Thursday, December 11, 2008

Plutarch: The Life of Alexander

The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans is one of those gigantic classics that you fear to approach. Who is this author, and what is he about? His book was the foundation of upper-class education from at least the Renaissance forward, it seems; I have elusive memories of reading that this queen or that, this general or that one, found his ambitions stirred by an adolescence spent with a solitary burning candle and, simply, the Lives.

Yet to turn to more modern appreciations is to learn that, according to our correct worldview and our standards of scholarship, Plutarch had this fault or that, or was secretly laboring under this agenda or another. My Modern Library reprint of the standard 1864 (!) edition warns, loftily as up-to-date scholarship always does, "in reading Plutarch, the following points should be remembered ...." "Not a historian, etc. ... not interested in politics ... careless about numbers ... passion for anecdote ... unsatisfactory and imperfect." I daresay the queens and generals who found inspiration in him simply lit the candle, sat down, and began reading, skipping any Renaissance introductions that warned them what to think.

Plutarch beats his modern critics to the punch anyway, giving them the authority to tell us what they tell us in their prefaces, in the opening paragraph of the Life of Alexander. "It must be borne in mind," he says, "that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men." (His redactor and reviser of 1864, Arthur Hugh Clough, agrees: Plutarch is a moralist, not a historian.)

Very well. The moral tale that Plutarch tells through episodes in the life of the great king, one of the three or four greatest figures in Western history, seems to be one of the youthful, civilized prince wrestling with the corruptions and jealousies stirred up during his spectacular march of conquest against a once-dreaded and still oppressively powerful foe, Persia. Persia was the rich, the decadent, the hateful barbarian east. Alexander of Macedon -- Macedon being, to good Greeks, the rude barbarian north -- lived one hundred and fifty years after Greece's glory days, when Athenians and Spartans and all together fought off Persia's terrifying embrace in battles at Salamis, Thermopylae, and Marathon (think 300). Judging from Plutarch's story, however, there does not seem to have been any immediately pressing reason why Alexander, at the head of a Greek and Macedonian army circa 330 BC, should have ventured forth just now to invade the haunts of long-dead Xerxes. No reason outside the personal, which seems to have suited as the political.

So we begin with Alexander's lineage and birth ("on the sixth of Hecatombaeon, the month the Macedonians call Lous, on the same day that the temple of Diana at Ephesus was burnt"), and his parents' domestic problems. Rumor had it that early on his father Philip, king of Macedon, espied his wife, Alexander's mother Olympia, sleeping beside a huge serpent. This "abated his passion for her." This was a world in which weird things happened and the young grew up fast. Alexander was taming the wild horse Bucephalus, receiving ambassadors, and flinging wine cups at grown men at wedding banquets -- his father married a new wife while Olympia was still around -- when still in his teens.

At twenty, he became king upon his father's murder. The empire that Philip had conquered for Macedon, from the country of barbarian tribes on the Danube to the once-free cities of Greece, saw the chance and revolted. And Alexander, in bringing them all to heel, began the military career that ended only with his death in distant Babylon little more than ten years later.

He moved north first, to give the king of the Triballians "an entire overthrow," and then he moved south and sacked Thebes, killing six thousand and selling a further 30,000 citizens into slavery ("in aftertime he often repented of his severity to the Thebans"). Upon this, Athens and "the Grecians" thought better of any further remonstrances with the young warlord, and agreed instead to join him in his war against the Persians. He ventured east, with an army of at most 43,000 "foot" and three or four thousand "horse," not considered much with which to face great Darius, descendant of Xerxes, king of kings.

The battles between the two civilizations raged at various points in modern day Turkey and Syria. Alexander captured Darius' family, and treated them well. In mid-campaign he felt free enough to venture down the Phoenician coast to Gaza and then into Egypt, where he ordered the founding of the city of Alexandria after dreaming that a Homer-quoting old man told him he should. Returning to the business of battling Persia, he marched east again, rejected a peace offer from Darius, and finally fought things out at Gaugamela. Plutarch records that the Persian forces came down from the Euphrates a million strong. They lost, Darius once again escaping, but only briefly, with his life.

Alexander was now king of Asia. Ancient Persian cities with mellifluous-sounding names, Babylon, Susa, Ecbatana, were his. Plutarch writes of the king gazing at a statue of Xerxes, toppled in the chaos of occupation, and asking himself whether it should be left in the dust as punishment for that monarch having once invaded Greece, or put back "in consideration of the greatness of thy mind and other virtues." He left it.

But then he and his soldiers got rich, proud, and bored. Much of the rest of the Life is a tale of court intrigue, drink, traitorous ambition, and increasingly harsh and unreasonable punishments handed down from an increasingly godlike throne. All those good rough-limbed Macedonians resented witnessing Alexander's gradual adoption of barbarian eastern clothes, and resented also his promotion of young Persian men to high responsibility. At his nadir the king speared a friend to death during a drunken quarrel, and then nearly committed suicide on the spot. There was little remedy for the emotional mess except further marches, always further east, always more activity and more war.

He marched against Parthia, against the Scythians, and finally turned his eyes toward India. When he determined to cross the Ganges, his men refused to follow him any farther. He raged, sulked, and then accepted fate. Now he became a tourist; he traveled only very slowly back west, disputing with captured Indian philosophers, taking months to sail down rivers and visit the ocean, and then proceeding back by land while his fleet hugged the Indian shore. He lost, Plutarch says, three-fourths of his 120,000 man army in India to disease, heat, and famine.

When he reached Persia, he became a kind of celebratory divine tourist. Now it was time to hold banquets for nine thousand guests at a time, to marry Darius' daughter -- although, like father like son, he already had a wife in the mysterious Roxana -- and as usual to break up fights between Macedonian troops and the Persian "dancing boys" who worshiped him as a god. Warned by an augur not to go to Babylon, he went, and there contracted a fever and died after ten days' illness. Plutarch's spinning down of the story is abrupt, professorial, cool. Roxana killed the other wife and threw her body down a well.

The reader is left with the impression that after all Alexander's gigantic, violent life, there would not have been much else for him to do but die young. We can look at him on his deathbed, rather godlike ourselves, and say okay, you're done. Enough killing. But as moderns, we're also unconsciously trained to feel a certain disdain for the personality types who conquer empires from horseback, and inflame the breasts of men reading by candlelight a thousand or two thousand years later. In reality, he was a man you or I would not have dared make eye contact with. One of his own subordinates, later a king of Macedon himself, once had so frightening an interview with him that years later he suffered a panic attack on unexpectedly seeing Alexander's statue.

So it's not the case that his death somehow represents a career exhaustion that he could not have remedied. If Alexander had lived, and kept moving west and homeward, he might have transformed the Mediterranean world even more than he did anyway by the example of his life and by the physical fact of the empire he created being subsequently in the hands of his three best generals and their dynasties. Imagine him living long enough to shape a Mediterranean world in which, who knows? -- there might have been no Rome. It was possible. Who would need a Rome, when there was still an Alexander centuries beforehand, still making really big decisions?

Plutarch doesn't give grand pronouncements or summations of this Life, moralist though he may be. We read of Alexander's physical courage and his military ability for ourselves, just as we read that flattery made him lawless and bad advice made him cruel. Nowhere, in fact, does the author ever call him "the Great." When the story is done, it's done. Next up, at the bottom of the page: The Life of Caesar. "After Sylla became master of Rome, he wished to make Caesar put away his wife, Cornelia ...."

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