards. Alexander was becoming increasingly lonely in his position of absolute power, ruthlessly murdering and getting rid of his childhood friends and protectors he once loved and trusted. What followed Clitus’ death was of great importance as it proved Alexander’s ability to seize a chance and turn it to his advantage, not caring about his bad actions. Alexander locked himself up in his royal tent and proclaimed great remorse for what he had done. Did he really feel bad because of it? He probably used remorse to win back his shocked men as they realized that without their king, they would have faced defeat. In fact, on the third day after Alexander locked himself, army officers came to the tent begging for him to change his mind and pass a resolution convicting Clitus of treason, thereby legitimizing Alexander’s action.
The tragic death of Clitus marked a point of no return for the king’s degenerating mind. Now, Alexander wanted to tranform his court from a Macedonian to a Persian-style one. His only probable supporter was Hephaestion, loyal to him till the end. Greek royal historian Callisthenes refused to submit to the new type of court by not making prostration, the usual way of saluting the Persian king. It was Alexander’s first defeat. The god king had lost the sympathy of most of his Greek supporters, even those who hailed him as monarch back in Macedonia. Callisthenes did not live much longer. He was executed by order of the king. This demonstration of absolute power on Alexander’s part was seen as a display of tyranny and violence even by his supporters. He now only had sympathy for Asiatics.
Alexander then used military success in India to cover up the memory of murder and purge from the minds of the soldiers. In his glorious Indian campaign, his war-tested men were united behind their great leader and the banner of the Argead dynasty. After the great victory at the Hydaspes river in 326 BC against king Porus came another huge disappointment for the great Alexander: the soldiers simply did not want to follow him any longer. The spokesman for the mutinous soldiers was Coenus, the very man who helped Alexander wipe out Parmenio’s power. The king who had once used the army as his main weapon now found himself in a condition of desperation because everyone he counted on was now turning against him. He was lonely, reduced to the status of a man who only relied on his unbreakable dream to go on. Alexander ultimately tried to threaten and intimidate his men but they would not yield this time. They knew that he could not do anything without them. Alexander finally gave up, a broken shell of his former self, retreating down the Indus valley to the sea. Thanks to the multiple sources we now have access to, we know that his soldiers did not follow him as eagerly as before. In a desperate attempt to regain his men’s loyalty, Alexander was always on the frontlines, and once, when storming the capital city of the Malli tribe, he was severely wounded and no one thought he could survive. After miraculously surviving the wound, Alexander understood that his power depended massively on others and that he had to be eternally vigilant to defend it. After innumerable executions, murders and increasing tensions, he realized that he could not count on the total submission of his nobles and men.
In the spring of 324, at Susa, Alexander and eighty of his principal courtiers and commanders married Iranian princesses in order to create an independent ruling class of mixed blood. What Alexander’s nobles thought of this decision became clear after the monarch’s death, when most of them repudiated their wives. Now a disillusioned man, with his glorious dream shattered, Alexander felt extremely vulnerable and insecure. His success in schemes and plotting only increased the resulting instability of his condition. In order to hide his fears, the great Alexander took refuge in the divine. Encouraging the myth of his own divinity as the son of god Ammon, he began to believe in his own godly status. Though, the enforced deification would not change the escalating situation. About this time, Alexander suffered his most serious blow. In the autumn of 324 BC, his most trusted friend and presumed lover, Hephaestion, the only man he fully trusted and who supported him, drank himself to death. At this point, Alexander approached insanity as he found himself completely alone, only surrounded by enemies who he once called friends. As Plutarch states in his “Parallel Lives”, Alexander also started to be negatively influenced by divine omens. Not even after celebrating his best friend’s funeral with full splendor, had Alexander given up on his dream. There is evidence of his great schemes such as the invasion of Arabia and Western Africa. To me, these ambitious plans represent the ultimate and desperate attempt by the great king to find his purpose again. He had won all the power he could, there was nothing left to do.
About midsummer of the year 323 BC, at the age of 32, Alexander fell ill. Whatever the nature of his illness, he aggravated it by drinking heavily until all hope was lost. Did ultimate power bring Alexander to his death? This, we will never know. The theory of poisoning suggested by historians can’t be proved. What we do know is that he was requested to designate a worthy successor on his death bed but refused to do so. According to a legend, as he was asked for the last time whom he wanted as a successor, he replied: “the κράτιστος”, the strongest. In my opinion, this quote ultimately proves that Alexander wasn’t, for the most part, interested in a future without himself and that he could not find anyone trustworthy nor powerful enough in his entourage to effectively succeed him.
My essay of course does not cover the whole adventurous life story of Alexander. His military and political skills are beyond question, as he continued to be the most powerful man of his time. Though, on an individual and psychological level, the life of Alexander the Great is that of a man who conquered the whole world using his determination and courage, only to lose his soul in the end. I personally believe that Alexander was brought to darkness only by his light, as he ultimately could not handle the power and success he achieved. After fighting, murdering and scheming against his own men and friends in a quest for absolute power, he found himself completely lonely on a pinnacle over darkness, with no actual use for his incredible power. His genius allowed him to end an époque and begin another one dominated by multiculturalism and peace. He however, never found peace. I consider Alexander to be the epitome of the tragic hero, illustrating with startling clarity the incredible success a man can achieve by following his own light and determination. Also, he shows the effects that supreme power can have on men. It can corrupt them and make them feel lonely and alienated. Alexander failed to achieve his dream but managed to change his world like no other great leader could have. Indeed, he revolutionized the ancient world by creating a concept which was unthinkable for his time: globalization. Although he is a controversial figure in the end, the legacy of his success was capable of reaching our times, shaping civilization for centuries. Many great men of ancient and modern history involuntarily followed Alexander in his footsteps towards absolute power ultimately finding themselves alone with their unbearable burden. Julius Caesar was killed by his countrymen because of it as he planned more conquests in Parthia and in the East as Alexander did; Napoleon was exiled to the island of Saint Helena because of his suffocating power and remained alone with his vision of glory and conquest.
Alexander charging towards king Darius III at the battle of Issus. National Archaeological Museum, Naples.
Arrian of Nicomedia. The Anabasis of Alexander
Curtius Rufus. Historiae Alexandri Magni
Plutarch. Parallel Lives, Alexander the Great and Julius Ceaser
Badian, Ernst. (2012) Collected papers on Alexander the Great, Routledge.
Freeman, Philip. (2011) Alexander the Great, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
Holland, Tom. (2011) Persian fire, Abacus.
Manfredi, Valerio Massimo. (2011) Alèxandros, Oscar Mondadori.
Rodgers, Nigel. (2011) Alexander the Great, An illustrated military history, Anness Publishing Ltd.
On the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Michael Wood, BBC.
Alexander the great, the man behind the legend, National Geographic.