The Aim of Life - Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure


Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure and Ambition


Alexander was born in 356 BC. His father, King Philip of Macedonia, had united Greece and had intended to free the Asiatic Greeks from Persian control. He also coveted the riches of the Persian Empire to pay for his professional army. At Philip's death, Alexander first quelled rebellions in Greece and then crossed the Dardenelles1 to start, at the age of twenty years, his 2800 mile journey into Asia.

During his Asian campaigns, Alexander founded or refounded many cities to administer the conquered territories. The greatest of these was Alexandria in Egypt. From these cities, in territories later ruled by Alexander's successors, Greek culture spread and for the next three centuries was dominant throughout much of the Middle East. This hellenisation process lasted until the spread of Roman power towards the end of the first century BC. It all stemmed from the brief career of one man, who died at the age of 33.

Who really was the man known as Alexander the Great? In only thirteen years, between 336 and 323 BC, he earned enough fame to fuel legends down through the ages. Thirteen years of unrelenting drive, of amazing deeds. Here was a young man able to inspire large troops of men to follow him in a whirlwind of conquests that looks like a race against time. Perhaps he knew that fate would not grant him years enough to conquer the whole world, as he could well have attempted. In fact, it has


I. The Dardenelles: An isthmus in present North-West Turkey linking the Aegean Sea with the sea of Marmara.

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

been said that the greatest blessing in Alexander's life was his early death, and his greatest good fortune was that the practical common sense of his followers pre-vented him from crossing the Ganges. Had Napoleon been similarly forced to recognise his limits, his end might have been as great as his beginning.

In Alexande's case, it is remarkable that one of the greatest thinkers in world history, Aristotle, was his teacher. It can safely be assumed that Aristotle gave his pupil an enormous wealth of information and some degree of intimacy with the teachings of Socrates and Plato. Alexander surely must have known that man could attain his highest well-being only by acquiring a knowledge that would lead him to do the right action voluntarily. This was the very teaching of Socrates: "Virtue is knowledge." Alexander also must have learned the ethical doctrine of Aristotle himself, according to whom virtue meant a mean between extremes. Aristotle was the first logician of the Western world and he must have taught his pupil the art and science of reasoning as applied to metaphysics, science and mathematics. The vast encyclopedic knowledge that Aristotle could have put at Alexander's disposal would have made Alexander, if he so chose, a great master of knowledge. Why, we may ask, did this not happen? What exactly was the determining factor that made Alexander a conqueror of lands and men instead of an expert scholar or an illumined sage? Did Alexander ever ask himself, consciously and reflectively, what his aim of life should be? We do not know with any certainty. Considering, however, that he had access to wide fields of knowledge, such a question could hardly have escaped him. But even if he asked this question, did he set about to find an answer?

Physically, he was an ideal youth, good in every sport. He possessed a wild energy that would make him shoot arrows at any passing object, or alight from and remount his chariot at full speed. During campaigns, if the going was slow, he would go hunting alone and on foot and do combat with wild animals, however dangerous. He liked hard work and hazardous deeds. He was usually sober and, apparently, in very good health, since his body was credited with a pleasant fragrance. Beyond the exaggerations of fame and legend, Alexander was certainly quite handsome, with expressive features, soft blue eyes and luxuriant auburn hair.

Alexander is a striking example of what life-force can do in a man. More often than not, human beings are led to their career or their life's work by temperament, by likes and dislikes, and by their inner drives. The life-force in man seeks acquisition, possession, enjoyment, relationship, battle and conquest. It is often instinctive and therefore irresistible. Accordingly, it is not easy for a human being driven by an extraordinary executive power and force of accomplishment to become

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

intellectualised. This does not mean that the intellectualisation of life energy is impossible, but it is evident that the tasks involved in such a process are enormous and extremely difficult.

Alexander was primarily interested in adventure. He was verily a Prince of Air, ready to fly on the wings of time just to discover novelties and unexpected experiences. His ambitions were deep-seated and illimitable. In fact, it seems that his aim of life was determined by the pressure of his ambitions rather than by any rational system of thought or any ethical discipline. He was probably so prodigious that he found it difficult to contain his energy. He brings to mind quicksilver: pursue as you may, he is always one step ahead. He did not like the idea of rest and said that sleep only served to remind him of his mortal condition. So many things to do, so much to learn, so many possibilities.... He brings to mind too the echo of a perpetual galloping on the quickest of horses.... The bursting life-force inside him was quite evidently overwhelming, as was the call of the sirens of adventure and ambition.

Mentally, he was very active and had a passion for study. His intellectual abilities could never be used fully due to the early responsibilities that fell upon him —hence, a lack of maturity of mind. As often is the case with great men of action, he would always regret not having become a great thinker as well. Even after an exhausting day of marching or fighting, he would delight in spending half the night conversing -with scholars or scientists. King at twenty, absorbed in warfare and administration, he had no chance to complete his education. He was brilliant, but prone to errors in politics and warfare. He tended to be excessively superstitious, despite his broadmindedness. Capable of leading armies, of conquering millions of people, he was often unable to control his temper. Generally blind to his own faults or limitations, he too frequently allowed his judgement to be obscured by praise. Similar contradictions can be seen in his moral character. Naturally sentimental and emotional, he could be moved to tears by poetry and music. He was exceptional in friendship, very trusting and warm. He cared for his soldiers and avoided risking their lives needlessly. Besieged cities would often open their gates to him, confident in his reputation for generosity. Yet he could suddenly turn ferocious and resort to excessive cruelty for which he would later feel great remorse.

