Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

Before extending our discussion of Alexander’s exploits among the Persians, Plutarch’s own narrative designs insist that we take a moment to acknowledge a few aspects of Alexander’s person and the world in which he lived not related specifically to military conquest. Plutarch makes the observation early on in his biography that Alexander’s temperament was different than many of his contemporaries. Growing up, as he did, in an ascendant kingdom flush with new wealth, his principle interest seems to be focused more on knowledge than anything else (as suggested in the story of his meeting with the Persian ambassadors). We can easily imagine Phillip as something of a social-evolutionary throwback; a king eventually ruling over Greek cities in disarray that had done away with kings as an institution of government for centuries. He had accepted the mantle of Greek Supreme Commander against the Persians, but there is little evidence from what remained of his life that he ever intended to fulfill that promise. It was a title that showed his mastery over the more civilized people to his south and, perhaps little else, which, given the sorry state of affairs in Greece at the time, may have suited them just fine.

Alexander, in contrast, embraced information acquired through learning. Though he was a noted patron of the arts, Plutarch tells us that he disdained sport of all kind, presumably recognizing it as a sublimation of the military urge for which he strove in its pure form for the length of his adult life. He seems, at least from this distance, determined to bring to life the legendary qualities that he found in The Iliad and lacking in the world around him. It is only fitting then that his last action before engaging the Persians for the first time was to visit Troy and bask in the vicarious glory of its relics and statuary; in some sense, mixing the functions of ritual and play into one seamless act of devotion to a long-since decayed ideal.

The other exotic aspect of Plutarch’s examination of Alexander’s life is the attention paid to omens and sacrifices as the catalyst for the more climatic events. Both Alexander and Darius draw sustained inspiration from various portentous events though, in nearly every case, the omen reported is always favorable to their endeavors. This leads us to believe that either their interpreters were smart enough to know that every odd occurrence better equal something good or their life expectancy might not be so hot or that bad omens were perhaps left unmentioned as they diverted the observer from whatever action against which it portended. Some have noted that Rome in the 1st century CE was, in many ways, more superstitious than the late-Hellenic culture from which Alexander himself emerged. This sustained emphasis on the power of the supernatural on mortal events is woven into the very fabric of Alexander’s myth, if not his life and makes Plutarch’s re-imagination of him perhaps more epic than if spun by an earlier or later writer.

After having taken the Pamphylian coast down to Side, Alexander turned his army north and westward on a winding path through rugged terrain. Skirmishing with unallied Pisidians along the way, he eventually reached the land of the Phrygians. While Plutarch describes him as having “conquered the Phrygians,” he makes no mention of a siege which suggests that the city merely capitulated to his obvious military superiority. Gordium was also a major stopping point on the Persian royal road leading to the eastern coast. In taking this city, Alexander effectively cut Darius off from using the road to rush reinforcements or supplies to his insurgents still operating in those territories.

As Alexander turned again southward, after having taken another city on the road a little further west, and eventually entered Cilicia. Perhaps weakened from wounds sustained in earlier battles, Alexander became gravely ill in Cilicia. Plutarch suggests that bathing in a cold river set off his sickness and that he was only cured by medicinal means that brought him closer to death before bringing him back from it. Temporarily deprived of leadership, the massed army of Macedonian, Greek, and assimilated armies along the way came to a standstill in Cilicia. As Plutarch recounts, the significance of this was not lost on Darius even if he misjudged the reason.

Darius was by this time upon his march from Susa, very confident, not only in the number of his men, which amounted to six hundred thousand, but likewise in a dream, which the Persian soothsayers interpreted rather in flattery to him than according to the natural probability…There was at this time in Darius’s army a Macedonian refugee, named Amyntus, one who was pretty well acquainted with Alexander’s character. This man, when he saw Darius intended to fall upon the enemy in the passes and defiles, advised him earnestly to keep where he was, in the open and extensive plains, it being the advantage of a numerous army to have field-room enough when it engages with a lesser force. Darius, instead of taking his counsel, told him he was afraid the enemy would endeavor to run away, and so Alexander would fall out of his hands. “That fear,” replied Amyntus, “is needless, for assure yourself that far from avoiding you, he will make all the speed he can to meet you, and is now most likely on his march toward you.” [548-9]

As history would show, this was the omen to which Darius should have hearkened as, within days, his fortunes and the once-impervious empire that rested on his shoulders would be rent asunder by Alexander and his armies at the Battle of Issus. Meeting in the valleys and swamps of Cilicia, Darius realized too late that his overwhelming numbers were of little use in the fragmented terrain and lost not only the battle but his wife, two daughters, and a substantial amount of treasure in a hasty retreat that barely saved his own life.

1st image- Portrait of Alexander the Great. Marble, 2nd-1st century BC. Said to be from Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by Andrew Dunn, 2004.

2nd image- Alexander at Ilium by Andre Castaigne (1898-99)

3rd image- Alexander Cutting the Gordion Knot, by Martino Altomonte. 1708.

4th image- The Battle of Alexander at Issus. Albrecht Altdorfer. 1529

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