Alexander Lives! Part I

(I agreed to write for a conference in Athens later this year a short paper about Alexander the Great.  When Alexander died in Babylon in 323, the Macedonian army named his soon to be born son, Alexander IV, as Lord of Asia and his half-wit half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus king of Macedon, a certain recipe for disaster.  This was followed by the Wars of the Successors, a generation of conflict among Alexander’s officers for control of the empire, resulting in the 280s in the three great Hellenistic kingdoms, all run by Macedonians: the Atnigonids in Macedon and Greece, the Selucids in the Asiatic part of the empire and the Lagids (Ptolemies) in Egypt.  For the next century these three duked it out with one another, while in the west Rome crushed Carthage by 201.  The Romans then defeated the Antigonids in 196 and again in 168 and the Seleucids in 189; the weakling Lagids came to an end with Cleopatra VII’s suicide in 30.  Rome ruled the Mediterranean world.  What if Alexander had not died of malaria in 323?  [I need to leave town for a bit and may not get the next installment done by next Thursday.])

[For convenience the dating system associated with the Judean preacher is used.]

Once the fever had passed, Alexander’s first act was to order the construction in Babylon of a massive new temple of Marduk, whom he believed had saved his life.  He then dispatched Craterus to take over the governorship of Macedon and Greece from the aging Antipater and made further arrangements for another restructuring of the army and the training of 20,000 Persian youths brought west by Peucestas.  The expedition to circumnavigate Arabia then got underway, with the King accompanying the fleet, which would keep the land forces supplied.  The sparse populations along the coast posed no problem, but the heat was debilitating, especially for the army, and it rapidly became more difficult to gather food and even water.  Reaching the point where the Arabian Peninsula turns south and west and getting a better idea of just how big Arabia was, Alexander created a smaller squadron of ships, provided them with all the supplies that could be spared and sent them on.  He meanwhile led the remaining forces back to Babylon, a march that many said outdid the Gedrosia in hardship.

Back in the capital the King was pleased to discover that Roxane had delivered a boy, whom he named Philip, to the delight of the Macedonian veterans.  He attended to the administration of the empire and the training of the new Greco-Persian units, which were something of an experiment in mixed light forces of the kind that had worked well in the mountains to the east.  Towards the end of the year he traveled to the Phoenician coast to inspect the new fleet being assembled in the Mediterranean, then spent the winter in Alexandria, indulging himself in ordering new temples built around the Hellenic world, including a splendid monument to his father in the ancestral Temenid royal burial grounds in Aigeai.

In the spring of 322 Alexander got word that his tutor, Aristotle, had died, and he ordered a period of mourning throughout the Greek world.  He spent most of 322 mustering forces and supplies for a march west along the African coast and dispatched a squadron of ships south in the Red Sea to meet the expedition coming from the east.  The Greek cities in Sicily, which had congratulated him on his return from the east, were now beginning to make dire predictions of what threats would emerge should the Carthaginians seize the entire island and consolidate their position there.  Meanwhile, Craterus was compelled to take an army north to deal with Paeonian tribes that had been raiding into Macedon.

The African army began its march westwards in the spring of 321.  The coastal towns of Cyrene had submitted to Alexander when he entered Egypt a decade earlier, but the heat and constant need to feed and water his forces without devastating the area’s inhabitants meant fairly slow progress.  At the site of modern Benghazi the King left a force to build yet another Alexandria and continued westward along the coast with the bulk of the army and navy, driving into the territory of tribes nominally allied to Carthage.  Sandstorms and constant harassment by the desert tribes, who seemed to spring out of nowhere, slowed progress greatly, however, and with growing supply problems Alexander decided to turn back and winter at the new Alexandria.  The western desert had proved a much greater challenge than the Sinai had back in 332.

During the winter the King learned that the fleet sent around Arabia had sailed up the Red Sea to Egypt, and he ordered that bases be established along the route to facilitate trade.  He had been sending out mounted units to reconnoiter the coast, especially regarding water supplies, and contact the tribes along the route.  With the treasure of the old Persian Empire at his disposal buying the Libyans away from Carthage was easily done, and when the army was ready to march in the spring, he sent to the Punic capital demanding an alliance and the evacuation of their troops from Sicily.  Their answer, delivered a few weeks later, was a surprise raid on Alexander’s fleet, during which his transports suffered heavy damage and his Phoenician crews revealed an extreme reluctance to attack their Punic cousins.

