Previous posts in this discussion:
PostAlexander the Great's Treatment of Defeated Enemies (Enrique Torner, USA, 08/22/15 5:55 am)
When I read Massoud Malek's post of March 2, 2015, I found some of his assertions on the Peloponnesian War, Alexander, and Herodotus astounding and incorrect.
However, that post touched a nerve on me, because I have been interested in Alexander the Great for some time, have read several books on him, and listened to two courses about him by "The Great Courses." At that time during the academic semester I was too busy to respond to Massoud's post the way it deserved, so I wrote that topic on my agenda to write about this summer when I had time.
These last few days WAIS has been discussing how victors have been treating their victims, and somebody wondered if there was ever any victor who treated his victims in a decent way. Then I thought of Alexander the Great, who sacrificed his own reputation among his Macedonian people trying to win over the souls of the countries he conquered. I wonder if our WAIS historians have delved much into him; I have the impression that most of them deal with more modern periods, if we except WAISer A.J. Cave, who, I just discovered, wrote a novel about Roxane, one of Alexander's wives! Wow! I can't wait to get and read it! Anyway, this post will try to address Massoud's March post and the latest WAIS discussion.
I will start by addressing Massoud's assertions in order. His first one was about Herodotus. Massoud stated that Herodotus wrote what was told to him. This is true: Herodotus was one of the most traveled man of his time, and traveled to almost all the countries around and beyond the Mediterranean world, visiting Palestine, Syria, Babylon, Macedonia, and all the islands of the Greek Archipelago. "He sailed through the Hellespont to the Black Sea and kept going until he hit the Danube River." While he traveled, Herodotus collected what he called "autopsies," or "personal inquiries": He listened to myths and legends, recorded oral histories and traditions, and made notes of the places and things that he saw." (History.com article).
Regarding the oral legends (or traditions) that he recorded, he even acknowledges in a famous passage that, just because he is recording them, that doesn't mean he is bound to believe them. Herodotus did this task as methodically and comprehensively as he could, including people of all classes of society and stating his sources. This mixture of history and myth is why Persians thought that "they were fanciful and inaccurate" (I'm quoting Massoud here). However, it is not true that everything he wrote about has "been proven to have been completely fabricated, exaggerated and with no factual bases." The origin of this false impression resides in the criticism that he received from some Greek and Roman authors.
Various Greek writers accused him of dishonesty and lack of patriotism: the first accusation assumed that Herodotus could not possibly have gathered all the information he reported; the second reproach took issue with Herodotus' presentation of the Persians (this attack came from some historians that came one to two generations after Herodotus, especially Thucydides, Cicero, and Plutarch). Thucydides was Herodotus' immediate successor. Plutarch went so far as to call Herodotus the "Father of Lies." However, these authors also admitted that Herodotus was "The Father of History," because he was the first person to have "used all of his 'autopsies' to build a complete story that explained the why and the how of the Persian Wars." (History.com). In contrast, earlier writers had produced what Herodotus called "logographies": "These were what we might call travelogues, disconnected tales about places and people that did not cohere into a narrative whole" (History.com) and which did not bother to try to explain the reasons behind historical events.
However, most modern historians (Tom Holland [his latest translator], Peter Cartledge, Robert Berge, Brad Penney, Tom Mackenzie, to quote a few) have come to accept that most of his works are actually accurately historical, basing their claims on archeological findings of the last couple of centuries.
At the end of his post, Massoud complained that "while Persians are called barbarians, a butcher from Macedonia (referring to Alexander the Great) is considered one of the greatest men to ever walk the earth." This statement really shocked me, and for three reasons: 1) the Greek term for barbarian, as the English word itself, as well as its translation into other Romance languages, did not mean anything but that the people referred to did not speak Greek (or spoke a different language, if we are referring to other countries' languages); 2) Herodotus, when he was relating his history of the Greek and Persian wars, could not possibly have been speaking of Alexander the Great, because the latter lived between July 356 to June 323 BCE, while Herodotus had already died (c. 484-425 BCE), so he was speaking of Alexander I; 3) Neither I nor most modern historians consider Alexander the Great either a "butcher," nor "one of the greatest men to ever walk the earth." I consider him one of the greatest military geniuses in history, as Napoleon did.
However, I am also aware that, despite his best intentions, he killed many innocent people in his pursuit of conquests of other lands. However, we need to recognize that, without his panhellenization of the Mediterranean world, which made Greek the "koine" language of the area for centuries, allowing people from several countries to communicate among themselves, Christianity could have become only a local religion, instead of spreading all over the Mediterranean world.
