'Alexander' in print and celluloid
Like America's current president, "Alexander," the hero of Oliver Stone's new movie, is a man who invades the Middle East in the name of high-minded ideals. "To free the people of the world," Alexander (Colin Farrell with blond hair) sighs early in the film. "Such would be beyond Achilles."
Achilles, the ancient Greek warrior who made his name fighting at Troy, is Alexander's role model and foil. Much has been made of the fact that Stone's Alexander is comfortably bisexual, possibly even gay. But what makes him contemporary are the eerily familiar details of his grandiose military ambition.
When Stone's Alexander pursues his brown-skinned, doe-eyed foe, the Persian King Darius III, through the rocky desolation of northern Iran, what audience won't picture American forces stalking Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora? When Stone's Alexander vows, "You'll run to the end of the earth, but you'll never run far enough," who won't hear President Bush boasting that bin Laden and al-Qaida are "on the run"?
For a politically ascendant America at war far from home, the story of the region's most famous conqueror has irresistible allure. Liberator, dictator, uniter, divider, visionary, murderer, empire-builder, oppressor, idealist, feminist, sexist, racist, gay, straight, bisexual: Alexander is all this and more.
Stone's three-hour epic is the most visible evidence of the current Alexander fixation. The History Channel has broadcast a documentary about his life, and the Discovery Channel is showing one about the lingering questions surrounding his death. Meanwhile, the director Baz Luhrmann has plans for an Alexander movie of his own, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman in leading roles.
At least a dozen new books about Alexander — novels, leadership how-to guides and biographies — have appeared in the past year alone.
Of course, Alexander — a Macedonian king from the fourth century B.C. who vanquished an enormous swath of Asia while still in his 20s and died, probably of typhoid fever, at 32 — has always been an object of fascination.
Revered as a god-man in antiquity, he is considered a founding father of Western civilization and one of history's most brilliant military tacticians. The few undisputed facts about his life and personality have made him an easy target for wild theories and has added to his near-mythic luster.
In "Alexander the Great," his 1973 biography, Robin Lane Fox, the British dean of Alexander studies and an adviser on Stone's film, counts 1,472 books and articles on Alexander from the last 200 years. Many of these works, he warns, "adopt a confident tone and can be dismissed for that alone."
Of the more than 20 books written by Alexander's contemporaries, none has survived except as paraphrases in the work of later authors. Among the oldest surviving accounts is Plutarch's anecdote-rich "The Life of Alexander the Great," which emphasizes Alexander's scholarly bent and the legacy of his tutor, Aristotle. While in Asia, Plutarch writes, Alexander slept with a copy of Homer's "Iliad" under his pillow.
Such stories are not to be confused with facts. As the classicist Victor Davis Hanson points out in the introduction, Plutarch "wrote almost 400 years after Alexander's death, as distant in time from his subject as we are from the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock."
All of which suggests why the current Alexander fad is likely to reveal little of historic value about Alexander and a great deal more about ourselves.
Consider "Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great's Ill-Fated Journey Across Asia." To retrace the path of Alexander's Greek and Macedonian army, the author, a classics instructor named John Prevas, traveled through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Because of the American-led invasion, Iraq — including Gaugamela in the Tigris River Valley, where Alexander routed Darius in 331 B.C., and Babylon, where he died eight years later — was off limits.
Everywhere he went, Prevas found disturbing levels of anti-Western sentiment, much more so, he suggests, than would have been the case in Alexander's day. "Alexander and I traveled over the same roads, deserts and mountains although we traveled nearly 2,400 years apart," he writes. "The topography has hardly changed, but the world I traveled through to research this book is a far more dangerous and less peaceful place than it was when Alexander and his Macedonians passed through."
A similar pessimism pervades his account of Alexander. On the battlefield, he writes, Alexander was a commander of genius. Off it, he was a megalomaniac and a tyrant, a man who drank to excess, killed his friends, encouraged his army in the slaughter of innocent civilians and expected to be worshipped like a god.
