3.4 The “Greatness” of Alexander the Great or Why Should We (Not) Appreciate Him?

In both countries Alexander the Great is widely appreciated as one of the most important historical figures in their own national histories. And a lot of people in both countries are proud that Alexander the Great was of same nationality as they are. But, why we should appreciate him? This important question is rarely asked.

Is Alexander appreciated simply because he is famous and he is also counted as a member of the Greek and Macedonian nationality? Most of the people have positive opinion about persons simply because they have same nationality as they have and they are famous. But, one thing is to be famous or “great” and completely other thing for what reason someone is famous or “great”. If someone is a bad person or has done bad things, should we minimize them only because this person is of same nationality as we are? There are good and bad persons in every nation and we should appreciate good persons, whatever their nationality, and we should not justify someone’s infamous acts only because he is of the same nationality with us.

But, maybe we should appreciate Alexander because he has done something good? What is that exactly? Was he fighting for freedom, for example? Or he was conquering foreign countries for personal glory? If fighting for freedom should undoubtedly be appreciated, it can not be the case with the conquests for personal glory.

Plutarch’s biography of Alexander, for example, contains an obvious tendency to present Alexander in positive light, but, still, careful readers can notice a lot of episodes that present this conqueror in very different light. To begin with, his desire for personal glory is more than obvious. As a youngster, he was envy on his father’s conquests for an “interesting reason”: he could have left no great achievement for Alexander (Life of Alexander, 5). Another typical episode of Alexander’s fixation with personal glory happened on his way back from India, when he has reached the ocean. There he made a sacrifice to the gods, praying that no man after him pass beyond the bounds of his expedition (Life of Alexander, 66). The most ruthless result of his desire for personal glory was the crossing of the Gedrosian desert. After exhausting sixty days through the desert, not even the fourth part of his fighting force was brought back from India (Life of Alexander, 66). According to Arrian, he has chosen the route through the desert because, apart from the Assyrian queen Semiramis on her retreat from India, no man, to his knowledge, had ever before succeeded in bringing an army safely through (Anabasis Alexandri, 6.24.1-26.5).

Alexander’s disrespect of other people’s life, even of his closest collaborators, was quite notorious. Most telling are the following two episodes including murders done or ordered by Alexander. First, the murder of Cleitus. Cleitus was a general in Alexander’s army who saved his life at the Battle of the Granicus and who became his close friend afterwards. During one drunken party several years later, Cleitus was provoked by the disrespect towards the generals of the army and towards Philip II, which was tolerated by Alexander. He has started to make open remarks to Alexander, and when Alexander asked him if he thought he can pass unpunished for his words, Cleitus replied to him that he should let people speak freely or else not to invite men who were free and spoke their minds, but to live with Barbarians and slaves, who would do obeisance to him. After some additional criticism by Cleitus, Alexander grabbed a spear from one of his guards and killed this person who once saved his life and afterwards was one of his best friends (Life of Alexander, 50-51). Second, the murder of Philotas and Parmenio. This episode is even more shocking, putting Alexander next to Machiavelli’s idol Cesare Borgia. Philotas was also one of the closest friends of Alexander and Parmenio was second in command and Philotas’ father. In 330 BC Alexander was informed that Philotas was involved in a conspiracy against his life. Philotas was condemned by the army and put to death. Immediately afterwards, Alexander, thinking it dangerous to allow the father to live, sent orders to Media, where Parmenio was, for his assassination (Life of Alexander, 49). There was no proof that Parmenio was in any way implicated in the conspiracy, but he was not even afforded the opportunity of defending himself. Probably Alexander thought that disaffected Parmenio was a serious threat, especially since he was commanding an army and was stationed near Alexander’s treasury and on his supply lines. Reasoning in pure machiavelistic manner, Alexander therefore acted swiftly, and sent three officers on racing camels, across the desert by the most direct route possible, to kill Parmenio. These agents got to Parmenio before he had heard any news, and stabbed him to death on the spot.

Some may say that these episodes from the life of Alexander, while morally under question, were typical behaviour for his time and that we should not apply moral standards from our time to the ancient world. As much as we think that Alexander’s misdeeds are justified by his time, we should keep in mind that exactly our moral standards should advice us that we cannot appreciate persons who make wars at will, occupying foreign countries and prepared to do anything, even on a cost of human lives, for their personal glory. Why should Greek and Macedonian people appreciate such person as Alexander, and even fight each other on the false issue “whose” is he? Alexandros Megalos/Aleksandar Makedonski isn’t Greek, isn’t Macedonian – he was occupier as the current occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, he doesn’t deserve statues, not in Thessaloniki not in Skopje not in any other place! He was typical barbarian interested only in conquests and spoils and cannot and should not be appreciated by any civilized person, including Greek and Macedonian ones!

