Sunday, July 5, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Alexander (Part One)

Great Books: Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecian and Romans: Alexander
Written by Plutarch sometime in the latter part of the 1st century CE
Place: Chaeronea in the province of Boeotia (Greece)

Alexander the Great. 3rd century BC statue, signed "Menas". - Picture by: Giovanni Dall'Orto

The complete text of Plutarch’s biography of Alexander can be found online at
and utilizes the same Dryden translation as the quotations in this essay. All page attributions refer to the 2nd edition of the Great Books of the Western World series from Encyclopedia Britannica.

With our third Plutarchan biography now under analysis, we are able to discern at least two valuable truisms in his writing on the lives of historical figures. First, the closer that the subject approaches to the time in which Plutarch is writing, the more credible strains of information that he must filter regarding that subject in order to create a narrative that is truly his own. Second, while Plutarch places a high premium on empirical evidence (literal mountains of which still existed in Plutarch’s time), he does not discard what is clearly hearsay or outright myth-building in his quest to reconstruct the meaning of Alexander’s life. Towards the end of his introduction, Plutarch defends his approach with candor.

As portrait painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavor by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others [541].

He begins, however with those facts about Alexander’s birth and lineage that are as beyond dispute as a study of the past will allow. Alexander was born to King Phillip II of Macedonia and one of his wives, Olympias. Both lines could purportedly trace their lineage back to Zeus himself though this probably tells us less about his actual ancestry and more about (forgive the pun) the penetration of the overarching culture that venerated Zeus in this and other parts of Greece.

Plutarch spends a good deal of time in his treatment of Alexander’s childhood emphasizing the tensions between Phillip and his son, beginning with the story (or stories) surrounding his birth. Olympias, he records, participated in cultic rituals unfamiliar to Macedonia that venerated snakes and, quite possibly, incorporated them into the act of worship. From this simple point of departure, a wide range of myth is generated regarding Alexander’s birth, ranging from a number of dreams predicting his greatness to a full-blown visitation by Zeus himself to the Queen’s bed in order to conceive the world’s new master.

Later, Plutarch describes a meeting between a young Alexander and ambassadors from the Persian Empire in which he so impresses them with his penetrating questions that they praise him as Phillip’s superior even before he ascends to the throne. This, added with commentary that Alexander chafed at his father’s every military success as a battle that he would not be glorified in waging himself reinforces a narrative that Alexander considered himself as somehow bigger than the kingdom he would inherit as well as the King from whom he would inherit it. Indeed, this very idea is placed into Phillip’s mouth after Alexander tames a wild horse named Bucephalus with only his natural graces, to which Phillip is supposed to have uttered his timeless words, “O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worth of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee” [543].

At first, though, Alexander’s remarkable qualities seem to earn him great favor with his father. Though Alexander’s early education was overseen by famed teachers of his time, Phillip thought enough of his son’s potential to recruit perhaps the Greek world’s most renowned philosopher, Aristotle to be his tutor at the age of fourteen.

It proved to be something of a Faustian bargain for Aristotle. In exchange for his services, Phillip restored and repopulated Stagira, Aristotle’s birthplace which had been destroyed in recent conquest. Aristotle ended up spending two years actively teaching Alexander before the demands of the state drew the young prince away to more pressing affairs. History suggests that Aristotle spent four more years (until Alexander’s ascendancy to the throne) at the palace before returning to an Athens now subdued by Macedonian authority. Plutarch makes little pit stops while telling Alexander’s tale to indicate how the relationship with Aristotle cooled over time, indicating perhaps that the master was dissatisfied with his student’s application of his theories on governance. Still, Alexander was reported to have carried an edition of the Iliad notated by Aristotle himself on the length of his journeys and never repudiated his teacher to such as degree as to order his execution; a rarity among those who stayed too long within his erratic orbit.

Just as Alexander is elevated to regent of the kingdom at the age of 16 (notching a few military victories of his own in his father’s absence), dissension about the eventual line of succession begins to arise. Working militarily in tandem, Alexander and Phillip conquered both the Thebans and Athenians. Phillip was eventually named as the Supreme Commander of a planned invasion of the Persian empire on behalf of all the Greek cities but Sparta. Upon his return to Macedonia, however, he chose to marry a woman named Cleopatra, the niece of Attalus, one of his more celebrated generals. As Olympias was not of Macedonian origin, an heir between the couple would have threatened Alexander’s claim to the throne, despite his proven service to the kingdom.

These fears came to a head at the royal wedding when Attalus offered a toast in hopes of a legitimate heir to Phillip’s throne. Alexander became incensed and began verbally berating him, only to have his father advance upon him with the intention to kill him. As Plutarch recounts the story, Phillip tripped on his way and fell flat on his face before the disgusted Alexander who, in turn, fled the capital with his mother. After a short self-imposed exile, tensions between the Phillip and Alexander were eased by friends interceding on the behalf of both and, in time, Alexander returned to his father’s side.

This threat to his eventual rule became more exaggerated when he later intercepted a courier from a neighboring state, offering the king’s eldest daughter to another of Alexander’s brother, Arrideus. Fearing his father again meant to bypass him in the eventual transfer of power, Alexander sent an advocate back to the Persian satrap, tarnishing Arrideus as an illegitimate heir and offering his own services as husband to the princess. Furious that his son would undermine his authority so openly among his vassals, Phillip banished all of Alexander’s entourage from the kingdom.

Whether guided by Olympius, Alexander or other less visible forces within the kingdom, a man named Pausanias, rendered all of the political posturing moot when he assassinated Phillip. After dispatching his enemies and other contenders to the throne, Alexander then ascended the throne of Macedonia at the age of twenty. He was taking over a kingdom, “beset on all sides with great dangers and rancorous enemies” [545]. Though Phillip had radically expanded the influence of Macedonian authority, the lands he conquered were far from subjugated and still desired internal rule. It was poised on this precipice of outright rebellion across the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander took the reins of power and began plotting his own course forward; one that would lead him away from Macedonia, never to return.

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