Despite his youth and lack of experience, he was a good administrator, ruling his empire with kindness and firmness. He respected agreements, and did not allow his appointees to oppress his subjects. He had all the potential of a great statesman, hut was not given enough time to mature in that dimension. He was driven by the

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

vision of a united eastern Mediterranean world and, above all, of a fertile cross-breeding of many cultures under the umbrella of Greek civilisation. This was more an instinctive feeling than a product of reflection. Men like Alexander are often seized by blazing intuitions, but these often get mixed with their more fundamental ambitious drive.

A study of Alexander the Great is instructive in several ways. Firstly, it shorn us what the life-force in man can achieve under circumstances and conditions as favourable as Alexander's, and yet what failures attend unbridled adventure. Secondly, it shows us that the human personality has far richer potentials than is normally suspected. Thirdly, it gives us a chance to understand ourselves better, for though we have a hundred and more limitations, we may discover, if we look closely within ourselves, that there is in us the same life-force as we find in Alexander. In other words, we discover that somewhere within our being we have basic instincts and impulses, a universe of pressing desires, deep-seated attractions and repulsions,  and longings and ambitions.

Had he lived longer, would Alexander have been able to control his wild nature? A better control of his passions probably would have given him a deeper  sense of fulfilment in his achievements. Life-force may be exhilarating, but to attain  superior human realisation it needs to be transformed and put in its proper place along with the other energies that meet in man. No doubt this prodigious young king was faced with a very difficult task in that respect. But the extraordinary profile of  him painted for us by Plutarch may be very instructive when we ourselves are confronted with the quest of our aim of life.



Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

The best likeness of Alexander which has been preserved for us is to be found in the statues sculpted by Lysippus, the only artist whom Alexander considered worthy to represent him. Alexander possessed a number of individual features which many of Lysippus' followers later tried to reproduce, for example, the poise of the neck which was tilted slightly to the left, or a certain melting look in his eyes, and the artist has exactly caught these peculiarities. On the other hand when Apelles painted Alexander wielding a thunderbolt, he did not reproduce his colouring at all accurately. He made Alexander's complexion appear too dark-skinned and swarthy, whereas we are told that he was fair-skinned, with a ruddy tinge that showed itself especially upon his face and chest. Aristoxenus also tells us in his memoirs that Alexander's skin was fresh and sweet-smelling, and that his breath and the whole of his body gave off a peculiar fragrance' which permeated the clothes he wore....

Even while he was still a boy, he gave plenty of evidence of his powers of self-control. In spite of his vehement and impulsive nature, he showed little interest in the pleasures of the senses and indulged in them only with great moderation, but his passionate desire for fame implanted in him a pride and a grandeur of vision which went far beyond his years. And yet it was by no means every kind of glory that he sought, and, unlike his father, he did not seek it in every form of action. Philip, for example, was as proud of his powers of eloquence as any sophist, and took care to have the victories won by his chariots at Olympia stamped upon his coins. But Alexander's attitude is made clear by his reply to some of his friends, when they asked him whether he would be willing to compete at Olympia, since he was a fine runner. "Yes," he answered, "if I have kings to run against me." He seems in fact to have disapproved of the whole race of trained athletes. At any rate although he founded a great many contests of other kinds, including not only the tragic drama and performances on the flute and the lyre, but also the reciting of poetry, fighting with the quarter-staff and various forms of hunting, yet he never offered prizes either for boxing or for the pancration.2

On one occasion some ambassadors from the king of Persia arrived in Macedon, and since Philip was absent, Alexander received them in his place. He talked freely with them and quite won them over, not only by the friendliness of his manner, but also because he did not trouble them with any childish or trivial inquiries, but questioned them about the distances they had traveled by road, the nature of the journey into the interior of Persia, the character of the king, his experience in war, and the military strength and prowess of the Persians. The

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

ambassadors were filled with admiration. They came away convinced that Philip's celebrated astuteness was as nothing compared to the adventurous spirit and lofty ambitions of his son. At any rate, whenever he heard that Philip had captured some famous city or won an overwhelming victory, Alexander would show no pleasure at the news, but would declare to his friends, "Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for you and me to show the world." He cared nothing for pleasure or wealth but only for deeds of valour and glory, and this was why he believed that the more he received from his father, the less would be left for him to conquer. And so every success that was gained by Macedonia inspired in Alexander the dread that another opportunity for action had been squandered on his father. He had no desire to inherit a kingdom which offered him riches, luxuries and the pleasures of the senses: his choice was a life of struggle, of wars, and of unrelenting ambition....

