Plutarch’s Alexander: So How Great Was He?

As I read the Great Books and the ancient Greeks and Romans in particular, it strikes me just how much people have not changed over the thousands of years that have passed.

It is oddly fitting that I write this on the forty-sixth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, because the reading this time in Plutarch’s biography of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s rise to power began with the assassination of his father, Phillip, which, even thousands of years later, still has conspiracy theories attached to it.

But much about Alexander the Great remains mysterious, even to Plutarch who wrote several hundred years after his death. An attempt to find the historical Alexander requires any would-be biographer to sift through legends and interpretations of earlier biographers. In his book Alexander The Great, Historian J.R. Hamilton explains this issue and talks about how different modern biographers interpret Alexander as a tyrant or renaissance gentleman, depending on their own station in life and history.

This long introduction, then, is to say that in reading Plutarch’s life of Alexander, we need to be careful what lessons we draw from it. Plutarch himself writes how accounts of Alexander’s life written by his generals vary widely even though they were written shortly after his death.

In thinking over the life of Alexander, I am struck by a couple of points that come through in Plutarch’s narrative. The first is that we see in Alexander the model of someone obsessed by a particular vision of himself and his goals. We can’t argue that Alexander conquered a great amount of territory, but the second thing that comes through is that he just kept campaigning but there was no end to his war. So, we see the danger of ambition and obsession.

Although in this volume there appears to be no introduction or direction from Plutarch as to how we are to read his writings, the tone and phrasing at points shows that he means for them to be instructive. Plutarch definitely subscribes to the “Great Man” theory of history that history is created by great individuals who cause things to happen. In these biographies, it seems Plutarch is teaching us both about history and about how to be successful.

People have told me that Alexander’s father, Philip, was the one who was responsible for Alexander’s success because he laid the foundation by building the army and creating the tactics Alexander used. He also gave Alexander a pretty good foundation. Plutarch seems to have heard this argument, judging by the following paragraph. 

“Alexander was but twenty years old when his father was murdered, and succeeded to a kingdom, beset on all sides with great dangers and rancorous enemies. For not only the barbarous nations that bordered on Macedonia were impatient of being governed by any but their own native princes, but Philip likewise, though he had been victorious over the Grecians, yet, as the time had not been sufficient for him to complete his conquest and accustom them too his sway, had simply left all things in general disorder and confusion.”

Looking at Alexander’s traits, as laid out by Plutarch, we read that his was fixated on becoming a king, and even emperor, from an early age; “when he was asked by some about him if he would run a race in the Olympic games, as he was very swift footed, he answered, he would, if he might have kings to run with him.”  

Plutarch also tells us that Alexander was not always happy about the successes of his father.

 “Whenever he heard Philip had taken any town of importance, or won any signal victory, instead of rejoicing at it altogether, he would tell his companions that his father would anticipate everything, and leave him and them no opportunities of performing great and illustrious actions.”

 Alexander was concerned with a life of action and glory and not riches and pleasures, Plutarch tells us. He was mostly moderate with his food and drinking, though a few drunken arguments and at least one death are part of his life. Alexander was concerned with military accomplishment, and spent his off hours hunting because this was the way to keep his battle skills sharp. Apparently fighting with lions and wild boards required the same skills as fighting barbarians.

But in all of this campaigning and establishing cities and extending his empire, there is never a point where Alexander says “enough.” Instead he keeps pushing east trying to keep his Macedonian soldiers and his newly conquered and absorbed “barbarian” troops loyal and marching forward. Ultimately, he ends up on the edge of India and takes part of the subcontinent, but stops when he hears that large armies backed by elephants are waiting for him if he presses any further. His troops also had been worn down by this point, and many of the Macedonians just wanted to go home. Alexander, in the classic military bravado, “attacks in another direction down the Arabian peninsula, near the modern Persian gulf, and loses a large number of men to famine.

Short after returning to familiar lands, which as near as I can tell would be modern-day Iraq, he fell sick and died. He conquered lands were divided among his top men, and no real “Alexandrian empire” remained thereafter.  So, what was the point of all the campaigning and fighting? 

That’s not clear to me, but there were some side-effects that are interesting (though these don’t appear in the Plutarch biography). Alexander sent back information about the lands that he discovered and brought along geographers and scientists with him. (Alexander had been educated in part by Aristotle and kept a copy of the Iliad that Aristotle had annotated as one of his prized possessions.) His troops also seems to have introduced Greco-wrestling into India, and there is a long lineage of this kind of wrestling there that lasts through the present day.  But Alexander himself seems to have left little but legend and examples of his own battle prowess behind, which may have been all he wanted.

That said, the extent of his conquests do show us the value of being bold and focused in the direction of our goals. His willingness to expose himself to risk in battle and hunting caused his men to trust and follow him and led him to victory. Perhaps there is something there to take into our own lives when we set a direction and take action in pursuit of our goals. Knowing that Alexander did these things, suffered wounds, and went onto better things can help us face our own setbacks, which are likely less sever than a spear in the thigh.

 Next Time: Plutarch’s Caesar: Why Did He Cry Over Alexander?


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