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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Death, Character, and Work of Alexander the Great
By George Grote (1794–1871)
From ‘A History of Greece’

THE INTENSE sorrow felt by Alexander for the death of Hephæstion—not merely an attached friend, but of the same age and exuberant vigor as himself—laid his mind open to gloomy forebodings from numerous omens, as well as to jealous mistrust even of his oldest officers. Antipater especially, no longer protected against the calumnies of Olympias by the support of Hephæstion, fell more and more into discredit; whilst his son Kassander, who had recently come into Asia with a Macedonian reinforcement, underwent from Alexander during irascible moments much insulting violence. In spite of the dissuasive warning of the Chaldean priests, Alexander had been persuaded to distrust their sincerity and had entered Babylon, though not without hesitation and uneasiness. However, when after having entered the town he went out of it again safely on his expedition for the survey of the lower Euphrates, he conceived himself to have exposed them as deceitful alarmists, and returned to the city with increased confidence for the obsequies of his deceased friend.  1
  The sacrifices connected with these obsequies were on the most prodigious scale. Victims enough were offered to furnish a feast for the army, who also received ample distributions of wine. Alexander presided in person at the feast, and abandoned himself to conviviality like the rest. Already full of wine, he was persuaded by his friend Medius to sup with him, and to pass the whole night in yet further drinking, with the boisterous indulgence called by the Greeks Kômus or Revelry. Having slept off his intoxication during the next day, he in the evening again supped with Medius, and spent the second night in the like unmeasured indulgence. It appears that he already had the seeds of a fever upon him, which was so fatally aggravated by this intemperance that he was too ill to return to his palace. He took the bath, and slept in the house of Medius; on the next morning he was unable to rise. After having been carried out on a couch to celebrate sacrifice (which was his daily habit), he was obliged to lie in bed all day. Nevertheless he summoned the generals to his presence, prescribing all the details of the impending expedition, and ordering that the land force should begin its march on the fourth day following, while the fleet, with himself aboard, would sail on the fifth day. In the evening he was carried on a couch across the Euphrates into a garden on the other side, where he bathed and rested for the night. The fever still continued, so that in the morning, after bathing and being carried out to perform the sacrifices, he remained on his couch all day, talking and playing at dice with Medius; in the evening he bathed, sacrificed again, and ate a light supper, but endured a bad night with increased fever. The next two days passed in the same manner, the fever becoming worse and worse; nevertheless Alexander still summoned Nearchus to his bedside, discussed with him many points about his maritime projects, and repeated his order that the fleet should be ready by the third day. On the ensuing morning the fever was violent; Alexander reposed all day in a bathing-house in the garden, yet still calling in the generals to direct the filling up of vacancies among the officers, and ordering that the armament should be ready to move. Throughout the two next days his malady became hourly more aggravated. On the second of the two, Alexander could with difficulty support the being lifted out of bed to perform the sacrifice; even then, however, he continued to give orders to the generals about the expedition. On the morrow, though desperately ill, he still made the effort requisite for performing the sacrifice; he was then carried across from the garden-house to the palace, giving orders that the generals and officers should remain in permanent attendance in and near the hall. He caused some of them to be called to his bedside; but though he knew them perfectly, he had by this time become incapable of utterance. One of his last words spoken is said to have been, on being asked to whom he bequeathed his kingdom, “To the strongest;” one of his last acts was to take the signet ring from his finger, and hand it to Perdikkas.  2
  For two nights and a day he continued in this state, without either amendment or repose. Meanwhile the news of his malady had spread through the army, filling them with grief and consternation. Many of the soldiers, eager to see him once more, forced their way into the palace and were admitted unarmed. They passed along by the bedside, with all the demonstrations of affliction and sympathy; Alexander knew them, and made show of friendly recognition as well as he could, but was unable to say a word. Several of the generals slept in the temple of Serapis, hoping to be informed by the god in a dream whether they ought to bring Alexander into it as a suppliant to experience the divine healing power. The god informed them in their dream that Alexander ought not to be brought into the temple; that it would be better for him to be left where he was. In the afternoon he expired,—June, 323 B.C.,—after a life of thirty-two years and eight months, and a reign of twelve years and eight months.  3
