Sunday, November 28, 2004

Alexander and Darius

Victor Davis Hanson reviews Alexander the Great and finds it bears no resemblance to history.

The film goes on for nearly three hours, but we hear nothing of what either supporters or detractors of Alexander, both ancient and modern, have agreed were the central issues of his life. Did he really believe in a unity of mankind, and were his mass mixed marriages, Persian dress, and kowtowing cynical, sincere, or delusions of megalomania? We see nothing of the siege of Tyre, Gaza, much less Thebes or even the burning of Persepolis. Other than the talking head Ptolemy, none of his generals have much of a character. There is nothing really in detail about the page purging other than a single reference; Stone, I would have thought, could have had a field day with Alexander’s introduction of both crucifixion and decimation. ...

So since Stone omitted the controversial and key issues of Alexander’s career, what do we get instead for at least over two thirds of the movie? Mostly sit-com drama, with gay and bi- subplots, in various bedrooms and banquet halls. Olympias was something out of a teen-aged vampire movie, not the sophisticated and conniving royal we read about in the sources. It is the old Dallas or Falcon Crest glossy pulp in Macedonian drag.

A sense of the wealth of information that is omitted -- and which VDH knows is omitted -- can be glimpsed from the incident of mass mixed marriages. Some management theorists, going a little deeper than Oliver Stone, have regarded the incident as the first recorded instance of a merger in history. Others have characterized it as the first stumbling steps towards modern multiculturalism.

In quick succession he took Egypt, Babylonia, and then, over the course of two years, the heart of the Achaemenid Empire--Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis--the last of which he burned. Alexander married Roxana (Roshanak), the daughter of the most powerful of the Bactrian chiefs (Oxyartes, who revolted in present-day Tadzhikistan), and in 324 commanded his officers and 10,000 of his soldiers to marry Iranian women. The mass wedding, held at Susa, was a model of Alexander's desire to consummate the union of the Greek and Iranian peoples.

Of course, not every shotgun wedding ends happily. Some historians have argued the experiment was a failure. "The result was mass desertion and mutiny, one of many that occurred during his campaign." The siege of Tyre, which the erudite VDH refers to in a single phrase, was an instance in which an army defeated a maritime power, always an interesting situation. It was based on the appreciation that the Persian navy was operationally constrained by the need to obtain chandlering supplies at Tyre. Therefore he reduced Tyre, thereby defeating the Persian navy via a land campaign. Of Gaugamela I will say nothing, other than remark Alexander's oblique advance to the Persian left created a dynamic battlefield which destroyed Darius' set-piece. The outnumbered Alexander may not have known precisely where a gap in Darius' line would open except that he knew it would -- and bet his life on it.

But it is Darius I sometimes feel for. There is evidence he was a decent man, something in the mold of a Jimmy Carter, and he had no chance against the dynamic and ruthless Alexander.

The Roman author Quintus Curtius Rufus - who wrote his history of Alexander around 40 AD - tells us that Darius was of "mild and placid disposition". He seems to have been an optimist. Before his army set out to face the Macedonians at Issus, he had a terrible dream in which he saw his enemy Alexander in the same clothes as he himself wore before his accession. His seers offered conflicting interpretations. Darius chose to go for the most tempting explanation: that Alexander would be brought before him defeated, in the clothes of a commoner. What is highly informative about this passage is that Darius apparently was dressed very modestly when he became king.

Curtius continues by saying that Darius was "a man of justice and clemency". He was loyal to those who supported him. He felt responsible for the well-being of the troops under his command, even if they hailed from alien nations and practised customs which were culpable to his Persian courtiers. He appears to have been flexible up to the point of self-denial. Before Gaugamela he made three peace offerings to Alexander. In the first one he addresses Alexander as "Alexander" and himself as "His Majesty". In the third one he is virtually down on hands and knees. Prior to the final battle Darius in prayer expresses his hopes that after him Persia will be ruled by his "merciful victor".

Darius' reward was to die like a pursued animal. While attempting to organize a resistance against Alexander, Darius was betrayed by one his subordinates, Bessus, and slain. Bessus had calculated on winning the gratitude of Alexander; but the demi-god understood above all how treason, now that he was king, had to be rewarded. Bessus was cruelly mutilated at Alexander's command and executed.

Hollywood may have calculated that none of this was important; that the sole point of interest of a population weaned on the tabloids was the earth-shaking question of whether or not Alexander was gay. Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman convincingly argues the poverty of the question. In her monograph, Reames-Zimmerman argues that the concept of gayness, as it is presently understood, did not exist in the ancient world. From her discussion it is possible to say that Alexander might have been gay in the sense that convicts in a penitentiary are gay -- an exercise in power by one man over another -- and if that analogy is inexact so is any other. The world of 320 BC is as distant from us today as the 19th century, the last point in time when men intuitively understood the ancient world. It was then then that the explorer and anthropologist Richard Burton could write these words in his Book of the Sword and expect them to be widely understood:

The History of the Sword is the history of humanity ... Primitive man ... was doomed by the very conditions of his being and his media to a life of warfare; a course of offence to obtain his food, and of defence to retain his life. ... Peace was never anything to them but a fitful interval of repose. The golden age of the poets was a dream; a Videlou remarked 'Peace means death for all barbarian races'

Osama has as often said and we have as often misunderstood: 'peace be unto us'.