Books February 2020
At the altar of Alexander
A review of Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great by F. S. Naiden.
In the thick of battle. What that phrase really means is more or less lost to us. Battles, if they happen at all, may still be terrible—but they do not come thick: not with many thousands of men, clashing so close that weapons can barely be wielded. Therefore we look to the past for such images of dense aggressive impact as survive. None, perhaps, evokes battle-thickness quite so effectively as the so-called Alexander Mosaic. Once this scene supplied a household of ancient Pompeii with grand, distinctly non-domestic decoration. Now the mosaic dominates an entire wall of the Naples Archaeological Museum—offering any viewer the comfort of being at once close to and remote from the carnage it represents.
The museum label is unequivocal. What this mosaic shows is the battle of Issus in 333 B.C., when a Macedonian army led by Alexander “the Great” prevailed over the forces of the Persian King Darius III, somewhere near the present border between Turkey and Syria. There was, however, a further major showdown between Alexander and Darius two years later, at Gaugamela in the desert plains of current-day Iraqi Kurdistan. By the artistic license of the Alexander Mosaic, the separate encounters may be mingled. The message of the image seems to override historical particularity. At both Issus and Gaugamela, Alexander reportedly attempted in person to kill or to capture Darius; on both occasions, as narrated by pro-Alexander sources, Darius recognized that intention, and chose to abandon the field. A year after Gaugamela, Darius was dead—by the hands of his own subordinates. Then, we are told, Alexander was deeply aggrieved, and took pains to hunt down the murderers.
This is not an easy story to comprehend, and the Alexander Mosaic is not so stark as it might appear. A fair case can be made for Darius as a highly competent strategist, proven as a leader in the vanguard of his troops. Indeed, a substantial number of them were Greeks, fighting as mercenaries. So how should we receive the confrontation as depicted—and also a rumor leaking from its aftermath, to the effect that a defeated and dying Darius formally bequeathed his “Great Kingdom” to Alexander?
Within the frame of the mosaic, the figures of Alexander and Darius are prominent; in represented space, they are almost upon each other. Alexander, without a helmet, his eyes bulging and hair flashing gold, carries a long lance; the point of that lance has run through a Persian, finely attired. Darius looks across towards Alexander: the line of sight could be direct. The horses attached to the Persian king’s chariot are bucking and askew; a grim driver behind the king raises a whip, urging retreat. Yet Darius is apparently transfixed by the Macedonian onset and extends his right hand. What does that gesture mean? Some commentators suppose it to be a sign of concern for the gaudy Persian impaled, like a kebab, upon Alexander’s spear. Is the casualty some valued officer, perhaps, or even a royal brother? But there is another reading. Darius makes a signal, not of surrender, still less of cowardly fear—but rather of concession, and due awe. It is the body language of one supernatural claimant acknowledging another. It is the tremulous salute towards irresistible ascendancy.
Construing rivalry between Alexander and Darius in terms of pseudo-divine peer respect is part of Fred Naiden’s fresh synopsis of the Alexander story, Soldier, Priest, and God.1 Call it a “synopsis,” or an overview: specialists in ancient history may feel that little scope exists for rewriting the main or even minor lineaments of the narrative as already established, described as “familiar” by Naiden himself. We await, as we have awaited for decades, the discovery of Alexander’s burial place—probably somewhere in or near Alexandria. There may be more to come from sites such as Aigai (Vergina), in what was ancient Macedonia. But such revisions of the evidence as have surfaced lately belong mostly to the Near East. Alexander died in Babylon, in 323 B.C. Whatever the cause of death, it is unlikely to have been compounded by homesickness. By any account, Alexander’s intentions seem clear enough. He belonged in Asia, and large tracts of western Asia belonged to him. To what extent Alexander realized that mutual principle is poignantly clear in the modern view. We hardly need to be instructed in a basic historical truth: that scoring great military victories in the deserts of Mesopotamia does not equate to establishing control of the region. By some means, beyond violence, Alexander was able to win local hearts and minds. So how did he do it?
One traditional explanation is that Alexander was not only outstanding as a warrior, but also adroit in diplomacy and delegation of power. By this logic, Alexander would have preferred Darius kept alive—so Darius might continue to rule in Persia, on Alexander’s behalf. An influential modern biography of Alexander by Nicholas Hammond, first published in 1981, carries the subtitle King, Commander and Statesman. How else should a leader excel, beyond such a trinity of masterful abilities? Hammond, who served with distinction in northern Greece during the Second World War, maintained stout faith in an Alexander whose genius could be defined by comparison with other “great men” of history, such as Caesar and Napoleon—and by contrast to the generally feeble besuited protagonists of modern politics.
