Arts & Culture

How Alexander the Great Became Great, Part 3

The precipitous decline of a virtuous leader
TIMEDecember 16, 2021

Based the earliest surviving historical source on Alexander the Great, Diodorus Siculus (9030 B.C.), we have seen the defining characteristics that made Alexander great over the course of most of his short life. These were his characteristics of building a brotherhood with his men, displaying good manners—even to those he conquered—and having faith in the gods. Now, we will see how these characteristics played out in the final chapters of this hero’s extraordinary life.

The Decline and Death of Alexander

Alexander died at the age of 32, not long after returning from his conquests. There is a great deal of significance in his early demise. It was as if he had been sent to earth for the purpose of these conquests, completed his mission, and departed at an age very similar to that of Jesus Christ, who also died around age 32 or 33.

Most importantly, Alexander’s death perfectly correlates to his violation of all three of his noble virtues: his embracing of brotherhood, good manners, and faith. Once he defeated the Persian Emperor Darius III and effectively conquered the Persian Empire, Alexander’s character gradually changed for the worse.

Alexander had bent his whole life to this one purposeconquest of the worldand with that purpose complete, he saw no reason not to relax and enjoy himself. The only problem was that there seemed to be no compelling reason to stop enjoying himself.

The brotherhood he had with his fellow Macedonians and Greeks was violated when he decided to go conquering farther into India, amassing greater glory for the Persian Empire that he now ruled, but also taking his men farther from their homes.

Alexander’s troops beg to return home from India, in a 1608 illustration by Antonio Tempesta of Florence, Italy. (PD-US)

He also touted his new title, “Son of Ammon,” meaning “Son of God,” which had no significance to his men but only to the Persians.

Diodorus explains: “The Macedonians had not only mutinied when ordered to cross the Ganges River but were frequently unruly when called into an assembly​ and ridiculed Alexander’s pretense that Ammon was his father.”

In this example, too, we see an excess of good manners in pleasing his now fawning Persian public.

Alexander the Great praying in Persia
At the end, Alexander did not honor the gods of his youth. The Persian epic poem “Shahnameh” (written between circa 977 and 1010) describes Alexander the Great in Persia. In this 16th-century edition of the book, he is praying at the Kaaba. (Khalili Collections/CC BY-SA 4.0)

These excesses demonstrated the warping of Alexander’s character and were, in effect, like the overgrowth of cancer cells or the growth of mold—that is to say, a negative increase. He had gone from exercising good manners and respecting the customs of those he conquered to finally adopting them as his own and throwing away those Greek customs that had nurtured him for most of his life. Diodorus makes the changes clear, from taking on the Persian dress to promoting Persians over Greeks, to adopting 360 concubines to expend himself upon:

“It seemed to Alexander that he had accomplished his objective and now held his kingdom without contest, and he began to imitate the Persian luxury and the extravagant display of the kings of Asia.​ First he installed ushers of Asiatic race in his court, and then he ordered the most distinguished persons to act as his guards; among these was Darius’ brother Oxathres.​ Then he put on the Persian diadem​ and dressed himself in the white robe and the Persian sash. … He distributed to his companions cloaks with purple borders and dressed the horses in Persian harness. In addition to all this, he added concubines to his retinue in the manner of Darius, in number not less than the days of the year and outstanding in beauty as selected from all the women of Asia. Each night these paraded around the couch of the king so that he might select the one with whom he would lie that night. … Many, it is true, did reproach him for these things, but he silenced them with gifts.”

Sinking into boundless leisure and what must have seemed degeneracy to his men, Alexander now faced conspiracies and sharp criticism from within. At one point, in a drunken rage, he killed an old soldier named Cleitus who had once saved his life early on. Cleitus had been openly criticizing Alexander for his recent mismanagement.

In a drunken rage, Alexander killed Cleitus who had saved his life six years earlier. “The Killing of Cleitus,” 1898–1899, by André Castaigne. (PD-US)

The situation became so bad that Alexander adopted an army of 30,000 Persians, just in case he needed it to counter his own Macedonians.

Loss of Faith

Finally, Alexander’s faith and piety was similarly warped and effectively lost in the end. At the end of his journeys, his closest friend Hephaestion died, and he decided to hold an incredibly extravagant funeral that concluded with his commanding everyone to sacrifice to Hephaestion as a god, something which he was able to get approved by a local priest:

“Alexander ended by decreeing that all should sacrifice to Hephaestion as god coadjutor.​ As a matter of fact, it happened just at this time that Philip, one of the Friends, came bearing a response from Ammon that Hephaestion should be worshiped as a god. Alexander was delighted that the god had ratified his own opinion, and was himself the first to perform the sacrifice.”

Notice that Alexander was already in the midst of declaring his friend a god to be worshiped when news arrived that the declaration was approved. A close reading reveals that he didn’t really care if there was approval or not. Alexander had now discarded almost any shred of humility in the face of the divine forces he had previously revered.

When approaching the great city of Babylon at the end of his long journey, Alexander was advised by the Chaldaeans that if he did enter the city, he would die there. The Chaldaeans were known for their skill in reading omens. Alexander originally took this very seriously:

“When Alexander, accordingly, learned from Nearchus​ about the Chaldaeans’ prophecy, he was alarmed and more and more disturbed, the more he reflected upon the ability and high reputation of these people. After some hesitation, he sent most of his Friends into Babylon, but altered his own route so as to avoid the city and set up his headquarters in a camp at a distance of two hundred furlongs.”

However, Alexander eventually was persuaded by Greek philosophers, likely catering to convenience and public sentiment, to enter Babylon where he indeed died.

Diodorus suggests most strongly that it was poisoning by those who hated Alexander’s rule that was the real cause. If it was a mosquito carrying malaria that killed him, then we should also note that it was the excess drinking and feasting that likely debilitated his immune system and left him so likely to die from it despite being so young and strong.

A 15th-century romance, “The History of Alexander’s Battles” tells of the poisoning of Alexander. Above he is seated with his queen, and below he is using a feather to try to encourage the elimination of the poison. National Library of Wales. (PD-US)

At any rate, taken as a whole, we learn from most of Alexander’s life of the virtues of brotherhood, good manners, and faith. These powerful traits can lead people into regions previously unthinkable and can plant pillars beneath the roof of a magnificent civilization.

In the last quarter of Alexander’s life, after he achieved his goal, we observe clearly a foil to his earlier life. By tragically displaying the inevitable outcome of violating the virtues of brotherhood, good manners, and faith, the virtues themselves are further illuminated and exalted.

Looking at Alexander’s life in this way gives the fullest and most coherent picture of who he was and how he became great. This, though brief, is the story of Alexander the Great.

All quotes are from Diodorus Siculus.

Part 2 of “How Alexander the Great Became Great” looks at Alexander’s virtues.

Evan Mantyk
Evan Mantyk is an English teacher in New York and President of the Society of Classical Poets.