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Mosaic depicting Alexander the Great fighting Darius III of Persia

Alexander the Great: Was he a Unifier or a Subjugator?

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Interpreted by many historians as proof of a vision for the unison of man, much of Alexander’s dealings in Persia have come to be attributed with a policy of racial fusion. Accordingly, echoed in numerous sources is an idealistic image of Alexander as a Christ-like humanitarian destined to be the saviour and unifier of mankind, while the Alexander whose entire existence orbited strategy and bloodshed is often outshone by this romantic ideal. According to classical scholar Ernst Badian, the Alexander who dreamt of a unity of mankind is nothing but an illusory figure concocted in the mind of scholar Sir William Tarn who conceived Alexander as an agent of the brotherhood of man, and I equally doubt that Alexander was ever inspired by some philanthropic desire to federate humanity. In light of Alexander’s ‘Great’ reputation, I believe his actions which have so frequently been mistaken as racial unity were instead glorified after his death, and in such a way that Alexander was creatively redecorated as a messiah of the ancient world. Thus I suspect that Alexander was not the champion of equality that many would like to believe, but instead a subjugator of men who was far too driven by a pompous faith in his own destiny to be exclusively concerned with such fruitless matters as racial fusion.

Several pivotal occurrences of Alexander’s short career have frequently been judged as confirmation of his so called visionary policy of racial fusion. Alexander’s matrimonies to Persian aristocrats and the mass marriages he coordinated at Susa are commonly represented as symbolic of this strategy. In book seven of the Anabasis of Alexander , Arrian recounts Alexander’s marriage to Barsine the eldest daughter of the Persian king Darius, while a second marriage to Parysatis, daughter of the murdered Persian King Ochus is also postulated. These marriages were not however romantic attempts by Alexander to unify Persian and Macedonian culture. Instead I believe they were one sided business arrangements organized exclusively for the benefit they endowed; namely Alexander’s legitimate share in the Persian Empire.

A mural in Pompeii depicting the marriage of Alexander the Great to Barsine

A mural in Pompeii depicting the marriage of Alexander the Great to Barsine (Stateira) in 324 BC. ( Wikipedia)

Alexander’s union with Barsine was vital to his suppression of Persia, by marrying the daughter of the vanquished leader Alexander was simply validating his conquest and his claim to rule. The mass marriages at Susa in 324 BC, where Alexander’s officers were joined in matrimony to Persian noblewomen also in my opinion did not signify ritualistic egalitarianism. These nuptials were purely political and symptomatic of nothing more than Macedonian dominance and assertion of power. The mass marriages were entirely between conquering men and conquered women, hence clearly not some convoluted attempt to symbolically fuse two cultures. In fact conversely, Alexander was quite literally and ingeniously contaminating Persian pedigree with Macedonian blood, thereby extinguishing the old ruling class and safeguarding himself against untainted Persian contest in the future.

Alexander The Great Celebrates and Mass Marriage In Susa, Persia

Alexander The Great Celebrates and Mass Marriage In Susa, Persia. By Tom Lovell (1909 – 1997). ( American gallery )

Following the orchestrated marriages at Susa, Alexander commenced to integrate outsiders into his Macedonian army, specifically some 30,000 Persian youth. This military assimilation of non-Macedonians is a gesture commonly embraced as proof of Alexander’s attempts at racial fusion; however I believe a more logical explanation exists. Alexander’s recruitment of non-Macedonian infantry was a practical necessity and a viable solution to the dwindling manpower of an army relentlessly campaigning. The number of reinforcements available to Alexander was strained, and with his own Macedonian soldiers prone to disaffection, the recruitment of outsiders was simply a means of correcting the scarcity. The fact that Alexander ordered the 30,000 Persians to be trained exclusively in Macedonian tactic further neutralizes any theory of racial fusion, and instead implies that Alexander anticipated the permanence of Macedonian supremacy.

Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress and his implementation of Persian court protocol are further matters extensively debated as corroboration of racial synthesis. In 330 Alexander began to sport elements of Persian dress; namely the diadem, the striped tunic and the girdle, while he simultaneously initiated Persian officials into his court. These endorsements of Persian institutions were however nothing akin to racial fusion and this is particularly apparent when considering the timing of these adoptions. Alexander’s interest in Persian conduct did not arise until six weeks after Darius had died, and this sixth week marked considerable instability for Alexander as his throne was contested by Darius’ brother Bessus. Alexander’s adoption of Persian comportment was without doubt a means of asserting himself as king of kings, and for that matter a king that was superficially authentic. Persian clothing was exhibited by Alexander purely to pacify the native people and to secure their allegiance, while his integration of Persian officials was equally as strategic, serving to portray Alexander as a fair and tolerant leader. In effect, Alexander was simply dressing and behaving as only a Persian king would, since failure to do so would have greatly undermined his rule.

