Was Alexander the Great murdered in Babylon? In a historical mystery which combines Dan Brown's narrative panache (but with far superior writing skills), Agatha Christie's sense of drama and mis-en-scene, and Paul Johnson's synoptic view, Graham Phillips
makes a convincing case that, indeed he was. "Alexander the Great: Murder in Babylon" (Virgin Books, 2004) is as thorough as any scholarly study, footnotes and all and, yet, it is compulsively and breathtakingly readable.
The book opens with the events of the fateful banquet in 323 BC: 32-year old conqueror of the known world, Alexander III, fell ill with the most unusual symptoms and then died. For some reason, his hideous expiry has been attributed to malaria, typhoid, or alcohol poisoning. But Phillips demonstrates irrefutably that the King was assassinated, his drinks laced with fatal herbs.
Having considered the means, Phillips then proceeds to review the motives and opportunity each of the suspects had. And what a list it makes! By the end of his ego-driven life, Alexander had converted his entire entourage into a gaggle of bitter, vengeful, scheming courtiers and spurned wives. Phillips shines the proverbial spotlight on each suspect in turn, analyzing his or her relationship with the young potent, the promise and the inevitable disappointment and disillusionment, love turned to virulent, seething, pernicious hatred or to cold, calculated, merciless self-interest.
Antipater, the long-suffering soldier who feared that he is about to be executed by an increasingly more paranoid Alexander; Arridaeus, the King's older brother, intermittently mentally incompetent, but sufficiently coherent to envy and resent his sibling; Barsine, the gorgeous captive-turned-wife, jilted for a younger woman, saddled with Alexander's first child; Seleucus, the able officer whose meteoric rise via the military ranks may have tempted him to seize even more power; Roxanne, Alexander's first wife and queen, driven insane by her jealousy of Alexander's Persian second wife, Statira, daughter of the defeated Darius III; Meleager who frowned upon Alexander's self-deification and who survived the purge of the loyal Macedonian cohorts in favor of Persian recruits; Statira, who openly threatened to kill Alexander to avenge her father's death; and Perdiccas, Alexander's second-in-command and instant beneficiary from his untimely demise.
Phillips then proceeds to place the whole event in intricate, rich, and panoramic historical and cultural context and to suggest a plausible solution to the enigma of Alexander's murder, culprit, method, and aftermath included. This, in itself, renders the book the ultimate intelligent whodunit. But Phillips' main (possibly inadvertent) contribution may be the emergence of another profile of Alexander: querulous, paranoid, delusionally megalomaniac, hostile, treacherous, and flippant. In other word: a narcissistic psychopath.
Fast forward 2300 years.
The government of the Republic of Macedonia
has recently changed the name of its puny airport to "Alexander the Great". This was only the latest symptom of a growing cult of personality. Modern-day Macedonians, desperately looking for their ancient roots in a region hostile to their nationhood, have latched onto their putative predecessor with a zeal that defies both historical research and the howls of protest from their neighbor, Greece.
In a typical Balkan tit-for-tat, Greece blocked Macedonia's long-sought entry into NATO, citing, among a litany of reasons, the "irredentist provocation" that was the renaming of the airport. Macedonia has designs on a part of Greece, Greek politicians claim with a straight face, and the denizens of this tiny polity have no right to the heritage of Greece of which Alexander the Great is an integral part (which would have surprised him no end: Alexander belonged to the Hellenic culture, but not to any of the Greek polities, his lineage's avowed enemies.)
Newspapers and weeklies in a current-day impoverished and failed Macedonia are flooded with articles and essays written by "archeologists" and "historians" about how current-day Macedonians have nothing to do with the thoroughly documented Slav invasion of the Balkans in the 5th and 6th centuries and are actually the direct and only descendents of Alexander the Great and other illustrious historical figures. If reality lets you down, why not resort to historical , self-aggrandizing, fantasy?
