A Brief History
What does being a king of Macedonia, a hero, a humanitarian, and a maniac have in common? Those qualities came together to breathe life into King Alexander. He was extremely “Great” in many regards. To analyze these characteristics of Alexander of Great, one must experience an abundance of primary, secondary, and visual sources. Additionally, one must take a step back and view the actions and consequences of Alexander the Great with an open mind. This analysis must be done while paying close attention to the positive and negative interpretations of this historical figure’s life. His life includes not only being the king of Macedonia, but also being a hero, a humanitarian, and a maniac.
Alexander the Great (336 B.C – 323 B.C) was a king of Macedonia. He was born of King Philip II (382 B.C.- 336 B.C.) the king of Macedonia prior to Alexander. Philip was assassinated, leaving Alexander to step up to the plate. The young Alexander, at the age of 16 years old, rose to power in 336 B.C. Four years into his political control, Alexander began conquering critical areas surrounding Macedonia. He did so with the goal of taking down the Persian Empire. He commanded his army through areas such as Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor, and Persia. Once arriving near India, and with the recommendations of his officers, he took his army back through the areas he conquered trying to rendezvous at Macedonia. On his way back, Alexander and his army suffered from hunger and sickness. He refused abnormal rations of water to make sure his army stayed hydrated and motivated. He contracted an illness at the age of 32 and passed away before making it back to Macedonia. To understand if Alexander was truly great, one must look at primary, secondary, and visual sources.
The primary sources must be examined with the realization that they were written after Alexander had become famous. Thus, one must be sure to recognize exaggerations and other twists of truth to discover the man Alexander really was. One primary source’s author is Plutarch (45 A.D. – 120 A.D.). Plutarch was a Roman author who enjoyed comparing Alexander to Julius Caesar (100 B.C. – 44 B.C.). Another author is Arrian (92 A.D. – 175 A.D.), a politician who wrote about Alexander’s motivational speeches. Lastly, Rufus was an author who wrote the last Latin piece on Alexander the Great. Curtius Rufus (?-53A.D.) drew moral conclusions based on historical accounts. He wrote a long passage describing a battle while displaying Alexander’s strategic mind. Primary sources by the talented authors mentioned above help one strip away the mystery that is Alexander the Great.
The author Plutarch, while comparing Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar, wrote an account of Alexander taming an unruly horse. The story portrays Alexander in his youth accomplishing an incredible feat that no one else thought was possible. The event caused Plutarch to believe young Alexander was going to be great because of his bravery and confidence in his skills although no one else thought taming the horse was possible. The individuals around Alexander at the time after he tamed the horse praised him for doing such a great job. In Timothy Gregory’s “Alexander the Great: Hero, Humanitarian, Or Maniac”, Plutarch describes the event as follows: “But when the prince had turned him [horse] and brought him straight back, they all received him with loud acclamations, except his father, who wept for joy,and kissing him, said, ‘“Seek another kingdom, my son, that may be worthy of thy abilities; for
Macedonia is too small for thee.”’1 This quotation illustrates how exaggerated an account can be. Taming a horse would not ordinarily cause such a reaction. As mentioned above, these primary sources were recorded after Alexander became famous, so it is imperative that one looks behind the exaggeration of this source to understand who Alexander really was.
Another primary source to explore in order to discover who Alexander really was is by Arrian. Arrian recalled a speech Alexander gave to keep Alexander’s soldiers’ morale high. This primary source, like Plutarch’s, displays Alexander in a positive way. A compliment Arrian gives Alexander is: “I commend as evidence of Alexander’s power of endurance and selfcontrol, as well as of his skill in managing an army.”2 This compliment to Alexander by Arrian shows that he thought Alexander was a great, skillful commander. Arrian quotes Alexander displaying those skills by motivating his army: “I [Alexander], For my part, think, that to a brave man there is no end to labours except the labours themselves, provided they lead to glorious achievements.”3 Arrian’s account of what Alexander said displays the skills Arrian complemented Alexander on because it depicts Alexander explaining to his army that they are brave for following him this far and that they have achieved glorious success. Although Arrian’s account describes Alexander in a positive light, not all the primary sources do so.
Rufus describes Alexander in a positive light, while hinting at a negative side of the story. Rufus recounts a battle between Alexander and Persia. Rufus elaborates on the casualties of the battle: “A hundred thousand Persian infantry and 10,000 cavalry were killed in the action. On Alexander’s side about 504 were wounded, a total of 32 infantrymen were lost, and 150 cavalrymen died. At so small a cost was a huge victory secured.”4 This quotation from Rufus describes the casualties of the battle. It highlights the fact that Alexander had a great military and strategic mind. Rufus alludes to a more negative side of Alexander, however: “Now they came to the women, and the more these prized their jewels, the more violently they were robbed of them. Not even their persons were spared the violence of lust. They filled the camp with all manner of lamentation and screaming in reaction to their individual misfortunes, and villainy of every shape and form manifested itself as the cruelty and licence of the victor swept through the prisoners irrespective of rank or age.”5 Rufus’s account depicting the way Alexander handled post battle shows a more evil, darker side of Alexander. This mention of Alexander’s cruelty does something the previous primary sources do not do, which is look past the achievements and attempt to make a moral assessment of Alexander’s actions.
