Fri, Nov 26, 2004 - Page 16 News List

History recalls what made Alexander great

By Michael Browning  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Florida

Angelina Jolie and Colin Farrell spark in Alexander.

PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX MOIVIES

Nothing stopped him. Huge armies with elephants, impregnable fortresses, vast distances, dizzying mountains, unfordable rivers, uncrossable deserts, hunger, thirst, the sea itself, the uttermost extremes of physical hardship and battle -- he had 21 healed wounds in his body when he died -- nothing on earth could halt Alexander the Great.

After more than 2,300 years, his name rings in memory, and his exploits still exhaust superlatives. "It was difficult to turn him aside from any course whatsoever when he had once set out upon it," wrote Plutarch, admiringly, nearly 500 years after Alexander had died. "For Fortune, by yielding to his onsets, only made his purpose more obstinate, and the high spirit which he carried into his endeavors, rendered his ambition unconquerable in the end, so that it subdued not only enemies, but even time and places."

Alexander's career beggars both film and fiction. By the year 331 BC, before he was 26, he had conquered the Persian empire, the largest on earth, comprising modern Turkey, Egypt, the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as parts of Central Asia and even China.

In one of his most bitterly fought campaigns, he won all the coastal cities of Asia Minor and modern Syria, Lebanon and Judea, then scooped up Egypt almost bloodlessly.

He completed his conquest by burning the Persian capital and taking possession of its gigantic treasury. King Darius, the thrice-defeated ruler of Persia, fled the capital and was assassinated by Bessus, one of his generals.

On the pretext of pursuing Bessus, Alexander stormed eastward.

He pushed into Central Asia, now part of the former Soviet Union, captured Bessus and had him ceremoniously and slowly executed then rushed through Afghanistan, into what is now Pakistan. He won a princess-bride named Roxane ("Little Star"), who was only 15, after assaulting and capturing a mountain fortress perched on a height so lofty and sheer-walled it was named "Aornos," the "Place of No Birds."

Alexander then forded the Jhelum river into northern India and, on a night of squalls and thunderstorms, defeated the Indian rajah Poros, whose forces included elephants, the tanks of their day. He was nearly killed in an assault on a fortress in southern Pakistan, when a huge arrow with a barb 5cm wide pierced his chest. Characteristically he had been rallying his troops, and had climbed a ladder to spur them on.

At this point his army, not he, lost heart and implored him to return to Greece. After days of sulking, Alexander agreed to go home.

He died as mortals must, slain most likely by a malarial mosquito, but not before achieving immortality in human memory. He contracted a fever, which seemed mild at first, but which worsened. He bathed, drank a good deal and at one point may have tried to throw himself into the Euphrates River, near Babylon, about 90km from modern Baghdad in Iraq, where US troops are fighting now. After eight days he was practically immobile and unable to speak. After 10 days he expired, in June, 322 BC, at Babylon. According to the scholar Arrian, he was 32 years and eight months old.

He was unquestionably great; but was he good?

Alexander won the lottery, so to speak, just by being born in 356 BC, the son of Philip II of Macedon and his wife, the hot-tempered Olympias. Philip was the most brilliant military commander in Greek history, a far-seeing statesman who made the Macedonian army into the most ferocious fighting machine the world had yet seen.

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