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Is it possible to discern the aims of Alexander the Great

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King Alexander of Macedon is famously known for his undoubted military success which saw him expand his empire from the eastern Mediterranean into the relatively unknown area which is now modern day India. As a result of this legendary campaign, a new era was born as the previous differences of East and West were set aside in what became known as the hellenisation of the East. However, schools of history have since debated whether the greatness of Alexander is reserved just for his military success, or if it extends to his vision of a pan Hellenic world.

According to Plutarch, a second century biographer who based his account on Cleitarchus’ report, Alexander had sought to be “a governor from God and a reconciler of the world; using force of arms against those whom he failed to bring together… and by reason, he united peoples of the most varied origin”1. Claims such as these suggest that Alexander had clear aims of hellenising the East when he set out for his campaign. These are supported by the manner in which he incorporated other cultures into his own persona as a means of uniting an empire.

By these views it is fair to argue that Alexander’s objectives were clearly intent on Hellenising the East. However, while there is no doubt that to some extent Asia was Hellenised, historians such as J. R Hamilton dismiss that Alexander “consciously aimed at promoting this”2. This is supported by Hammond who declares that “He (Alexander) saw the destiny of Macedonia as victory in war, and he made military glory the object of his ambitions”3.

Therefore it is also fair to assess the view that the hellenisation process was an indirect result of Alexander’s initial intention; glory. For the “personal glory” theory to be considered as Alexander’s true aim there must firstly be plausible reasoning behind such analysis. Most historians of this school of thought underpin Alexander’s competitive nature as his main driving force to conquering Asia. Hammond states that “Alexander himself believed that he must compete with Phillip, Cyrus the Great and Heracles and surpass them all”4.

Indeed the affiliation with his father in particular is what Hamilton decrees as the main instigator behind Alexander’s search for distinction as “he complained Phillip’s successes would leave nothing for him to accomplish”5. This spirited but aggressive trait is shown clearly throughout Alexander’s life, in such examples as his reckless cavalier charge at the battle of Granikos (334BC) and the fact that he was only stopped from continuing his campaign by the mutiny of his own soldiers.

Alexander’s competitive feature is briefly evaluated by Arrian who remarked “if he had added Europe to Asia, he would have competed with himself in default of any rival”6. The historian Paul Cartledge expands this argument when studying further Alexander’s fixation with the Homeric novels “For Alexander personally embodied to the utmost degree the Homeric injunction ‘always to be the best and excel all others'”7. It is clear from this that Alexander saw himself as a man of destiny who wanted to eclipse the achievements, set by his childhood heroes from the Iliad.

His obsession with his dynasty (“his wish to consult the oracle here (Temple of Ammon), as it had a reputation of infallibility… Heracles was supposed to have consulted it! “)8, and his determination to do symbolic actions such as the “untying” of the Girondian knot and the founding of over seventy cities (as recorded by Plutarch) clearly portrays a man who is obsessed with achieving an almost transcendent legacy. At this point it is becoming more apparent that Alexander’s aims were motivated by this search to fulfil his destiny and become revered as a god rather than seeking to build this new Hellenised world.

However such reasoning is diluted when considering as Hamilton states that Alexander’s campaign was an outcome of the continuation of Phillip’s policy. Alexander’s initial actions were simply an attempt to reaffirm his position as the death of Phillip had caused much unrest. He then followed his father’s policy (constructed by Isocrates9) as Hegemon to free the Ionian Greeks from their Persian tyranny. Indeed Ian Worthington asserts that “Alexander probably did not aim to march as far East as he did… and it was presumed that once Alexander achieved it (Isocrates’ plan) he would return home”10.

This shows that Alexander’s original aim was to consolidate the empire he had inherited. In reality it was only after he had done this that he realised his competitive dreams could be satisfied as the success of his military campaign had given him inspiration and the need to raise revenue to maintain his army decided for him that he must continue his campaign. Evidently therefore it is assessable to view Alexander and his aims as expedient and pragmatic as essentially he did what he felt he needed to do as opposed to following his own ambitions.

