Sunday, March 18, 2012

Plutarch - 'Alexander'

Plutach begins writing about Alexander by telling us outright that he isn't giving a full history but rather is 'writing about lives'. He tells us that Alexander was born with a leg up, heir to the king of Macedonia, but that his family life was an uneasy one. His mother was long suspected of being part of a snake cult and was widely distrusted. Eventually his father, Philip, was urged to take a different wife. At one point, Alexander was at risk of losing his share of the throne but his Philip changed his mind.
Alexander was different from an early age. He was absurdly successful. For instance, once his father was thinking of buying an excellent horse. Excellent except that it was too wild for any real use. Alexander simply went forward, diagnosed what was scaring the horse and tamed him. This was his beloved Bucephalas. Philip asked Aristotle to become Alexander's teacher and this sparked a love of philosophy that stuck with him all of his life.
Philip was assasisnated when Alexander was only 20 and he was proclamied king of Macedon. The work that Philip had done to unite the Greek cities came undone and Alexander had to put it back in place. He did so quickly and without much problem. He then turned north and secured his border there, razing the city of Thebes as a lesson to anyone else would oppose him.
Then it was on to Asia and the Persian empire. I won't go into a blow by blow account. Just look at the map above. The word that best fits Alexander's path of conquest is 'epic'. He quickly reduced the Persian empire and conquered it. He moved on and on and only stopped in India because his army grew tired. He was apparently planning on conquering Arabia when he fell ill and died.
Some things stand out in his short life. First of all, he was very decent towards his conquered foes. Plutarch writes of his treatment towards Darius's mother, wife and daughters. After they were captured they were treated with all honors. Alexander worked hard to make them feel safe and prosperous.
Secondly, while Alexander sought fame, he didn't seek wealth. He gave up gold and treasure freely to his men and kept very little for himself. This went so far as to create arguments between he and his mother.
Third (and most interesting to me), he had an abiding love of philosophy and philosophers. He carried a treasured copy of Homer's 'Illiad' with him and kept it under his pillow. When he was in India, he met some of the local wisemen:

In this voyage, he took ten of the Indian philosophers prisoners,who had
been most active in persuading Sabbas to revolt, and hadcaused the Macedonians a
great deal of trouble. These men, calledGymnosophists, were reputed to be
extremely ready and succinct intheir answers, which he made trial of, by putting
difficultquestions to them, letting them know that those whose answers werenot
pertinent, should be put to death, of which he made the eldestof them
judge. The first being asked which he thought mostnumerous, the dead or
the living, answered, "The living, becausethose who are dead are not at
all." Of the second, he desired toknow whether the earth or the sea
produced the largest beast; whotold him, "The earth, for the sea is but a part
of it." Hisquestion to the third was, Which is the cunningest of
beasts?"That," said he, "which men have not yet found out." He bade
thefourth tell him what argument he used to Sabbas to persuade him
torevolt. "No other," said he, "than that he should either live ordie
nobly." Of the fifth he asked, Which was eldest, night orday? The
philosopher replied, "Day was eldest, by one day atleast." But perceiving
Alexander not well satisfied with thataccount, he added, that he ought not to
wonder if strangequestions had as strange answers made to them. Then he
went on andinquired of the next, what a man should do to be
exceedinglybeloved. "He must be very powerful," said he, "without
makinghimself too much feared." The answer of the seventh to hisquestion,
how a man might become a god, was, "By doing that whichwas impossible for men to
do." The eighth told him, "Life isstronger than death, because it supports
so many miseries." Andthe last being asked, how long he thought it decent
for a man tolive, said, "Till death appeared more desirable than life."
ThenAlexander turned to him whom he had made judge, and commanded himto give
sentence. "All that I can determine," said he, "is, that they have every
one answered worse than another." "Nay," said theking, "then you shall die
first, for giving such a sentence.""Not so, O king," replied the gymnosophist,
"unless you saidfalsely that he should die first who made the worst
answer." Inconclusion he gave them presents and dismissed them.

Isn't that wonderful? He was clearly charmed through and through by them.

He died young, of sickness. Plutarch discards the possibility of poison and accounts well of the last days of Alexander. In reading this, it almost appears that as soon as Alexander's eastward push was ended, his life lost meaning but that's almost certainly just a consequence of the timing, rather than a real element of the narrative.
He led a simply amazing, almost unbelievable life.

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