There came a day3 when Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Philip a horse named Bucephalas,4 which he offered to sell for thirteen talents. The king and his friends went down to the plain to watch the horse's trials, and came to the conclusion that he was wild and quite unmanageable, for he would allow no one to mount him, nor would he endure the shouts of Philip's grooms, but reared up against anyone who approached him. The king became angry at being offered such a vicious animal unbroken, and ordered it to be led away. But Alexander, who was standing close by, remarked, "What a horse they are losing, and all because they don't know how to handle him, or dare not try!" Philip kept quiet at first, but when he heard Alexander repeat these words several times and saw that he was upset, he asked him, "Are you finding fault with your elders because you think you know more than they do, or can manage a horse better?" "At least I could manage this one better", retorted , Alexander. "And if you cannot," said his father, "what penalty will you pay for being so impertinent?" "I will pay the price of the horse,"5 answered the boy. At this the whole company burst out laughing, and then as soon as the father and son had settled the terms of the bet, Alexander went quickly up to Bucephalas, took hold of his bridle, and turned him towards the sun, for he had noticed that the horse was shying at the sight of his own shadow, as it fell in front of him and constantly move whenever he did. He ran alongside the animal for a little way, calming him down b stroking him, and then, when he saw he was full of spirit and courage, he quietly threw aside his cloak and with a light spring vaulted safely on to his back. For a little while he kept feeling the bit with the reins, without jarring or tearing his mouth, and got him collected. Finally, when he saw that the horse was free of his fears and

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

impatient to show his speed, he gave him his head and urged him forward, using a commanding voice and a touch of the foot.

At first Philip and his friends held their breath and looked on in an agony of suspense, until they saw Alexander reach the end of his gallop, turn in full control, and ride back triumphant and exulting in his success. Thereupon the rest of the company broke into loud applause, while his father, we are told, actually wept for joy, and when Alexander had dismounted he kissed him and said, "My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions. Macedonia is too small for you."

Philip had noticed that his son was self-willed, and that while it was very difficult to influence him by force, he could easily be guided towards his duty by an appeal to reason, and he therefore made a point of trying to persuade the boy rather than giving him orders. Besides this he considered that the task of training and educating his son was too important to be entrusted to the ordinary run of teachers of poetry, music and general education: it required, as Sophocles puts it

The rudder's guidance and the curb's restraint,

and so he sent for Aristotle, the most famous and learned of the philosophers of his time, and rewarded him with the generosity that his reputation deserved. Aristotle was a native of the city of Stageira, which Philip had himself destroyed. He now repopulated it and brought back all the citizens who had been enslaved or driven into exile.

He gave Aristotle and his pupil the temple of the Nymphs near Mieza as a place where they could study and converse, and to this day they show you the stone seats and shady walks which Aristotle used. It seems clear too that Alexander was instructed by his teacher not only in the principles of ethics and politics, but also in those secret and more esoteric studies which philosophers do not impart to the general run of students, but only by word of mouth to a select circle of the initiated. Some years later, after Alexander had crossed into Asia, he learned that Aristotle had published some treatises dealing with these esoteric matters, and he wrote to him in blunt language and took him to task for the sake of the prestige of philosophy. This was the text of his letter:

Alexander to Aristotle, greetings. You have not done well to write down and publish those doctrines you taught me by word of mouth. What advantage shall I have over other men if these theories in which 1 have been trained are to be made common property? I would rather excel the rest of mankind in my knowledge of what is best than in the extent of my power. Farewell...

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

(Throughout his life, Alexander was to show an interest in "all kinds of learning" and was "a lover of books" thanks to Aristotle's influence. The relationship between Alexander and Philip, his father, took a turn for the worse, probably under the influence of Alexander's mother, Olympias, whose relations with her husband soon became bitter. Alexander was only twenty when Philip was assassinated by a member of his court.)

His kingdom at that moment was beset by formidable jealousies and feuds and external dangers on every side. The neighbouring barbarian tribes were eager to throw off the Macedonian yoke and longed for the rule of their native kings: as for the Greek States, although Philip had defeated them in battle, he had not had time to subdue them or accustom them to his authority. He had swept away the existing governments, and then, having prepared their peoples for drastic changes, had left them in turmoil and confusion, because he had created a situation which was completely unfamiliar to them. Alexander's Macedonian advisers feared that a crisis was at hand and urged the young king to leave the Greek States to their own devices and refrain from using any force against them. As for the barbarian tribes, they considered that he should try to win them back to their allegiance by using milder methods, and forestall the first signs of revolt by offering them concessions. Alexander, however, chose precisely the opposite course, and decided that the only way to make his kingdom safe was to act with audacity and a lofty spirit, for he was certain that if he were seen to yield even a fraction of his authority, all his enemies would attack him at once. He swiftly crushed the uprisings among the barbarians by advancing with his army as far as the Danube, where he overcame Syrmus, the king of the Triballi, in a great battle. Then when the news reached him that the Thebans had revolted and were being supported by the Athenians, he immediately marched south through the pass of Thermopylae. "Demosthenes," he said, "called me a boy while I was in Illyria and among the Triballi, and a youth when I was marching through Thessaly; I will show him I am a man by the time I reach the walls of Athens...."

(Having taken Thebes, which resisted courageously, Alexander set a terrible example by sacking the city. Probably feeling some remorse about this, he showed leniency towards Athens.)