Maybe the best characterization of Alexander is the story narrated by Augustine. A pirate had been seized by Alexander. When the king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride: “What you mean by seizing the whole earth? Because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who do it with a great fleet are styled emperor” (The City of God, Book IV, ch. 4). Some similarities are often stark in their obviousness when we open our minds.

All the above are once more an intention of deconstruction of the myths that the dominant historiography constructs, this time over Alexander. Even if all the mentioned misdeeds were not granted to him, even if he hadn’t been a blood-thirsty war-leader, nothing would change in the study of the semiotic value of the figure of Alexander. National narrative has connected Alexander to a “glorious” past that can demonstrate vast empires and heroic deeds, committed to produce “shivers down the spine” aiming at patriotic emotions. National myth is full of vivid descriptions of selfless self-sacrifice of the Macedon soldiers and their alleged admiration towards Alexander’s face, aiming to make the reader get used to emotions of allegiance, submission and self-sacrifice.

Concerning the figure of Alexander itself, there is no lack of pompous references as for his “superior”50 ability in combat, strategy, war foresight, valor51  and zeal to deliver justice52 and free the enslaved. These are the materials of Greek and Macedonian myth, with which it signifies the figure of Alexander as the defeater of others, as powerful, as a person who bears similar traits as those described for his father, only here on a larger scale.

As the dominant historiography desires those “heroes” of the past to have lived at the same region where nowadays live Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Albanians, a respective regional bond has been constructed by said states. This on one hand gives a new meaning to geographical sites, as villages and towns53, and on the other hand circumvents the fact that ancient Macedonian soldiers mingled with other peoples to the point that the possibility of defining a region as Macedonian is lost. 

The myth of Macedonian national heritage and that of the “chosen Macedonian nation”, a heritage that expands its borders due to the myth of a concurrent to Alexander “golden era”, has taken its place in collective memory. This is the core of the recent Macedonian and one of the cores of Greek nationalism. The expansion and proliferation of the complex of national myths and symbols to future generations plays a great role in the survival of the nation and of nationalism. Of course this is achieved through state education that is full of national fiestas, parades but also a number of references in school books to the “glorious past”.

However, besides education, this task is usually tackled by the intellectuals who create, reproduce and conserve national myths (Smith, 1981). They work as chroniclers that link the chasm between present and the past “golden age”. Their protagonists are philologists, archaeologists, poets, literati and above all, historians (Conversi 1995, Hutchinson 1987), supported by artists (sculptures, painters, novelists, musicians, and actors up to theatrical writers and cinema producers) who play the role of transmitters of national ideas and of their linking with the glorious past. This way they elaborate the myth of historical continuity to the present. Leaving out the intellectual elite, the rest of these intellectuals does not necessarily mean that belong in a caste that pursues certain goals, neither that they act under commands or orders. The most possible is that these same intellectuals are bearers of the national ideas they reproduce. We should also bear in mind that this great resonance of nationalism is due to the role that the mass media play in the procedure of  formation of consent54.

If different nations did not exist, if there were no “others”, then nationalism wouldn’t have a reason to exist. It is not by chance that nationalism is related to racism, fascism and bigotry. National myths, memories, values, traditions and symbols are the tools of nationalism which contribute to the discrimination between two communities or groups of people with no regard to social traits, class position or political beliefs. On the contrary they bring forth national, and racial superiority, as well as characteristics as the biological sex as tools for the discrimination of humans. This discrimination lives up to date and is evident in people who live in Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, demonstrating its worst face especially the two recent decades. The exacerbation of this phenomenon is observed through the nationalistic frenzy fuelled by the two states who in turn investing on building nationalistic national symbols and myths, aim at overshadowing the social antagonism in their interior.



50 A superiority either real or imagined, that doesn’t matter except for when it is presented by the dominant rhetoric. Back

51 Depicted in contradiction to the image of the Persians who are presented as cowards. Back

52 As an example we mention the fact that Alexander’s campaign was justified by noble causes as that of freedom and that of the dissemination of the Persian empire so as not to repeat its imperialist campaigns. We can say the same thing for the Greek campaign in Asia Minor (1919-1922), which was justified with the “need” to deal with armed irregulars who harassed the Greek population of Ismir. Back

53  i.e. Vergina, Pella etc. Back

54 Herman, Edward S. and Noam Chomsky (1988), Manufacturing Consent. The Political Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books. Back


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