Alexander the Great provides an example of a conqueror that treated the vanquished in a respectful manner, unlike other, more modern tyrants/dictators. If the enemy surrendered easily, he even allowed their governors (be them satraps, kings, or whatever) to continue ruling their territories. He also incorporated many Persian soldiers to his own troops, training them in the art of Macedonian war. After he defeated Porus (one of the first leaders he fought against in India) at the Battle of the Hydaspes, Alexander restored him to his throne, and the two of them joined their forces to fight Porus' enemies further east.
Alexander also tried his best to keep the culture of the conquered lands, even to his own detriment. For example, while in Persia, he adopted the Persian way of dressing as well as some of their customs and traditions, like "proskynesis," which consisted on bowing before the king as if he were a god, which raised the wrath of many Macedonians. As a result of that, many of his own men turned against him. He also adopted the habit of marrying a woman related to the royalty of the conquered land, and he encouraged his own men to marry women from there too. An example of this was the mass wedding he held at Susa in 324 BCE, in which he married two Achaemenid princesses: Darius's daughter Stateira, and Parysatis, daughter of Artaxerxes III. At the same time, his friend Hephaestion married Drypetis, Stateira's sister, and eighty of his companions married daughters of the Iranian nobility, each of the couples receiving a lavish dowry from Alexander. This pompous occasion extended and trumped Alexander's previous marriage with the Sogdian princess Roxane in 327, and the weddings at Susa reinforced the king's policy of governing together with his former enemies. The marriages constituted a veritable pact for governing and made possible a harmonious transition between Persian and Macedonian rule.
Despite all of Alexander's best intentions to treat his enemies magnanimously, he did not always act like that. Whenever his enemies opposed him fiercely, caused his troops a great deal of grievances, and did not surrender, he would turn mad, and could retaliate in a cruel manner. For example, the siege he mounted against the Sogdian towns at Gaza, where "on Alexander's orders, the Macedonians put all the men to the sword; and carried off the women, and children, and all kinds of plunder." (Arrian IV.2.4.)
Alexander could not stand insubordination or betrayal, and, when that happened, he dealt ruthlessly with their perpetrators, whether they were from foreign countries or from his own Macedonia. For example, he had his friend Philotas tortured to force him to confess to fomenting a plot to kill him, and, after an assembly convicted him, they stoned him to death. One final instance, the worst of them all, happened at the end of the long and hard siege of the island of Tyre. After more than seven months laboring to take the stubborn town and seeing many of their friends crushed by stones hurled from the walls or burned to death by fire bombs, the Macedonians finally reached the town, killing every man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. Of those surviving the attack, two thousand men of fighting age captured in the attack were taken to a mainland beach across from the city and crucified--the most agonizing form of death known in the ancient world.
So, in view of these terrible episodes, why would anybody call Alexander "the Great," as Massoud asks. Well, in spite of all these instances of cruelty (and there are more), Alexander still achieved several amazing deeds. Ian Worthington summarizes the reasons in these words: "in little more than a decade, he journeyed further than any single person before him, he defeated opposing forces on a vast scale, he established a huge empire which stretched from Greece... to India, he spread Greek culture and education in that empire, he stimulated trade and the economy, and he died young." He was even considered as a god by many of his contemporaries.
In my opinion, what amazes me the most in Alexander are his skills as a general and as a strategist; Napoleon called him the best general in history, and it was not for no reason. I might describe in detail his war strategies and his fighting techniques in another post, if time permits.
JE comments: An outstanding ancient history lesson from Enrique Torner; thanks, Enrique! I especially hope our colleague A. J. Cave will send a comment.
Alexander: Persian and Arabic Interpretations
(A. J. Cave, USA
08/23/15 7:46 AM)
I wrote a few pages a few years ago, titled: "From Alexander Romance to Eskandar Nameh," tracing the evolution of the image of the conquering Macedonian King Alexander [III] in various sources.
Since the Alexander Romance part is better known, I thought about sending only the Eskandar Nameh part (meaning: Book of Alexander) for those who might be interested. But it seemed incomplete. So, here is most of it in 2 parts:
Part 1: Alexander Romance:
The historical romance of Alexander-a blending of fact and fiction as history-was started by Alexander himself, who wanted immortal fame and Homeric glory.
The Hellenic historians who followed his campaign through Asia selectively recorded and glorified the account of his conquests with a flattering and forgiving pen that only wrote what had been approved by Alexander. He was unforgiving of those who did not flatter him.
Over time all sorts of factual and fictional deeds were attributed to Alexander.