In the previous year a congress of the Greek states had been held at the Isthmus of Corinth: here a vote had been passed that the states should join forces with

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

Alexander in invading Persia and that he should be commander-in-chief of the expedition. Many of the Greek statesmen and philosophers visited him to offer their congratulations, and he hoped that Diogenes of Sinope, who was at that time living in Corinth, would do the same. However since he paid no attention whatever to Alexander, but continued to live at leisure in the suburb of Corinth which was known as Craneion, Alexander went in person to see him and found him basking at full length in the sun. When he saw so many people approaching him, Diogenes raised himself a little on his elbow and fixed his gaze upon Alexander. The king greeted him and inquired whether he could do anything for him. "Yes," replied the philosopher, "you can stand a little to one side out of my sun." Alexander is said to have been greatly impressed by this answer and full of admiration for the hauteur and independence of mind of a man who could look down on him with such condescension. So much so that he remarked to his followers, who were laughing and mocking the philosopher as they went away, "You may say what you like, but if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes."

Next he visited Delphi, because he wished to consult the oracle of Apollo7 about the expedition against the Persians. It so happened that he arrived on one of those days which are called inauspicious, when it is forbidden for the oracle to deliver a reply. In spite of this he sent for the prophetess, and when she refused to officiate and explained that the law forbade her to do so, he went up himself and tried to drag her by force to the shrine. At last, as if overcome by his persistence, she exclaimed, "You are invincible, my son!" and when Alexander heard this, he declared that he wanted no other prophecy, but had obtained from her the oracle he was seeking. When the time came for him to set out, many other prodigies attended the departure of the army: among these was the phenomenon of the statue of Orpheus which was made of cypress wood and was observed to be covered with sweat. Everyone who saw it was alarmed at this omen, but Aristander urged the king to take courage, for this portent signified that Alexander was destined to perform deeds which would live in song and story and would cause poets and musicians much toil and sweat to celebrate them.

As for the size of his army, the lowest estimate puts its strength at 30,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry and the highest 43,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry.8 According to Aristobulus the money available for the army's supplies amounted to no more than seventy talents. Douris says that there were supplies for only thirty days, and Onesicritus that Alexander was already two hundred talents in debt. Yet although he set out with such slender resources, he would not go aboard his ship

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Relentless Adventure

Darius, king of Persia

until he had discovered the circumstances of all his companions and had assigned an estate to one, a village to another, or the revenues of some port or community to a third. When he had shared out or signed away almost all the property of the crown, Perdiccas asked him, "But your majesty, what are you leaving for yourself?" "My hopes!" replied Alexander. "Very well, then," answered Perdiccas, "those who serve with you will share those too." With this, he declined to accept the prize which had been allotted to him, and several of Alexander's other friends did the same. However those who accepted or requested rewards were lavishly provided for, so that in the end Alexander distributed among them most of what he possessed in Macedonia. These were his preparations and this was the adventurous spirit in which he crossed the Hellespont.

Once arrived in Asia, he went up to Troy, sacrificed to Athena and poured

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

libations to the heroes of the Greek army. He anointed with oil the column which marks the grave of Achilles, ran a race by it naked with his companions, as the custom is, and then crowned it with a wreath: he also remarked that Achilles was happy in having found a faithful friend while he lived and a great poet to sing of his deeds after his death. While he was walking about the city and looking at its ancient remains, somebody asked him whether he wished to see the lyre which had once belonged to Paris." "I think nothing of that lyre," he said, "but I wish I could see Achilles' lyre, which he played when he sang of the glorious deeds of brave men."

Meanwhile Darius' generals had gathered a large army and posted it at the crossing of the river Granicus, so that Alexander was obliged to fight at the very gates of Asia, if he was to enter and conquer it. Most of the Macedonian officers were alarmed at the depth of the river and of the rough and uneven slopes of the banks on the opposite side, up which they would have to scramble in the face of the enemy. There were others too who thought that Alexander ought to observe the Macedonian tradition concerning the time of year, according to which the kings of Macedonia never made war during the month of Daesius.10 Alexander swept aside these scruples by giving orders that the month should be called a second Artemisius. And when Parmenio advised him against risking the crossing at such a late hour of the day, Alexander declared that the Hellespont would blush for shame if, once he had crossed it, he should shrink back from the Granicus; then he immediately plunged into the stream with thirteen squadrons of cavalry.11It seemed the act of a desperate madman rather than a prudent commander to charge into a swiftly flowing river, which swept men off their feet and surged about them, and then to advance through a hail of missiles towards a steep bank which was strongly defended by infantry and cavalry. But in spite of this he pressed forward and with a tremendous effort gained the opposite bank, which was a wet treacherous slope covered with mud. There he was immediately forced to engage the enemy in a confused hand to hand struggle, before the troops who were crossing behind him could be organised into any formation. The moment his men set foot on land, the enemy attacked them with loud shouts, matching horse against horse, thrusting with their lances and fighting with the sword when their lances broke. Many of them charged against Alexander himself, for he was easily recognisable by his shield and by the tall white plume which was fixed upon either side of his helmet.

(The battle went on.... Alexander was saved by Cleitus. Finally, the Persians were routed......)

Relentless Adventure

Relentless Adventure

The Persians are said to have lost twenty thousand infantry and two thousand five hundred cavalry, whereas on Alexander's side, according to Aristobulus, only thirty-four soldiers in all were killed, nine of them belonging to the infantry. Alexander gave orders that each of these men should have his statue set up in bronze and the work was carried out by Lysippus. At the same time he was anxious to give the other Greek states a share in the victory. He therefore sent the Athenians in particular three hundred of the shields captured from the enemy, and over the rest of the spoils he had this proud inscription engraved:

Alexander, the son of Philip, and all the Greeks, with the exception of the Spartans, won these spoils of war from the barbarians who dwell in Asia....

