Alexander’s Conquest

One of the most appealing passages in Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander describes the Macedonian conqueror’s gallantry towards the wife, mother and children of the Persian emperor Darius, who hastily abandoned them as he fled from the Battle of Issus. Alexander insisted they be given all the proper courtesies due to royalty. He frequently evinced a liberality toward the vanquished that no doubt had the practical effect of gaining grateful allies. One example of this is the Indian rajah Porus. He earned Alexander’s respect by a dogged resistance at the Battle of the Hydaspes, compared to so many opponents who quickly surrendered or fled. Once captured, Alexander asked the badly wounded Porus “How would you like to be treated?” The raja replied, “As befits a king.” Alexander gave him back his kingdom with the understanding that he would be a loyal follower. On the other hand, when a large group of Indian mercenaries were captured in battle and secretly planned to escape rather than be impressed in the Macedonian army, Alexander had them massacred. In like manner he did not hesitate to burn and level entire towns that did not submit.

The pattern is clear. Alexander was openhanded when others submitted to his pretensions. He was petulant when they crossed him in any way. Not only did he deal ruthlessly with rebellious tribes and recalcitrant governors, but he would not brook the slightest opposition from fellow Macedonians. The great Parmenio, author of the tactics that had won victories for Philip (Alexander’s father), was put to death simply because the general’s son was implicated in a plot against him. His friend Cleitus was killed in a drunken rage because he insulted Alexander’s pride. And when Callisthenes strongly objected to the king’s demands that his followers prostrate themselves before him like a deity in the Persian manner, he was put in chains and eventually died.

In remarking upon his depredations it must be admitted that the Macedonian leader was no different from most ancient conquerors, except that his feats took place on a hitherto unimaginable scale. There was no sense at the time that invading other nations was “bad.” It was something that the strong did to the weak. Alexander was never deliberately cruel. He was also innocent of cupidity or luxury, willing to face all the hardships of his fellow soldiers. Nor was he a mere destroyer like Attila or Tamerlane. He founded numerous cities. The first of these, Alexandria in Egypt, was to become the new center of learning in the ancient world. When not in battle Alexander undertook such projects as building a new harbor at Babylon and improving the irrigation canals along the Euphrates. These facts are admitted. Yet we know that Alexander’s conquests were short-lived. Most importantly we see that failed in the ultimate conquest—the victory over self. This aspect I will cover in my next post.

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