Sunday, July 19, 2009

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

Parts One through Six of this essay can be accessed in the archive on the right of the screen.

There is ample evidence that Alexander was much more at ease with conquest than with complexities of ruling over the vast terrain he had already taken. It is not surprising, then, that he did not tarry long at Susa but, instead, began his next campaign to extend his armies (and the Greek cultural influence) further east than had ever been attempted. As if to underscore the urgency with which he set his thronging army back into action, he opened the march with an act of incomprehensible finality.

Alexander, now intent upon his expedition into India, took notice that his soldiers were so charged with booty that it hindered their marching. Therefore, at the break of day, as soon as the baggage wagons were laden, first he set fire to his own, and to those of his friends, and then commanded those to be burnt which belonged to the rest of the army. [568]

Though Plutarch writes that the men were “inspired” by his intentional arson, he also notes in the following paragraph that Alexander “was now grown very severe and inexorable in punishing those who committed any fault.” It does not take a social scientist to presume that his soldiers may have continued supporting his efforts more out of fear than out of an urge to seek yet more glory, yet more wealth and yet more territory. Plutarch’s narrative of the conquest that seemed to have no end becomes sketchier after Darius’ death. Literally, two years of campaigning are boiled down into just a few nondescript paragraphs detailing various wounds that Alexander received and the interpretation of certain omens that preceded the taking of particular cities.

His narrative picks back up with some detail around 326 BCE when Alexander met the forces of Porus on the river Hydaspes at the foot of the Himalayas. His account of the battle, involving a dangerous river crossing at night, echoes Alexander’s earlier battle against Darius’ general at Granicus. Despite being opposed by a robust army with elephants, chariots, and thousand of soldiers at its disposal, Alexander’s army was victorious and Porus, unlike Darius before him, surrendered and, for his humility, was retained to rule the region as satrap under Alexander’s authority. Plutarch indicates that Alexander desired to push further into India, crossing the Ganges into lands truly unknown but, the realities of a war without end seem to have caught up with him.

But this last combat with Porus took off the edge of the Macedonians’ courage, and stayed their further progress into India. For having found it hard enough to defeat an enemy who brought but twenty thousand foot soldiers and two thousand horse into the field, they thought they had reason to oppose Alexander’s design of leading them on to pass the Ganges, too…for they were told the kings of the Gandaritans and the Prasesians expected them there with eighty thousand horse, two hundred thousand foot, eight thousand armed chariots, and six thousand fighting elephants. [570]

Whether guided by the discontent of his army or the real possibility that all he had gained might yet be lost, Alexander, for the first time since he had begun his war against the Persians, turned back and began a slow trek, presumably towards home. Taking small fortified cities on his way, Alexander traveled down their rivers for about seven months until, at last, he reached the sea, or, more specifically, the Indian Ocean. At Pattala, he made an odd decision to split his land and sea forces, marching his army along the southern edge of the continent while the fleet shadowed him at sea, following the coast. The expedition proved to be an arduous one.

[Alexander] returned himself by land through the country of the Orites, where he was reduced to great straits for want of provisions, and lost a vast number of his men, so that of an army of one hundred and twenty thousand foot soldiers and fifteen thousand horse, he scarcely brought back above a fourth out of India, they were so diminished by disease, ill diet, and the scorching heats, by most by famine. [572]

Restored somewhat by provisions taken at the city of Pura and tributes from surrounding kingdoms, Alexander’s taste for war and hard marching seems to have been slaked. The once-disciplined Greek army (though now composed of many peoples from every land taken in its wake) degenerated, at Alexander’s behest into a “disorderly and wandering march” through Carmania that was, by Plutarch’s account, “accompanied with all the sportiveness and insolence of bacchanals, as much as if the god himself had been there to countenance and lead the procession” [572]. Finally, the land army rejoined the fleet at Harmozia which was positioned at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

Though he dreamed of sending an expedition around the southern tip of Africa to enter the Mediterranean from the East, Alexander found himself suddenly burdened by the cumulative effects of ruling a territory so vast with an army now so ragged from war. Vassal nations, once conquered, now began to question the invincibility of Alexander’s authority. Macedonia herself saw her government splinter into fragments with parts governed by Alexander’s regent and others taken by his mother to rule. Making haste back towards his homeland, Alexander stopped in at Susa to marry Darius’ daughter, Statira II, no doubt with intention of cementing his authority over the Persians before returning to Greece.

Bad luck and trouble seemed to follow Alexander on his journey homeward as friend after friend died of excess, whether in food, drink, battle or some combination of the three. Plutarch writes that:

When once Alexander had given way to fears of supernatural influence, his mind grew so disturbed and so easily alarmed that, if the least unusual or extraordinary thing happened, he thought it a prodigy or a presage, and his court was thronged with diviners and priests whose business was to sacrifice and purify and foretell the future. So miserable a thing is incredulity and contempt of divine power on the one hand, and, so miserable, superstition on the other, which like water, where the level has been lowered, flowing in and never stopping, fills the mind with slavish fears and follies, as now in Alexander’s case. [575]

Not long after his wedding, Alexander, presumably consumed by one of these frightful moods, either fell victim to a fever and drank himself to death while in it or drank himself senseless and lapsed into said fever. Whatever the order, the result was the same. As reported by Plutarch, Alexander “fell into delirium, and died on the thirtieth day of the month of Daesius.”

Without Alexander’s personal vigor, unyielding vision, and, most importantly, individual sanction for the transfer of power after his death, the vast empire he had conquered fragmented within months of his death. Greek military power in the ancient Mediterranean and beyond became a thing of the past though, most importantly, the Greek culture persisted throughout what Alexander would have called “The Known World” for centuries beyond his passing.

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