The three primary sources portray different aspects of Alexander. Plutarch describes Alexander’s youth and his first ambition. Arrian describes Alexander’s ability to empower and motivate his people. Rufus describes Alexander’s military and strategic abilities while hinting at a darker side of Alexander’s methods. All three sources could have depicted Alexander as a heroic model for leaders because of a few reasons. One reason might have been groupthink, where the authors would suppress their differing opinions based on the general population’s image of Alexander. Another reason may have been the threat of being killed by others who thought highly of him. Lastly, the authors may have felt compelled by nationalism to show off their former leader to produce positive thoughts throughout their communities. Nonetheless, the primary sources play a vital role in understanding Alexander the Great.
Secondary sources also play a key role in how one interprets Alexander. Two secondary source authors, W.W. Tarn (1869-1957) and Peter Green (1924-present), seek to look deeper into the historical accounts to make an assessment on Alexander. Tarn was a wealthy 20th century great historian who honed in on the Hellenistic period. Tarn believed that Alexander was an important historical figure and that he was influenced by noble social ideas. Tarn thought Alexander believed in the brotherhood of peoples, and the brotherhood of man. Green, however, was trained in ancient history in Great Britain and brought his teachings to the United States of America. Green wrote many books on ancient Greek history, specifically on the age of Alexander the Great. Green views Tarn’s writing as a romanticized myth. Alexander, in Green’s eyes, was a smart yet oppressive leader with bad habits such as alcoholism. It is important to remain aware of these two’s backgrounds because they may hold hidden biases towards their opinion of Alexander. These secondary sources help one strip away the exaggerations and dig deeper into who Alexander really was.
Tarn thought Alexander liked the concepts of brotherhood of peoples and brotherhood of man. Tarn concludes that Alexander tried to strip nationalities and create an environment where all men were considered one thing: under the all mighty father. Tarn describes Alexander’s influence as: “Above all, Alexander inspired Zeno’s vision of a world in which all men should be members one of another, citizens of one State without distinction of race or institutions, subject only to and in harmony with the Common Law immanent in the Universe, and united in one social life not by compulsion but only by their own willing consent, or (as he put it) by Love.”6 This quotation from Tarn defines Alexander’s impression as positive and one that brings everyone together. He goes on to describe Alexander’s effect as one that will truly never die out, and Tarn seems optimistic that these ideals of brotherhood and unity will help positively shape our future.
Green views Alexander’s influence on the world differently compared to Tarn. Green thinks Alexander was brilliant, but was a tyrant that suffered from alcoholism. An example is: “His business was war and conquest. It is idle to palliate this central truth, to pretend that he dreamed, in some mysterious fashion, of wading through rivers of blood and violence to achieve the Brotherhood of Man. He spent his life, with legendary success, in the pursuit of personal glory; and until very recent times was regarded as a wholly laudable aim.”7 Green’s thoughts give one representation of Alexander perhaps accomplishing these military victories for internal splendor rather than for the good of Macedonia. This secondary source helps one look past the popular positive view of Alexander.
Other sources one should consider when analyzing Alexander are visual sources. These sources can hide symbolism and meaning behind unsuspecting details. Particularly, the sculptures of Alexander and the map of his conquest can be excellent aids in helping to decide Alexander’s true nature. The below image (Figure 1) is a sculpture of Alexander. The facial features of the sculpture may or may not accurately depict how Alexander looked. The features may be symbolic of his personality. The chin, eyes, hair, and even angle at which he is face could be indicators of his personality rather than his actual physical appearance. These changes could have been done to exaggerate how great he was or intensify how divine he was viewed as. The map (Figure 2) below the sculpture of Alexander is a map of his conquest. This visual source can have two major integrations: one of achievement and success and another of tyranny
and destruction. Were the wars fought for the good of Macedonia? This sculpture and map raise many emotions and questions that one should consider when analyzing Alexander.
Figure 1: A sculpture of Alexander the Great from the website “The World of Alexander The Great“.
Figure 2: A map of Alexander the Great’s conquest from Britannica.
Primary, secondary, and visual sources all give us hints into Alexander’s life. Alexander was indeed a hero, a humanitarian, and a maniac. He was all of these things because Alexander can be viewed in so many different lights. Depending on the individual examining him, Alexander is the champion of the world or is an evil, selfish destruction bringer. This contrast is proven by the differing conclusions made by many authors through primary, secondary, and visual sources. Alexander was “Great” in many ways. The ways in which he was “Great” are up to the individual interpreting it since it can go so many ways. The one thing that is indisputable, however, is that Alexander the Great made a tremendous influence on the world.
Question for students (and subscribers): Was Alexander the Great a hero, a humanitarian, or a maniac? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
1 Timothy E. Gregory, “Alexander the Great: Hero, Humanitarian, or Maniac?” in Exploring the European Past: Texts & Images, Second Edition (Mason: Cengage Learning, 2013), 72,
2 Ibid., 74.
3 Ibid., 73.
4 Ibid., 80.
5 Ibid., 80.
6 Ibid., 84.
7 Ibid., 89.
For more information, please see…
Arrian, J. R. Hamilton, et al. The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics). Penguin Classics, 1976.
Fox, Robin Lane. Alexander the Great. Penguin, 2004.
The featured image in this article, the Alexander Mosaic (c. 100 BC), ancient Roman floor mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii showing Alexander fighting king Darius III of Persia in the Battle of Issus, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work was published before January 1, 1924 and it is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or fewer since publication.