None of the primary sources that were written during his lifetime have survived in whole. The earliest secondary sources by the classical writers who used the primary sources to write their own versions of historical accounts date to over 300 years after the events-mainly by Diodorus Siculus (wrote between 60-30 BCE) and Arrian of Nicomedia (lived 86-160 CE).
Ptolemy (Greek: Ptolemaios, 305-283 BCE), another of Alexander's surviving generals and successors who had carved up Egypt for himself, was eager to tie himself closely to the family of Alexander. He wrote an idolized account of Alexander, casting himself as one of the key Makedonian officers who had served under the famed conqueror of the Persian Empire. He even stole Alexander's mummified body on its way back to Makedonia for burial and put it on display in the newly minted port city of Alexandria.
As early as the third century BCE in Ptolemy's royal court in Alexandria the fanciful fables about Alexander were blended into a story initially titled The Life of Alexander that later became known as Alexander Romance.
The highly popular story was most likely written by an unknown Egyptian scribe in the famed Library of Alexandria in Egypt and was translated into various languages and versions over the centuries.
It was a historical fiction indifferent to historical facts and timelines, primarily written to glorify Alexander who was worshiped as a god in Ptolemaic Alexandria, and to lessen the harsh realities of Egyptian repression under the Makedonian rule.
Alexander even made a fictional visit to Jerusalem and was mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (1 Maccabees 1-8) as the king who conquered the world.
According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Latin: Titus Flavius Josephus, Hebrew: Yosef ben Matityahu, ~ 37-100 CE), Alexander had first planned to destroy Jerusalem and murder the Judaeans, but changed his mind, recognized the Judaean High Priest and became the rightful ruler of the Jews.
In the fourth century CE, the Greek version of the romance was translated into Latin by Julius Valerius as Res gestae Alexandri Magni, Deeds of Alexander the Great. From Latin it spread to all the major medieval European languages of the Middle Ages.
The Greek version was also translated into the Syriac language, and from Syriac it spread to eastern cultures and languages.
The Syriac language was actually the Aramaic language of Edessa (modern Urfa), a Christian city on the major trade road from the Persian Hagmatana (Greek: Ecbatana, modern: Hamadan) to the Roman Antioch on the Mediterranean. Syriac was in use until the thirteenth century.
In the last decades of the Persian Sasanid Empire in the seventh century CE, when the rival Roman Byzantines and Persian Sasanians were locked in never-ending wars, a version of Alexander Romance was prepared in Middle Persian-Pahlavi-by a Syriac writer, which described Alexander as a pious Christian conqueror, casting him as a Holy Roman Emperor.
While this version has not survived, a later Syriac version of it has, claiming that the father of Alexander was the exiled Egyptian Pharaoh of 30th Dynasty, Nectanebo II (Egyptian: Nakhthoreb, 360-343 BCE), and Roxana, Alexander's wife, was the royal daughter of the Persian Great King Darius III.
The surviving Syriac version attributed to the theologian Jacob of Serugh (451-521 CE) consisted of five distinct manuscripts, including a Syriac Christian religious legend of Alexander and a sermon about him.
The religious legend was about Alexander's journey to the end of the world, where he built the "Gates of Alexander"-better known as "Alexander's Wall"-to enclose the biblical evil tribes of Gog and Magog, while the sermon recounted his voyage to the mythical Land of Darkness in quest of the Water of Life (Fountain of Youth).
In reality the original defensive border fortification along the Caucasus was actually built by the Persian Sasanid Great Kings to keep out the marauding northern nomads.
One of the surviving Syriac manuscripts, dated to around 629 or 636 CE, was composed as propaganda in support of the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610-641 CE) shortly after he defeated the Persians in the last great war of antiquity and the end of another era-the Roman-Sasanian Wars of 602-628 CE.
Since there is no mention of the Muslim Arab conquest of Jerusalem in 636 by the second caliph, ‘Umar (‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-Khattab, 634-644 CE) in this Syriac version, it was probably written before that historic watershed.
The Christian Alexander of Alexander Romance in the Syriac version who had defeated the Persians with the help of the Lord resonated with the early Muslim Arab invaders of Persia (modern Iran) and became the source of an Arabic version called the Qisas Zu al-Qarnayn (Tales of the Two-horned One) after the image of Alexander wearing the two-horned Egyptian crown of Ammon.
Alexander became sanctified in the noble Qur'an (Sura: the Cave, 18:83-98) with the epithet of Zu al-Qarnayn, (or Dhu al-Qarnain, meaning: two-horned one) although he was not mentioned by name, leaving the door open to theological debate and dissent.
