Funerals in his day were more gifts of honour than displays of mourning.
For nearly three centuries, while Macedon became a Roman province, the Ptolemys ruled in Egypt, and the priests of the deified Alexander served his shrine. At last in 89 BC , when the line had grown degenerate, the effete and bloated Ptolemy IX, rejected by his army and needing pay for mercenaries, took the gold sarcophagus and melted it down for coin. All Alexandria was outraged; to no one’s surprise, he was killed within the year.
The embalmers had been master craftsmen; Alexander’s three-hundred-year-old face had set into distinguished beauty. The Alexandrians piously rehoused him in a sarcophagus adorned with coloured glass. Fifty years later, the house of Ptolemy was extinguished by Cleopatra’s asp.
The Tomb remained. Caesar visited it; no doubt Mark Antony too with envy; Augustus left an imperial standard as tribute. The legends gathered.
Some time about AD 300, on the fertile shore of Alexandria, crossroads of trade and of traditions, all the flotsam of romance, folk tale, rumour, agitprop, and moralistic fantasy, combined with some tattered shreds of history, was gathered by some untalented but limitlessly credulous author, and cast on the waters of time. Implausibly attributed to Callisthenes, who died four years before Alexander, it became the first work of fiction to achieve bestsellerdom in translation throughout the known civilized world.
He grew up with a religious faith in friendship, making it a cult, publicly staking his life on it. The real loves of his life were friendships, including his sexual loves. Though he had the classic family pattern for homosexuality, it was probably the mere availability of men rather than women for friendship which directed his emotional life.
His own mystical experience was one of the premises from which his logic constructed his universe. In him, Alexander’s glowing imagination would have found an interpreter and a guide.
It is true that throughout his career Alexander courted danger, though never without purpose, with almost religious fervour. He is often called fearless; but no man with so powerful an imagination is immune to fear. He had seen men die horribly in the field, in lingering agony after. Perhaps this was why fear was always the first enemy he had to kill.
It would be of great interest to know what plans Philip had made for Alexander in the coming war. He would not now be trusted as Regent. If left behind, he would have had to be imprisoned, and there is no sign at all of any such intention. The alternative would have been taking him along to Asia, and giving him a command under conditions where his pride and ambition would have guaranteed good performance. In the field together, away from Macedon, it is probable that once more the father and son would have become good comrades-in-arms.
Had he taken Antipater’s advice, he might have been survived by a successor eleven years old; had he taken his parents’, one of perhaps fourteen; and the whole course of Hellenistic history would have been altered. It is said that when asked how he had contrived to subdue Greece so swiftly, he answered, “By never putting off anything till tomorrow.” This one thing he put off; and set in train a generation of wars.
Tarn has well said that he embarked upon the war at first because “he never thought of not doing it; it was his inheritance.” It was in what the war engendered that his unique genius appeared.
As Wilcken has pointed out in a masterly analysis, this moment of decision by Alexander is one of history’s great proofs that individuals, not mere economic forces, can change the destinies of mankind. Had he listened to Parmenion, Greek civilization would have been more solidly established in Asia Minor but would never have touched the East; the balance of power with Persia would have remained precarious, and the emergence of a stronger king there might have reversed the defeat of Xerxes in future years.
All good historians have rejected Curtius’ story that the brave Betis was brought before him wounded, refused to bow the knee, and was thereon dragged round the city at his chariot tail. Anyone unconvinced by his constant generosity to brave enemies, in which he took some pride, may here safely trust his vanity. Achilles, before thus mistreating Hector, had personally killed him in the climactic duel of the epic. Alexander’s wound had kept him from fighting in the final assault at all; he was the last man in the world to put on such an unpleasantly inferior display. The tale is interesting interesting as a typical piece of Athenian propaganda, written by someone who had learned of his Homeric aspirations but knew nothing of his nature at first hand, or was too “committed” to care.
He never thought himself above the concerns of a regimental officer. Without doubt the love of the army was the breath of life to him; but never in his life did he try to get it cheap. It was not just a matter of being first into danger and last to take comforts when conditions were rough. Before a battle he could greet men by name instead of making speeches. To have one’s exploits remembered by him was in itself an award, though his material rewards were generous. He was constantly interested in the common soldier’s predicaments, however remote from his own.
He had created a relationship of unique intimacy and trust, and inspired a possessiveness which was to create unforeseen complications. Their dependence on him grew almost superstitious, as their reaction to his wounds and sickness shows.
Towards Persians it was good policy; but policy was never the whole story with Alexander, who was complex, emotional, and much affected by human contacts.
No judgment on it has been harsher than Alexander’s own. He had killed Parmenion as a king, responsibly. This time he had killed as a man, who could not hold his drink or keep his temper. As a king, he had illegally killed a Macedonian asserting his right of free speech. As a Greek, he had killed a benefactor and a guest; aspects whose enormity we can scarcely now assess. His shame was proportioned to his pride; for a time he found himself intolerable.
The lack of evidence about their relations leaves an important gap in our knowledge of Alexander. It is clear, however, that close and affectionate communication had been integral to his other loves. To Hephaestion he confided everything; Bagoas had been encouraged to reminisce about his former life. Roxane cannot have had a word of Greek; the sources are silent about Alexander’s Persian. Beyond a few endearments picked up from Bagoas, it was probably elementary. Beauty, however dazzling its first impact, may have turned out to be not enough.
Alexander was never a general to fight his last war over again.
He was lucky to have brought Hephaestion; if only he had lived to write his memoirs! The value of his support, never put on record by his rivals, is shown by Alexander’s marks of honour later.
If one thing is certain about Alexander, it is that he valued his pride above his life.
The birth legends which so swiftly adhered to Alexander after his death were not propaganda, but hagiography.
(Nearchus’ memoirs are a deplorable loss to history. Their surviving fragments show a vivid style, a talent for description, and a deep, perceptive affection for Alexander.)
Arrian comments that he was insatiable of conquest. True as this is, his whole career shows that for him power was not an end but a tool. He longed to discover, and what he found to shape creatively. The romantic love of personal heroism, which shortened his life, was also the spell which caused his men to follow him, and is inseparable from his destiny.
Ever ready to die in war, he must long have been prepared to die in pain, and resolved it should not diminish him. The exhaustion must have shortened his last hours, but it is unlikely that at this stage he could have recovered. The necessary suffering he accepted in return for what had been essential to him all his life: to be equal to his legend; to be beloved; and to requite it extravagantly, regardless of expense. Whether sustained by pride, by philosophy, by belief in the immortality of his fame or of his soul, he met his end with no less dignity, fortitude and consideration for others than Socrates himself.
She [Olympias] had outlived her son seven years. Sisygambis, the Queen Mother of Persia, survived the news of his death five days. On receiving it she bade her family and friends farewell, turned her face to the wall and died by fasting.