(The result of this victory was "a great and immediate change in Alexander's situation ". Many cities made their submission. Alexander marched on and cleared the coast of Asia Minor as far as Cilicia and Phoenicia.)

Next he marched into Pisidia where he subdued any resistance which he encountered, and then made himself master of Phrygia. When he captured Gordium, which is reputed to have been the home of the ancient king Midas, he saw the celebrated chariot which was fastened to its yoke by the bark of the cornel-tree, and heard the legend which was believed by all the barbarians, that the fates had decreed that the man who untied the knot was destined to become the ruler of the whole world. According to most writers the fastenings were so elaborately intertwined and coiled upon one another that their ends were hidden: in consequence Alexander did not know what to do, and in the end loosened the knot by cutting through it with his sword, whereupon the many ends sprang into view....

(Then Alexander wanted to invade the interior. But Darius was marching upon the coast from Susa.)

Darius was encouraged by the many months of apparent inactivity which Alexander had spent in Cilicia, for he imagined that this was due to cowardice. In fact the delay had been caused by sickness, which some said had been brought on by exhaustion, and others by bathing in the icy waters of the river Cydnus. At any rate none of his other physicians dared to treat him, for they all believed that his condition was so dangerous that medicine was powerless to help him, and dreaded the accusations that would be brought against them by the Macedonians in the event of

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Relentless Adventure

Alexander young

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Relentless Adventure

their failure. The only exception was Philip, an Acarnanian, who saw that the King was desperately ill, but trusted to their mutual friendship. He thought it shameful not to share his friend's danger by exhausting all the resources of his art even at the risk of his own life, and so he prepared a medicine and persuaded him to drink it with out fear, since he was so eager to regain his strength for the campaign. Meanwhile Parmenio had sent Alexander a letter from the camp warning him to beware of Philip since Darius, he said, had promised him large sums of money and even the hand of his daughter if he would kill Alexander. Alexander read the letter and put it under his pillow without showing it to any of his friends. Then at the appointed hour, when Philip entered the room with the king's companions carrying the medicine in a cup Alexander handed him the letter and took the draught from him cheerfully and without the least sign of misgiving. It was an astonishing scene, and one well worthy of the stage — the one man reading the letter and the other drinking the physic, and then each gazing into the face of the other, although not with the same expression. The king's serene and open smile clearly displayed his friendly feelings towards Philip and his trust in him, while Philip was filled with surprise and alarm at the accusation at one moment lifting his hands to heaven and protesting his innocence before the gods, and the next falling upon his knees by the bed and imploring Alexander to take courage and follow his advice. At first the drug completely overpowered him and, as it were, drove all his vital forces out of sight: he became speechless, fell into a swoon, and displayed scarcely any sign of sense or of life. However, Philip quickly restored him to consciousness, and when he had regained his strength he showed himself to the Macedonians, who would not be consoled until they had seen their king....

(Alexander won the big battle that followed. Darius was forced to take flight, leaving  behind his mother, wife, daughters and a luxurious tent with many treasures. Alexander behaved in a chivalrous way towards the women, respecting and protecting them contrary to the customs of his time.)

Alexander was also more moderate in his drinking than was generally supposed. The impression that he was a heavy drinker arose because when he had nothing else to do, he liked to linger over each cup, but in fact he was usually talking rather than drinking; he enjoyed holding long conversations, but only when he had plenty of leisure. Whenever there was urgent business to attend to, neither wine, nor sleep, nor sport, nor sex, nor spectacle, could ever distract his attention, as they did for other generals. The proof of this is his life-span which although so short, was

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Relentless Adventure

filled to overflowing with the most prodigious achievements. When he was at leisure, his first act after rising was to sacrifice to the gods, after which he took his breakfast sitting down.12 The rest of the day would be spent in hunting, administering justice, planning military affairs or reading. If he were on a march which required no great haste, he would practise archery as he rode, or mounting and dismounting from a moving chariot, and he often hunted foxes or birds, as he mentions in his journals. When he had chosen his quarters for the night and while he was being refreshed with a bath or rubbed down, he would ask his cooks and bakers whether the arrangements for supper had been suitably made.

His custom was not to begin supper until late, as it was growing dark. He took it reclining on a couch, and he was wonderfully attentive and observant in ensuring that his table was well provided, his guests equally served, and none of them neglected. He sat long over his wine, as I have remarked, because of his fondness for conversation. And although at other times his society was delightful and his manner full of charm beyond that of any prince of his age, yet when he was drinking he would sometimes become offensively arrogant and descend to the level of a common soldier, and on these occasions he would allow himself not only to give way to boasting but also to be led on by his flatterers. These men were a great trial to the finer spirits among his companions, who had no desire to compete with them in their sycophancy, but were unwilling to be out-done in praising Alexander. The one course they thought shameful, but the other was dangerous. When the drinking was over it was his custom to take a bath and sleep, often until midday, and sometimes for the whole of the following day....

(For many years, Alexander continued his campaigns and further and further enlarged his empire. To make submission easier for his subjects, he proclaimed himself a God. He adopted more and more fully the customs and ways of living of the "barbarians", much to the displeasure of many Macedonians. Finally, he set his eyes upon India.)