The Hammond-style narrative of Alexander presents a staunch warrior for whom the rites of conventional religion were merely a necessary formal observance, as required wherever his army operated—in Greece, the Levant, Egypt, or Persia: “The foundation of the city was celebrated by competitions in horsemanship and athletics, and Alexander sacrificed to the usual gods.” Hammond’s account is punctuated by such routine transitional clauses—relatively quiet moments of “downtime” within the adrenaline-charged adventure of pressing towards India. For Naiden, by contrast, the ostentatious performance of religious duties by Alexander is a key to his leadership. At every stage of Alexander’s campaign through Asia, the business of ceremonial devotion is foremost. No sooner than Alexander leaves Europe and leads his forces across the Hellespont to continental Asia does he make a detour of pilgrimage. He travels to the site of Troy. Of course he knows all about the epic of the Trojan War: despite any efforts by his tutor Aristotle to teach a broad curriculum, young Alexander remains obsessed with just one story, and that is Homer’s Iliad. But he does not visit Troy for the sake of assuring himself that the epic was essentially true. He goes there to confirm the agenda of unfinished business. With prayers to his favored and favoring trio of Olympian deities—Athena, Zeus, and Herakles—and libations at the sepulcher of his heroic alter ego, Achilles, Alexander states a missionary ideal. He comes as savior of the world, or at least, the world as he knows it. He will leave it with a new identity: “the Hellenistic age.”
Denoting an epoch from Alexander’s death until the establishment of the Roman empire, personified by Caesar Augustus, “Hellenistic” is entirely artificial as a denomination. The notion of a “Hellenistic age” was created in the nineteenth century by the German historian J. G. Droysen. What effectively characterized the period can be reduced to the simple process whereby different peoples around the Mediterranean and across western Asia, as far as the Hindu Kush, used Greek as a convenient common mode of communication. The Persian empire, encompassing almost thirty different ethnic groups, became Macedonian. And the Macedonians, regardless of their vernacular speech, were invariably literate in Greek. For Droysen, this was of cardinal importance. As a devout Lutheran, he wanted to understand how it had been possible that the seed of a peculiar Hebrew cult, planted on the shores of Lake Galilee in the time of the early Roman empire, flourished into an international system of faith. The Christian Gospels were transmitted in Greek; the evangelism of Paul was mainly conducted in Greek. Whoever was responsible for creating Greek-speaking communities in the Middle East and beyond was, therefore, a necessary precursor of Christianity.
“Messiah” was not one of the religious titles appropriated by Alexander. Yet his claim to be “the heavensent harmonizer and reconciler” of all humanity was made with self-conviction and promulgated by regular display of vicarious duties. Aristotle, it seems, had advised his royal protégé to treat his Asian subjects as barbarians, with due scorn and harshness. Alexander told his old tutor, in this respect, to get lost. There was another way.
Heroes have one requirement for their existence, and that is hero-worship. Thomas Carlyle, long ago, understood as much. He cited as elemental “the Consecration of Valor”—and no one has ever doubted that Alexander possessed and exhibited prodigious reserves of valor. If Herakles was the family ancestor, and Achilles the spirit reincarnated in Alexander, then so much was genetically to be expected. And if we take a close look at the hero’s wild hair on the Alexander Mosaic, we see that it is flecked with flashes of gold. Some say that Alexander indeed sprinkled his head with gold dust. In any case, the result was spectacular, and not to be hidden by anything so practical as a helmet. In the thick of battle, everyone must see that here was a superman, hybrid with a lion, presuming invulnerability yet careless of death.
Steadily, almost too discreetly, Naiden gives us the backstory: Alexander clad in priestly robes, standing at altars, reciting the prayers, conducting the sacrifices and pouring the libations, through a haze of aromatic woodsmoke. Much of the evidence for this image of Alexander the pious is relegated to appendices and notes—as if the author cannot quite bring himself to wreck our image of the second Achilles. But Achilles, too, knew the paramount importance of ritual conduct. And at least one of Alexander’s ancient biographers would approve of the religious emphasis. Plutarch, who in his Parallel Lives paired Alexander with Julius Caesar, was himself a priest of Apollo at Delphi; one reason for matching Alexander with Caesar was that both leaders, for all their military prowess, were conspicuously mindful of omens, portents, and other supposed indices of divine will. If they were lucky, they solicited for luck in proper ways.
Plutarch and others saluted a further significant factor in the success of conquest: Alexander’s personal appearance and charisma. Here Naiden chooses to demur. His Alexander presents “an unprepossessing specimen. Cowlick and all, he was very short, his voice grated, his neck was twisted to one side, and his eyes were out of kilter.” This caricature rewrites the ancient panegyrics to Alexander’s arresting presence and contradicts the visual tradition of Alexander’s portraits. True, Alexander lacked the stature of his close companion Hephaisteion, and when he sat upon the Great King’s throne at Persepolis, his legs dangled down. But was the “cowlick” not part of a thrusting, leonine mane? Did the neck-twist not signify inner power? And were those eyes not fixed upon a far-reaching vision of indefinite domain?
When the gods confer “godlikeness” upon a Homeric hero, his hair sprouts “like petals of the hyacinth in bloom.” Plutarch reports that Alexander’s very body odor was pleasant to inhale. We may accept an Alexander who was learned in liturgies and fastidious in serving as high priest of his own veneration. But an Alexander stunted, twisted, and cock-eyed? That, surely, is—and was—beyond belief.
1 Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great, by F. S. Naiden; Oxford University Press, 424 pages, $27.95.
A Message from the Editors
Support our crucial work and join us in strengthening the bonds of civilization.
Your donation sustains our efforts to inspire joyous rediscoveries.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 38 Number 6, on page 73
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com