Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Friday, May 30, 2008

Alexander, The Ambiguity of Greatness

I recently finished Alexander, the Ambiguity of Greatness by Guy MacLean Rogers. While the book didn't break any ground in the study of Alexander the III of Macedon, I still highly recommend it.

The book is a straight forward biography, starting with background info on Macedonia and Philip the II. From then on the book follows the chronological path of Alexander from childhood to his enormous conquest of Asia and premature death. Mind you, this is not a book for scholars of Alexander. It is, however, very user friendly and a vast knowledge of Alexander or the world of antiquity is not required to understand and enjoy the book. That's not to say the Alexander, the Ambiguity of Greatness glosses over facts and is elementary. In my opinion, this book is balanced enough to please people with a varied background on Alexander.

Before reading this book, I had a general knowledge on Alexander, his history, his conquests and the aftermath of his death. What I got out of this book was a greater knowledge of his (alleged) motives and a better overall understanding of the inner workings of his conquest. The ambiguity of greatness comes in the form of his legacy. Alexander is both loved and hated by historians for various reasons. Some see him as a cruel despot who ruthlessly conquered Persia and beyond, slaying men, women, children and friends who stood in his way. Others see him as a latter day multi-culturist who sought to incorporate the various people he conquered into his new government and adopted some of there ways and traditions himself. The true Alexander probably lies somewhere in between.

I feel that scholars, from whatever age, try and judge history using their own mores, which can be a flawed philosophy. The end of the book points out that we may revile someone like Alexander for the "war crimes" he committed, but we call a Truman, who ordered the deaths of thousands with the stroke of a pen, a patriot. I can see the where the potential disagreement on that point can come into play, but I think it raises an interesting question. The point is perspective. Truman died in 1972; his life and times are far more documented that Alexander's. There are plenty of people alive today that remember Truman. We can easily dissect every aspect of his decision to use atomic weapons. Alexander died 2,331 year ago. We don't have the luxury of mass media or eye witness accounts to tell of Alexander's motives. Perhaps the killing of Greek mercenaries or the wholesale murder of the entire population of Massaga seemed justified over 2,000 years ago, no matter how offensive it seems to us. Unfortunately for Alexander, he is judged by people now living in a different world, separated by over 2,000 years. I am not prepared to call Alexander a hero or a villain, and there in lies the ambiguity of his greatness.