Alexander was now about to launch his invasion of India. He had already taken note that his army was over-encumbered with booty and had lost its mobility, and so early one morning after the baggage waggons had been loaded, he began by burning those which belonged to himself and the Companions13 and then gave orders to set fire to those of the Macedonians. In the event his decision proved to have been more difficult to envisage than it was to execute. Only a few of the soldiers resented it: the great majority cheered with delight and raised their battle-cry: they gladly shared out the necessities for the campaign with those who needed them and then they helped

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Relentless Adventure

to burn and destroy any superfluous possessions with their own hands. Alexander was filled with enthusiasm at their spirit and his hopes rose to their highest pitch. By this time he was already feared by his men for this relentless severity in punishing any dereliction of duty. For example he put to death Menander, one of the Companions, because he had been placed in command of a garrison and had refused to remain there, and he shot down with his own hand one of the barbarians named Orsodates who had rebelled against him.14

(Certain portents, at first unsettling, were finally considered encouraging. But the campaign was likely to be arduous....)

This was certainly how events turned out. Alexander encountered many dangers in the battles he fought and was severely wounded, but the greatest losses his army suffered were caused by lack of provisions and by the rigours of the climate. But for his part he was anxious to prove that boldness can triumph over fortune and courage over superior force; he was convinced that while there are no defences so impregnable that they will keep out the brave man, there are likewise none so strong that they will keep the coward safe. It is said that when he was besieging the fortress of a ruler named Sisimithres, which was situated upon a steep and inaccessible rock, his soldiers despaired of capturing it. Alexander asked Oxyartes whether Sisimithres himself was a man of spirit and received the reply that he was the greatest coward in the world. "Then what you are telling me", Alexander went on, "is that we can take the fortress, since there is no strength in its defender."

(And, in fact, he did capture it by playing upon the other's fear.)

The events of the campaign against Porus are described in Alexander's letters, He tells us that the river Hydaspes flowed between the two camps, and that Porus stationed his elephants on the opposite bank and kept the crossing continually watched. Alexander caused a great deal of noise and commotion to be made day after day in his camp and in this way accustomed the barbarians not to be alarmed by his movements.15 Then at last on a stormy and moonless night he took a part of his infantry and the best of his cavalry, marched some distance along the river past the enemy's position, and then crossed over to a small island. Here he was overtaken by a violent storm of rain accompanied by tremendous bursts of thunder and lightning. Although he saw that a number of his men were struck dead by the lightning, he continued the advance and made for the opposite bank. After the storm

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Relentless Adventure

the Hydaspes, which was roaring down in high flood, had scooped out a deep channel, so that much of the stream was diverted in this direction and the ground between the two currents had become broken and slippery and made it impossible for his men to gain a firm footing. It was on this occasion that Alexander is said to have exclaimed, "0 you Athenians, will you ever believe what risks I am running just to earn your praise?"...

(Then a very difficult battle followed which was finally won after a stubborn hand-to- hand struggle.)

Most historians agree that Porus was about six feet three inches tall, and that his size and huge physique made him appear as suitably mounted upon an elephant as an ordinary man looks on a horse. His elephant too was very large and showed an extraordinary intelligence and concern for the king's person. So long as Porus was fighting strongly it would valiantly defend him and beat off his attackers, but as soon as it recognised that its master was growing weak from the thrusts and missiles that had wounded him, it knelt quietly on the ground for fear that he might fall off, and with its trunk took hold of each spear and drew it out of his body. When Porus was taken prisoner, Alexander asked him how he wished to be treated. "As a king", Porus answered, and when Alexander went on to ask whether he had anything more to say, the reply came, "Those words, 'as a king' include everything." At any rate Alexander not only allowed him to govern his former kingdom, but he also added to it a province, which included the territory of the independent peoples he had subdued. These are said to have numbered fifteen nations, five thousand towns of considerable size, and innumerable villages. His other conquests embraced an area three times the size of this, and he appointed Philip, one of the Companions, to rule it as satrap....

Another consequence of this battle with Porus was that it blunted the edge of the Macedonians' courage and made them determined not to advance any further into India. It was only with great difficulty that they had defeated an enemy who had put into the field no more than twenty thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry, and so, when Alexander insisted on crossing the Ganges,16 they opposed him outright. The river, they were told, was four miles across and one hundred fathoms deep, and the opposite bank swarmed with a gigantic host of infantry, horsemen and elephants. It was said that the kings of the Gandaridae and the Praesii were waiting for Alexander's attack with an army of eighty thousand cavalry, two hundred thousand

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Relentless Adventure

Alexander's empire

infantry, eight thousand chariots and six thousand fighting elephants, and this report was no exaggeration, for Sandrocottus, the king of this territory who reigned there not long afterwards, presented five hundred elephants to Seleucus, and overran and conquered the whole of India with an army of six hundred thousand men.

