464 pages, Random House, ISBN-13: 978-1400062614
Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness by Guy MacLean Rogers is one of the latest in a long shelf of books recording the feats and plumbing the character of Alexander the Great who, in the space of a dozen years, conquered most of his known world and then expired, at age 32, probably of a fever. In a nutshell: Alexander III of Macedon was born in 356 B.C.E., son of Philip II, the king of Macedonia, a more-or-less Greek region north of Greece proper. Philip assembled the finest army the world had seen up to that time, put the strong-arm on the other Greek states and set about to invade the Persian empire, which controlled much of the modern-day Near East. Before Philip could launch his crusade he was assassinated, possibly with the complicity of Alexander and his mother. At the age of 20 Alexander inherited Philip’s throne, army and mission. He crossed the Bosporus in 334 B.C.E., never to see his homeland again. Over the following years he won a series of brilliant victories and tossed Darius III off the Persian throne. He drove his Macedonian army as far as India, where his men dug in their heels and refused to go further. Alexander then backtracked to Babylon, where he died. His empire, which fractured almost immediately after his death, encompassed a huge landmass, including the modern countries of Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq (the Battle of Gaugamela, one of Alexander's greatest victories, took place just east of Mosul, scene of recent fighting). The historian of an ancient-world figure like Alexander is only as good as his sources, and therein lies the rub. The problem isn’t so much the quantity of the primary material as the quality.
Rogers is, to say the least, impatient with recent scholars who have stressed the Alexander’s atrocities and supposed drunkenness – he is out to revise the revisionists, you could say – but he doesn’t try to hide Alexander’s faults as a human being and the war atrocities that he is ultimately responsible for and, it must be said, for which he was later regretful. For example, after successfully laying siege to the city-state of Tyre, Alexander had 30,000 Tyrians sold into slavery and crucified 2,000 more as an example of what would happen to cities that resisted him. “The siege unquestionably was brutal and its outcome horrific”, Rogers writes, “[b]ut the Tyrians conducted their resistance in a way that probably guaranteed that no mercy would be shown to them” (apparently at one point they slit the throats of Macedonian captives in full view of Alexander’s army). “Modern historians who have condemned Alexander and the Macedonians…have failed to mention this Tyrian atrocity”, Rogers writes. The book is studded with similar examples of this authorial scale-balancing.
The impact of Alexander cannot be overestimated, although it has become fashionable for the anti-Alexandrian school of historians and scholars to extrapolate on the negative aspects of Alexander’s conquests and brutal suppression of resistance and revolt. But, really now, it’s so easy for historians to sit in their school offices and home dens and on some sort of a moral high chair applying the moral values of today to the constant warlike conditions of Alexander’s brutal era. If you knew you had Alexander’s unruly genius for military command and tactics and you knew you could vanquish the barbarian Persians and impose the ideals and culture of your country, would you not have done what Alexander did? How could anyone really put himself in Alexander’s sandals? How many people in today’s age can even imagine what it was like to be in one of these battles wearing armor and wielding only a 2’ blade sword knowing that you could be struck down or decapitated any moment? But it's easy for us to sit in our couch or behind a computer screen and type, “I could have done better. He wasn’t so great. I wouldn’t have killed so many people. I’m morally superior than that.” Indeed, considering the vast power he attained and wielded over such a ginormous territory in such antiquity, Alexander has to be considered one of the most generous and magnanimous monarchs of all time. He could have butchered and wiped out populations on a grand scale…but he didn’t. He could have forcibly imposed Macedonian culture, religion, administration and governance on the lands he conquered…but he didn’t. He always gave city-states or tribes a chance to surrender; only when there was resistance and Macedonian lives lost would his wrath be brutal and systematically ruthless. Alexander was virtually generous to a fault to the people he conquered in many cases.
Alexander was the kind of leader that comes along once in history. He was extremely intelligent, observant, brave beyond reason, and lethal in combat. He set clear goals and focused relentlessly on how to achieve them. He knew and respected his enemies, but feared no one. He motivated his soldiers by displaying a willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. In sum, he was a charismatic, inspirational leader, and his unbroken string of victories suggested that he was beloved of the gods. That is why tens of thousands were willing to follow him from Macedon to the Indus River.