Alexander began to wear the striped tunic, girdle and diadem of Persian royal dress

Realizing that the best way to maintain control of the Persians was to act like one, Alexander began to wear the striped tunic, girdle and diadem of Persian royal dress—to the dismay of cultural purists back in Macedonia. ( history.com)

In 327 Alexander attempted to introduce the Persian practice of proskynesis into his Macedonia court, an effort that has widely been employed as proof of the racial fusion theory. Proskynesis, the custom of prostration, was a form of Persian tribute that denoted the King’s superiority, however in Greek and Macedonian culture it implied divinity, and because of this Alexander’s men strongly ostracized its proposal, seeing it as an inappropriate means of addressing a mortal ruler. In view of the fact that proskynesis held uniquely different meaning across the cultures, I consider it highly unlikely that its proposed introduction was in any way aimed at racial fusion or equality, but instead, and more convincingly, an elaborate demand for divine recognition and acknowledgement as absolute ruler. Thus, Alexander proposed proskynesis simply because it was a fresh way in which he could obtain worship. The practice was accompanied by superhuman recognition, and for a man with an overwhelming belief in his own divinity, it is likely that Alexander was purely awestruck with the idolization it would bestow.

Original relief of the northern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis

Alexander introduced the Persian practice of proskynesis into his Macedonia court. Original relief of the northern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (National Archaeological Museum, Tehran)

In my opinion it is doubtful that Alexander ever conceived to unite mankind, and a genuine policy of racial fusion is improbable. In fact such a theory does not emerge until after Alexander’s death, and it is here that truth has likely been eclipsed by the thick veil of legend, as so often is the case. Simply put, Alexander was a man motivated by an unyielding determination to conquer the entire world, and if dabbling in foreign customs or donning exotic garments would edge him nearer to that goal, Alexander the eternal tactician would not have thought twice about doing so. Alexander cleverly intercalated himself into Persian culture thereby substantiating his legitimacy to the throne, and any steps that may have implied racial fusion were pure ruses masking practical and political objectives. I believe there has been a certain confusion of Alexander’s racial motivations, and it is nonsensical to assume that a man with such an engulfing lust for power could have equally been a righteous saviour or consolidator of man.

Featured image: Mosaic depicting Alexander the Great fighting Darius III of Persia ( Wikipedia)

Primary Sources

Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander , Book VII

Secondary Sources

Badian, Ernst. Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind , Historia 7(4), 1958

Bosworth, A.B, Baynham, Elizabeth. Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction , Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002

Green, P. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography , California: University of California Press, 1970

Heckel, W. The Conquests of Alexander the Great , New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012

Roisman, Joseph, Worthington, Ian. A Companion to Ancient Macedonia , United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Thomas, C.G. Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind , The Classical Journal 63(6), 1968.

Worthington, Ian. Alexander the Great: A Reader , London: Routledge, 2003.

By Ashlee McCabe

Comments

I am delighted that some one else has raised this issue. We must remember that our history books were written with political intent and the life and achievements of Alexander must be seen in context of other regional events.

I think that the invasion of Persia was in revenge of the Persian attacks of Greek states and to teach them a lesson. This is demonstrated by the destruction of Persepolis which incidentally had a gold foundation stone underscoring the principals of social justice.

I entirely agree with the author of this page and we must also note that the entire region centered on Bactria began to decline from this time despite its "Greekanisation".

A long time ago a teacher taught me not to express my opinions as self evident objectivity. Using "without a doubt" as a supporting comment on purely subjective conclusions on the 2,300 year old data you describe is an example of what I mean. In point of fact, Alexander's behavior can easily be interpreted as an intent to create unification; I started to read this article expecting to find data that actually does support your point of view and came away being more or less convinced of the opposite.
Using words like "race", without seeming to realize that there really is no such thing, expecting Persian men to have married Macedonian women (where would those women have come from?), not considering how different Alexander's behavior was in comparison to the objectives of
other military campaigns of his time is not evidence of logically supported conclusions. Very poorly thought out and disappointing article.

I have come to the conclusion that the word "unifier" is usually an euphemism for "conqueror". It sounds much more palatable. Unfortunately, it is very common to frame the tyrants as the good guys. I suppose to some people he was a unifier and to others he was a subjugator. So both would be true depending on where you were standing. There are always going to be people who dissent the new regime and others who embrace it. Those who do not want change usually get killed off and framed as someone who must hate "unity", while the masses scream for their head. Then the mob mentality kicks in, which is what will make it into the history books and become the consensus, History is always told through the eyes of the oppressors. It is a classic propaganda technique that is very effective.

Interesting article! However, your argument could be strengthened if you quote directly from the ancient sources. In addition, it is slightly risky to view this issue through the lens of our own ethical and moral norms. When we do so, it is all to easy to forget that Alexander operated within the context of the ancient world, which had its own set of norms. I think what amazes most historians, rather than claiming that he was a messiah-like figure who could do no wrong, is that within his own context, he stretched and transformed the boundary between Europe and Asia in a way that was unprecedented, and certainly not desirable to the Greeks at this time. So even if he doesn't meet our modern ideal of what a unifying figure looks like, his actions certainly gave the ancient world something to think about. In any case, thank you for writing this article, it gives good food for thought.

Ok thank you for the clarification, good article.

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