Alexander the Great: The Ancient Boy Wonder

Roundup: Talking About History

Frank L. Holt, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (12-3-04) (subscribers only):

[Frank L. Holt is a professor of history at the University of Houston and author of Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions (University of California Press, 2003).]

This year fortune favors the old. The earliest war in Western civilization came roaring back in a Greek revival that pitched Brad Pitt into Bronze Age Troy. From another Greek text, Mel Gibson pulled a grisly portrayal of the Passion so disturbing that many watched with one eye closed, not to mention their minds. The Olympic Games returned to Greece for the first time in more than a century, and just the second time since the dying days of the Roman Empire. And who could miss the ubiquitous Alexander, whose history has become the holy grail of Hollywood's A-list directors? Oliver Stone's film, starring Colin Farrell in the title role, has just hit theaters ahead of the competition and may single-handedly revise an old genre to gratify a new generation: the sword-and-scandals epic. Old is in, the Greeks are back, and Alexander has never been greater.

Enjoy the moment, but mistake none of this for Alexander's proverbial 15 minutes of fame. He had that back in his own lifetime, and 82 million times since. So much of modern culture revolves around movies that we sometimes credit a film for making the famous famous. Not Alexander. He constitutes a one-man media industry that has consumed no end of papyrus, parchment, paper, and film. In fact, nearly 30 years ago Professor Ernst Badian, of Harvard, called for a moratorium on major publications about Alexander the Great. He lamented the glut of books "from glorious tomes for the coffee table" to "works of journalism, launched with all the skill and resources of Madison Avenue or its London equivalent." Badian complained that "in English alone, books on Alexander have been appearing at the rate of at least one a year."

Apparently no one listened: Within five years the publication rate had doubled. Last year there were seven big books; this year, 12; and already I have read 3 (and written another) to appear in 2005. Those numbers, which do not include novels, reprints, or works in foreign languages, only hint at the hundreds of articles about Alexander that appear each decade, in everything from prestigious academic journals to slick magazines.

Alexander's popularity sells far more than books and periodicals. The king has provided good copy for ad campaigns pushing cars, watches, soaps, and cigarettes. Bidders on eBay love his T-shirts, coins, costume jewelry, and paperweights. He has a palatial suite decorated and named in his honor at the Trump Taj Mahal, in Atlantic City (a bargain at $10,000 a night). You have seen him in the comics: "The Far Side" (1980), "Doonesbury" (1995), "Rubes" (1999), "Prince Valiant" (2002), and "Get Fuzzy" (2004).

In 1964 an ABC-TV pilot cast William Shatner -- the future starship captain -- as Alexander, with Batman-to-be Adam West playing the conqueror's sidekick Cleander. The show opened with drumbeats de rigueur and a voice-over that declared ancient Persia a wasteland until "one day from Greece, from the West, came a man to bring life to the soil, and civilization, and peace."

In a more lucrative venture, Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra stood before the coffin of Alexander and lectured Rex Harrison's Caesar about her dead hero's dream of "one world, one nation, one people living in peace." All of this came nearly a decade after Richard Burton droned on about his divine mission to civilize the world in Robert Rossen's Alexander the Great. Using a noisier medium in 1986, Iron Maiden screamed Alexander's praises and reminded rockers everywhere that "he paved the way for Christianity." Heavy mettle, indeed.

Born a bastard in the eyes of some Macedonians, raised a prince, crowned a king, hailed a hero, and proclaimed a god (all by the age of 32), Alexander is still overachieving in a world he helped make but could never imagine. He prevails as the one obvious exception to Emerson's dictum: "Every hero becomes a bore at last." He learned the art of war from his brilliant father, King Philip II, who was hailed as Europe's first nation-builder. Philip gave his son a decisive battle command at Chaeronea in 338 BC, when Alexander was just 18. In quieter moments Alexander enjoyed the tutelage of Aristotle.

More than a trained killer, Alexander became deeply cultured and carried his love of Greek art and religion as far east as India. He destroyed and built with equal fervor. Alexander's ambitions puzzle only those unfamiliar with the fourth century BC. He conquered because he could. Alexander's abilities, however, prove harder to understand. Few people of any era have possessed his determination, skill, charisma, intelligence, or personal bravery. Leading from the front in an army that always sent its kings first into the fray, Alexander survived wounds to his head, neck, shoulder, chest, thigh, shin, and ankle. Even off the battlefield, life hung in the balance. Assassins could be anywhere. In fact, nearly everyone in Alexander's family was eventually murdered, including his father, mother, sister, son, and two wives....

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