Alexander: The Demon King by Warwick Ball

Was Alexander’s greatest single contribution to civilisation his own, or was it the creation of the Persian empire that he destroyed? Alexander undoubtedly created a great empire, but he destroyed an even greater one: Cyrus’ empire lasted nearly 300 years, Alexander’s collapsed upon his death.


Alexander of Macedon

And it is important to remember that Alexander did not conquer all of western Asia as his reputation has it: he conquered a ready-made empire Cyrus and his successors had already conquered it for him long before: ‘Not an inch of territory conquered by Alexander had not been held before him by the Achaemenians.’


And without denying Towards Alexander’s undoubted military genius and charisma, it would be a mistake to allow this to degenerate into mere panegyric. After all, he did not always win: in Anatolia, for example, there were cities that he failed to take, such as Termessus or Syllium; in Central Asia the campaign was so hard fought that in the end he was forced to compromise and come to terms; the Indian campaign was such a shambles that it is likely that the surviving accounts cover up a defeat (he faced mutiny, he nearly lost his life, his army rampaged out of control, and in the chaotic retreat he nearly lost his army altogether).


The empire that he inherited continued to be run on much the same lines: the former Persian system of provincial government remained virtually unchanged; indeed, many of the governors themselves were reinstated in office. After all, this was a great and ancient civilisation, the heirs of the Babylonian, the Assyrian and the Egyptian to the west and of the Central Asian and Indian civilisations to the east.

The Dog that Barked in the Night: the Case of the Missing Sources

Writing in the early 1970s, the historian Robin Lane Fox, author of one of the best known biographies of Alexander counts over twenty books on Alexander written by his contemporaries and 1472 books and articles on Alexander in the last 150 years alone. The count is probably a conservative one, bearing in mind these are only works in English and do not include those in Arabic, Persian and other European languages written over the same period as well, not to mention the steady stream of literature that has appeared since.


“King Alexander set up this temple to Athena Polias.”


Alexander of Macedon

Above, I have just quoted the sum total of all contemporary sources for the person viewed as probably the greatest man in western history, and his life one of the greatest events of world history. It is an inscription from the Temple of Athena at Priene in Turkey (now in the British Museum). There is nothing else.


Of the twenty or so books on Alexander written by contemporaries, not a single one has survived. Brian Bosworth, one of the main Alexander historians, expresses a frustration common to all other Alexander historians when he emphasises the severe lack of source material for Alexander and the woeful inadequacy of the little that we do have.


There was any amount of material ‘good and bad’ written at the time. Peter Green writes: ‘Once it became known that Alexander not only wanted his exploits written up, but would hand out good money for the privilege, a whole rabble of third-rate poets, historians and rhetoricians attached themselves to his train.’


None have survived. Much of it may not have deserved to survive, being rubbish not worthy of the name history as Green implies. The main sources that remain are the works written by Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius, Plutarch and ‘most importantly’ Arrian: his Anabasis or Life of Alexander, written in the second century AD. Book 14 of Strabo’s Geography is an important source for the lands that Alexander conquered, Polybius’ History contains important information (see below), and there is the fragmentary but important work of Pompeius Trogus. There is little else.


However, these are hardly ‘sources’ in the strict sense: they were written hundreds of years after the death of Alexander, with the most important one, Arrian, written over 450 years after. Arrian was as much a contemporary of Alexander as we are of Henry VIII. The timing of these histories were of enormous significance.


These main ‘sources’ correspond to the rise of Roman imperial power, when Rome was in turn busily carving out an empire in the east and Roman imperialism had its own axe to grind. Diodorus Siculus, for example, wrote between about 60 and 30 BC in the last years of the republic, at a time which saw Rome’s most rapid expansion into the east under Pompey.


It was, moreover, an era of larger-than-life military strong men: Marius, Sulla, Pompey, Caesar, Antony and Octavian, all of whom campaigned in the east, so it was an ideal time to resurrect an image of the ideal conqueror of the east. Quintus Curtius and Plutarch both wrote in the first century AD, when the republic had just been transformed into an empire so Alexander’s empire provided the ideal – indeed logical – model.


And Arrian wrote his Life of Alexander during the time of the Emperor Trajan (Arrian was actually governor of Cappadocia under his successor Hadrian) whose conquests extended further east than any other emperor when he campaigned as far as the Persian Gulf. Indeed, the ghost of Alexander lay heavily on Trajan: he consciously thought


What we know of Alexander, in other words, is very much a Roman construct – it was the Romans after all who made him ‘the Great.’ It is also significant that all of these Alexander sources with the exception of Quintus Curtius (and the fragmentary Trogus) were Greeks.


There was no love lost between Greek and Macedonian, and the Greeks at the time regarded Alexander simply as a brutal tyrant, so ostensibly there was little reason to present him as a hero to the Romans. But they were writing when the Roman conquests of Greece were still fresh in the memory’ Diodorus in fact was a contemporary’ and that conquest had been brutal, harsh and shameful, with Greece itself reduced by the Romans to a ready source of slaves.