In 692 CE another popular Syriac Christian adaptation of the Alexander Romance called the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius equated the evil Gog and Magog with the Arab invaders of Jerusalem which shaped the eschatological imagination of Christendom for centuries. Alexander Romances of the Middle Ages were typically recasts of the heroic adventures of western Christian Crusaders in the East.
In yet another Syriac version that later became known to the medieval Persian Poet Ferdowsi, Alexander was recast as a dragon-slayer-a popular motif in Medieval Europe.
The Syriac version might have been inspired by the biblical story of Bel and the Dragon.
The biblical Book of Daniel in the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Bibles has three additions not found in the Hebrew or Protestant Bibles, among them the story of Bel and the Dragon. The story was probably rooted in the ancient Babylonian epic of creation, called enuma elish, meaning when above, with Above being Heaven.
In enuma elish, Marduk, the great god of the city of Babylon, had been elevated to supremacy over all other Babylonian gods after he killed the mother-goddess in the form of a formidable salt-water (ocean) dragon.
The popular Babylonian story of dragon-slaying had traveled to other religions.
In an eighth century Arabic Alexander Romance, Alexander set out to spread Islam throughout the world, circling the lands of the setting and rising sun. Along the way he built a wall against the armies of Gog and Magog (called ya'juj wa ma'juj in Arabic) and lightened the darkness with the stone of prophecy he had inherited from the Qur'anic Adam.
Al-Tabari, one of the earliest Muslim Persian historians (838-923 CE), writing entirely in Arabic, recounted four versions of Alexander's conquest of Persia in his Tarikh al-Tabari (History of Tabari) that covered the span of history from Islamic creation to the year 915 CE.
In one version, to reconcile the Islamic view of Alexander with the historical figure, Alexander and Darius started as relatives. Later Alexander became the elder half-brother of a mythical Persian Kiyanian (or Kayanian) King, Alexander into a legitimate Persian king and not a foreign invader. With his dying breath, Darius asked Alexander to marry his daughter, Roxana, thus giving him the keys to the Persian kingdom.
The story pre-dated Islam when next-of-kin unions were favored in the Zoroastrian religion. Playing a perfect Persian Prince and a legitimate heir to the Persian throne, Alexander avenged the murder of Darius and married his daughter, Roxana.
But in another version, Alexander destroyed cities and temples, killing Zoroastrian priests and stealing, desecrating and burning their sacred books. Al-Tabari's source might have been an enduring Zoroastrian oral tradition which continued to remember Alexander as the greatest enemy of Persia.
Alexander Romance even made its way to China and Japan on the merchant ships of Muslim sailors and traders.
He was called by his noble Qur'an epithet, "the two-horned one," in a Chinese text dating to the year 1226, written by an "Inspector of Foreign Trade" who wrote about the port city of Alexandria in the land of the setting sun all the way on the other side of the world and its famous lighthouse crowned with a magical mirror.
Historical Alexander first became the fictional son of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, then a pious Christian conqueror during the crusading Middle Ages, then the sanctified Zu al-Qarnayn-"The Two-Horned"-in the noble Qur'an, later the perfect western imperialist and world unifier of colonizing Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the modern hero of homosexuality in the twentieth century, and back to being a soldier in modern historical novels.
Since the twentieth century some Muslim Iranian scholars have ingeniously attempted to reconcile the unnamed Zu al-Qarnayn of Qur'an with the historical and biblical King Cyrus the Great (Persian: Kurush, 559-530 BCE).
Part 2: Eskandar Nameh
Alexander was initially considered the slayer of Darius III and the destroyer of the Persian Empire, later becoming the destroyer of the Avesta and executioner of the Zoroastrian Magi. He was cursed and called gujasta.
This view of Alexander was recorded in the Middle Persian language in the Book of Arda Viraf, a Zoroastrian religious manuscript dating to the Persian Sasanid Empire (224-651 CE).
After the spread of Islam in Iran, no evil act could be attributed to Alexander and so a new "historical" king was fabricated by the Muslim Persian scholars. The Al in Alexander's name, equated with the Arabic definite article of al-, was dropped and his name became Exander or Eskandar (Iskandar or Sikandar).
The Persianization of Alexander became complete when his father became the Elder Dara, a fictional Persian king who had married Nahid (the New Persian form of the Mazdaean goddess Anahita) the daughter of Philip of Rum [Rome], but sent the bride back to her father for her bad breath, not knowing she was pregnant. After Alexander was born, Philip concealed the identity of the newborn and declared him his own son.