  The death of Alexander, thus suddenly cut off by a fever in the plenitude of health, vigor, and aspirations, was an event impressive as well as important in the highest possible degree, to his contemporaries far and near. When the first report of it was brought to Athens, the orator Demadês exclaimed, “It cannot be true: if Alexander were dead, the whole habitable world would have smelt of his carcass.” This coarse but emphatic comparison illustrates the immediate, powerful, and wide-reaching impression produced by the sudden extinction of the great conqueror. It was felt by each of the many remote envoys who had so recently come to propitiate this far-shooting Apollo, by every man among the nations who had sent these envoys,—throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa, as then known,—to affect either his actual condition or his probable future. The first growth and development of Macedonia, during the twenty-two years preceding the battle of Chæroneia, from an embarrassed secondary State into the first of all known powers, had excited the astonishment of contemporaries and admiration for Philip’s organizing genius. But the achievements of Alexander during his twelve years of reign, throwing Philip into the shade, had been on a scale so much grander and vaster, and so completely without serious reverse or even interruption, as to transcend the measure not only of human expectation, but almost of human belief. The Great King (as the King of Persia was called by excellence) was and had long been the type of worldly power and felicity, even down to the time when Alexander crossed the Hellespont. Within four years and three months from this event, by one stupendous defeat after another, Darius had lost all his western empire, and had become a fugitive eastward of the Caspian Gates, escaping captivity at the hands of Alexander only to perish by those of the satrap Bessus. All antecedent historical parallels—the ruin and captivity of the Lydian Crœsus, the expulsion and mean life of the Syracusan Dionysius, both of them impressive examples of the mutability of human condition—sank into trifles compared with the overthrow of this towering Persian Colossus. The orator Æschinês expressed the genuine sentiment of a Grecian spectator when he exclaimed (in a speech delivered at Athens shortly before the death of Darius):—“What is there among the list of strange and unexpected events that has not occurred in our time? Our lives have transcended the limits of humanity; we are born to serve as a theme for incredible tales to posterity. Is not the Persian King, who dug through Athos and bridged the Hellespont, who demanded earth and water from the Greeks, who dared to proclaim himself in public epistles master of all mankind from the rising to the setting sun,—is not he now struggling to the last, not for dominion over others but for the safety of his own person?”  4
  Such were the sentiments excited by Alexander’s career, even in the middle of 330 B.C., more than seven years before his death. During the following seven years his additional achievements had carried astonishment yet farther. He had mastered, in defiance of fatigue, hardship, and combat, not merely all the eastern half of the Persian empire, but unknown Indian regions beyond its easternmost limits. Besides Macedonia, Greece, and Thrace, he possessed all that immense treasure and military force which had once rendered the Great King so formidable. By no contemporary man had any such power ever been known or conceived. With the turn of imagination then prevalent, many were doubtless disposed to take him for a god on earth, as Grecian spectators had once supposed with regard to Xerxês when they beheld the innumerable Persian host crossing the Hellespont.  5
  Exalted to this prodigious grandeur, Alexander was at the time of his death little more than thirty-two years old—the age at which a citizen of Athens was growing into important commands; ten years less than the age for a consul at Rome; two years younger than the age at which Timour first acquired the crown and began his foreign conquests. His extraordinary bodily powers were unabated; he had acquired a large stock of military experience; and what was still more important, his appetite for further conquest was as voracious, and his readiness to purchase it at the largest cost of toil or danger as complete, as it had been when he first crossed the Hellespont. Great as his past career had been, his future achievements, with such increased means and experience, were likely to be yet greater. His ambition would have been satisfied with nothing less than the conquest of the whole habitable world as then known; and if his life had been prolonged, he would probably have accomplished it. Nowhere (so far as our knowledge reaches) did there reside any military power capable of making head against him; nor were his soldiers, when he commanded them, daunted or baffled by any extremity of cold, heat, or fatigue. The patriotic feelings of Livy disposed