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Why Alexander was Great
By his death at 32, the Macedonian prince had built a vast empire and an enduring legacy of heroism Military leader's belief in himself considered `modern way of looking at the world,' writes Olivia Ward
He was born a Macedonian prince in the wild Balkan mountains, but he dreamed of a wider world united in language, commerce and learning.
By the time of his death, at the age of only 32, Alexander the Great had taken control of Greece — the heartland of the classical world — and conquered Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia, the Persian Empire, Asia Minor and part of India. Religious leaders in countries he ruled declared him a god, and his victories made Greek the common language of millions. He planted the seeds of Hellenic learning in dozens of newly founded cities from Macedonia to southern Asia in the third century B.C.
Alexander's heroic legend has lingered through millennia in numerous works of literature, history and art. The latest tribute is an epic film opening next week, Alexander. Starring Colin Farrell, it celebrates "one of the greatest military intellects in history." Next Saturday, Toronto's Macedonian community will highlight Alexander with a two-day festival of culture, tradition and food organized by CHIN radio producer Dragica Belchevska.
Not all of Alexander's legacy is glorious: He has been reviled as a ruthless imperialist, a brutal invader, a "demon," even a violent drunk and sexual predator. But in the annals of human heroism, his name is guaranteed supremacy.
"Alexander is a man so fabled that it's hard to believe he existed," says Joann Fletcher, an archeologist and honourary research fellow at the University of York in England. "He accomplished an amazing amount in a very short lifetime. And he had a modern way of looking at the world: tremendous self-belief which is fundamentally attractive today."
Fletcher, the co-author of Alexander the Great: Son of the Gods, says she was drawn to the subject because "I can't imagine a time when I wasn't aware of Alexander." Like many others who grew up in the shadow of the great classical superheroes, she was inspired by the figure who merged man and myth.
Alexander belongs to the pantheon of real and imaginary heroes who have captivated people throughout history. But in an era that has seen the horrifying effects of hero worship in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and a host of other dictatorships, why is his brand of heroism still revered and the world seeking new heroes?
"For us today, Alexander is appealing because he's part of the culture of youth," says Waldemar Heckel, professor of ancient history at the University of Calgary. "He accomplished a tremendous amount in a short time and died young before he had to live with the consequences."
But the search for the heroic is never-ending, analysts say, because heroes are always in demand as role models from childhood to old age.
"There is a real need in humanity to have and hold heroes," explains Lance Kurke, an associate professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and author of the best-selling management book The Wisdom of Alexander the Great: Enduring Leadership Lessons from the Man Who Created an Empire. "People want to emulate their heroes and their deeds are passed on through history books."
That positive view of heroism inspires today's would-be leaders, from business managers to politicians, community workers, human rights activists, soldiers and captains of industry, Kurke says.
And, he adds, Alexander's example was one for the ages: "He was a human-resource genius. He knew the names of all his soldiers and went out of his way to look after their well-being before his own. He inspired absolute loyalty by paying dowries to soldiers, founding cities to provide homes for them, sharing the wealth and hardships."
Although fabulously wealthy through conquest, Alexander shunned corruption and lived as simply as his troops. "He put his men first, led from the front, and was always in the trenches with his troops in a way that is almost never seen today," Kurke said.
The enduring virtues of courage and daring were also Alexander's hallmarks. When deathly ill after the battle of Tarsus, in modern-day Turkey, he accepted a herbal potion from a skilled physician suspected of plotting against him and recovered against the odds. In the same campaign, his drive and creativity were demonstrated when he cut the famous Gordian knot, winning control of the city of Gordium.
Alexander's personal attributes were contradictory. He was a killer who showed mercy to those who swore loyalty and a clear-thinking strategist whose orgiastic revels spun out of control. But his qualities were also rooted in reality.
That isn't always true of heroes throughout the ages, says British cultural historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Rather, our view of heroes may say more about the dreams of society than the glory of the great.
"Heroes tend to be chosen by the public, rather than self-created," says Hughes-Hallett, author of Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. "What they do have in common is immense energy and self-confidence, and that is widely appealing."
The barbaric violence wrought by modern dictators, she says, has caused revulsion. But in turbulent times, people look on the bright side of the superhero who promises to fulfil a need for security by imposing his own will.
"When people are afraid they look to a strong protector or champion. In different times, they may want one of integrity. But on the whole, heroes are thrown up at a time of crisis, when people respond to self-confidence and a person who takes a firm political stand."