When Alexander and Dara, the younger son of the Elder Dara-presumably the historical Persian Great King Darius III-succeeded their fathers to kingship, it was just a matter of time before Eskandar headed to Eran-Shahr (medieval Iran) to claim his royal inheritance.
The younger Dara was defeated in battle with Eskandar. But when he was murdered by two of his own courtiers, Eskandar avenged the death of his royal brother and became the legitimate king in Persia. Then he went to the House of God in Mecca to worship.
The story of Eskandar as the eldest son of Dara the Elder was traced to Ibn al-Muqaffa,‘ a mid-eighth century CE Manichaean scholar who had converted to Islam.
Shah Nameh (Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi (or Firdausi, 940-1020 CE) started with the mythical age and the mythical King Kaiumers (or Kayumars), continued through the heroic age of Persia and ended with the conquest of Eskandar (Alexander). While the powerful Persian Achaemenids were all but forgotten by then, Makedonian Alexander had become part and parcel of ancient Persian history as the eldest son of a fictional Kiyanian king and the daughter of a fictional Ruman king.
Nezami (1141-1209 CE), celebrated as one of the greatest romantic medieval Persian poets, composed Eskandar Nameh (Book of Alexander), in verse with 10,500 couplets sometime between 1194 and 1202.
The poetic account narrated the life of Alexander in three stages:
-a world conqueror
-a knowledge seeker
-a philosopher-king traveling around the world to proclaim his faith
The story, based on Alexander Romance and the Islamic myths about Alexander, turned Alexander into a perfect medieval Persian knight.
By the end of these stories, the historical humiliation of the destruction of a great empire by enemies was erased by the fictional pens of the great poets of a proud people.
JE comments: Another excellent lesson in ancient history. A. J. Cave has traced all the conceivable interpretations of Alexander, beginning with the caveat that none of the sources from his time survive. As such, Alexander has become a perfect "open signifier"--capable of meaning (nearly) all things to all people. It's especially fascinating how the Persians were able to re-define Alexander as one of their own. The "bad breath hypothesis" in particular was a masterpiece of creative history.
- Alexander and Eskandar (Massoud Malek, USA 08/24/15 8:33 AM)
I really enjoyed Enrique Torner's post of 22 August on Alexander of Macedonia.
There are countless books written about Alexander in Iran. Iranians read many of these books from a tender age. Some books even praise Alexander for his bravery. One of my cousins is named "Eskandar" (Alexander in Persian). We have a saying in Persian that says, "the pen is in the hand of the enemy." What Enrique read about Alexander were all written by the Western writers who were admirers of the Greek culture and repeated what the greatest liar in the history of the mankind, Herodotus, wrote about his enemies, the Persians.
"Alexander the Great provides an example of a conqueror that treated the vanquished in a respectful manner, unlike others. He incorporated many Persian soldiers to his own troops, training them in the art of Macedonian war. while in Persia, he adopted the Persian way of dressing as well as some of their customs and traditions."
When Alexander conquered Persia, he wrote to his teacher Aristotle:
"I have found in the land of Persia men possessing sound judgement and powerful understanding, who are ambitious of bearing rule. Hence I have decided to put them all to death. What is your opinion in this matter?"
"It is no use putting to death the men you have conquered; for their land will, by the laws of nature, breed another generation which will be similar. The character of these men is determined by the nature of the air of their country and the waters they habitually drink. The best course for you is to accept them as they are, and to seek to accommodate them to your concepts by winning them over through kindness."
The Arab invasion of Persia burned every single library in the land, so little is known about the ancient Persian philosophy. But in 2005, the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy ranked Zarathustra number two in the chronology of philosophical events. It is known that the Persian culture had influence on the creation of Stoic school of thought in Greece. We also know that great philosophers like Socrates have taken trips around Persia.
The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was a brilliant student of classical philology. His studies of classical philology and his deep immersion in Greek and Latin literature also introduced him to the ancient history of Persia.
Nietzsche expressed more than once his admiration for Persian philosophy and his radical opposition to Greek metaphysical thought, as developed by Socrates and Plato, and its later prevalence in Western world through the supremacy of Greek culture within the Roman Empire. In a posthumously published note, he wrote: "It would have been much more fortunate had the Persians become masters of the Greeks, rather than have the Romans of all people assume that role."
Nietzsche praised Persians for their mastery of archery and horsemanship, their war-like imperiousness, and their emphasis on the virtue of truthfulness. So it was Alexander who benefited from the mastery of Persian soldiers and their culture.
