MACEDON WAS A rural backwater in Greece, the sort of place about which Athenians told jokes involving moonshine and prohibited degrees of consanguinity. If you had told the more civilized Greeks that the next great world empire would begin in Macedon, they would have looked at you with the same puzzled and contemptuous stares you would get from a New Yorker today if you said, “Mark my words, the next big player on the global stage will be Parkersburg, West Virginia.”

One big advantage the Macedonians had, however, was a lack of principles. The Spartans were obsessed with their national honor; the Athenians were devoted to liberty, as long as it was their own liberty and not somebody else’s. But the Macedonians, free of juvenile and unwholesome ideas like “honor” and “liberty,” were entirely unencumbered in their pursuit of their own advantage. They were especially unencumbered when the throne was taken by Philip, a man whose simple pragmatism is still an inspiration to every ruthless tyrant who thinks that principles only get in the way. The more civilized Greeks thought of Philip as a bull in a china shop; but, simply by not caring how much of the china he broke, Philip soon made himself master of all Greece. He had just announced his intention of going after Persia as well when he was felled by an assassin.

Philip’s heir was a young man—hardly more than a boy—by the name of Alexander. And in order to account for the remarkable career of this young hick from the hill country, we must have a look at his education.

The environment in which Alexander grew up was a unique mixture of the sophisticated and the hayseed. He was surrounded by the court life of his father Philip, whose ideas of honor and morality were still decidedly Homeric, which is to say that they leaned heavily on evisceration as the solution to any particularly intractable problem. On the other hand, Philip was also eager to be accepted by the pretentious intellectuals in the big cities, for which reason he hired the famous philosopher Aristotle as his son’s tutor.

We can easily imagine how Alexander’s lessons went, with the wise old philosopher demanding that his pupil distinguish the kinds of causes, and Alexander replying, “Well, the material cause is the iron of my blade; the formal cause is the sharpness, and, if I may so call it, the bladishness of it; the efficient cause is my ripping his abdomen open with it; and the final cause is so that others may learn never to cheat when they play marbles with me.” We can imagine Aristotle gently suggesting that it might be clearer if we confined our examples to statues and cups and such things, and we can imagine Alexander losing interest in the lesson shortly after that.

This was the young man who, at the age of twenty, found himself master of all Greece, at least after he had finished pummeling Greece back into submission again. He had the greatest scientific mind the world had yet produced as his tutor; but it is worth noting that the book he carried with him everywhere he went was the Iliad, the classic Greek manual of practical evisceration. Abstract science, after all, will get you only so far in conquering the world.

Alexander was set on carrying out his father’s ambition of putting Persia in its place; so, once he had secured the allegiance of the grateful Greek cities, which were grateful that he had wiped only one of them off the map, he plunged into Asia Minor, where he began a long string of victories over Persian armies. After each disaster, the Persian king Darius would make good his escape. Alexander chased Darius all over the Persian Empire, merrily crushing armies and leveling cities along the way, until at last Darius’ luck ran out. Mortally wounded, he allowed Alexander to catch up with him at last. Then, as he lay dying, he breathed out his last words to the victorious conqueror: “You have slaughtered our armies; you have burnt and pillaged cities across the length and breadth of the empire; you have put our men to the sword and sold our women and children as slaves; and finally you have pursued me unto my death. Clearly no one has been more loyal to the cause of Persia than you have been, and it is my desire that you should succeed me as King of Kings.”

At least that was how Alexander told the story, and who was going to contradict him?

So Alexander took his place as the duly designated head of the Persian Empire, a vast territory that included Egypt in the south, Asia Minor in the west, and the borders of India in the east. Vast though his new empire may have been, however, his ambition was vaster. Under the usual pretext of some trifling border incidents, Alexander led his armies into India itself; and there, when he had reduced a large chunk of the subcontinent to his dominion, he sat down and wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. One wonders how he might have reacted if someone had told him about China, Siberia, Mongolia, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and Tristan da Cunha. But no one did tell him; so he ambled back to Babylon in a blue funk, and there he died of ennui.

Alexander’s generals agreed that one of them should succeed him, but on the question of which one of them it ought to be they could come to no agreement whatsoever. Eventually, after a long run of civil wars so monotonous that no historian ever bothers to chronicle them in detail, the territory was divided into three smaller empires, each one of which was still unimaginably vast by Greek standards, but none of which was vast enough for the grasping cupidity of its emperor.

