PLUTARCH: Alexander the Great

PLUTARCH: Alexander

  • Alexander’s father is Philip II of Macedon. Alexander’s mother is Olympias. The night before the consummation of Philip and Olympias’ marriage, Olympias dreamed a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all about, and then were extinguished. After they were married, Philip dreamed that he sealed up his wife’s body with a seal resembling the figure of a lion. However, when Philip discovered Olympias lying with a snake one night, he grew less fond of her, thinking that she was either an enchantress or had commerce with a god.
  • Olympias was wont to dance with many tamed snakes about her.
  • Olympias told Alexander that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon, not Philip.
  • Lyssipios’ statues most accurately represented Alexander. Lyssipios was the only sculptor allowed to sculpt Alexander’s image. Alexander was fair and of a light color with a ruddy face.
  • Alexander was choleric and addicted to alcohol, but was very temperate regarding sex.
  • He looked with indifference, if not dislike, upon Olympic athletes. Instead, he often appointed prizes for tragedians, musicians, and rhapsodists. He delighted in hunting.
  • He desired glory and fame above all else. He wanted to ascend the throne of a kingdom embroiled in wars, which would afford him the opportunity of attaining glory and fame. He did not want his father to leave him a flourishing and settled kingdom in which he would spend his life in inactivity and the mere enjoyment of wealth and luxury.
  • A Thessalian brought the horse Bucephalas to Philip, offering to sell him for thirteen talents. However, when they went to the field to try him, no man could mount Bucephalas because he became very vicious and unmanageable. Alexander asserted that he could tame the horse. Finding that the horse was afraid of his own shadow, Alexander turned the horse to face the sun, and then mounted him. Philip was so impressed with his son that he told him to find out a kingdom equal to and worthy of himself, for Macedonia is too little for him.
  • Philip hires Aristotle, the most renowned philosopher of the time, to tutor Alexander. Alexander is dissatisfied when he learns that Aristotle published books related to the oral doctrines previously reserved for the aristocrats. Alexander states that he would rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of his power and dominion.
  • Alexander loved to learn and read. He laid a copy of Homer’s Illiad with a dagger under his pillow every night.
  • Alexander quelled a rebellion at the age of 16, and displayed his bravery in war by being the first man to charge the Theban sacred band.
  • Olympias, being a jealous and implacable woman, slandered Philip and incited Alexander against him.
  • At the wedding feast of Philip and Cleopatra of Macedonia, Cleopatra’s uncle desired everyone to implore the gods that this marriage union would produce a legitimate Macedonian heir; for Alexander was only half-Macedonian. Alexander exclaimed against the uncle, and then Philip, taking the uncle’s part in this affair, rose from his seat and would have killed Alexander, but he fell because he was drunk with wine. Alexander and Philip later reconciled.
  • Pausanias, indignant at treatment he received at the hands of Attalus and Cleopatra, appealed to Philip for reparation. Philip denied this to Pausanias, who, then enraged, killed Philip. Some believe that Olympias persuaded Pausanias to kill Philip.
  • Alexander attained the throne when he was 20 years old. Alexander attained his desire; for the kingdom was beset with dangers and rebellion. He overthrew the barbarian hordes to the north as far as the Danube. He then fought with Thebes, and only gave mercy to those people who were known to have publicly opposed the Theban rebellion. He was remorseful that he had behaved cruelly to the Thebans, and attributed future calamities in his life, such as the murder of his friend Clitus while drunk, to the vengeance of Bacchus, who was the protector-god of Thebes.
  • While in Corinth, Alexander met Diogenes, who thought so little of Alexander, that when Alexander asked him whether he wanted anything, Diogenes replied that he wanted Alexander to move away because he was blocking the sun. Admiring the greatness of Diogenes, Alexander stated that if he were not Alexander, he would choose to be Diogenes.
  • The Oracle at Delphi proclaimed Alexander invincible after he compelled the Oracle to prophesy about the success of the war on a day which the Oracle was forbidden to do her office.
  • Alexaner embarked on his expedition with around 40,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 cavalry. He was in debt when he left Greece, and gave nearly all his patrimony to his soldiers to cover their expenses. Alexander desired only his hopes for glory and fame.
  • He visited the gravestone of Achilles in Troy, crowned it with garlands, and declared that Achilles was blessed to have so faithful a friend as Patroclus, and so famous a poet as Homer to proclaim his virtuous actions.
  • He then fights a battle with Darius at the so-called gate of Asia, the river Granicus. Clitus saved Alexander in this battle by slaying an enemy that was preparing to stab Alexander.
  • At Gordium, he cut asunder the Gordian knot with his sword. The legend was that whoever untied the Gordian knot would conquer Asia.
  • Alexander captured Darius’ mother and wife in another battle, and promised them that he would provide everything they had been used to receive from Darius.
  • He was very temperate in his eating, often giving fresh fruit and exotic dishes to his friends rather than eat them himself. He usually slept until noon. At night, he delighted in talking and drinking wine. He often boasted.
  • After successfully conquering the city of Tyre, a very precious casket among other treasures was seized. Alexander placed the copy of Homer’s Illiad in the casket. Thus, it is known as the casket copy.
  • He developed plans to build a city in Egypt named Alexandria, and then left the builders to work while he traveled to the temple of Ammon in Egypt.
  • This was a long, distressing, and dangerous journey. Sandstorms, absence of food and water sources, and tremendous heat were a few of the difficulties.
  • The Oracles at the Temple proclaimed that he was the son of Zeus and would conquer Asia.
  • Ichor is the blood of the gods.