After my post about Alexander, I responded to Eugenio Battaglia why I consider Alexander a butcher, but our esteemed editor felt that my writing was not appropriate for the WAIS audience. I suggest that anyone who feels that Alexander was a great man should read about the atrocities committed by Alexander in "The Battle of the Persian Gate" in Susa and several battles in India such as "Siege of Aornos" and the "Conquest of Malli."
JE comments: I don't recall censoring any post about Alexander--but I apologize for offending Massoud Malek. Massoud raises a crucial hypothetical: suppose the Greeks had been defeated by the Persians? If so, what would the the "West" look like now?
And what exactly did Zarathustra say...? (That was my attempt at a joke.)
Alexander and Eskandar
(Eugenio Battaglia, Italy
08/25/15 3:31 AM)
I extremely enjoyed Massoud Malek's 24 August post on Alexander the Great (the Criminal?); however I do not recall having been involved in any discussion on the Macedonian Conqueror.
Massoud's post is the best example of what history really is: a long series of words related to how the facts happened, not according to the truth, but rather according to what the victors wanted. On top of that there are the different visions of different peoples and of their cultures. The funniest thing is to compare the history books of schools in the various countries.
Just one poignant example: Churchill and FDR in the Western World are morality and the rightness personified (see Robert Whealey, 24 August), but for some they were just lying criminals. The former was even a racist and poison gas lover.
I have a question for Massoud Malek: has it not been a huge misfortune for the millennial Persian culture to be partially absorbed/obscured by the Muslim culture?
JE comments: Massoud Malek has already answered this last question in the affirmative. One thing I've learned during nine years as WAIS editor: Iranians have never made peace with foreign aspect of their culture's Islamization.
Long before Eugenio Battaglia became a WAISer, Prof. Hilton proposed the Comparative History Textbook project. It's been on hold for several years, but maybe it's due for revival?
- Alexander's "Greatness" (Enrique Torner, USA 08/25/15 7:29 AM)
Did you know that on yesterday's date (August 24) in 1814, the British captured and burned the White House in Washington? It is the only time in American history until September 11, 2001, that the national capital was under attack from a foreign enemy. President Madison was not in Washington at the time, but his wife Dolley was. She had to escape from the British soldiers, and the one thing she took with her was a portrait of George Washington. She still is considered one of our country's most interesting First Ladies!
You can read more about this historic day in the following link:
By the way, I'm glad Massoud Malek enjoyed my post on Alexander! I really appreciate his saying that. The problem we have is the meaning of the word "great." These are Merriam-Webster's definitions:
adjective ˈgrāt, Southern also ˈgre(ə)t
Definition of GREAT
1a: notably large in size: huge
b: of a kind characterized by relative largeness--used in plant and animal namesc: elaborate, ample
2a: large in number or measure: numerous b: predominant
3: remarkable in magnitude, degree, or effectiveness
4: full of emotion
5a: eminent, distinguished b: chief or preeminent over others--often used in titles c: aristocratic, grand
6: long continued
7: principal, main
8: more remote in a family relationship by a single generation than a specified relative
9: markedly superior in character or quality; especially: noble
10a: remarkably skilled b: marked by enthusiasm : keen
11: used as a generalized term of approval
In my opinion, Alexander was "great" with the meaning of "remarkably skilled" in the art of war. That doesn't mean he was a "good" person, as he also committed some horrible deeds, as I mentioned in my previous post. For example, if somebody said that Dr. Peres is a great teacher, and then somebody else said "But he is a criminal!" that would not imply that he is a bad teacher!
I will address other assertions by Massoud in future comment, because they have way too much fodder to discuss. To leave you in suspense, I will say that the letters he quotes between Alexander and Aristotle are spurious. More on this in a later post.
JE comments: It's great to be Great. Strong cases could be made for taking away the Greatness of Alexander, as well as Peter, Catherine and Frederick. This is all beside the point: these historical figures are all known by their sobriquets. Ditto for Philip the Fair, Ivan the Terrible, and Juana la Loca (I prefer her English variant: Joan the Mad).
Another Royal Sobriquet
(David Duggan, USA
08/25/15 4:19 PM)
To add to John E's list of royal Greats, there's Charles the Bald (king of France in the 9th Century).
JE comments: The Fair, The Terrible, The Bald: we should assemble a full list.
How about this one for Prince William's little brother: Harry the Hirsute?
Ready (or Unready) for Another Royal Sobriquet?
(Robert Gibbs, USA
08/26/15 8:29 AM)
I cannot remember the spelling exactly, but how about Ethelred the Unready?
