Whether fictional or factual, there are many splendid flourishes in the tapestry of the history of Alexander the Great. However, they don’t coherently or reliably tell us how Alexander earned this attribute. On their own, they take us down that path of bizarre and pointless triviality, such that all a student today may remember is only one ridiculously insignificant possibility for how Alexander the Great died. (“A mosquito did it!”)
Therefore, it is instructive to turn our attention to the earliest historical source on Alexander the Great, Diodorus Siculus (90–30 B.C.), who was a Greek historian writing centuries before all other surviving sources. From Diodorus, we can reliably find those defining characteristics that truly present to us the story of Alexander the Great.
Alexander seemed to have an incredible sense of connection with his soldiers—call it fellowship, camaraderie, leading from the front, down-to-earthness, or perhaps brotherhood along the lines of Shakespeare’s “band of brothers” in “Henry V.”
At any rate, Alexander perfectly imagined himself as just another soldier in the field, without an ounce of snobby elitism over his men and their views. For instance, when Alexander was preparing to enter Asia and begin his massive conquest of the Persian Empire, his advisers stopped him and advised him to first produce an heir in case he died. However, he refused on the basis of his men’s perspective. Diodorus writes:
“[They] advised him to produce an heir first and then to turn his hand to so ambitious an enterprise, but Alexander was eager for action and opposed to any postponement, and spoke against them. It would be a disgrace, he pointed out, for one who had been appointed by Greece to command the war, and who had inherited his father’s invincible forces, to sit at home celebrating a marriage and awaiting the birth of children.”
This brotherhood also meant that when it came time for battle, Alexander often rushed to the front line. He displayed exactly the bravery that he would hope his lowest of soldiers to display. There are multiple examples of this, but one particular incident stands out in which Alexander was the first to scale the wall of an Indian city that his forces were besieging. Once he entered the city, he found himself surrounded on all sides by enemies.
“The Indians did not dare to come within his reach, but flung javelins and shot arrows at him from a distance. He was staggering under the weight of their blows when the Macedonians raised two ladders and swarmed up in a mass, but both broke and the soldiers tumbled back upon the ground. Thus the king [Alexander] was left alone. … As the Indians thronged about him, he withstood their attack undismayed. He protected himself on the right by a tree which grew close by the wall and on the left by the wall itself and kept the Indians off, displaying such courage as you would expect from a king who had his record of achievement. He was eager to make this, if it were the last feat of his life, a supremely glorious one. He took many blows upon the helmet, not a few upon the shield. Eventually he was struck by an arrow below the breast and fell upon one knee, overborne by the blow.”
The wound was indeed a serious one, but Alexander was rescued and later recovered. It was this kind of just-one-of-the-guys attitude that commanded the absolute loyalty of his men as they ventured deep into lands they had only heard of in stories and legends.
Through the modern lens, it seems an oxymoron to praise a conqueror for good manners. However, for all of recorded history, war and military conflicts have been a simple fact of human life. Then, since war is a given, those who display uncommonly abundant chivalry, courtesy, refinement of conduct, and what we would today call good manners in war are what we should celebrate. This is the case with Alexander the Great.
Alexander’s chief rival was the Persian Emperor Darius III. Once Alexander defeated Darius, he came into possession of all of Darius’s immediate family while Darius himself fled. Alexander might have executed them, imprisoned them, exiled them, or reduced them to commoners. On the contrary, he treated Darius’s mother as if she were his own and made sure that she and Darius’s wife were treated with the exact same status as they had enjoyed before. Diodorus records:
“[Alexander] decked her with her royal jewelry and restored her to her previous dignity, with its proper honors. He made over to her all her former retinue of servants which she had been given by Darius and added more in addition not less in number than the preceding. He promised to provide for the marriage of the daughters even more generously than Darius had promised and to bring up the boy as his own and to show him royal honor. … As to the wife of Darius, he said that he would see that her dignity should be so maintained that she would experience nothing inconsistent with her former happiness. He added many other assurances of consideration and generosity, so that the women broke out into uncontrolled weeping, so great was their unexpected joy.”
Speaking of this episode, Diodorus leaves us with his own commentary: “In general I would say that of many good deeds done by Alexander there is none that is greater or more worthy of record and mention in history than this.”
And Alexander was so true to his word in taking care of Darius’s mother that she looked at him as a son and was horrified when he died so young. This saddened her so much that she refused to eat and died five days after he died.
Lastly, when Alexander did find Darius, he treated his corpse honorably and gave it a royal funeral. This was the proper way for Alexander to treat his fellow royalty. Or as we might say today, it was the decent and classy thing to do.
Finally, the third defining characteristic of Alexander’s greatness was his faith. This might variously be called piety, or belief in the divine and the supernatural. At any rate, Alexander was always shown to pay due respect to the ancient Greek gods as well as the Egyptian god Ammon, and to pay attention to omens—that is, signs from heaven communicated through priests, prophets, and natural phenomena.
For instance, before his great conquest of the Persian Empire was to begin, “He made lavish sacrifices to the gods at Dium in Macedonia and held the dramatic contests in honor of Zeus and the Muses. … He celebrated the festival for nine days, naming each day after one of the Muses.”
The Muses were daughters of Zeus, the Greek god of the sky, and were goddesses in charge of the arts. They inspired dance, music, and poetry. (In fact, the word “music” derives from their name.)
When Alexander reached the limits of his vast campaign in India, beyond the Persian border, he again paid his respects: “He first erected altars of the twelve gods each fifty cubits high.”
When he escaped drowning in a river, he again recognized that his life was in the hands of the gods and related his own fate to that of the half-god Achilles from Greek mythology. Diodorus writes: “Thus narrowly escaping, he sacrificed to the gods as having come through mortal danger, reflecting that he, like Achilles, had done battle with a river.”
Perhaps the most telling is when Alexander visited a temple of Ammon and sincerely questioned his own purpose in life, whether he was meant to conquer the world and if he had successfully punished those who were behind his father’s assassination:
“When Alexander was conducted by the priests into the temple and had revered the god for a while, the one who held the position of prophet, an elderly man, came to him and said, ‘Rejoice, son; take this form of address as from the god also.’ [Alexander] replied, ‘I accept, father; for the future I shall be called your son. But tell me if you grant me the rule of the whole earth.’ The priest now entered the sacred enclosure and as the bearers now lifted the god and were moved according to certain prescribed sounds of the voice, the prophet cried that of a certainty the god had granted him his request, and Alexander spoke again: ‘The last, O spirit, of my questions now answer; have I punished all those who were the murderers of my father or have some escaped me?’”
We see from this that Alexander put his complete trust in a prophet with whom he was unacquainted. It suggests a great deal of humility and piety from someone who is, at this point, the king of the world.
The final chapters of Alexander’s life further illuminate faith and his other virtues. That will be looked at next time.
Part 1 of “How Alexander the Great Became Great” looks at Alexander’s great deeds.