  • The greatest battle between Alexander and Darius was at Gaugemela, which is translated into the camel’s house. Darius ordered his troops to stand in battle formation all night, anticipating a surprise attack. Indeed, one of Alexander’s advisors exhorted Alexander to attack at night, but Alexander replied that he would not steal a victory.
  • Alexander slept soundly the night before the battle. His attendants were forced to wake him, so that he could give orders to the troops. Alexander stated that he slept well because he had been relieved from the trouble of searching for Darius.
  • Despite being outnumbered 5 to1, Alexander won the battle, and claimed Asia as his. Darius fled from the battle, but was later discovered on the side of a road, assassinated by
  • Alexander was generous to everyone. Upon seeing a man struggle to carry a treasure chest, Alexander encouraged him and informed him that he could keep the treasure.
  •  Alexander became disgusted when he perceived his army indulging in luxuries. He reproved them for forgetting that the man who labors sleeps more soundly than the man who is labored for. He states that to be voluptuous is the most abject and slavish condition. The most noble and royal condition is to undergo pain and labor.
  • Alexander fought with a lion to inure himself to danger and hardships, and incite others to behave bravely and virtuously.
  • Alexander discovered the assassinated body of Darius. Alexander wept over the body and executed the assassin, Bessus.
  • Alexander adopted many Persian fashions and customs to make the task of civilizing the barbarians easier. Alexander adopted many Persian fashions and customs to make the task of civilizing the barbarians easier.
  • Alexander married a Persian woman named Roxana. The conquered people were delighted to see Alexander choose a wife from among themselves.
  • At a drinking party, some of the company broke into song, criticizing the Macedonian generals who had recently lost battles to the barbarians. The songs infuriated Clitus, who declared that they should not belittle Macedonians while barbarians were present at the party. Alexander retorted that Clitus is embarrassed that the songs appertain to his cowardice in battle. Clitus reminds Alexander that it was his cowardice which saved Alexander in the battle of Granicus, and asks Alexander why he invites freemen, who are used to freely speaking their mind, to sup with him. Alexander would be better served to invite only barbarians and slaves, who will bow to Alexander’s Persian girdle and white tunic. Alexander snatched a spear from one of the guards and ran Clitus through the body. Alexander’s anger immediately vanished. He took the spear out of Clitus’ body, and would have killed himself if the guards did not wrestle the spear from him. He lay weeping all night in his bed.
  • Anaxarchus reproved Alexander, telling Alexander that, as a conqueror and son of Zeus, he is the measure of equity and therefore all his actions are lawful and just. This alleviated Alexander’s grief, but afterwards greatly corrupted his character.
  • At a battle with Porus along the river Hydaspes, Alexander charged across the river alone, twenty furlongs in front of his foot troops. He decided that if the enemy sent cavalry, then he would overmatch them. If the enemy sent foot soldiers, then he could hold them off until his soldiers came.
  • Alexander won the battle against Porus, who was almost 7 feet tall and rode an elephant. When Alexander asked Porus how he wanted to be treated, Porus replied that Alexander should treat him as a king. Accordingly, Alexander allowed Porus to rule a province in India.
  • Bucephalus died after the battle with Porus of old age and fatigue. The horse was thirty years old. Alexander built a city in the horse’s honor, which he named Bucephalia, on the bank of the river Hydaspes.
  • After the battle with Porus, Alexander’s men refused to go any further, and persuaded Alexander to return home. On the way home, Alexander erected deceptive memorials of his expedition to exaggerate his glory with posterity, such as arms larger than were used.
  • Alexander wished to see the ocean. Accordingly, he traveled down a river. He besieged the river city of Mallian. He was the first to scale the wall and land on the other side amidst the enemies. During the battle, he received an arrow wound under the ribs. The doctors later removed the arrow, which was three fingers broad and four long. During the operation he almost died, and was very weak for a long time.
  • He took ten Indian philosopher, renowned for giving very ready and succinct answers, and proceeded to ask them difficult questions, warning them that if their answers were not pertinent and satisfactory, then he would execute them. The oldest philosopher would be the judge of whether the answers were pertinent and satisfactory.
  • Which are more numerous: the dead or the living? The living because those who are dead are not at all.
  • Does the sea or earth produce the largest beast? The earth, for the sea is part of it.
  • Which beast is the most cunning? That beast which men have not yet discovered.
  • What argument did you use to persuade the Indian people to revolt? No other than that he should either live or die nobly.
  • Which is oldest: day or night? Day is older by at least one day.
  • What must a man do to be exceedingly beloved? He must be powerful without making himself feared.
  • How can a man become a god? By doing that which is impossible for men to do.
  • Which is stronger: life or death? Life because it supports so many miseries.
  • How long should a man live? Until death appears more desirable than life.
  • When the tenth philosopher, acting as judge, tells Alexander that each philosopher answered worse than another.
  • Alexander gave them all presents, and dismissed them.
  • One Indian philosopher stated that the great Grecian philosophers such as Socrates erred in nothing except having too great a respect for their country’s laws and customs.
  • Alexander saw the sepulcher of Cyrus, and was disconcerted with thoughts about the uncertainty and mutability of human affairs.
  • He married Darius’ daughter, Statira.
  • When his dearest friend, Hephaestion, died, Alexander crucified the physician and forbade the playing of the lute and dances for a great while.
  • Alexander began to fear that he had lost the gods protection and assistance, and became increasingly paranoid.
  • Alexander contracted a fever and died. Some historians suspect that he was poisoned.
  • Roxana had a son. She also killed Alexander’s other wife, Statira, by sending for her using a counterfeit letter as if Alexander was still alive.