Sending the Phoenicians back to Alexandria with instructions that new crews and more warships and transports were to join him as soon as possible, Alexander characteristically moved quickly, trusting his new Libyan allies to provide information about the enemy and the land.  By summer’s end he had reached Leptis Magna, well into Carthaginian territory.  The extremes of heat and cold had once more taken a toll on his army, and he decided to rest here where supplies were plentiful and await the reinforcements coming by sea.  Soon enough the Carthaginian navy reappeared, this time in greater numbers, and Alexander was forced to beach his supply vessels and guard them with troops while his outnumbered and outrowed warships were so roughly handled that they were soon fleeing and heading for the shore.  The enemy fleet departed, and the next day the King sent the surviving naval units east to meet the reinforcements and continued the march to Carthage.  If he could take an army though the Hindu Kush, he could certainly traverse this region.

A week’s march from Carthage his way was blocked by the enemy army.  The force was larger than his and composed of Libyans and mercenaries, most of them veterans from the Sicilian campaigns, and cavalry from Numidia.  Ptolemy suggested that the King simply buy the army from its Carthaginian leaders, but he replied “I will not purchase a victory.”  While some of the King’s newly raised units performed poorly and his smaller cavalry force had a time of it with the Numidians, his Macedonians and Greeks broke through the enemy center, at which point the Numidians fled and the infantry surrendered.  Alexander promptly hired the mercenaries and gave the Libyans the option, eagerly taken, of joining his army.

Within a month Carthage and the other Punic towns had surrendered.  Knowing that he could not yet deal with their navy, Alexander had offered terms that left the Carthaginians in possession of their emporia, excepting in Sicily, and their commercial empire, but they were bound in an alliance.  They in turn supplied ships to transport Alexander’s disabled troops east and to find his long overdue fleet, which in fact had been wrecked in a storm and had turned back to Alexandria.  He meanwhile continued west to accept the surrender and alliance of the Numidian king, who agreed to supply cavalry to the King’s army.  Taken once more by his “longing,” Alexander wished to continue on to the Pillars of Heracles, named after his ancestor, but Ptolemy and the other Companions managed to convince him that having been on the march for almost three years, he needed to return to the heart of the empire.

In 317 Alexander was back in Babylon, once more replacing governors who had failed.  Later in the year he returned to Pella for the first time in seventeen years, there to meet his mother and host massive banquets celebrating the Macedonian achievement.  He also celebrated by taking a small army into Illyria, which had been conspiring with the Dardani to invade northern Macedon.  Completely surprised, the Illyrians were easily crushed, and the King established a chain of fortresses to watch over them.  The following year he took a larger force north and was joined by several Thracian tribes eager to benefit from the campaign against the Dardani and Triballi, who were duly crushed and scattered.  The easternmost territory was awarded to the Thracians, and in addition to more fortresses, Alexander settled old veterans in a new city on the Danube, Alexandria Istria.

The King decided in 315 to begin preparing an expedition to settle affairs in Sicily, where the removal of the Carthaginian menace had led to a destructive free-for-all among the Greek cities, Syracuse leading the way as the strongest player.  A new fleet was ordered from the Phoenicians and the Athenians, who were reminded of the humiliation they had suffered at the hands of Syracuse a century earlier, and Alexander himself attended to training a younger generation of Macedonians and Greeks.  Late in the year, however, word of trouble in India finally reached the west.  An Indian adventurer, Chandragupta, having established himself along the Ganges, had engineered revolts in the northern Indus valley and was pressing Alexander’s ally Porus.  Engaged in the preparations for Sicily and not fully understanding the extent of Chandragupta’s resources, Alexander dispatched Seleucus with a largely Asiatic force with a strong contingent of Greek mercenaries.

Having intimidated Tarentum, Croton and Rhegium into alliance, in 314 Alexander invaded Sicily, where Syracuse under the tyrant Agathocles had formed a coalition of
Sicilian cities to resist the invasion.  By 312 he had defeated several Greek armies and gained the entire island except Syracuse, which was put under siege.  It took almost a year to take the city, after which Alexander organized the Greek cities of Sicily into a confederation similar to that in Asia Minor.  Now, most all the Greeks, except those in Italy, were under Macedonian control, and Alexander began planning an incursion into Italy, where the fledgling Roman Republic was still dealing with the Samnites.  Alexander of course saw this as another step in his dream of reaching the Pillars of Heracles.

