Monday, July 6, 2009

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

This first portion of this essay can be read here.

Plutarch remarks that Alexander’s transition to power could not have come at a more pivotal moment in Macedonian history. While Phillip’s throne could and did pass from him to Alexander by virtue of blood (as well as ambition), the same could not be assumed of his mantle as Supreme Commander of the Greeks against the Persian Empire. If the Greeks were to be counted among Macedonia’s subjects, they would have to be conquered anew and many feared that the effort necessary to bring this about might rend the country apart.

Alexander, by Plutarch’s account, would hear none of this caution and, after subduing the barbarian tribes to his north and west to the banks of the Danube, he turned his attention to important Greek cities already in revolt, Thebes and Athens. After making initial attempts at diplomacy, Alexander turned the full might of his armies upon Thebes so that, in Plutarch’s word, he might make them, “so severe an example [that it] might terrify the rest of Greece into obedience” [545]. In 335 BCE, Thebes, with the exception of her temples and a house belonging to the poet Pindar, was burned to the ground and its citizenry, for the most part, sold into slavery.

As might be expected, the Athenians quickly lost their own taste for defiance and entered Alexander’s burgeoning empire as willing and respected servants. With the wealth and armaments of the whole of civilized Greece (with the exception of Sparta) backing him, Alexander accepted the title as the Supreme Greek Commander against the Persian Empire and began plotting the downfall of his counterpart among them, Darius III. Plutarch makes no mention of whether the Greeks actually thought Alexander could deliver what he was promising but it does not take a time machine to appreciate that a young, ambitious ruler making mischief outside of Greece had to be preferable to one focused on micro-managing affairs at home. Before venturing to the East to begin his campaign, Alexander traveled to the Oracle at Delphi to gauge divine opinion on his actions. Plutarch, who, in his role as high priest of Apollo at Delphi would have access to records regarding the event, recounts it as such:

Then he went to Delphi, to consult Apollo concerning the success of the war he had undertaken, and happening to come on one of the forbidden days, when it was esteemed improper to give any answer from the oracle, he sent messengers to desire the priestess to do her office; and when she refused, on the plea of a law to the contrary, he went up himself, and began to draw her by force into the temple, until tired and overcome with his importunity, “My son,” said she, “thou are invincible.” [546]

From Delphi, Alexander travels on to Troy where, we are told, he makes a sacrifice to Minerva (Athena). Given what we know about Alexander’s love for the Iliad, it’s not hard to imagine him choosing Troy as his point of departure so that he might bask in the glory of legend before creating a few of his own. He would not have long to wait as a large Persian army, commanded by satraps (local governors appointed by Darius III) was amassed on the opposite side the river Granicus and represented the very large barrier that Alexander would have to go through in order to gain access to the interior of Asia.

The Battle of Granicus. Engraving based on a painting by Lebrun

By Plutarch’s account, the battle begins with Alexander making a foolhardy rush across the river in the middle of the night on his horse to attack the enemy with his cavalry splashing along behind him to keep him from getting killed in the opening moments of the campaign. Plutarch writes:

However, he persisted obstinately to gain the passage, and at last with much ado making his way up the banks…he had instantly to join in mere confused hand-to-hand combat with the enemy, before he could draw up his men, who were still passing over into any order. For the enemy pressed him with loud and warlike outcries; and charging horse against horse, plied with their lances; after they had broken and spent these, they fell into it with their swords. [547]

Conjuring an image that recalls Groo the Wanderer moreso than the soon-to-be master of the known world, this is an archetype that Plutarch utilizes over and over; of Alexander as an impetuous but fearless leader who is always willing to throw himself headlong into the enemy with no concern for his well-being. While we can accept some of this as myth-building (as it reinforces the essential nature of Alexander’s conquest), one is tempted to believe some of the hype, given the number of times that Alexander is gravely wounded in battle.

As the Greek army arrives on the opposite bank to join their war-crazed leader, the Persian forces are quickly overwhelmed and dissolve under the force of their attack. Only one group of Greek mercenaries surrender to Alexander, presumably hoping their common heritage will spare them the indignity of execution. Alexander’s response is to attack them without warning, resulting in further casualties. Plutarch obviously doesn’t approve of this Greek on Greek violence as he describes Alexander’s refusal to accept their surrender as “guided rather by passion than judgment,” noting later that the “obstinacy of his to cut off these experiences desperate men cost him the lives of more of his own soldiers than all the battle before” [547-8].

The Capture of Miletus by Andre Castaigne (1898-1899)

Whatever his shortcomings may have been at the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander knew that he had changed the rules of the battle that the Greeks had been fighting against the Persians for centuries with a single victory. Turning his army southward, he took the rich city of Sardis and then went on down the Western coast to liberate former Greek colonies at Ephesus, Miletus, and Halicarnassus. These early successes provided Alexander with something of a quandary. In toppling Sardis, he had disrupted Persian authority in the entire area and returned to Greek authority the very colonies that had been the original source of enmity between the two peoples. Traditional strategy, like that exercised by Darius, dictated that he should consolidate his rule in the area and, as Plutarch puts it, “made himself secure in the resources of these provinces” [548].

There was something, however, about the relative ease with which he had been able to accomplish a feat that had eluded the Greeks for hundreds of years that spoke to his more impulsive side. The decision, according to Plutarch and the myth-makers that preceded him, ultimately did not come from Alexander himself but from an unexpected intervention of the supernatural.

While he was thus deliberating what to do, it happened that a spring of water near the city of Xanthus in Lycia, of its own accord, swelled over its banks, and threw up a copper plate, upon the margin of which was engraven in ancient characters, that the time would come when the Persian empire should be destroyed by the Grecians. [548]

Whether spurred by his own ambition or this miraculous prophesy coming to light just as he debated his next move, Alexander quickly marshaled his armies and turned them eastward, conquering along the treacherous Pamphylian coast until they reached the city of Side which surrendered without a fight.

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