Alexander the Great would have greatly disliked contemporary Macedonians: they are peace-loving, overly-cautious, consensual, and compromise-seeking. It seems that their own government finds these laudable qualities equally offensive.
It is beyond me why both Macedonia and Greece wish to make a deranged mass murderer
their emblem and progenitor. There is little that is commendable in both Alexander's personality or his exploits. Having shed the blood of countless thousands to fulfill his grandiose fantasies of global conquest, he declared himself a god, suppressed other religions bloodily, massacred the bulk of his loyal staff, and betrayed his countrymen by hiring the former enemy, the Persians, to supplant his Macedonian infantry.
Alexander the Great was clearly insane, even by the cultural standards of his time. According to Diodorus, a month before he mercifully died (or, more likely, was assassinated) his own generals invited Babylonian priests to exorcise the demons that may have possessed him. Plutarch calls him "disturbed". He describes extreme mood swings that today would require medication to quell and control. The authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica attributes to him "megalomania and emotional instability". It says:
"He was swift in anger, and under the strain of his long campaigns this side of his character grew more pronounced. Ruthless and self-willed, he had increasing recourse to terror, showing no hesitation in eliminating men whom he had ceased to trust, either with or without the pretense of a fair trial. Years after his death, Cassander, son of Antipater, a regent of the Macedonian Empire under Alexander, could not pass his statue at Delphi without shuddering."
Alexander was paranoid and brooked no criticism, or disagreement. When Cleitus, his deputy, had a petty argument with him in 328 BC, Alexander simply ran a lance through his trusted general and had the army declare him a traitor and, thus, justify the slaying. The same fate befell Cleitus's unfortunate successors as second in command.
From his early youth, Alexander has been reckless (though fortunate) and unusually bloodthirsty. He used the fortuitous occasion of his father's murder to liquidate anyone who opposed him, even implicitly. He then went on a rampage that alienated and united all the Greeks against him. Even his famed campaign against the Persians owed its success to the latter's precipitous decline rather than merely to Alexander's military genius. Long before he came on the scene, other Greeks (the Ten Thousand, Agesilaus of Sparta) have defeated the Persians decisively. His bloodlust never abated: when his army mutinied in India and forced him to return to Babylon, once there, he executed scores of his satraps, military commanders, and other functionaries.
Alexander was known for his hubris and unmitigated narcissism
. Using humiliating language, he twice rejected offers of peace from Darius the Great King of Persia, whose family he held captive. When Parmenio advised him to accept the second offer by saying: "I would accept, if I were Alexander", he retorted: "So would I, were I Parmenio". Parmenio paid for his independence of mind with his life: Alexander later ordered him assassinated and his son executed. He also murdered anyone who had anything to do with the two.
When he tried to impose on his free-spirited troupes the obligation to prostrate themselves in his presence, he was subjected to such ridicule that he reversed his decision. But, he kept on wearing the Persian royal garb and he did execute Calisthenes, an hitherto obsequious historian (and nephew of Aristotle) who wouldn't bow to him. The Spartans held Alexander in derision. They published a decree that read: "Since he (Alexander) wishes to be a god, let him be a god".
Wherever he went, Alexander was escorted by scribes whose job it was to embellish history and manufacture legends about their employer. Consequently, most of what is commonly "known" about Alexander is false. But, even so, numerous accounts of his drunken and violent reveries remain, in which he habitually murdered people and tore down cultural treasures (such as the palace of Xerxes). That Alexander was a prodigious imbiber of wine cannot be denied. Virtually all the eyewitnesses concur: Ptolemy, Alexander's bodyguard; Nearchus, his admiral; Eumenes the scribe, his secretary; Chares, his chamberlain; Aristobulus, his military engineer. So do historians who relied on such accounts: Diodorus, Plutarch, Arrian, and the anonymous author of "Historia Alexandri Magni" (History of Alexander the Great").
One could only fervently hope that the government of Macedonia fails in its campaign to transform its citizens into mini-versions of this monster.