him to maintain that Alexander, had he invaded Italy and assailed Romans or Samnites, would have failed and perished like his relative Alexander of Epirus. But this conclusion cannot be accepted. If we grant the courage and discipline of the Roman infantry to have been equal to the best infantry of Alexander’s army, the same cannot be said of the Roman cavalry as compared with the Macedonian Companions. Still less is it likely that a Roman consul, annually changed, would have been found a match for Alexander in military genius and combinations; nor, even if personally equal, would he have possessed the same variety of troops and arms,—each effective in its separate way and all conspiring to one common purpose,—nor the same unbounded influence over their minds in stimulating them to full effort. I do not think that even the Romans could have successfully resisted Alexander the Great; though it is certain that he never throughout all his long marches encountered such enemies as they, nor even such as Samnites and Lucanians—combining courage, patriotism, discipline, with effective arms both for defense and for close combat.  6
  Among all the qualities which go to constitute the highest military excellence either as a general or as a soldier, none was wanting in the character of Alexander. Together with his own chivalrous courage,—sometimes indeed both excessive and unseasonable, so as to form the only military defect which can be fairly imputed to him,—we trace in all his operations the most careful dispositions taken beforehand, vigilant precaution in guarding against possible reverse, and abundant resource in adapting himself to new contingencies. Amidst constant success, these precautionary combinations were never discontinued. His achievements are the earliest recorded evidence of scientific military organization on a large scale, and of its overwhelming effects. Alexander overawes the imagination more than any other personage of antiquity, by the matchless development of all that constitutes effective force,—as an individual warrior, and as organizer and leader of armed masses; not merely the blind impetuosity ascribed by Homer to Arês, but also the intelligent, methodized, and all-subduing compression which he personifies in Athênê. But all his great qualities were fit for use only against enemies; in which category indeed were numbered all mankind, known and unknown, except those who chose to submit to him. In his Indian campaigns, amidst tribes of utter strangers, we perceive that not only those who stand on their defense, but also those who abandon their property and flee to the mountains, are alike pursued and slaughtered.  7
  Apart from the transcendent merits of Alexander as a soldier and a general, some authors give him credit for grand and beneficent views on the subject of imperial government, and for intentions highly favorable to the improvement of mankind. I see no ground for adopting this opinion. As far as we can venture to anticipate what would have been Alexander’s future, we see nothing in prospect except years of ever-repeated aggression and conquest, not to be concluded until he had traversed and subjugated all the inhabited globe. The acquisition of universal dominion—conceived not metaphorically but literally, and conceived with greater facility in consequence of the imperfect geographical knowledge of the time—was the master passion of his soul. At the moment of his death he was commencing fresh aggression in the south against the Arabians, to an indefinite extent; while his vast projects against the western tribes in Africa and Europe, as far as the Pillars of Hêraklês, were consigned in the orders and memoranda confidentially communicated to Kraterus. Italy, Gaul, and Spain would have been successively attacked and conquered; the enterprises proposed to him when in Baktria by the Chorasmian prince Pharasmanês, but postponed then until a more convenient season, would have been next taken up, and he would have marched from the Danube northward, round the Euxine and Palus Mæotis, against the Scythians and the tribes of Caucasus. There remained moreover the Asiatic regions east of the Hyphasis, which his soldiers had refused to enter upon, but which he certainly would have invaded at a future opportunity, were it only to efface the poignant humiliation of having been compelled to relinquish his proclaimed purpose. Though this sounds like romance and hyperbole, it was nothing more than the real insatiate aspiration of Alexander, who looked upon every new acquisition mainly as a capital for acquiring more: “You are a man like all of us, Alexander” (said the naked Indian to him), “except that you abandon your home like a meddlesome destroyer, to invade the most distant regions; enduring hardship yourself and inflicting hardship upon others.” Now, how an empire thus boundless and heterogeneous, such as no prince has ever yet realized, could have been administered with any superior advantages to subjects, it would be difficult to show. The mere task of acquiring and maintaining, of keeping satraps and tribute gatherers in authority as well as in subordination, of suppressing resistances ever liable to recur in regions distant by months of march, would occupy the whole life of a world-conqueror, without leaving any leisure for the improvements suited to peace and stability, if we give him credit for such purposes in theory.  8
