The Hellenistic Age (336-30 B.C.)

Rarely has an epoch-making reign begun with such poor prospects as that of Alexander the Great. Prior to the early fourth century B.C., Macedon was hardly more than a geographical expression, designating the loosely organized kingdom that occupied a region in northern Greece extending along the southern foothills of the Balkan Mountains from the Chalcidic Peninsula westward to the borders of modern Albania. The kings of Macedon sat on uneasy thrones, their hold on power and the unity of the kingdom itself repeatedly threatened by Thracian and Illyrian invasions and the intervention of various Greek states on behalf of rival Macedonian dynasts. Almost three decades of unrelenting effort at home and abroad by Alexander's father, Philip II (359-336 B.C.), had been required to transform the once-weak kingdom of Macedon into the strongest military power in the eastern Mediterranean and the mistress of the Balkans. But Philip's assassination in 336 B.C. threatened all of his achievements with sudden collapse just when he was about to launch his most ambitious undertaking, a full-scale invasion of Persian-occupied Asia Minor. Alexander, barely twenty years old and virtually unknown outside Macedonia, succeeded to a kingdom threatened with civil war at home and rebellion by its Greek and non-Greek subjects in the Balkans. Not only did he survive against all expectations, but in the thirteen years of his reign he transformed the ancient Western world, carrying Macedonian arms all the way to western India and destroying the Persian Empire, which had ruled western Asia for over two centuries.

Alexander's unexpected death at Babylon in the summer of 323 B.C. prevented him from establishing a permanent political organization for his vast conquests. It also encouraged speculation concerning his character and ultimate goals that continues unabated even today. In antiquity, opinions on Alexander varied widely. To his Greek contemporaries he was a brutal tyrant and conqueror. Their feelings are well summed up by the Athenian orator Demades, who bitterly observed on hearing rumors of Alexander's death that they couldn't be true "because the world would stink from the stench of his corpse." Later authors, such as the Greek moralist Plutarch and the Greco-Roman politician Arrian, writing during the early centuries of the Christian Era and reflecting the sense of Greek cultural superiority characteristic of intellectuals in the Roman Empire, took a more positive view of his reign, emphasizing the heroic scale of his conquests and his role in facilitating the spread of Hellenism to the east.

The same dichotomy has marked modern Alexander scholarship. Until recently, most historians, following the lead of the Roman imperial writers, whose works dominate the surviving sources, propounded a similarly benign view of Alexander's reign. The Macedonian king's opponents, such as the Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes, were dismissed as provincial reactionaries who failed to see that the time had come for Greek unification even if it had to be imposed by force. The brutalities of Alexander's campaigns were ignored or glossed over. Actions viewed in antiquity as typical of a tyrant--such as Alexander's drunken rages or his demand late in his reign that he be deified--were explained away or given a positive interpretation. The climax of this scholarly trend came in W. W. Tarn's famous 1948 biography of Alexander with its romantic conception of the king as a chivalrous philosopher in arms who sought to use his conquests to realize the Cynic and Stoic dream of the brotherhood of man.5

In no other area of Hellenistic history has the revisionism of post-World War II historiography had more dramatic results. The idealistic interpretations of scholars such as Tarn have been subjected to a rigorously skeptical critique and discredited. In an important series of articles published in the late 1950s and the 1960s, historian E. Badian clearly established the apologetic character of the "official" tradition represented by sources such as Arrian's Anabasis Alexandri , and painstakingly reconstructed the fierce personal rivalries that dominated the political life of Alexander's court.6 The result has been the emergence of a deliberately "tough-minded" view of Alexander as a ruler who brooked no opposition in his drive to achieve personal autocracy and glory through conquest, a view neatly summed up by the title of the most recent major history of Alexander's reign, A. B. Bosworth's Conquest and Empire , published in 1988.7 Students of Alexander's reign are also increasingly doubtful that the king ever had a plan for his empire beyond its indefinite expansion. Perhaps most important of all has been the recognition that the ultimate significance of his spectacular reign was negative: the destruction of the existing state system in western Asia.

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