Alexander the Great
356 – 323 B.C.E
Exploration Ranking 4th of 26
Greek stamp from 1977 of Alexander the Great searching for the
water of life – water that gives immortality. (Hindu plate)
Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire created, if not politically, at least economically and culturally, a single world stretching from southern Spain to northern India. He visited the following modern countries: Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan and northwestern India. In geographical terms Alexander’s fame exceeds that of most other classical figures, for it has extended far beyond Europe and Asia Minor, throughout Central Asia, and all the way to the Far East. Alexander’s expedition and his own personal interest in scientific investigation brought many advances in the knowledge of geography and natural history. Alexander sent collections of plants and animals back to Greece. The observations of the landscape made by his generals and officers greatly enriched Greek knowledge.
Alexander’s exploits had an enormous influence in a wide range of cultural, religious, and linguistic traditions from the Mediterranean to China, and there is no clear distinction between history and myth.(1) In the East the great Persian poet Firdausi’s Book of Kings (Shanahmeh, 10th century) played a central role in the diffusion of the legend of Alexander (Iskandar). It also contributed to the “Islamicization” of his figure.(2)
Alexander’s campaign, although so fragile and short-lived, threw the geopolitics of the Middle East and Central Asia into confusion. More important, it triggered a process of cultural contamination that imported a quality of Greekness to peoples and civilizations quite far afield, who for centuries felt the imprint on their art and culture left by Alexander’s lightning rule.(3) Some examples include the Indo-Hellenic art of Gandhara, which flourished beginning in the 3rd century B.C.E.; of the iconography of the Buddha himself, which arose in the 3rd century B.C.E. and was decisively influenced by Hellenic statuary models. Also the introduction into Indian culture of subjects taken from Greek mythology and of the entrance into this literature, for example, of the genre of drama based on the model of Menander’s comedy.
These cultural consequences, although secondary with respect to the plane of politico-military conquest, were a coherent result of the visionary objectives that, even if they could not possibly have been planned in detail, all the sources indicate Alexander pursued. His deeds were performed in a time and on a mental horizon that transcended the historical plane that exceeded literary narration itself and that in its scope included even a mythopoetic dimension.
According the various sources, Alexander decided to entrust the task of representing his likeness to the best artists of the time, whom he wanted to have in his entourage. To the painter Apelles, the sculptor Lysippus, and the engraver Pirgoteles we owe the construction of iconographic models suited to the most diverse media—from coins to gems, from paintings to statuary—that went on to be mass-produced and diffused throughout the empire.
Coins in particular became an important vehicle for the widespread diffusion of Alexander’s likeness. A standard numismatic type was established at the beginning of the age of the Diadochi, one side portraying the profile of the sovereign’s head, the other an exploit of his or a divine counterpart. This typology ended up prevailing in the Hellenistic era and in the imperial age of Rome, and it was then taken up in the 15th century, first by Pisanello in Renaissance medals.
Alexander’s posthumous fortune, the transmission of his history and his myth, is the product, in the world of literature, of histories, anecdotes, and romances and, in the world of the visual arts, of the formal revolution introduced by Hellenistic art and diffused across an extremely vast area. But Alexander’s importance in Hellenistic and Roman times is measured less by the historical and military consequences of his exploits than by the secondary consequences produced by this symbolic and political model of an unprecedented figure of power.
The Italian historian Santo Mazzarino clearly demonstrates that, down to Julius Caesar, Alexander provided a model of individual heroism. Augustus, however, found in Alexander’s cosmocracy the political outline for his own nevovatio imperii: his transformation, also constitutionally, of the res publica into a principate. The phenomenon of imitatio Alexandri formed the backdrop of the entire history of the Roman Empire. It was a constant that was magnified at intervals (e.g., under the Severan dynasty) but that always influenced political and military strategy, expansionistic decisions, and the cosmocratic symbolism of the Roman emperors. It is no accident that the 2nd century C.E (one of the periods in which the paradigm of Alexander had the greatest political importance) produced the majority of the histories of Alexander that have come down to us: Plutarch’s Alexander, Arian’s Anabasis Alexandri and Indica, and the redaction of the Alexander Romance.
Napoleon Bonaparte imitated Alexander’s visionary designs to the point of retracing his footsteps in the sands of Egypt. When sculpting his own image as world ruler, he took as his model a fresco (a copy of a painting by Apelles) found shortly before under the ashes of Pompeii, in which Alexander is depicted in the pose and with the attributes of Zeus’s sovereignty. Thus, in 1806 the new emperor chose to have his portrait painted by Ingres in the exact pose of the ancient Alexander-Zeus.