At first Alexander was so overcome with disappointment and anger that he shut himself up and lay prostrate in his tent. He felt that unless he could cross the Ganges, he owed no thanks to his troops for what they had already achieved; instead he regarded their having turned back as an admission of defeat. However his friends set themselves to reason with him and console him and the soldiers crowded round the entrance to his tent, and pleaded with him, uttering loud cries and lamentations, until finally he relented and gave orders to break camp. But when he did so he devised a number of ruses and deceptions to impress the inhabitants of the region. For example he had arms, horses' mangers and bits prepared, all of which exceeded the normal size or height or weight, and these were left scattered about the country. He also set up altars for the gods of Greece and even down to the present day the kings of the Praesii whenever they cross the river do honour to these and offer sacrifice on them

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Relentless Adventure

in the Greek fashion. Sandrocottus, who was then no more than a boy, saw Alexander himself, and we are told that in later years he often remarked that Alexander was within a step of conquering the whole country, since the king who ruled it at that time was hated and despised because of his vicious character and his lowly birth...

(Wanting to see the outer Ocean, Alexander built rafts to travel on the river, landing

here and there to take cities... When he finally returned from India, he brought back only a quarter of his fighting force. He was confronted with the abuses of many of those that he had put in charge of parts of his empire. Alexander became more and more like a "barbarian " and showed an increasing concern with the occult...)

Meanwhile Alexander had become so much obsessed by his fears of the supernatural and so overwrought and apprehensive in his own mind, that he inter- preted every strange or unusual occurrence, no matter how trivial, as a prodigy or a portent, with the result that the place was filled with soothsayers, sacrificers, purifiers and prognosticators. Certainly it is dangerous to disbelieve or show contempt for the power of the gods, but it is equally dangerous to harbour super- stition, and in this case just as water constantly gravitates to a lower level, so unreasoning dread filled Alexander's mind with foolish misgivings, once he had become a slave to his fears. However, when the verdict of the oracle concerning Hephaestion was brought to him,17 he laid aside his grief and allowed himself to indulge in a number of sacrifices and drinking-bouts. He gave a splendid banquet in honour of Nearchus, after which he took a bath as his custom was, with the intention of going to bed soon afterwards. But when Medius invited him, he went to his house to join a party, and there after drinking all through the next day, he began to feel feverish. This did not happen "as he was drinking from the cup of Hercules",18 nor did he become conscious of a sudden pain in the back as if he had been pierced by a spear: these are details with which certain historians felt obliged to embellish the occasion, and thus invent a tragic and moving finale to a great action. Aristobulus tells us that he was seized with a raging fever, that when he became very thirsty he drank wine which made him delirious, and that he died on the thirtieth day of the month Daesius.

Text from Plutarch, Parallel Lives, translation by lan Scott-Kilvert

 in The Age of Alexander (Penguin Books, 1983), p. 255 ff.

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Relentless Adventure


  1. This fragrance was also regarded as a sign of his superhuman nature.

  2. A contest which combined wrestling and boxing.

  3. The date is uncertain. Alexander may have been about fourteen. Thessaly was the fine breeding-ground for horses in Greece.

  4. The name of a famous breed of Thessalian horses which were branded on the shoulder with tl sign of an ox's head.

  5. The speed of change of money-values makes it futile to try to convert the asking price i thirteen talents into modem figures. It is enough to say that by the Greek standards of the tin this was a very high price.

  6. When Alexander was thirteen.

  7. About the Oracle of Delphi, see foot-note n°l, p.62.

  8. Modem estimates give totals of about 43,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry: about one quarter ( these were the advance guard, which had already crossed to Asia. The cavalry included as man Thessalians as Macedonians, while the other Greek city-states contributed about 7,000 infantry  and 600 cavalry. Besides the operational troops the expedition included reconnaissance staff and many other specialists — geographers, historians, astronomers, zoologists, etc.

  9. There is a pun here: Paris was also known as Alexander.

  10. May-June: this was the time for the gathering of the harvest.

  11. Diodorus gives an account which is more plausible in military terms. According to this Alexander marched downstream under cover of darkness, found a suitable ford, crossed at dawn, and ha most of his infantry over before the Persians discovered the new position.

  12. That is, not reclining, as for the evening meal.

  13. The Companions were the members of Alexander's own cavalry regiment.

  14. Alexander had reorganised the army to include some oriental troops especially among the cavalry. His force for the invasion of India may have numbered some 35,000 fighting men.

  15. Alexander could not get his horses to cross in the face of the elephants: the object of his repeated feints was that Porus should cease to send out the elephants to meet every threat.

  16. The date was September 326 BC. Alexander did not, of course, reach the Ganges. The river where the troops mutinied was the Hyphasis: the upper Ganges was some two hundred and fifty miles further east. There is much dispute as to his real intentions and whether he planned to advance as far as the "eastern ocean",

  17. Hephaestion: Macedonian General who was Alexander's closest friend. After his death in 324 BC, Alexander sent to inquire of the oracle of Ammon whether it was permitted to worship Hephaestion as a god. According to certain sources, the answer was that Ammon permitted sacrifice to be offered him as to a "hero" or demi-god, which pleased Alexander.

  18. A "cup of Hercules" was a very large beaker, drained without heel-taps. It would imply in that case that the wine drunk by Alexander was poisoned.


