Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Nature of Alexander - A. Kallistos

by Alexandros Kallistos

A deep, great, genuine sincerity is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic." - Thomas Carlyle.

By definition Alexander was, and remains a heroic figure. Rightly or wrongly the Western World has regarded him as such for more than 2000 years and this is what he believed to be his life role from early childhood. He did not purposely set out to become a hero; he sincerely believed that he was a hero born, and like most people with such deep seated and sincere beliefs, the reality succeeded the belief.

Alexander was born by a queen born of a queen and sired by a king sired by a king. He was aware of his royal and divine lineage from the start. In his childhood years when his self image was forming, this knowledge must perforce become a part of who he was to become; it could not have been otherwise. He was raised in a palace surrounded by the powerful in the seat of power. His family was believed by all to be different from others and he, by blood as well.

In Macedonian tradition the immediate family members of Alexander, the Argead dynasty, were considered to be of divine descent and as family members of the gods, stood somewhere between the divine and the mortal. It was for this reason that the young child, Alexander saw his father ask his other relatives, the gods, for the well being of Macedon every day. This was the reason that his family the Argeads, held power over the rest of the people of Macedon. Kings might come and go, but all were Argeads and all must be of his own partially divine blood which set him apart from the rest of the world.

This early childhood message must have had some input into his image of who he was. It is not possible that there was not some distance between Alexander’s conception of his societal role and the ordinary Macedonian shepherd soldier. It was reinforced daily from the beginning. He could not have escaped it.

Alexander was raised with the gilded youth of Macedon and was first among them. Just like prince Charles at Sandhurst had friends among the other students, there is an unspoken gap: he is to be king over us. In the case of Alexander, this is a far wider gap as he is not only socially superior, he is religiously set apart as well. There can be no doubt that this influenced the developing nature of Alexander. All of Macedon believed this whole heatedly and so must have Alexander. It could not have been otherwise.

Thus we can see that the character of Alexander is developing along lines which would necessarily cause him to see himself as different and especially set apart from others. Here one can see the nature of Alexander being formed in early childhood.

The palace at Pella covers nearly 15 acres of ground above the city and is surrounded by a wall and it is here that Alexander spent his earliest years amidst the aristocracy of Macedon. His playmates were the sons of the powerful and all were accompanied by slaves. Each knew Alexander to be the probable next king. This would, most certainly have effected his self image. He grew up in the firm knowledge that he was unique amongst his peers and that all of them were special. This is one of the important things to consider in accessing his character. He knew during his early childhood development that he was related to the gods and that he was to be a king and this knowledge was daily reinforced by all around him.

From the beginning, Alexander was carefully instructed in the history and religion of his culture and these were inextricably interrelated. The people of his day saw no difference between history and myth; they were the same. He knew from an early age that he was of the same family as Zeus, the king of the gods and of Herakles, the greatest hero of all time. His blood was their blood. It was a given fact that Herackles, born half mortal, had become a god by his courageous acts. Any sort of logic would have made it obvious that if his ancestor could do it so could he. He got that message very early in his life.

The culture of all the Hellenes valued arete, (excellence). In the society of the day it was considered to be a positive value to excel others and to be seen to excel. This is an aristocratic ideal and not very popular today in our egalitarian society. Excellence is looked upon with some suspicion in all but sports and entertainment. In the time of Alexander, everyone wished to be seen as better than the ordinary. This value was instilled from childhood in all Hellenes and most strove to exceed and be perceived as excelling others. The idea of being famed for ones superiority was a prime motivating force of action. A Hellene's reputation among other Hellenes was of the utmost importance to him. This was as true in a small neighborhood community as it was upon the throne of a nation.

Born into his unique social position, set above even the aristocrats, who was Alexander to excel? He was fond of running; the sprint was his best sport and when enjoined to participate in a foot race, he answered that he would do so, but only against other princes. This is illustrative of his self image. In his estimation, by his very birth he had already exceeded the common athlete. He would have to look higher to exceed and he did.

The societal values of ancient Macedon in the 4th century BCE were closer to the Homeric 8th century than they were to the rest of Hellas. In a country at the edge of civilization, surrounded by barbarian marauders, this was necessary to survival. The men of Alexanders time and place clung to the warrior values which had long ago been mitigated in places like Attica. He was raised on the stories of the Trojan war and on the militaristic poetry of Homer. This was a way of life and a gender role for all Macedonian men and Alexander was by no means an exception. It was Achilles who was held up as a perfect role model not Pericles. It was Achilles that Alexander most admired and if he was to excel, here was the competitor worthy of his blood.

From a very early age Alexander was imbued with an image of the qualities of a great king and in every case, a great king increased his kingdom through conquest. Philip was a handy example. He had significantly increased the territory of Macedon and the influence of his kingdom in the Hellenic world. He was very much lauded by his subjects for making of a small and relatively unimportant backwater kingdom a major power with which to be dealt. Cyrus the great was another admired example. He had done much the same thing. He made of a small kingdom of Media into The Persian Empire and although he might be despised in Hellas, his accomplishments were generally admired by all. These, to Alexander and the rest of the Hellenic world, were great kings. If he were to become a great king, this would have to be a part of what he did. This message must have been instilled in him from a very early age. Alexander did what he thought he ought to properly do and he must have recognized the gargantuan task of excelling both Philip and Cyrus at a very young age. To others this may have seemed a childish dream, but Alexander had already formed the sincere belief that he could achieve his goal. This unwavering, rock solid conviction was what enabled him to succeed.

