Wednesday, July 15, 2009

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

Parts 1-5 of this essay can be accessed from the archive to the right of the screen.

Having finally defeated the historical enemy of the Greeks and acquired a giant empire in the process, one could assume that Alexander’s life from that point forward might be wrapped up by saying, “and they all lived happily ever after.” Nothing could be further from the truth for it is Darius’ death that serves as the fulcrum between Plutarch’s largely positive narrative about Alexander and the dour tale of the young Emperor’s descent into paranoia, madness, and eventual death that follows.

After a couple of throwaway tales about scouting expeditions and rescuing Bucephalus from barbarian kidnappers, Plutarch begins threading the loom for the darker portion of the tapestry to emerge. As Alexander transitions from conqueror to ruler, Plutarch begins to make note of changes in his behavior and demeanor. He began to partially emulate the style of Persian dress, under the auspices, at first, of engaging in pacifying diplomacy with the Persians he now ruled but, eventually, assuming a hybrid of Macedonian and Persian costuming to signify his role as a unifying figure between these multi-generational enemies.

Even as he continued to engage in minor skirmishes to subdue small pockets of resistance within the newly forged empire, the difficulty of holding together pieces of his army that had, in some cases, been campaigning with him for going on five years began to fray the relationship between he and his most reliable forces. This tension became more pronounced as Alexander’s paranoia began to rule more and more of his decision making progress. This tendency first reaches a boiling point, in Plutarch’s account, when Alexander begins to question the loyalty of Parmenio’s son, Philotas.

There was scarcely any one who had greater repute among the Macedonians that Philotas, son of Parmenio. For besides that he was valiant and able to endure any fatigue of war, he was also next to Alexander himself the most munificent…But he carried his arrogance and his pride of wealth and his habits of display and luxury to a degree of assumption unbecoming a private man; and affecting all the loftiness without succeeding in showing any of the grace or gentleness of true greatness… [563]

According to Plutarch, Philotas had taken a female slave named Antigone as part of his spoils. After a while, he began to confide her in his belief that “all the great actions were performed by him and his father” though it was Alexander who received the glory and the credit. It is recounted that she passed this information along to one of Alexander’s advisors and was eventually brought before Alexander himself to repeat what she had heard. Alexander took no action against Philotas then but ordered the woman to continue relaying any mutinous words or actions that she was able to glean.

Later, when a man loyal to Alexander named Nicomachus caught wind of a plot to assassinate him, he tried to bring the news to the court via Philotas. According to Plutarch, Philotas refused the men access to the court twice before they took the information to someone else, who notified Alexander at once. Already suspicious of Philotas’s popularity with the men of his army and his questionable belief in Alexander’s own greatness, Alexander was easily convinced by those around him that Philotas must be himself the mastermind of the plot. Though Plutarch provides us with no evidence or even supposition that Philotas was guilty of anything other than disrespect, Alexander had him tortured to death and then had Parmenio executed for good measure. “These actions,” writes Plutarch, “rendered Alexander an object of terror to many of his friends” and sent shockwaves all the way back to Macedon and Greece. Antipater, another general who served under both Phillip and Alexander, began quietly solidifying alliances among the Greeks in order that he might find a port of refuge should Alexander turn on him as well.

The next target of Alexander’s disproportionate response, however, would not be one of his suspected enemies, but his friend, Clitus who had, in fact, saved Alexander’s life at least once and to whom he was bonded like a brother. One night, in the midst of a long drinking binge, Clitus took offense at songs designed to mock particular Macedonians being sung in front of barbarians (ie anyone that wasn’t Greek) and, ill-considered or not, turned his anger towards Alexander. His reproach escalated into a full-blown argument between the two until Alexander killed him to the shock of everyone present. The incident deeply upset Alexander, who, according to Plutarch, regretted his actions immediately. Alexander fell into a dark depression from which he eventually emerged, but perhaps more deranged and unsettled than ever before.

The final schism reported by Plutarch is probably of more interest to history than it was to Alexander’s increasingly nervous court as it concerns his relationship with Aristotle. During the period when Alexander was mourning his execution of Clitus, his advisers brought in two different philosophers to console him. The first, Callisthenes, was a student of a friend to Aristotle and the second, Anaxarchus is described by Plutarch as having “always taken a course of his own in philosophy, and had a name for despising and slighting his contemporaries” [566]. Callisthenes had apparently already done much to earn the general displeasure of the Macedonians, including insulting them at the king’s request (as a form of moral instruction) and striking far deeper with his pointed barbs against them than good taste might dictate. When the plot against Alexander (that got both Philotas and Parmenio executed) was uncovered, a rumor was spread that the perpetrator, a young man named Hermolaus, had gotten the idea by asking Callisthenes what he needed to do in order to become “the most illustrious person on Earth.” Callisthenes was presumed to have told him that “the readiest way was to kill him who was already so” as well as reassuring him “not to be awed by the golden couch, but remember that Alexander was a man equally infirm and vulnerable as any other” [567].

According to Plutarch, not only did Alexander have Callisthenes killed (the method again varies) but the philosopher’s relation to Aristotle placed a permanent wedge between the King and his former teacher and may well have led to Aristotle’s abandonment of Athens and subsequent death in Boetia.

No comments:

Post a Comment