Pella, birthplace of Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great was born in 356 BC in Pella, currently a rather nondescript but clean and attractive village located just 45km from Thessaloniki. We arrived here on a cold winter morning. At 9.00am, Pella was still fast asleep. The bus dropped us at a nominally sheltered stop on a side road just off the highway. I asked the driver how far we had to walk. He said “5 minutes.” I found out that it was actually 5 km. Luckily it was a day trip and we didn’t have all our bags with us. As we made our way into the village on a wide, practically deserted road, an old man joined us and offered to guide us. He spoke in Greek and gestured a lot. We knew he was trying to be helpful, but his explanations practically fell on deaf ears.
Anyway, we soon arrived at the museum and the elderly volunteer left us. The person at the counter informed us that entry was free that day, the reason being it was Sunday. The building was modern, attractive, but not imposing. Thankfully, the interior was far more interesting. There were video shows with artists’ impressions of ancient Pella and the static exhibits included pieces of pottery and interestingly, also some glass appliances and eerie burial jars.
Another interesting thing – moulds for replicating busts, suggesting that concepts of productivity and mass production were already known to the ancient Macedonians. Most stunning, however, was the amount of gold that the ancient Macedonians once possessed.
There was an entire hall dedicated to the exhibition of all these glittering ornaments. One can only imagine what the original haul was. The ultra pragmatic who often ask if freedom and Democracy are edible may wonder why the Greeks didn’t melt down or auction off their heirloom to tide them over the current financial crisis. Luckily for the romantic and artistic, the Greeks have too much pride and humanity in them to do that. We expected to see a lot more relics associated with Alexander, but unfortunately, except for a few busts and statues, there wasn’t very much. This was just his birthplace after all. Alexander’s achievements extended way beyond his birthplace.
The archaeological site was a long walk from the museum. Again, entry was free on a Sunday. We walked around the ruins and noted the amount of new marble being brought in, apparently to rebuild the ancient city of Pella – an ambitious but somewhat pointless endeavor unless they could also rebuild the former glory and spirit of Pella. Again, there was nothing special here. The Agora Pella gives you a glimpse into the kind of city that Alexander the Macedonian boy grew up in, but it bears no testimony to Alexander the conqueror. For that, one may have to go on the same warpath that he did. But in many ways, Alexander is the pride of his people. His story is worth telling.
For the greater part of their ancient history, the Greek city states were just a loose confederate. While they spoke the same language and worshipped the same gods, their cultures, political systems and attitudes differed widely. When the Persians invaded, many of the soldiers in the Persian army were actually Greek mercenaries. When the Persians were not invading, the states often fought among themselves. Macedonia was regarded as one of the more backward and unruly states. Under the leadership of King Philip, Macedonia prospered and the wise king engaged the great teacher from Athens, Aristotle, to teach his son Alexander. Modern conspiracy theorists suggest that it was Alexander’s mother, Olympias who engaged famous tutors for the young Alexander.
Alexander’s first tutor was Leonidas of Epirus, his mother’s hometown. The learned tutor was a close friend of Olympias and he taught the young prince horsemanship, archery and combat. Leonidas was a strict teacher and often reminded the prince not to be wasteful. On one occasion when he saw Alexander throwing incense into the fire, he advised that he could only afford to be that generous with the incense when he has conquered the land that produced it. Alexander was also taught by Athenian philosopher Aristotle who introduced him to philosophy, poetry, drama, science and politics. Alexander’s acquaintance with Homer’s Iliad would be one factor that set him on the path of world conquest.
Alexander grew to be a fine young man even though his father was often absent. King Philip, who had 7 known wives and numerous unknown mistresses, spent most of his time on military campaigns. The rest of his time was spent drinking and impregnating women. Alexander’s character could only have been shaped by Olympias and Aristotle. His immense confidence in both his physical and mental prowess was legendary. Enthralled with Homer’s works and Greek mythology and with his mother’s claim of being related to the gods, he believed that he was descended from the great Achilles and was destined to rule the world.
At the age of 16, the young Alexander embarked on his first military expedition and successfully defeated the Thracian tribes. In 338 BC, Alexander took charge of the Companion Cavalry and aided his father in defeating the Athenian and Theban armies at Chaeronea. King Philip went on to unite all the other Greek states, only leaving Sparta alone. But Alexander’s success did not bring his father closer to him. Instead, King Philip took a younger woman for his new queen and ousted the arrogant, headstrong and meddlesome Olympias who followed the cult of Dionysus and slept with snakes on her bed. The former queen and her son were banished and had to move back to Epirus where Olympias was born.
