All About History


Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them. So wrote the Bard, our very own William Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night. He could have been thinking of Alexander of Macedon, son and successor of King Philip II, whom he did indeed explicitly mention in Hamlet. In a reign of 13 years (336 323 BCE) Alexander shot across the Greek and Middle Eastern firmament like a meteor, transforming whatever he – often brutally – touched and ensuring the ancient world and so eventually our world could never be the same again.

“Until the internet age, Alexander the Great was probably the most famous human being who ever lived”

There have been many Alexanders, as many as there have been observers, enemies, admirers, worshippers or serious students of the man, and hero, and god. It might be argued that we all create the Alexander of our dreams, or nightmares. There are two main reasons for this multiplicity and plasticity of reception and response with regards to the action and temperament of Alexander.

First, and more poetically, Alexander’s achievements – what the Romans (who admired and envied him equally) would have called his res gestae – were simply staggering: an eminently suitable case for treatment on the silver screen, as was most recently and not too happily done by the otherwise great filmmaker and screenwriter Oliver Stone. Second, and (literally) prosaically, the surviving original narrative accounts of Alexander’s life and campaigns are extremely partisan, skewed either very pro or very con.

The result is a paradox. Alexander himself went to unprecedented lengths to try to ensure that his achievements were properly received and appreciated in his own day – for example, he even appointed an official historian called Callisthenes, a relative of his former tutor Aristotle. Yet that particular relationship ended very badly indeed, in Callisthenes’ execution for high treason. And anyway neither his nor any contemporary account of Alexander’s reign

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