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The Dark Side of Alexander The Great  

When Alexander died in 323 in Babylon, his myth immediately spread throughout the known world. For centuries, the Macedonian king has fascinated rulers, leaders and-the everyday man. The rapidity of his conquests and his young age made him legendary. Many were inspired by him, and even today his personality continues to enchant. Ancient sources tell us that Alexander was an extraordinary personality: he was endowed with charisma, ardour on the battlefield, wisdom and moderation in politics. This is the Alexander that has been handed down to us. Yet the same ancient sources that glorify Alexander, also report controversial episodes. In Alexander’s life there are several dark episodes, and listing them all would take a very long time. To better understand the problem at hand, it may be useful to mention a few, more illustrative examples. In fact, sometimes Alexander was led to behave harshly by events, such as the thwarted conspiracies that attempted to kill him, other times he seems to deliberately implement impulsive and violent behaviour. In this blog post Ivan Ceci explores some of the most famous Examples.  

Curtius Rufus reports that after the conquest of Phoenicia (332 BC) Alexander the Great moved his army to Egypt. On his way, he had to besiege Gaza, a city between Syria and Egypt. The Persian garrison was led by the eunuch Betis. After hard clashes, in which Alexander participated on the front line, the city was conquered. Betis survived the battle and was brought to the king. Betis’ contemptuous attitude provoked blind anger in Alexander, even though the eunuch was now a prisoner and the battle was won. The Macedonian king decided on a cruel punishment: he ordered to drag him alive tied to a chariot around the city.  Alexander even boasted of having imitated Achilles, who dragged Hector’s lifeless body after winning the clash with him. Hector, however, was already dead, while Betis’ terrible death was caused by the wrath of Alexander (Curt. 4, 6, 7-29).

After the Battle of Gaugamela, the Macedonian army moved into the interior of Persia and took the Persian capitals, such as Babylon, Pasargade, Susa and Persepolis. Alexander stayed in Persepolis in the winter between 331 and 330 BC. The city was very rich, full of monuments and had a treasure of 120 thousands of talents. During his stay, he attended many feasts, often getting drunk. Thais, a hetaera, apparently incited Alexander to destroy the city. Along with his drunken companions, he began to set fire to the royal palace and then to the whole city. A famous and rich city was thus destroyed because of the vices and recklessness of Alexander, which struck him when he abandoned himself to wine. Even the ancient sources, that describe the deeds of Alexander, mourn the sad end of such a glorious city (Curt. 5, 7, 2-10; Diod. 17, 70-72; Plut. Alex. 38; Arr. An. 3, 18, 11-12).

The following episode is little more obscure, as there are only few sources that report it. In 329 Alexander was crossing the deserts of Sogdia, in Central Asia. Here he came upon a city, inhabited by the people of the Branchids. Their ancestors were a priestly family that held control of the oracle of Apollo at Didyma, near the city of Miletus. During the Second Persian War, they plundered the temple of Apollo to favor Xerxes. Because of this the other citizens of Miletus became angry with them and they were then forced to flee the city, moving to Sogdia with the approval of the Persian king. However, the Macedonian army also included Milesian soldiers. Alexander decided that they would decide the fate of the city, despite the warm welcome they had received by the people of the Branchids. However, the soldiers did not come to a decision, so it was left to Alexander to make the decision. He then surrounded the city with his army and ordered them to massacre all the inhabitants, to completely destroy the entire territory (Curt. 7, 5, 28-35). 

In 327 BC Alexander was in Maracanda, the scene of one of the most famous episodes of Alexander’s life. Cleitus was one of the most valiant Macedonian generals and saved Alexander’s life during the Battle of Granicus. The king decided to appoint Cleitus as satrap of Sogdiana. But the appointment as satrap of a distant region was seen as a punishment by the Macedonians, so Cleitus was quite resentful towards his king. During a feast, Alexander, Cleitus and the other participants were drunk. Alexander began to praise himself and belittle his father Philip, which sparked a reaction from Cleitus. A furious quarrel broke out between the two, they tried to hit each other but were stopped by their friends. Alexander was very angry and waited for Cleitus at the end of the feast. When he passed, he killed him with a sarissa. When the hangover passed, Alexander realized his grave action and even tried to kill himself (Curt. 8, 1-2; Arr. An. 4, 8-9; Plut. Alex. 50, 1-2). 

Almost all of the ancient sources report these episodes. However, some approach these critically – just like we should – and want to underline how Alexander had a dark side. In particular, the Latin authors are the ones who judge the Macedonian king the most, because they wanted to define the Roman Empire as militarily and morally more powerful compared to Alexander and his accomplishments. While the Greek sources report the episodes, they usually do not pay too much attention to them and tend even mock them, so as not to put the glorious Alexander in a bad light. Beyond the motivations of the ancient sources, these obscure episodes are important because they show us a different side of Alexander. He was not only a great king and general, but also a human being, subject to vices and bad passions.

Ivan Ceci, the author of this piece, is a student, currently obtaining his Master Degree in Ancient Literature and History at the University of Tor Vergata in Rome and has achieved a BA in Classic Archaeology. 


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