Then, in 336 BC, at Alexander’s sister’s wedding, King Philip was murdered by his own bodyguard. The murderer was quickly put to death and unable to implicate anyone. Some conspiracy theorists believe that it was Olympias who plotted the whole assassination. The circumstantial evidence was overwhelming. Other historians argue against it, but the fact remains that Alexander did not mourn his father’s death for very long. He swiftly gathered all the troops who had fought with him and got them to recognise him as the new king. He then plotted the murder of all potential heirs. Olympias went one step further, killing the woman who took her place and also her daughter for good measure. Alexander’s ascent to the throne was thus undisputed.
However, while most of his native Macedonia accepted his leadership, the Greek states King Philip once subjugated were divided. Thebes was especially defiant and Athens wanted take over the leadership of the Greek city states and free them from Macedonian control. Alexander showed neither patience nor mercy for the separatists. He marched his Macedonian troops south and led a horrific massacre in Thebes, slaughtering more than 6,000 people. With Thebes razed to the ground and its population decimated or sold into slavery, the other Greeks states readily submitted – including Athens.
How did 20-year-old Alexander manage to defeat the other Greek armies? Well, to be fair to King Philip, it was he who recognised the importance of a professional army. Macedonian soldiers were regulars who trained 12 months a year, unlike the peasants in neighbouring Greek states who were hurriedly recruited in times of conflict and returned to the fields once the war was over. In the battle between professionals and amateurs, the result was a foregone conclusion.
Another winning factor was his war strategy and his famous weapon, the sarissa – a spear 5.5m long and 6.2kg in weight. Troops were organised into a phalanx. Soldiers in the front row held their sarissa parallel to the ground and advanced towards the enemy who were virtually helpless with their much shorter weapons. Behind the first row of soldiers, the other rows would hold their weapons diagonally or vertically. When a soldier in the front row fell, the one behind would bring his spear downward and move in to replace him. Every enemy they faced would face an advancing wall of spikes.
Turning the tables on Persian expansionism, Alexander invaded Persia in 334 BC. Arriving in Troy put young Alexander in a pensive mood. He treated it like a pilgrimage. Knowing the Iliad well and with his mother by his side, he rode around the ruins of Troy, believing that the legendary Achilles who once fought here, was his ancestor. He marched on, determined to liberate Asia Minor from the Persians. His troops were outnumbered and he took many calculated risks, surprising and confusing the enemy. Alexander led with such charisma that many of the soldiers came under the illusion that they were being led by a demigod and was somehow invincible. The Persians were defeated, King Darius became a fugitive and Alexander the Great declared himself king of Persia just one year later in 333 BC.
He then proceeded to Gordium, not to secure his territory, but to confirm his divine destiny. Legend had it that anyone capable of untying of the Gordian knot (tied by King Midas) would rule the world. Breaking all the rules, Alexander pulled out his sword and cut the knot into pieces. The outrageous act boosted his ego and showed to the world that he would never play by anyone’s rules.
Ironically, conquering Persia made Alexander realise that the Persians were not the barbarians he thought they were. The Persians had a system of communication and water management that was superior to any in Greece. Alexander had set out to bring Greek civilisation to foreign lands, but he became so fascinated by what he saw that he began to see his exploits as educational explorations. He recruited local experts as he moved across the land, documenting the culture, geography, natural history and economies of the regions he conquered. When he reached Egypt, he realised that Darius not only ruled like a pharaoh, he had allowed the Egyptians to use their own language and practise their own religion. He decided to adopt the same approach towards the people he conquered. He then travelled for miles across the desert to get to the Oracle of Amon near the Siwa Oasis. Like the Oracle of Delphi, the priest here was believed to be able to convey the thoughts of the gods.
“Has the one guilty of killing my father been punished?” asked Alexander.
“Yes.” the priest replied.
Alexander could have smiled. The priest could have heaved a sigh of relief. Nobody would dare doubt his innocence from then on. Next question.
“Will I rule the world?” asked Alexander.
“You… son of god.” muttered the priest. Or at least that was what Alexander thought he heard. He announced that the gods had recognised him as son of Zeus. He would be Alexander the Great.
Back in the city, the priests promptly honoured him as a pharaoh and a shrine in Luxor was dedicated to him. Putting his general Ptolemy in charge of governing Egypt, he then marched eastwards to smash the last remnants of Darius’ empire. When he arrived at Babylon, the city surrendered without a fight. Alexander was captivated by the wealth and beauty of the city. He not only adopted the same system of tolerance and respect for the local culture and customs, he decided to put a Persian in charge. There was no looting or plunder. The conquered people accepted him as their emperor.
Alexander was so fascinated with Persian culture that he dressed in Persian clothes, held parties in an attempt to integrate the Greeks with the Persians, encouraged intermarriage but occasionally showed the Persians who was boss by burning temples and executing dissenters at a whim. He also dictated that all his subjects must prostrate before him. This practice was perfectly in order for a Persian king, but to the Greeks, this honour was only accorded to the gods. In the latter part of 330 BC, Alexander’s trusted general Philotas was accused of conspiring against him. All the conspirators were rounded up and stoned or speared to death. Afraid of retaliation by members of the convicted men’s families, Alexander gave orders to have them killed as well. As Alexander grew more paranoid, more suspected conspirators would be hauled up and more were mercilessly tortured, then killed, along with their allies and family.