  But even this last is more than can be granted. Alexander’s acts indicate that he desired nothing better than to take up the traditions of the Persian empire: a tribute-levying and army-levying system, under Macedonians in large proportion as his instruments, yet partly also under the very same Persians who had administered before, provided they submitted to him. It has indeed been extolled among his merits that he was thus willing to reappoint Persian grandees (putting their armed force, however, under the command of a Macedonian officer), and to continue native princes in their dominions, if they did willing homage to him as tributary subordinates. But all this had been done before him by the Persian kings, whose system it was to leave the conquered princes undisturbed, subject only to the payment of tribute, and to the obligation of furnishing a military contingent when required. In like manner Alexander’s Asiatic empire would thus have been composed of an aggregate of satrapies and dependent principalities, furnishing money and soldiers; in other respects left to the discretion of local rule, with occasional extreme inflictions of punishment, but no systematic examination or control. Upon this, the condition of Asiatic empire in all ages, Alexander would have grafted one special improvement: the military organization of the empire, feeble under the Achæmenid princes, would have been greatly strengthened by his genius and by the able officers formed in his school, both for foreign aggression and for home control….  9
  In respect of intelligence and combining genius, Alexander was Hellenic to the full; in respect of disposition and purpose, no one could be less Hellenic. The acts attesting his Oriental violence of impulse, unmeasured self-will, and exaction of reverence above the limits of humanity, have been already recounted. To describe him as a son of Hellas, imbued with the political maxims of Aristotle and bent on the systematic diffusion of Hellenic culture for the improvement of mankind, is in my judgment an estimate of his character contrary to the evidence. Alexander is indeed said to have invited suggestions from Aristotle as to the best mode of colonizing; but his temper altered so much after a few years of Asiatic conquest, that he came not only to lose all deference for Aristotle’s advice, but even to hate him bitterly. Moreover, though the philosopher’s full suggestions have not been preserved, yet we are told generally that he recommended Alexander to behave to the Greeks as a leader or president, or limited chief, and to the Barbarians (non-Hellenes) as a master; a distinction substantially coinciding with that pointed out by Burke in his speeches at the beginning of the American war, between the principles of government proper to be followed by England in the American colonies and in British India. No Greek thinker believed the Asiatics to be capable of that free civil polity upon which the march of every Grecian community was based. Aristotle did not wish to degrade the Asiatics below the level to which they had been accustomed, but rather to preserve the Greeks from being degraded to the same level. Now, Alexander recognized no such distinction as that drawn by his preceptor. He treated Greeks and Asiatics alike, not by elevating the latter but by degrading the former. Though he employed all indiscriminately as instruments, yet he presently found the free speech of Greeks, and even of Macedonians, so distasteful and offensive that his preferences turned more and more in favor of the servile Asiatic sentiment and customs. Instead of Hellenizing Asia, he was tending to Asiatize Macedonia and Hellas. His temper and character, as modified by a few years of conquest, rendered him quite unfit to follow the course recommended by Aristotle towards the Greeks; quite as unfit as any of the Persian kings, or as the French Emperor Napoleon, to endure that partial frustration, compromise, and smart from free criticism, which is inseparable from the position of a limited chief. Among a multitude of subjects more diverse-colored than even the army of Xerxês, it is quite possible that he might have turned his power towards the improvement of the rudest portions. We are told (though the fact is difficult to credit, from his want of time) that he abolished various barbarisms of the Hyrkanians, Arachosians, and Sogdians. But Macedonians as well as Greeks would have been pure losers by being absorbed into an immense Asiatic aggregate….  10