Late in 311, however, the King learned that Seleucus had been unable to stop Chandragupta, whose forces were pressing Porus and threatening to seize the passes west into Afghanistan.  Alexander determined, with no little enthusiasm, that it was time for him to return to India.  The Macedonian-Greek forces destined for Italy instead moved to Babylon, where they were joined by newly raised Asiatic troops.  The army spent the winter of 310/309 in Ecbatana, where Alexander discovered that the Scythians had poured across the Jaxartes and were plundering Sogdiania and Bactria.  In the spring the King moved into these provinces and after months of pursuit finally forced the major Scythian force into a battle, where it was annihilated.  He wintered in Kabul, where he was joined by Seleucus and the remnants of his army, informed that Porus had sided with Chandragupta.  In 308 Alexander moved east, dividing the army into three contingents, as he had done almost two decades before.  Debouching into the north Indus watershed, he once again faced Porus, who was once again defeated.  This time, however, the Indian prince was sent west under guard, and the area was placed under the control of Seleucus, who was left with a substantial garrison of Greek mercenaries.

Once more Alexander built a flotilla and proceeded down the Indus, meeting Chandragupta’s huge army not far south of Porus’ kingdom.  Thinking wistfully of Darius, the King took on an Indian army at least twice the size of his own and as at Gaugamela won a crushing victory.  And once again the leader escaped, fleeing eastward.  Alexander repeated his journey down the Indus, reestablishing garrisons in the major towns, and then followed the route west taken by Craterus years before.  In 306 he was back in Babylon, where the news was uniformly bad.

He learned that two years earlier Antipater’s son Cassander had procured the assassination of Craterus and proclaimed Philip Arrhidaeus king of Macedon, asserting his pure Macedonian blood in contrast to Alexander’s son, who was only one quarter Macedonian.  The King’s most able governor in Asia Minor, Antigonus, had promptly marshaled his forces and marched on Europe, where he defeated and killed Cassander in a particular bloody battle and having little choice, had the pathetic figure of Arrhidaeus executed.  The King’s position in Macedon had been restored, but his long absence in the east and the coup in Macedon had led to the revolt of Syracuse and Carthage, which had regained its Sicilian fortress of Lilybaeum.

Alexander immediately moved to Pella, where he found that Cassander had executed his mother, Olympias.  Overwhelmed by grief and anger dwarfing that following the death of Hephaestion, Alexander killed everyone even remotely associated with Cassander and then took an army northeast to slaughter every barbarian he could lay his hands on.  In 303 he invaded Sicily a second time, this time accompanied by his son, and after another siege captured Syracuse again in 302, this time to make the streets run with blood, seemingly a sacrifice to his mother.  Carthage was next, and while an army marched from Alexandria, the King landed his Sicilian army to the west of Utica, his warships, led by the Rhodians, fending off attacks by the Punic navy.  A Carthaginian army of Greek and Italian mercenaries was easily defeated, and united with the force from Alexandria, he besieged the Punic capital.  It took the better part of two years to take the city, and the final assault would be long remembered, as Alexander was treated to a stiff dose of Semitic fury.  The devastated city was settled with Greeks and renamed Alexandria Hesperia.

It was now 299 and Alexander returned to Babylon to spend the year dealing with administrative problems, dispatching his son Philip to occupy Kolchis and the southeastern shore of the Black Sea.  The following year he again prepared for the invasion of southern Italy, moving his fleet and army to Epirus.  It was there, preparing to cross to the peninsula, that Alexander, known as the Great and considered a god by many, suffered an apparent heart attack and after lingering for two days died.

The world held its breath, and Philip III succeeded his father as ruler of the oikumene.  The body was taken to Aegiai, where the tribute of an empire reaching from Numidia to India was spent to inter Macedon’s greatest king.  Across this vast landscape Macedonian soldiers wept as they received the news of his death and consoled themselves with the thought that he was now a god, looking down upon them from the heights of Olympus.  The greatest hero since Achilles was dead.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s