Cleitus was a senior Greek general to whom Alexander owed his life in one battle. However, while binge drinking one night, Cleitus told Alexander that he would not have been the conqueror that he was if not for the groundwork done by King Philip. He chided the young ruler for calling himself son of Zeus, denouncing his own father. The narcissistic Alexander flew into a rage and drove a spear into Cleitus’ heart. Some historians believe that he was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing. Some believe that it was a deliberate move to clean out leaders from his father’s generation.
Alexander continued on his campaign into Central Asia and the Hindu Kush. Unlike Persia and Egypt, he faced strong resistance here. He eventually captured India’s King Porus in 326 BC, but the rest of India remained defiant. He soon realised how densely populated and occupied India was compared to the lands he had conquered. Populous India amassed an army 300,000 strong to defend their territory. By then, his troops had become weary and homesick. He tried persuading them to move on, but they refused.
As Alexander’s campaign advanced eastwards, he grew more narcissistic. He became a paranoid megalomaniac. Strangely, he also became less and less Greek. All along the path of his conquest, he ordered his men to take Persian, Egyptian and Indian wives. As his army grew, the ethnic composition became more Persian and less Greek. Having been away from home for 8 years, his men began to wonder when all this would end or whether any of them would be left after fighting 300,000 Indians. They refused to march with him to conquer the rest of India. They were hopelessly outnumbered. It would have been suicidal.
Alexander was infuriated, but he knew he could not go on without his men. He retreated by crossing a desert in southern Iran. 25,000 men died in that crossing. It would seem rather incomprehensible that a tactician like Alexander had not chosen the coastal route or just sailed his men back home. Perhaps that was a punishment for disobeying him. When they arrived in Persia, Alexander became even more ruthless. He checked on all the local governors and replaced them after executing them for the most petty crimes. Any soldier who disobeyed orders was crucified and speared. Many cursed him under their breath. As if in retribution, Alexander’s closest friend Hephaestion whom he had known since childhood, fell ill and died. He had all the physicians who attended to Hephaestion killed.
Alexander never recovered from the pain of losing a close friend like Hephaestion. This may sound a bit queer and indeed, it is. The two men were childhood friends and historians are convinced that they had a homosexual relationship – something very common in ancient Greece. However, homosexual behaviour was quite different from sexual orientation as we know it in modern times. There seems to be little conflict between engaging in homosexual practices as curious teenagers and then getting married and having children when the boy comes of age. Alexander had 3 wives, Roxana (Iranian), Stateira (Persian) and Parysatis (Persian). For Alexander, his relationship with Hephaestion was probably a romantic one. I remember studying Alexander in school, but “discovering” the uncensored version 40 years later made me feel cheated.
Anyway, Alexander remained depressed long after Hephaestion’s death and he drank heavily. In Babylon (Baghdad) just 8 months after his friend’s death, he developed a fever that raged on for 12 days. His symptoms were identical to those of Hephaestion. Some modern doctors diagnose it as malaria. Some diagnose it as typhoid fever and some say it’s poisoning. The naughty might even want to call it AIDS. He was only 32.
Alexander still stands as the greatest conqueror of all time. He conquered most of the known world during his time and he had not lost a single fight on the battlefield. He was an incredibly strong, ambitious, talented, scheming and narcissistic man; a ruthless, over-sensitive megalomaniac, but ultimately, he died a mere mortal. Nobody gave him a god’s burial if there was ever such a thing.
But make no mistake, Alexander’s conquests changed the genetic makeup of the world. To fully appreciate the extent the spread of Greek culture and DNA in Alexander the Great’s empire, one would have to travel through Turkey, Egypt, the Middle East and north India. Pella is only his birthplace and there really isn’t much evidence of his greatness here.
I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep; I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.
Alexander the Great
As politically correct people, we often condemn narcissistic conquerors and tyrants. However, only the naive would fail to see that it takes a wise and astute dictator to rule an empire. Alexander could not have made his mark in history if he had been a prudish and humble guy next door who respected everyone’s opinions. Even in today’s context, pragmatic electorates are often prepared to ignore some of the ruthless and even unscrupulous political maneuvers of the powerful, pandering to bullies to get a share of the spoils. In spite of their strong democratic principles, the Greeks are evidently still very proud of a man like Alexander. But dictators are all humans. No matter how clever, they cannot be right or win battles all the time. If Alexander had lived long enough to suffer more defeats, he would probably not have been remembered as an invincible conqueror.
© Chan Joon Yee, Knapsack Treks