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Alexander the Great

Alex a cross-dressing, grudge carrying, god walking on earth? Believe it!

It's fair to say that Alexander the Great was an overachiever. Though he only lived 33 years, he conquered most of the world known by the Ancients. He was the son of King Philip II of Macedon, who found time between alcoholism, womanizing, and homosexual pedophilia to conquer and unite most of Greece. Alexander didn't take after his father in all of these respects but he was resourceful and ruthless in his conquering spree; upon one occasion when he needed a bridge, his troops knocked down a nearby village and threw it into the river, thus providing a means of passage. But, you know, that's why they call him Great.

In his youth, Alexander was tutored by none other than Aristotle. It is Alexander's first tutor, however, who provides the most entertaining anecdote concerning Alexander The Not-So-Great. In his masterly history, Alexander the Great (now out of print -- see Alexander of Macedon), Peter Green writes:

His first tutor was a kinsman of Olympias, a stern and crabbed old disciplinarian named Leonidas, who (like his Spartan namesake) placed great emphasis on feats of physical endurance...
Alexander did not forget his old bear of a tutor... Once when the young prince was offering sacrifice, with would-be royal lavishness he scooped up two whole fistfuls of incense to cast on the altar-fire. This brought down a stinging rebuke on his head from his tutor. 'When you've conquered the spice-bearing regions,' Leonidas said, with ... elaborate sarcasm..., 'you can throw away all the incense you like. Till then, don't waste it.'
Years later, Alexander captured Gaza, the main spice entrepot for the whole Middle East. As always, he sent presents home to his mother and his sister. But this time there was one for Leonidas as well. A consignment of no less than eighteen tons of frankincense and myrrh was delivered to the old man, 'in remembrance of the hope with which that teacher had inspired his boyhood' -- together with an admonition not to be parsimonious towards the gods.

Talk about holding a grudge! Well, at least he's not impetuous,you might say. After all, someone who conquers his entire world and remembers slights for decades at a time must be careful, measured man, if maybe a bit driven. No, much more complex than that. For one thing, his megalomania led him to demand deification. Well, why not? It's hard to find a story of Zeus being more petty than sending eighteen tons of incense to his old tutor, isn't it? So Alex wasn't turning into various animals to seduce mortal women, but otherwise it seems like he'd fit right in. Peter Green writes his second biography of Alexander, Alexander of Macedon:

[Alexander] wanted an official announcement made at the Olympic Games that summer [concerning an administrative decree], and his special envoy Nicanor -- Aristotle's adopted son -- left on this mission soon afterwards. With him he took a second unrelated decree, which has aroused considerable controversy among scholars, but seems to have been regarded by the Greeks themselves as a joke -- and one in somewhat questionable taste, at that. Alexander now required that the cities of the [Greek] league should publicly acknowledge him as a god... Perhaps the best comment came from Damis the Spartan. When the question of divine honours was under debate, he said: 'Since Alexander desires to be a god, let him be a god.'

As is typical in ancient history, sources are often unreliable. Another biography (can you guess the title?) by Robin Lane Fox dismisses the above anecdote as 'both wildly unreliable and implausible'. Well, whatever. Records remain of the debate, and the fact remains that he was indeed worshipped as a god in his own lifetime, an unprecedented achievement. For some time among the statesmen and philosophers in Athens, it was quite the topic of conversation. Did these guys have too much time on their hands, or what? One opponent of the decree was rebuked for 'youthful presumption' for his opposition. He retorted 'At least I'm older than the prospective Deity...'. Smart ass. Knowing full well that Alexander would probably just raze the town and sell them as slaves if they didn't agree (he had lots of practice, believe me), they decided to officially deify Alexander. Demosthenes grumbled "All right, make him the son of Zeus -- and of Poseidon too, if that's what he wants." Grumpy old men never change, do they?

Deification apparently went to Alexander's head. Perhaps it was all the drinking he did (he drank to such excess that even in those tolerant times, his doctors warned him to stop). But eventually he... well, you'll see. [From a pamphlet written by a contemporary of Alexander's]

Alexander would wear the sacred clothes of the gods at dinner-parties, sometimes the purple cloak, the slippers and horns of Ammon, sometimes the dress of the goddess Artemis, which he would often wear even on his chariot... Sometimes, he would also dress as Hermes, especially at parties when he would wear the winged sandals and the broad hat and hold a caduceus in his hand: often he carried a lion-skin and a club, like Heracles.

The most prolific conqueror of all time wore a big old silver dress out on his battle chariot? Somewhere in between all that cross-dressing, drinking and partying, he did find time, like his father, to wage war and conquer everything he could find. It's good to be the king! Because Alexander envisioned himself as an epic hero, and lived at the right time to be documented as one, his life was recorded in minute detail and makes utterly fascinating reading. We recommend his biographies to anyone. Our favorite was Alexander of Macedon.

Further Reading

Alexander the Great led a very interesting life and has been a topic of conversation for over two thousand years -- there is no shortage of books about the guy. These were the best that we found. We've got stories about his father and about Greek rowdiness in general.

Bibliography

  1. Peter Green. Alexander of Macedon 356-323 B. C. : A Historical Biography. University of California Press, 1992.
  2. Peter Green. Alexander the Great. Praeger, 1970.
  3. Robin Lane Fox. Alexander the Great. Penguin USA, 1994.

 
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