Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Alexander the Great, the movie

The Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox conducts an interview with Archeology on the movie Alexander (an Oliver Stone preduction) to which he served as an advisor. A sample from the interview:

"For people in antiquity and today the life of Alexander has a legendary, heroic quality to it. But Alexander was autocratic and at times cruel, and his armies killed thousands upon thousands. When does glorification of Alexander, without reference to the less admirable aspects of his career (like the death of his cousin, and potential rival, Amyntas), become mythmaking? Does the movie avoid that?
Military conquest of thousands of ’barbarian’ peoples and lands was widely considered glorious--nobody at the time is known to have attacked Alexander for killing ’enemy’ Indians whom he invaded! ’Imperial conquest’ of the barbarian world was certainly incorporated in Aristotle’s political and ethical theories. And by Romans later, Pompey or Caesar, hundreds of tribes and cities, if captured, were proudly recorded and paraded. If people surrendered to Alexander, they were spared and their leaders were often reinstated. Often, he himself was received as a ’liberator,’ replacing a Persian Empire which was not exactly loved by one and all.

When he sacked whole cities who opposed him--Thebes or Tyre--his ferocity shocks us, but it was not outside the conduct of war by other contemporaries: his father Philip did the same, and Greek cities in the past had urged the total destruction, even, of Athens. In India, it was he who invaded an ’innocent’ land, and then killed women, children, and fugitives of peoples who refused to surrender. But here, too, he was being guided, or used, by other Indian leaders who wanted to do down their enemies--and in his vast army, no more than a fifth would have been Macedonians, while more than half were Orientals, including many Indian recruits, fighting with him. When he arrived, Indian chiefs were fighting one another, or were bitter enemies. When he left, these internal wars were ended--at least until his unforeseen early death.

Historians with our distaste for unprovoked war and killing now cast Alexander as increasingly murderous and exceptionally savage. Their older contemporaries remember Hitler or Stalin. My generation, and later, have also grown up in a post-colonial world: explicitly, at least, Americans never had an empire, anyway. In antiquity, Alexander came to be credited with taming or civilizing barbarian peoples, not least by his many Alexandrias. He was believed to have had plans for an inclusive, "harmonious" kingdom where Macedonians and Iranians would share as a ruling class. He even made the two nobilities [Macedonian and Persian] inter-marry.

There are modern historians, deploring ’imperialism,’ who try to brush these moves away as ’pragmatic’ or very limited. I think their modern prejudices mislead them, as do many others. Alexander was born a king--he did not overthrow a constitution, like a Hitler. He had no idea of ethnic or racial cleansing. He wanted to include conquered peoples in his new kingdom, Alexander’s own, while their fellows, of course, paid tribute and could not rebel. Oliver’s film credits Alexander himself with these aims, in my view rightly. But through his friends, fellow-officers, and Ptolemy himself, it also gives us the viewpoints of those who disbelieved him. In real life, Alexander drank long and hard: he killed without much scruple; he must have had a taste for war. Oliver’s film shows all these sides, including aspects which even historians in antiquity tried to omit or explain away. Alexander made, and cultivated, his own myth in his lifetime. Oliver shows it, but he himself sees the doom which it brought."

(Thanks to Arts & Letters Daily)

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