JE comments: Yes, it's Ethelred (Æthelred). A brush with Wikipedia and we learn that the 10th-century English king wasn't so much unready as "ill-advised" (unræd in Old English).
The next epithet comes from Sasha Pack. Good times.
- Another Royal Sobriquet, in Brief (Sasha Pack, USA 08/26/15 9:12 AM)
Not to pile on, but my favorite royal sobriquet is Pépin le Bref (sometimes infelicitously translated as Pippin the Short), an ancestor of Charles the Bald, son of Charles Martel and father of Charlemagne.
According to Wikipedia, Charles the Bald was in fact quite hairy, so we know the Carolingians understood irony.
Evidently, many of these nicknames, including Pépin's, were only added by subsequent historians of the XI and XII centuries. It seems that Pippin's nickname may have referred to rumors about his size, but it is difficult to disentangle this explanation from the motive of contrasting him from his father, the Hammer, and his son, the Great. There are various theories along these lines, and interested WAISers who read French might enjoy this:
JE comments: It's tough on the self-esteem to come between The Hammer and The Great. But as Sasha Pack points out, many of these sobriquets were coined by later historians. Æthelred wasn't "Unready" until a century or two after his death.
- Alexander and Eskandar, "Secreta Secretorum" (Enrique Torner, USA 01/02/16 7:00 AM)
Now that the fall semester and Christmas are over, I am going to finish a post that I had started a couple of months ago to address Massoud Malek's post of August 24 on Alexander.
In that post, he quoted written correspondence between Aristotle and Alexander the Great. The link he included where those letters are states that this is a "purported exchange of letters between Aristotle and Alexander" that was included in a book entitled "Secret of Secrets." This is the only book where you can find these letters: these letters were not written by Aristotle and Alexander the Great. This book is an English translation of the Latin version "Secretum" or "Secreta Secretorum," which is a Latin translation of the Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, fully the Book of the Science of Government, on the Good Ordering of Statecraft. The Arabic version was composed in the 9th century a.D. by a well-known translator of that time, Yahyá ibn Bitriq. This treatise claims to be a translation of the Syriac translation of the original Greek text. However, no Greek original exists, nor any notice of its existence. The Latin translation was made in the 12th century by Johannes Hispalensis, of which about 150 copies have been preserved. It was extremely popular and influential in Europe during the Middle Ages, probably because of the subject matters: alchemy, medicine, statecraft, ethics, astrology, etc. It was translated into many European languages. It was especially popularized by Arabic countries in the Middle Ages and beyond in order to promote a negative view of Alexander the Great, and, in view of Massoud's comments, it seems that this view has become even stronger through the ages up until today. You can buy this treatise on Amazon, where the author is stated as "pseudo Aristotle." However, you can read it for free online. Here are the links to both:
If you are interested in the history of this interesting but fraudulent book, here is another website that explains it, even including pictures of pages of the original Arabic treatise:
No matter where you look this book up, all authors agree with the fact that neither Aristotle nor Alexander the Great wrote those letters. A final anecdote about the book: I asked a colleague in philosophy about this book, and he had never heard of it! He found its content (from what I was telling him and checking out the book on Amazon) extremely interesting and amusing.
Regarding the greatness of Alexander, I earlier mentioned that I am particularly impressed at Alexander's abilities as commander of his army. To begin with, unlike military leaders from other countries, he was always extremely involved in the fighting, leading from the front, to the point that his own soldiers rebuked him for placing his own life in extreme danger. No wonder he was wounded on several occasions! Alexander, though he was the king, considered himself equal to his soldiers, training along with them, and encouraging them with his courage. He sacrificed himself for his own soldiers to the point of, once, while crossing a desert, while everybody was dying of thirst, his soldiers found a little water, and brought it to him in a helmet as a special privilege, before letting anybody else drink. To everybody's astonishment, Alexander took the helmet, and dumped the water on the ground, refusing to drink and thus receive a special privilege. This courageous action inspired his troops to cheer up and keep fighting forward!