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Relentless Adventure


Plutarch was one of the last classical Greek historians. He was born around AD 46 at Chaeronea in Boetia, and died sometime after AD 120. He was a student in the School of Athens, became a philosopher, and wrote a large number of essays and dialogues on philosophical, scientific and literary subjects (the Moralia). We know that he traveled widely in Egypt and went to Rome. Plutarch wrote his historical works relatively late in life, and his Parallel Lives of eminent Greeks and Romans is probably his best known and most influential work. As he states, his intention in the Lives was to write biography, not history as such, and this is reflected in the choice of his sources. He drew upon a very wide range of authorities, of quite unequal value. He felt his task was more to create an inspiring portrait than to evaluate facts. At any rate, in the case of Alexander the Great, his achievements, his influence on the world, and his personal character were certainly aweinspiring. That much was clearly perceived by Plutarch, and he did manage to communicate it in the chapter on Alexander.

Ancient Greece and Alexander: A brief outline

A civilisation appears to have emerged on mainland Greece about 1600 BC. This came to be known as the Mycenaean civilisation. Feudal warrior leaders ruled their districts from hilltop fortresses, the principal fort being Mycenae itself. Minoan Crete exercised a strong influence in these early times; but, as Mycenaean Greece gradually acquired knowledge of the sea, power shifted in its favor. Feared as warriors, large mercenary detachments fought for Crete and Egypt, among other states,

The height of Mycenaean expansion and power was reached between 1500 and 1300 BC. Eventually Crete, the Cyclades, Rhodes, and Cyprus were annexed, and vigorous trade was established throughout the Mediterranean, even with the tribes of north and west Europe. Weakened by internal strife and wars in Asia Minor, Mycenae was overrun by invaders from central Asia toward the end of the 12th century BC.

After the Mycenaean period, Greece was invaded by Indo-European tribes from the north. The distribution of peoples in Greece before the city states made for little

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Relentless Adventure


unity, but they all took part in the Olympic Games. Greek colonies were established along much of the perimeter of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, and Athens became the leading state after the Persian advance was halted in the 5th century BC.

Fifth-century Greece was dominated by the Athenians. The Acropolis was the ancient hilltop citadel of Athens, and its ruin still dominates the city today. Its buildings were constructed in the second half of the 5th century BC. The greatest was the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. Sparta, one of the city-states, had military ambitions and a well-trained professional army. Athens and Sparta fought together against Persian attacks, but afterwards became rivals. In the long Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, Athens was defeated by Sparta, and Athens lost its empire.

The city-states of Greece continued to fight between themselves and particularly against Sparta whose rule was very harsh. All the city states were much weakened by these constant battles and, despite a last effort to unite against the invader from Macedonia, Philip, they lost and thus Greece became at last unified under Macedonian rule, just before the birth of Alexander the Great in 356 BC.

State of the Civilised world in Alexander's time (around 330 BC)

For the Greeks of that time, civilisation was concentrated in the Mediterranean world. Besides Greece and its city states, there was the immense Persian Empire which embraced nearly all of the Middle East: Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, the Phoenician cities and finally Egypt were successively conquered by the Persians.

In the days of Alexander and Darius, no one would have thought that two centuries later Rome would be able to unify the Ancient World. It was then a small city without a good harbour and not much given to commerce. Nevertheless, two centuries after Alexander the Romans, having dominated all of Italy, had already conquered Greece and were on their way to take over and unify the Mediterranean world.

In India in 350 Be Buddhism was flourishing. At the time of Alexander's death, the Mauryan dynasty was established (322 BC) and the first King of that dynasty, Chandragupta Maurya (322- 298 BC), came closer to uniting India than had any earlier ruler. Only the extreme South escaped his domination.

What happened after Alexander

Alexander's sudden death meant that he had no time to consolidate his empire or to arrange for an orderly succession. His Macedonian generals fought among themselves. Political disunity, however, did not interfere with Alexander's vision of a commonwealth of peoples united by Greek culture. All the successor states were dominated by Greeks and by natives who imitated the Greek

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Relentless Adventure

way of life. And although the peasants and much of the urban population of the Middle East held fast to their native cultures and native languages, scholars, administrators, and businessmen all used Greek and were guided, to some degree, by Greek ideas and customs. This era in which the Middle East was permeated by Greek influence is known as the Hellenistic period (The Greeks called themselves Hellenes; Hellenistic means "Greek-like"). It ended politically in 30 BC, when Rome annexed Egypt, the last nominally independent Hellenistic state. But the cultural unity of the Middle East lasted far longer; it was broken only when the Moslems conquered Syria and Egypt in the seventh century AD.

A few dates

356 BC

Birth of Alexander.

336 BC

Alexander (aged 20) becomes king of Macedon following the assassination of his father Philip.

334 BC

Alexander crosses the Hellespont into Asia.

332 BC

Invasion of Egypt. Foundation of Alexandria

331-328 BC

Campaigns in Asia.

327 BC

Invasion of India.

324 BC

return to Persia

323 BC

Death of Alexander.

Suggestions for further reading

Badian, E. Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind. Historia, 1958, 425.44.

 Bum, A. R. Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World. 2nd ed. Macmillan, 1962.

 Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization: Part II, The Life of Greece. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.

 Green, Peter. Alexander the Great. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

Alexander of Macedon. Penguin Books.

Hamilton, J. R. Alexander the Great. Hutchinson University Library, 1973.

 Renault, Mary. The Nature of Alexander. England, Penguin Books, 1983.

 Robinson, CA. The Extraordinary Ideas of Alexander the Great. American Hist. Review, 1957, 326-44.

 Tam, Sir William, and Griffith, G. T. Hellenistic Civilization. Arnold, 3rd ed. 1952.

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