He goes through this house of Zeus
And he makes the gods tremble.
They get up, they all get up from their seats
When he comes in,
When he pulls back
His bright bow.
Excerpt from the Hymn to Apollo of Delos
His men worshipped him; his enemies dreaded him; his successors imitated him.
Once, on the eve of battle he appeared in a dream to Pyrrhus, boldest of Greek generals, and when Pyrrhus asked what help a ghost could promise, "I lend you my name," he answered. True to the story, it was the name which remained a living fascination for two thousand years. It attracted the youthful Pompey, who aspired to it even in his dress; it was toyed with by the young Augustus, and it was used against the emperor Trajan; among poets, Petrarch attacked it, Shakespeare saw through it; Christians resented it, pagans maintained it, but to a Victorian bishop it seemed the most admirable name in the world. Grandeur could not resist it; Louis XIV, when young, danced as Alexander in a ballet; Michelangelo laid out the square on Rome's Capitol in the design of Alexander's shield; Napoleon kept Alexander's history as bedside reading, and legend has it that he dressed every morning before a painting of Alexander's grandest victory. As a name, it had the spell of youth and glory: it was Julius Caesar who once looked up from a history of Alexander, thought for a while and then burst into tears 'because Alexander had died at the age of thirty-two, king of so many peoples, and he himself had not yet achieved any brilliant success'.
Alexander was a hero in his own lifetime. Through the continual interest of the educated West in the Greek past and through the spread, mostly in Oriental languages, of a legendary romance of Alexander's exploits, his fame reached from Iceland to China; the Well of Immortality, submarines, the Valley of Diamonds and the invention of a flying machine are only a few of the fictitious adventures which became linked with his name in a process which each age continued according to its preoccupations; when the Three Kings of the Orient came to pay homage to Jesus, Melchior's gold, said Jewish legend, was in fact an offering from Alexander's treasure. Nor has he been forgotten by ordinary men at either end of his empire. Because of the spread of the Romance of Alexander, there are Afghan chieftains who still claim to be descended from his blood. Seventy years ago they would go to war with the red flag they believed to be his banner, while on stormy nights in the Aegean, the island fishermen of Lesbos still shout down the sea with their question, 'Where is Alexander the Great?', and on giving their calming answer, 'Alexander the Great lives and is King', they rest assured that the waves will subside.
Alexander was born son of Philip and Olympias in 356 B.C. on July 20. Olympia's royal ancestry traced back to the hero Achilles, and the blood of Helen of Troy was believed to run on her father's side. To the Greeks, Olympias was known as a devotee of Bacchant, or reveller in the god's honor. She would head the procession herself, and on Philip's Macedonian coins, the portrait of Heracles, ancestor of the kings, is often combined with the grapes and cups of Dionysus, a deity honored in Macedonia.
For the last eleven years, he never saw her; she still cared for him, and so, for example, she would send a dedication to the goddess of Health at Athens when she heard that he had recovered from a serious Asian illness; although they wrote letters to each other, no original survives of any significance. It was Olympias who began choosing his tutors. From her own family, she chose Leonidas, and from north-west Greece, an area close to her home but not known for learning, came Lysimachus, a man of middle age; Lysimachus was much loved by Alexander and later followed him into Asia, where his pupil one day risked his life to save him. Leonidas was stern, petty and prying. He believed in hard exercise and, it was said, he would rummage through Alexander's trunks of clothing to satisfy himself that nothing luxurious had been smuggled inside by his mother; he reproached his pupil for being too lavish with his sacrificial offerings. At the age of twenty-three Alexander was able to retort. He had already routed the Persian king, and from the Lebanon he sent Leonidas a gigantic load of precious incense, pointing his present with a message: "We have sent you frankincense and myrrh in abundance, to stop you being mean to the gods'. This was how Alexander showed his humor and generosity.
Poetry and music continued to hold Alexander's attention throughout his life; his musical and literary competitions were famous all across Asia, and his favor for actors, musicians and friendly actors needs no illustration. In music, especially, his interest was perhaps more popular than informed. He enjoyed the rousing pieces of Timotheus, a poet and composer who had once visited Macedonia, and his own learning of an instrument is nicely put in a story, well found if not original: when Alexander asked his music teacher why it mattered if he played one string rather than another, the teacher told him it did not matter at all for a future king, but it did for one who wanted to be a musician.
'Every man who has loved hunting', the Greek general Xenophon had recently written, 'has been a good man.' No Macedonian at Philip's court would have quarrelled with his judgment, for hunting was the focal point of a Macedonia's life. Bears and lions still roamed the highlands, and elsewhere deer were in abundance, for whose sport Macedonians grouped themselves in hunting societies with the hero Heracles as their patron, honoured under a suitable title of the chase. Alexander remained true to his native passtime. If he had a favorite interest, it was hunting, and every day, if possible, he liked to hunt birds and foxes; he was always keen to be shown fine dogs, and he was so fond of an Indian one of his own that he commemorated it by giving its name to one of his new towns. He also needed a horse both for war and relaxation. By the age of twelve, he had found one, for it was at this early age that he first met his black horse Bucephalos, with whom he would one day ride to India and far on into legend and distant memory, Bucephalos the first unicorn in western civilization. Bucephalos whose master would conquer the world, Bucephalos born of the same seed as his master and whinnying and fawning with his front legs at the sight of the only man he trusted.