The boy prince grew into a man holding these facts to be incontrovertible. He was of divine lineage and the blood of the gods ran in his veins. He was descended from the greatest hero of all times who had become divine through his heroism and he was to become a king. These were beliefs formed in early childhood and immutable. He held them until his death. To Alexander this was not myth: it was simple fact. This was who he believed himself to be; this was his very real role in life.

In contemporary times anyone who held these beliefs about himself would be considered to be mad, but it should be stressed that most of the world of the time agreed with Alexander and supported his beliefs. All of these things which Alexander believed about himself, the rest of the Hellenic world did not dismiss lightly. His divine nature might be scoffed at by the more sophisticated of the Athenians, but to the common man of the day this was not at all unlikely.

It is with these core beliefs about himself which we must begin to look at the character of Alexander. Here we had a boy who grew into manhood firmly convinced that he was different, superior,and semi divine. Here was a man absolutely confident that he could exceed all others with effort if he chose to do so and he made that choice. Alexander chose the path of arete in all things and he never deviated from it.

The Greek view of the afterlife was not a cheerful one. Mortals after death descended to the underworld of Hades, a gloomy place of shadow and eternal sadness. No mortal escaped. Only those who had achieved immortality were spared. All are agreed that Alexander was a conservative religious person who firmly believed in the common religious concepts of his day. Therefore, he must have accepted this as fact. Death could not have seemed an appealing prospect. Happily, there was for him a chance of escaping the ordinary fate of mortals and that was to achieve immortality. In Alexander’s mind this was far from a radical idea. He was descended from the king of the gods, he was related to Herakles who had done exactly the same thing. He had the qualifications and the tools to, through his own efforts, escape death itself. He consciously pursued this goal throughout his life and he sincerely believed that he could achieve it.

It was only through extraordinary achievement that a mortal could become divine. The gods which Greece had created were themselves no more than extraordinary mortals with enhanced powers. The concept of becoming a god through heroic actions was not at all a remarkable one in Alexander’s day. It was, in fact strongly believed.

Arete is the motif of Alexander’s life. His much touted, “pothos”, is a longing not, to obtain as most men long to do, but to achieve, and achievement of the extraordinary is the constant goal easily discernible in the life of the great Alexander. It is everywhere evident from what we know of his youngest years from Plutarch, to the end. Why this insatiable drive to achieve and achieve more and then more? We have already seen his firm belief that he could escape death itself by heroic and socially acceptable action. Surely this must be a part of the reasons for his actions. It may be the basis for the nature of Alexander. Social approbation and unlimited power, great wealth and undying fame may be peripheral rewards, but the bottom line is, Alexander sincerely believed he could achieve even the negation of death.

He must have believed that his semi divine nature made it not unreasonable that he could transcend mortality and take the one step needed for him to become a god. Given the foundation of his beliefs built up from his earliest years, this is not an inordinate logical progression and it was unequivocally supported by both his religion and his society. There is indeed, no reason why he should not believe this.

What then is the nature of a man who holds the belief that he may become a god? This is surely the first example of a Hellenic man in ancient times who held the pre-Christian belief that he was preparing in this life to achieve a better life after death. There were to be certain, sects which had advanced that idea. The vague allusions to the blessed isles which have survived and the mysteries of Eleusis both hint at a happy afterlife for the few. Alexander, as usual, aimed even higher. He strove to achieve apotheosis. There can be no doubt that his firm belief in this possibility influenced his character and his outlook upon his life. He seems never to have feared death and it is possible that that is because he did not think that it applied to him. He most probably,considered his death to be no more than the doorway to Olympus and eternal bliss.

Alexander’s belief in the achievement of immortality was further enhanced in Asia. In Egypt as pharaoh, he was by definition, a god. One of the titles of all pharaohs was, son of Ammon. Despite all the discussion about the slip of the tongue of a priest at Siwa, this was one of his official titles and not at all an extraordinary way for a priest to greet any pharaoh. Indeed, from an Egyptian point of view, it would be quite proper and ordinary and had our sources been written by an Egyptian hand, have caused not the slightest comment in Egypt. This was remarkable only to Greeks because of their own ethnocentric viewpoint. Due to the Greek propensity for equating the gods of other cultures to gods of their own, this amounted to an official religious recognition of Alexander as the son of Zeus and as A Hellene, it is entirely possible that this made some impression upon Alexander, himself, but surely he did not consider himself a god because some Egyptian priest addressed him as the son of Ammon.

Alexander well knew what the nature of a god was in his religion. He was certainly aware that when he tired, when his old wounds hurt, when he was hungry or thirsty, he was no god. Gods knew not pain nor did they eat anything other than ambrosia. Alexander was certain that he was no god every time he ate a roasted chicken, yet that would not prevent him from the sincere belief that he might be becoming one. That possibility was still a core belief.

The sincere belief that quite soon you will be a god in the heavens must without question effect ones nature and in the case of Alexander who could have held this belief as a possibility since childhood, it must have seriously effected his personality.

Alexander’s very nature was imbued with the desire to exceed from his earliest years. He without doubt, believed that he was special and different from all other men. He was from the beginning, aware that he was related to the gods. There is no way that these tenets could help but contribute to his character. He behaved the way he did because of who he believed himself to be. This was his self image and like all other men, his nature was based upon his self image and his actions were based upon his nature. He believed sincerely that he was born to be a hero and he therefore was. He believed sincerely that he would be a great king and he was. He believed sincerely that he could become a god and in a sense, he may have done so. His worship was finally forbidden by the Christian church in the 5th century. To this day people evoke his name and wear his image for luck. Sailors in Greece still recite in a storm,

Πού είναι Μέγας Αλέξανδρος?
Μέγας Αλέξανδρος, ζει και βασιλεύει.

Where is great Alexander?
Great Alexander, lives and reigns.

It is his nature.


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