Typical of Alexander's moral missteps, Prevas argues, was his sacking of the Persian capital Persepolis, which had surrendered to his army and turned over the contents of the royal treasury. After looting much of the city and massacring the inhabitants, Alexander and his men lingered in the royal palaces of Persepolis for several months. Before they left, they demolished these buildings by setting them on fire.
The sacking and burning of Persepolis has long been a subject of debate. Some scholars believe the palace fires were an accident incurred during a wine-fueled bacchanalia. Politically, Prevas acknowledges, the destruction of Persepolis made sense: It would be seen by Greece as revenge for the Persian invasion of Athens and burning of the Acropolis 150 years earlier. The author argues, it was a barbaric act, which "shows just how thin was the veneer of the Hellenic civilization that many of Alexander's biographers over the centuries would have us believe he was carrying to the East."
The point of this negative revisionism? It's not just to set the record straight; rather, there's a lesson here for us. And Prevas' conclusion sums it up. Alexander's story "validates the axiom that power is a dangerous commodity that must be handled carefully by those who possess it," he writes. He adds: "The fear, however, is that little if anything will be learned from Alexander's experience and that the world will be forced to repeat his mistakes in an endless and increasingly more dangerous cycle of war and conquest."
Guy MacLean Rogers, the author of "Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness" is similarly impelled by current events. Like Prevas, he believes his subject has special relevance today. But his reasoning couldn't be more different. "In an ideal, peaceful world, Alexander's military tactics, logistics and strategic vision would be largely of antiquarian interest," he writes. "But we do not live in such a world. Alexander never lost a battle and conquered the ancient world's greatest empire in less than a decade. His unparalleled record of military success is more, not less, relevant today."
His subtitle notwithstanding, there is little ambiguity in Rogers' account. His Alexander is a "prodigy of warfare," "a virtuoso of violence" and "perhaps the greatest warrior in world history."
Among his innovations is what Rogers calls a "tactical square." When Alexander faced the Persian army at the Battle of Gaugamela, his forces were outnumbered at least five-to-one. So he and his generals improvised a rectangular fighting formation designed to repel attacks from all four sides.
He also deployed his cavalry at an oblique angle rather than in a straight line, a strategic move that, Rogers writes, "anticipated by two millennia tactics that would make Frederick the Great the most celebrated soldier of his day."
Rogers concedes that Alexander was guilty of drunken rages (during one he murdered his friend Cleitus) and gratuitous brutality (especially during campaigns in northern India). But such faults, he suggests, should be measured against more modern behavior. In his view, Alexander, who married a Bactrian noblewoman and later two Persians, was a "protofeminist" and "protomulticulturalist."
He might have added "proto-CEO" as well. According to Partha Bose, the author of last year's "Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy: The Timeless Leadership Lessons of History's Greatest Empire Builder," it is not uncommon to "hear a chief executive or a senior manager exclaim, in the depths of a discussion about an intricate current problem, that the way to solve it might be to take the approach that Alexander once did."
This contention is buttressed by Lance B. Kurke in "The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: Enduring Leadership Lessons From the Man Who Created an Empire" (Amacom), a book that lists among its subject's exemplary executive traits a "human resources acumen" that was nothing short of astonishing.
"He knew the names of 10,000 soldiers," Kurke writes. "He ate and slept with his soldiers on the march. He ate sparingly and chose always to sleep cold. He led from the front and was frequently wounded with his soldiers."
Alexander, in other words, understood that "the employees come first because it is they who will make your dream come true."
Was he also gay? Most scholars think that Hephaistion, a boyhood friend who accompanied him to Asia, was Alexander's lover, and Stone's film implicitly endorses this view. Never mind that the ancient Greeks didn't have rigid categories for sexual orientation. Or that Alexander also had three wives and possibly a couple of mistresses.
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