Alexandria – Its Great Library and Center of Learning and Scholarship
The areas Alexander conquered were infused with Greek culture and language; he founded many new cities, twelve of which he named “Alexandria.” The most famous of these was the port of Alexandria in Egypt, founded in 331 B.C.E., which became the country’s new capital. Within a century, it became the largest city in the ancient world. Alexandria’s reputation as a center of learning rests on the fame of the ancient library, which is believed to have housed around 700,000 titles on papyrus scrolls by the 1st century B.C.E.
In 304 B.C.E. Alexander’s childhood friend and senior general Ptolemy became ruler of Alexandria as a Greek pharaoh. Like Alexander, Ptolemy had learned a great deal from Aristotle, one of the greatest minds in history, back in Macedonia when he was growing up. Ptolemy brought Theophrastus, Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum, Aristotle’s famous school that he had established in Athens years earlier, to Alexandria to start a similar center of learning and scholarship. From there the word went out with Alexandria attracting some of the greatest scholars in history over the next seven hundred years.
The amazing work began with two of the most influential mathematicians in history: Euclid (c. 325 B.C.E. – 265 B.C.E.) and Archimedes (287 B.C.E. – 212 B.C.E.), then seventy-two Hebrew scholars between the third and first century B.C.E. translated the first five books of the Bible from Hebrew into Greek, called the Septuagint, and sometime before 281 B.C.E., Aristarchus of Samos originated the idea of a heliocentric solar system, later Philo (c. 20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.), a Jewish theologian retold many Biblical stories, then came Claudius Ptolemaeus (c. 90 – c. 168), the most influential mapmaker in history and a highly influential astronomer and mathematician, then Diophantus (c. 250), the mathematician and finally Hypatia (c. 370 – 415), philosopher and mathematician. Each of these individuals produced enduring classics that influenced man to this day. Alexandria became the intellectual foundation for the modern world through its library and scholarly contributions and Alexander the Great clearly laid the cornerstones.(4)
What happened to Alexandria’s famous library? Its destruction is one of the greatest tragedies in the world’s intellectual history. It was supposedly ignited accidentally when Caesar set fire to the Egyptian fleet in the nearby harbor in 48 B.C.E. Other books were reputedly destroyed by fire in the time of Aurelian (ca. 272 C.E.). Arab historians claim that many more books were burned to fuel the furnaces of the city’s 400 public baths under Muslim rule. Luckily some of the most significant books were copied and passed down so we can still benefit from Euclid’s Elements, works by Archimedes’, Ptolemy’s Guide to Geography and Almagest and Diophantus’ Arithmetica. In the smallest redemption, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina has now been refounded on the seafront in Alexandria, just to the east of the Eastern Harbor. The new building, designed by the Norwegian architectural practice SnØhetta on a circular plan with an inclined roof, was opened in 2002. Its global identity is highlighted by the inscriptions in many different alphabets on its outside walls.
To experience a truly universal library like that of ancient Alexandria the only modern equivalent might be the Library of Congress in the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C. with about 164 million items in virtually all formats, languages, and subjects, these collections are the single most comprehensive accumulation of human expression ever assembled. The Library has more than 39 million books, including the world’s largest collection of legal materials, more than 73 million manuscripts, over one million newspapers, over five million maps, six million pieces of sheet music, and more than 14 million photos and prints. Each day about twenty-two thousand items arrive at the Library. Approximately ten thousand of these items will become part of the permanent collections.
Of course now we have the internet which created a reference library far larger than any physical library. From anywhere in the world with internet access anyone can search for answers through the Google search engine. You Tube and other video web sites collectively have become a bottomless sea of videos that gives immediate visual representation of almost every conceivable thing. Digital encyclopedias offer instant access to countless subjects.
(1) Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Setti, editors, The Classical Tradition, (Cambridge and London, 2010) p. 26.
(2) Ibid., p. 26.
(3) Ibid., p. 26.
(4) Justin Pollard and Howard Reid, The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World (New York, 2016), p. xiv.
1. A short biography of Alexander is in Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans in the Dryden translation published in Great Books of the Western World, v. 16, pgs. 540-576, 1952.
2. Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.E.: A Historical Biography by Peter Green, 1991.