  This process of Hellenizing Asia,—in so far as Asia was ever Hellenized,—which has often been ascribed to Alexander, was in reality the work of the Diadochi who came after him; though his conquests doubtless opened the door and established the military ascendency which rendered such a work practicable. The position, the aspirations, and the interests of these Diadochi—Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleukus, Lysimachus, etc.—were materially different from those of Alexander. They had neither appetite nor means for new and remote conquest; their great rivalry was with each other; each sought to strengthen himself near home against the rest. It became a matter of fashion and pride with them, not less than of interest, to found new cities immortalizing their family names. These foundations were chiefly made in the regions of Asia near and known to Greeks, where Alexander had planted none. Thus the great and numerous foundations of Seleukus Nikator and his successors covered Syria, Mesopotamia, and parts of Asia Minor. All these regions were known to Greeks, and more or less tempting to new Grecian immigrants, not out of reach or hearing of the Olympic and other festivals as the Jaxartês and the Indus were. In this way a considerable influx of new Hellenic blood was poured into Asia during the century succeeding Alexander; probably in great measure from Italy and Sicily, where the condition of the Greek cities became more and more calamitous, besides the numerous Greeks who took service as individuals under these Asiatic kings. Greeks, and Macedonians speaking Greek, became predominant, if not in numbers at least in importance, throughout most of the cities in western Asia. In particular, the Macedonian military organization, discipline, and administration were maintained systematically among these Asiatic kings. In the account of the battle of Magnesia, fought by the Seleukid king Antiochus the Great against the Romans in 190 B.C., the Macedonian phalanx, constituting the main force of his Asiatic army, appears in all its completeness, just as it stood under Philip and Perseus in Macedonia itself….  11
  Moreover, besides this, there was the still more important fact of the many new cities founded in Asia by the Seleukidæ and the other contemporary kings. Each of these cities had a considerable infusion of Greek and Macedonian citizens among the native Orientals located here, often brought by compulsion from neighboring villages. In what numerical ratio these two elements of the civic population stood to each other, we cannot say. But the Greeks and Macedonians were the leading and active portion, who exercised the greatest assimilating force, gave imposing effect to the public manifestations of religion, had wider views and sympathies, dealt with the central government, and carried on that contracted measure of municipal autonomy which the city was permitted to retain. In these cities the Greek inhabitants, though debarred from political freedom, enjoyed a range of social activity suited to their tastes. In each, Greek was the language of public business and dealing; each formed a centre of attraction and commerce for an extensive neighborhood; altogether, they were the main Hellenic or quasi-Hellenic element in Asia under the Greco-Asiatic kings, as contrasted with the rustic villages, where native manners and probably native speech still continued with little modification. But the Greeks of Antioch, or Alexandria, or Seleukeia, were not like citizens of Athens or Thebes, nor even like men of Tarentum or Ephesus. While they communicated their language to Orientals, they became themselves substantially Orientalized. Their feelings, judgments, and habits of action ceased to be Hellenic. Polybius, when he visited Alexandria, looked with surprise and aversion on the Greeks there resident, though they were superior to the non-Hellenic population, whom he considered worthless. Greek social habits, festivals, and legends passed with the Hellenic settlers into Asia; all becoming amalgamated and transformed so as to suit a new Asiatic abode. Important social and political consequences turned upon the diffusion of the language, and upon the establishment of such a common medium of communication throughout western Asia. But after all, the Hellenized Asiatic was not so much a Greek as a foreigner with Grecian speech, exterior varnish, and superficial manifestations; distinguished fundamentally from those Greek citizens with whom the present history has been concerned. So he would have been considered by Sophoklês, by Thucydidês, by Sokratês….  12
  We read that Alexander felt so much interest in the extension of science that he gave to Aristotle the immense sum of eight hundred talents in money, placing under his directions several thousand men, for the purpose of prosecuting zoölogical researches. These exaggerations are probably the work of those enemies of the philosopher who decried him as a pensioner of the Macedonian court; but it is probable enough that Philip, and Alexander in the early part of his reign, may have helped Aristotle in the difficult process of getting together facts and specimens for observation, from esteem towards him personally rather than from interest in his discoveries. The intellectual turn of Alexander was towards literature, poetry, and history. He was fond of the Iliad especially, as well as of the Attic tragedians; so that Harpalus, being directed to send some books to him in Upper Asia, selected as the most acceptable packet various tragedies of Æschylus, Sophoklês, and Euripidês, with the dithyrambic poems of Telestês and the histories of Phlistus.  13

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