What, then, did Alexander accomplish if he did not build a lasting empire?

Well, for one thing, he founded flourishing cities wherever cities appeared to be needed. Owing to some curious mental deficiency, Alexander could think of only one name for a city, so the map was peppered with Alexandrias from Thrace to India. It infuriated the Postmaster General and gave the travel agents fits, but the name had a certain ring to it. The most successful of the lot was Alexandria in Egypt, which still bears that name today, and which in turn has given its name to other Alexandrias all over the globe; so that, in a sense, Alexander’s empire really has reached as far as Virginia, Louisiana, and New South Wales.

This proliferation of Alexandrias was only part of a larger tendency to Hellenize the world. Wherever he went, Alexander propagated the noble idea he had learned from his great tutor: viz., that Greeks are better than other people. But Alexander brought his own little twist to the idea. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that anybody, deep down inside, was potentially a Greek. There was no difference in nature between Greeks and barbarians. All the barbarians had to do was dress more tastefully, learn to speak Greek, and stop acting so foreign, and then they could have all the benefits of Greek civilization.

The Hellenization program really took off, because one of the immediately obvious benefits of Greek civilization was getting rich. With a common language from Marseilles to India, merchants could trade across vast distances and bring expensive luxuries to newly opened markets. Most luxuries, after all, were luxuries only because they came from somewhere far away. Greeks would pay enormous sums for the pepper that clambered all over the ground in India, and the Indians were equally enchanted with the cheap wine that the Greeks themselves usually bought in cardboard boxes. For anyone who had the ambition to transport worthless rubbish to some port so far away that the rubbish became a precious treasure, there were vast fortunes to be made.

Thus Greek culture was spread over an enormous area that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Of course, to spread so far, it had to be spread pretty thin. Instead of stirring epics and immortal tragedies, the literary lights of the new “Hellenistic” age tended to produce dime novels.

Nevertheless, there was a certain cultural uniformity across the known world (“known” meaning “known to the Greeks,” of course). And that would prove to be very convenient for the next stage of history, because it meant that, when the time came, the known world would be ripe for conquering in big chunks, rather than in unprofitable little pieces.

Published in: on June 6, 2012 at 9:03 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. Another excellent addition, although I was mildly disappointed to not see a description of the advances in military technology promulgated under Phillip II of Macedon…said advances basically boiling down to, “Let’s make our pointy sticks twice as long as everyone else’s, so we can poke them from beyond the reach of their pointy sticks”. This brilliant innovation dominated ancient battlefields until the Romans realized that, if you didn’t weigh your soldiers down with an enormous and clumsy 20-foot-long spear, they could move fast enough to get around the sides of the enemy line of spearpoints and stab their opponents in the kidneys from behind.

    Alexander’s adventures in Egypt probably could have been expanded on, such as his brazen creation of a new God, Serapis, who combined the sort of attributes Greeks looked for in a God (toga, beard, speaking Greek) with most of the attributes Egyptians looked for in a God (headdress, accessories, and having priests who backed up the Pharoah in whatever he wanted done). This hybrid Greco-Egyptian deity was supposed to symbolize the new harmony between the Egyptian peasants and their new Greek-Macedonian overlords. Unfortunately, lacking a silly animal head, the Egyptians never quite figured him to be Egyptian ENOUGH, so Serapis was only really popular with the Greek immigrant ruling class, and eventually his temple got converted into off-site storage for the Great Library of Alexandria.

    Largely due to their refusal to learn any language but Greek, most of the Pharaohs of the Ptolemaic dynasty were also considered not Egyptian enough by their subjects, and so were unpopular and ineffective rulers until the advent of Cleopatra VII Philopator, who actually learned to speak Egyptian so as to better recruit allies in a civil war against her brother, the rightful Pharaoh. Combined with having been married to her brother, another distinctively Egyptian touch, this made her seem so Egyptian in the eyes of her subjects that she was declared to be the reincarnation of the goddess Isis herself. Unfortunately, by this point in history, neither being Egyptian nor Greek, nor even a harmonious combination of the two, was really in fashion any more, and all the hip and with-it people were being Roman.. Despite making a creditable effort to act Roman by sleeping with Julius Caesar and giving birth to his son, she could never convince enough of them of her Roman-ness to get real acceptance. And so that was the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty of pharaohs and of Egypt’s political independence until the Fatimid Dynasty several centuries later.

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