Being more bent upon action and glory than either upon pleasure or riches, he esteemed all that he should receive from his father as a diminution and prevention of his own future achievements; and would have chosen rather to succeed to a kingdom involved in troubles and wars, which would have afforded him frequent exercise of his courage, and a large field of honor, than to one already flourishing and settled, where his inheritance would be an inactive life, and the mere enjoyment of wealth and luxury.

I had rather excel others in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of my power and dominion.

This is real blood flowing, not Ichor.

Those who labor sleep more sweetly and soundly than those who are labored for.

It is the most abject and slavish condition to be voluptuous, but the most noble and royal to undergo pain and labor.

When anybody spoke ill of him, he would be transported out of his reason, and show himself cruel and inexorable, valuing his glory and reputation beyond his life or kingdom.

Nothing gains more upon men than conformity to their fashions and customs.

Is this the Alexander whom the whole world looks to, lying here weeping like a slave, for fear of the censure and reproach of men, to whom he himself ought to be a law and measure of equity, if he would use the right his conquests have given him as supreme lord and governor of all, and not be the victim of a vain and idle opinion? Do not you know,” said he, “that Jupiter is represented to have Justice and Law on each hand of him, to signify that all the actions of a conqueror are lawful and just?

How can a man become a god? By doing that which is impossible for men to do.

Plutarch’s life of Alexander the Great is interesting not only because Alexander was one of the most influential people to ever live, but because Alexander was the pupil of Aristotle. Alexander must have been influenced by Aristotle; and therefore Alexander’s actions and character reflect upon the quality of Aristotle’s teachings.

I admire Alexander’s preferment of labors and hardships over luxuries and bodily pleasures. However, the goal which Alexander hopes to attain through labor and hardships (i.e. glory and fame) is misguided. Although people still remember and read about Alexander today, nearly 2400 years after his death, glory and fame are as transitory and insatiable as any other worldly possession. Indeed, Alexander was not satisfied after conquering the Persian Empire. He wanted to cross the Ganges, and fight a suicide mission against overwhelming numbers of Indian enemies. If his army did not refuse to go further into Asia, and persuade Alexander to return home to Greece, then Alexander would have continued to wage battles until he was either slain or died from some other cause.

I disagree with the preceding paragraph. I believe that glory and fame are the only goals worthy of humanity. For a long while, I have contemplated the answer given by the Indian philosopher to Alexander’s question of what must a man do to become a god. A man must do something which is impossible for men to do. The sentence seems to contain an inherent contradiction. However, I think that we can manipulate the question and answer to rather state what differentiates gods from men. Gods can do that which is impossible for men to do. What is the only thing in the universe of which men are incapable? I do not mean to include flying unassisted by machinery, holding one’s breath under water indefinitely, or any other feat which is impossible for men to accomplish because of physical limitations. I mean that which is impossible for the mind, or rational faculty of man, to do. The mind can imagine magnificent and elaborate scenes, solve complex mathematical problems instantaneously (demonstrated by idiot savants), etc. But the mind is not immortal. When the body dies, or a person is rendered unconscious, the mind ceases to work. How, then, can a mind become immortal, or god-like? The mind must be preserved, and the only way to preserve the mind of a person is for that person to attain glory and fame, so that his actions and thoughts will live forever in the memory of posterity.

As of now, Alexander seems to have attained the status of a god. He is immortal in the sense that his actions and thoughts still are alive because people remember and study him to this very day. But if the human population becomes extinct, and all records of Alexander the great are annihilated and lost forever, is he a god? Whether the answer is yes or no, I cannot help but believe that the only worthwhile goal which a human can strive to attain is not Aristotle’s blessed life, but rather glory, fame, and apotheosis because everything else is illusory and transitory.

Plutarch’s Lives (Modern Library Classics)

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