That, Hughes-Hallett says, was clear in the recent American election, in which Senator John Kerry, a decorated war hero but colourless politician, lost to George W. Bush, who had never faced an enemy in battle but presented a feisty, resolute image.
`Heroes are thrown up at a time of crisis, when people respond to self-confidence and a person who takes a firm political stand'
Historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett
"It was interesting to see the extent to which the U.S. candidates were assessed by the public not for their political ability and experience, but for the way they measured up to the ideal of a Homeric hero," she said.
For an anxious public, then, heroism may come down to seduction as much as ability.
"Something that those who have been objects of hero worship know very well is the art of self-presentation. We tend to flatter ourselves that in our era we've invented the public image. But the whole idea of manipulating public opinion through the presentation of politicians predates the modern media," she says.
Alexander the Great was acutely aware of image, historians have found. He strictly supervised portraits done by contemporary artists, and emphasized godlike traits to remind viewers of legends that he was semi-divine. But he also took care to learn the customs and dress codes of each new territory he conquered, to inspire loyalty by showing himself as a man of the people.
The legacy of Alexander, like other conquerors who followed, is under constant debate between those who see him as a great unifier and spreader of civilization, and those who count him among the major mass murderers and colonizers of history. On the whole, says Hughes-Hallett, such superheroes have asserted a "pernicious influence on political life. The more the (voters) are prepared to hand over responsibility to some `great man,' the greater the danger that they will lose their own will to act."
The rejection of compromise that many heroes exhibit is a poor example to people hoping for peace and progress in their own communities, she adds.
Yet the search for the heroic goes on — at an intensifying pace. "The hero industry is in massive overdrive," says California-based media critic Norman Solomon, co-author of Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You. "Among politicians, heroism has become a holy grail."
In post-9/11 America, Solomon says, patriotism, heroism and the military are all bound up in the public mind and boosted by a "multiplier effect" supplied by the media. "The spin machine fills the (leadership) vacuum."
But even before the trauma of the terrorist bombings, media images were powerful enough to make American voters confuse illusion and reality, he adds. Ronald Reagan, who ended his presidency mentally and physically weakened, was still portrayed as a vigorous "great leader" by media playing to a hero-worshipping public.
"The essence of propaganda is repetition. It creates a water-dripping-on-stone effect that's intense."
However, Solomon points out, worshipping at the shrine of a heroic leader also undermines the way in which a democratic political process should work.
"The U.S. political culture is susceptible to heroes, but it's contrary to the concept of collective action and mass movements. People should work together to organize horizontally rather than vertically, without relying on a hero popping up. Political strength develops from a base that has long-term significance."
Throughout history, including the aftermath of Alexander's short reign, bloody wars of succession took place when leaders ruled unilaterally. In recent times, autocrats like Yugoslavia's Josip Broz Tito and Cuba's Fidel Castro — as well as Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian territories — fought off potential successors as rivals, leaving their people poorly prepared for the future.
Alexander himself left no direct heirs, as his only two known sons were both murdered in the power struggle that followed his death. His conquered territories fell under the rule of separate dynasties and eventually crumbled: a bleak testament to the hubris of empire.
But Alexander's heroic legacy lives on regardless.
"It changes from generation to generation," says Heckel, a specialist in war and conquest in the ancient world. "In the early part of the 20th century, Alexander was depicted as a good Christian Englishman spreading love and tolerance. After World War II, he became more Stalin-like. In recent years, he's become a terrible monster."
None of those extreme views are true, Heckel says. Rather, Alexander was a skilled commander who managed to win over his troops and those he conquered.
In his short life as a supreme ruler, he had almost no attempts on his life, and his integrated style of political rule was modern enough to raise the hackles of allies angry to see former enemies brought into the fold as equals.
Unlike some of the would-be heroes who came after him, Alexander did not appear to have believed himself above ordinary mortals, or to have savaged his foes for the sake of proving himself an invincible conqueror. Nor did he think of himself as the icon of a master race: a lesson for the power-seekers of today.
"If he accepted a role as the son of a god, he did it because it was useful," said Heckel.
"If he conquered an empire, he knew that he would have to deal with it later on. His style was to accommodate the population, not to subjugate it through terror. He may not have been a man you'd like to know. But in the ancient world, he was better than most."
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