The theory of Alexander’s pragmatism also answers for the overall outcome of the hellenisation process. Historians such as Hamilton lead the line in suggesting that Alexander’s “policy of fusion” was a strategically and pragmatic approach to maintaining his empire whilst on campaign as oppose to the “God given mission” historians such as Plutarch and Wilcken allege it to be. This can be seen as Plutarch manifestly exaggerates the number of cities founded by the great conqueror.

Wilcken supports this by claiming that the foundation of all these many cities was a “chief method by which, it is suggested, Alexander forwarded the process of Hellenisation”11. Indeed there is little doubt that places like Alexandria in Egypt and Alexandria-Charax were projected to develop into great trading outposts. However Welles dismisses that most of these were “fortified camps and nothing more … created in strategically placed locations to safeguard communications and dominate local countryside”12.

This implies that the principal function of these cities was not to promote the idea of Hellenisation but to in fact allow Alexander to maintain his empire through well situated strategic points and well functioned administrative settlements. This perhaps is a typical response of the pragmatic Alexander depicted by Hamilton and Welles. However it is also argued that the nature of the populations of these new cities showed how Alexander expected his policy of fusion to create this new Hellenic empire.

Many of these new cities consisted of Greek mercenaries and Macedonian veterans who were encouraged to marry and settle in these new cities with the Persians. This is supported by the fact that Alexander then issued the Exiled Decree which allowed Persians and Egyptians to settle in Greece and Macedonia. Indeed even politically Alexander did not “follow the advice given to him by his tutor, Aristotle, to treat all non Greeks as slavish barbarians”13 but instead reappointed loyal Persian governors in order to instigate a hellenisation process.

Therefore it would appear that Alexander did indeed have some desire to create a Pan-Hellenic empire. Nevertheless the “pragmatic” response to this is as Hamilton states “Alexander used whatever material he had to hand, and Greeks could be spared in the same way as Persians could”14. It is also debatable whether Alexander kept veterans and mercenaries in these new cities to facilitate the hellenisation development or to maintain law and order within his newly conquered territory. A pragmatic Alexander would evidently have been associated with the latter.

In essence there is a feeling that Alexander’s aim was to gain and maintain an empire; and in order to sustain it he pragmatically tried to incorporate all peoples as one. This expediency is duly summarised by Arrian who explains a just example of Alexander’s practicality “However, surely his adoption of Persian dress was a matter of policy: by it he hoped to bring the eastern nations to feel that they had a king who was not wholly a foreigner, and to indicate to his own countrymen his desire to move away from the harsh traditional arrogance of Macedonia”15.

Therefore it would be fair to argue that just as Alexander pragmatically expanded his empire further than expected, he also set about pragmatically ensuring its survival which unintentionally fashioned the hellenisation of the East as an outcome. Before concluding it is appropriate that the “Romance of Alexander” be mentioned. The legacy of Alexander has become such that as Paul Cartledge states “There have been as many Alexander’s as there have been students of Alexander”16.

As so few primary sources exist to this day, modern day historians are forced to build upon the transcendent legacy that was built up as a result of Alexander’s death. Historians such as Plutarch and Hammond in particular give a highly romanticised view of Alexander as a “visionary with a spiritual dimension”17 who made it his aim to unite all peoples under his empire. This opinion is highly criticised by Bosworth who dismisses this argument as being built up by Asian folk-lore. This shows that when studying Alexander one must be aware of this transfixing legacy as the Greatest.

In discerning Alexander’s aims historians have to take into account that like most people, goals and aspirations change over time. The probability of Alexander developing one sole aim throughout childhood and then seeking to fulfil it is not impossible but extremely unlikely. To suggest that the twenty-year old newly elected King sought to expand his empire into the dominant Persian territories when he was facing internal threats is delusive. Instead it is more likely that Alexander’s route was decided by pragmatic decisions.

First he followed his father’s policy, and in seeing his success and the need for revenue decided to go all the way. Secondly he managed to maintain his empire through his expedient measures to uphold a “policy of fusion”. For many scholars it would seem that “it was the extent of his conquests that gained for Alexander his title of The Great”18. This is certainly plausible however as a conclusion it is surely the pragmatic manner in which Alexander gained and maintained his empire that warrants him the title ‘Great’.

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