The tale of his arrival is irresistible. Demaratus the Corinthian, most valued of Philip's Greek friends, had bought the horse from his Thessalian breeder for a price said to be as high as thirteen talents, more than three times higher than any paid for other known horses in antiquity, and having bought it, he gave it as a present to Philip. Later, Alexander's officers believed Bucephalos to have been born in the same year as his master. On arrival in Macedonia, Bucephalos was led into the plain for Philip's inspection, but he bucked and reared and refused to heed any word of command, and Philip ordered him to be taken away. Alexander had seen differently. Promising to master the animal, he ran towards him, took him by the halter and turned him toward the sun; by a plausible trick of horsemanship, he had noticed that Bucephalos was shying at his own shadow, so he patted, stroked and soothed, leapt astride and finally cantered round to shouts of applause from the courtiers and tears of joy from Philip, who is said to have predicted that Macedonia would never contain such a prince. Bucephalos was Alexander's for the keeping, and he loved the horse for the next twenty years; he even taught him to kneel in full harness before him, so that he could mount him more easily in armour, a trick which the Greeks first learnt from the Persians.
Already a horseman and a musician, Alexander passed his early years at Pella. The Macedonian kings, who maintained that their Greek ancestry traced back to Zeus, had long given homes and patronage to Greece's most distinguished artists; Pindar and Bacchylides the two lyric poets, Hippocrates the father of medicine, Timotheus composer of choral verse and music. Zeuxis the painter, Choerilus the epic poet, Agathon the dramatist had all written or worked for Macedonian kings of the previous century. Most memorable of all, there had been Euripides the playwright who had left Athens on the verge of old age and come to live at King Archelaus's Pela, where he was made an honorary Companion; he died, it was said, from a pack of wild dogs, owned by a Luncestian nobleman. Alexander could quote Euripides's plays by heart and would send for his plays, together with those of Sophocles and his greater predecessor Aeschylus, as his leisure reading in outer Iran. It was Macedonia, perhaps, which left the deeper mark on its visitor, for it was probably there that Euripides wrote his Bacchae, the most disturbing and powerful play in Greek literature; its theme was the worship of Dionysus, and the Macedonians' wild cult of the god, which Olympias later upheld, may have worked on his imagination no less than the lush green landscape.
Alexander's reign and patronage saw a golden age of Greek painting, many of whose masters were drawn from cities governed by his friends, and from an early age, there are stories to show that he knew how to treat them. Once, when he arranged for his favourite painter Apelles to sketch a nude of his first Greek mistress Campaspe, Apelles fell in love, so he found, with the girl whom he was painting. So Alexander gave him Campaspe as a present, the most generous gift of my patron and one which would remain a model for patronage and painters on through the Renaissance.
His father had appointed the most suitable Greek tutor for a son who had already outgrown his boyhood attendants. He sent for Plato's most brilliant pupil, Aristotle son of Nichomachus, 'thin legged and small-eyed' and as yet unknown for his philosophical publications. 'He taught him writing, Greek, Hebrew, Babylonian and Latin. He taught him the nature of the sea and the winds; he explained the course of the stars, the revolutions of the firmament and the life-span of the world. He showed him justice and rhetoric: he warned him against the looser sorts of women.'
Thus Alexander spent the school hours with one of the most tireless and wide-ranging minds which has ever lived. Nowadays Aristotle is remembered as a philosopher, but apart from his philosophical works he also wrote books on the constitutions of 158 different states, edited a list of the victors in the games at Delphi, discussed music and medicine, outlined the forms of poetry, considered the irrational sides of man's nature, set zoology on a properly experimental course in a compendious series of masterpieces whose facts become art through the love of a rare observer of nature; he was intrigued by bees and he began the study of embryology, although the dissection of human corpses was forbidden and his only opportunity was to procure and examine an aborted foetus. The contact between Greece's greatest brain and her greatest conqueror is irresistible, and their mutual influence has occupied the imagination ever since.
The fourteen-year old Alexander could not help learning curiosity from Aristotle. Medicine, animals, the lie of the land and the shape of the seas; these were interests which Aristotle could communicate to Alexander. He prescribed cures for snakebites to his friends, he suggested that a new strain of cattle should be shipped from India to Macedonia: he shared his father's interest in drainage and irrigation and the reclaining of waste land; his surveyors paced out the roads in Asia, and his fleet was detailed to explore the Caspian Sea and the Indian ocean; his treasurer experimented with European plants in a Babylonian garden, and thanks to his expedition's findings, Aristotle's most intelligent pupil could include the banyan, the cinnamon and a bush of myrrh in books which mark the beginnings of botany. Alexander was more than a man of ambition and toughness; he had the wide armoury of interests of a man of curiosity.
'Sex and sleep alone make me conscious that I am mortal,' Alexander is said to have remarked; and his impatience with sleep was shared by his tutor Aristotle.
May we recommend some books?
Alexander the Great, by Robin Lane Fox
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Copyright 2001 West-Art PROMETHEUS, Internet Bulletin for Art, Politics and Science.