Regarding fighting techniques, Alexander inherited his father's troops, which had been trained to be the among the finest in the world. Philip is credited with the invention of the "sarissa," a very long lance whose length went from 13 to 23 feet. Alexander took advantage of that and taught his troops many new war techniques, including the method of encirclement, with which the soldiers surrounded the enemy using a circle, preventing them all from escaping, and allowing them to kill or capture all the enemy troops. Another amazing skill Alexander had was that of being able to move his troops at incredible speed. The way he managed it was by avoiding the use of chariots or wagons to transport all their provisions, tools, armor, or whatever they were carrying. Instead, he had his men carry everything on their own horses. Whenever more speed was needed, he would have some of his men give their load to others so they could ride faster. This was seen in Alexander's furious pursuit of Darius after the taking of Persepolis. Darius was then in Ecbatana, and he was thinking of fleeing into the Caspian Gates and onto Bactria. Alexander pushed his men over 20 miles a day past hills and scattered oases in an attempt to catch up before Darius could flee. He did this for two weeks. Then, when he was almost in Ecbatana, he received news that Darius had already left for the Caspian Gates with a huge treasure of gold to be able to bribe anybody. Alexander became so enraged that he set out from Ecbatana after Darius with a strong but fast-moving force of cavalry and infantry. Many of his men fell behind as he rushed through through the highlands. The horses were pushed so hard that they began to die. Then, he found out that Bessus, the satrap of Bactria and kinsmen of Darius, had arrested Darius with the support of another satrap and were fleeing with him. Alexander's response was to strip down his troops even more and pursue Bessus with a smaller, faster force of horsemen and picked infantry. He traveled all night and stopped only at noon, when his men and horses were exhausted. He had reached the camp where Darius had been arrested. Bessus wanted a pact with Alexander: he would surrender king Darius in exchange for favorable terms. Otherwise, they would face them in Bactria. Alexander asked the locals if there was any shortcut through the desert by which he could overtake Bessus. They told him that there was a waterless route traveled only rarely by camel caravans. Alexander got rid of 500 exhausted cavalry, and put his most fit infantry on their horses, setting off at full speed. With this small force he covered almost 50 miles in the darkness of the night, and, at last, he saw the Persians in the distance at dawn. Most of the Persians fled in panic when they saw the Macedonians closing in, though they far outnumbered Alexander's men. With Alexander almost on top of him, Bessus stabbed Darius with a spear, leaving him for dead. Alexander reached Darius just before his death. He was, after all, late to prevent Bessus's treason. But, what about that speed?
Another important factor for his great victories was an incredible group of engineers. These men were among the best engineers in the Mediterranean world, and were able to build bridges, siege towers, sophisticated battering rams, catapults, and many other edifices and weapons with amazing perfection and speed, while putting themselves in danger. The epitome of their abilities was seen in their construction of a causeway to allow the Greek soldiers to reach and capture the island of Tyre. The siege of Tyre lasted seven months. During the siege, the Tyrians destroyed the causeway with fireballs and other weapons, injuring and killing some of the Greek soldiers. However, Alexander didn't give up and had his engineers rebuild another one, this time with a huge siege tower which had catapults in it, as well as archers on top of the tower. At the same time, he bought ships from nearby ports, and had them attack the island from different angles.
However, Alexander's best quality, in my opinion, was that of being the best strategist, leader, and soldier ever. He was the three at the same time, which is rare for a king. Most kings in history have not been at the forefront of the battles, but rather distant from the action. Alexander's main objective was rare and very difficult to achieve: to appropriate Darius's empire and win the acceptance of the Persian population. In order to achieve this, his goals were: 1) to conquer and destroy the enemy's armed forces; 2) to get possession of the material elements of aggression, and of the other sources of existence of the hostile army; and 3) to win over public opinion. In order to achieve these objectives, he established five strategical principles: 1) to employ all the forces available with the utmost energy; 2) to concentrate his forces at the point where the decisive blows had to be struck; 3) do everything as speedily as possible to gain public opinion; 4) surprise, the most powerful element of victory; and 5) to follow up the success gained with the utmost energy. The pursuit of the enemy when defeated is the only means of gathering up the fruits of victory.
Finally, a tool that helped him achieve his victories was his intelligence service, which was one of the best in Antiquity. He would direct them ahead of the forces and to different parts of the surrounding area to get a good understanding of the position of the enemy, their resources, and all kinds of pieces of information that he could use in their attack.
I could spend a much longer time explaining the amazing ways in which Alexander was able to win the different Persian wars, but I'd better stop for now.
I wish all WAISers a Happy New Year! May it bring you good health, joy, and prosperity, to you and your family!
JE comments: We can certainly understand why Alexander is "Great" from the Greco-Roman point of view, but not from the Persian. My thanks to Enrique Torner for this excellent history lesson. I'm especially intrigued by the "Secreta Secretorum," about which I knew nothing. What are some of the other great literary hoaxes? Remember the bogus Hitler diaries from the early 1980s?
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- Alexander's "Greatness" (Enrique Torner, USA 08/25/15 7:29 AM)
- Alexander and Eskandar (Massoud Malek, USA 08/24/15 8:33 AM)