Alexander of Macedon

In conclusion, who and what can we make of Alexander. In short, we cannot know, lost as he is behind thousands of years of carefully nurtured images, with everybody re-creating their own ‘Alexander’ for different ends. There is the Greek Alexander, the Roman Alexander, the Persian, the Islamic, the Christian and the Victorian British. Or, as Diana Spencer concludes, ‘Each Alexander reflects a figure that answers us in our own idiom.’


Of the original Macedonian Alexander, we have no way of knowing – the original has quite simply been erased from the record. We can only assume that there must have been something to erase. A recent book provocatively entitled Alexander the Great Failure written by a historian of the Hellenistic world, John Grainger, probably contains the most damning indictment of Alexander.


Grainger writes that failure ‘is the most notable result of Alexander’s life work: for all his military prowess, he was one of the world’s great failures – and that failure spelt misery and death for countless thousands of people. Not only that, he brought that failure on himself.’ Alexander destroyed a great empire, of course.


But in doing so he substantially weakened his own Macedonia, which his father Philip had built, and so destroyed own country as well. Soon after, Macedonia was so weakened that it succumbed to invasion by Gauls. Most of all he destroyed Greece: Alexander’s reign marked the end of the great age of Greek achievement as the Greek cities were repeatedly pillaged by groups of mercenaries commanded by one warlord after another.


On the surface it seems quite astonishing that many in today’s western world who unhesitatingly condemn the politics of imperialism, aggression and invasion, who openly disapprove of brutal tyrannies, will equally lionise Alexander the Great as one of history’s noblest heroes.


Why the contradiction? Whatever it was, Alexander’s achievement was first and foremost that of Macedon, but his legacy was quickly usurped at first by Greece and subsequently by Rome, the two main fountainheads of European civilisation and European identity.


Furthermore, Alexander’s conquests were directed at the perceived other, at a power perceived not only as non-European but identified with the antithesis of Greek – hence ‘western’ – ideals. More than any other single historical figure, therefore, Alexander has become the pan-European hero, an icon who has come to stand for the image that Europe perceives itself.


Alexander is a flawed ideal. Sources as divergent as the Bible and Seneca describe Alexander as a ‘beast’. Alexander was, without doubt, a military genius, albeit not as great a one as he is generally thought. Alexander the great, all-round super-hero must at least be closely scrutinised.


Alexander the great pan-Hellenist and torch-bearer of Greek civilisation, leader of an avenging pan-Hellenic crusade, is fabrication.


Even as a western icon, idolising Alexander is as suspect as idolising Attila the Hun. But most of all, Alexander the symbol of west over east, as a western stick with which to beat the east, as justification for western superiority and a precedent for imposing the west on the east, must be rigorously rejected. In the end it is perhaps Alexander’s final words that ring truest, when he left his empire ‘to the strongest’ – ultimately, the words of a mere warlord, not of a wise ruler: his legacy was simply more bloodshed.


Every culture looks at history in relation to itself, and so it is not surprising that since the nineteenth century our view of world history has been Eurocentric. Perhaps this bias has been overplayed because so many of the world’s more powerful nations are rooted in European culture and so the concept of the ‘West’ and being ‘Western’ has become almost stereotypical and a crude packaging of a whole complex set of cultures.


Warwick Ball

Whether or not such a view is correct, this questions whether the ‘West’ is truly ‘Western’ Or, to put it another way, being ‘Western’ also incorporates a huge amount that is ‘Eastern’. Hence, regardless of whether the Eurocentric view is correct or not (and in its own terms it can be correct), the traditional view of the European worldwide spread must be balanced by two considerations.


First, by the spread of peoples from the East into Europe. And second, that so much of the civilisation we consider to be ‘European’ is equally Asiatic. In describing the ensuing contact and assessing the affect, much of what it means to be ‘European’ is challenged. Ultimately, ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ civilisations are neither exclusive nor confrontational. In short, it poses the question, what is ‘Europe’?


To deny that Arabs and Turks – or Phoenicians, Scythians, Persians, Jews, Huns, and Mongols – are a part of European as well as Asiatic civilisation is not only to fly in the face of evidence, it is to deny some of the greatest achievements of our civilisation: they are integral parts to be acknowledged as much as our Greek, Roman, Norman or Slavic parts. Phoenicians, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, all form a part of European history, a part that is both European and Asiatic, a part that defines and makes Europe what it is. Arab and Turkish invasions were no more ‘attacks on Europe’ than Roman or Norman invasions were.


In my series of books I do not wish to match East against West nor to demonstrate that – everything came out of the East. I wish simply to explore the affect of those cultures from beyond the conventional boundaries of Europe that, to a greater or lesser extent, expanded westwards – the counterpart of the – European expansion. Since the earliest times, the history of Europe has been inextricably bound up with peoples and cultures from the East. It is an extraordinarily rich and complex relationship. Not only was Europe born and defined out of this relationship, but at every stage in its history it was intimately affected by the lands to the east. This is the story of that relationship: it is the story of Europe itself.


Books by Warwick


  • Volume 1  Out of Arabia. Phoenicians, Arabs and the discovery of Europe
  • Volume 2  One World. Persian civilisation and the West
  • Volume 3  Sultans of Rome. The Turkish world expansion
  • Volume 4 The Gates of Europe: The Eurasian steppe and Europe’s border