At the age of 16, after years of tuition under Aristotle, Alexander began his military career. By the time of his father's assassination in 336, he was established as an outstanding warrior, a Homeric hero in the mould of Achilles. Despite family intrigues and quarrels and a proliferation of stepmothers, there was no serious questioning of his right to the succession, and the army immediately acclaimed him as king. At once, he began to implement Philip's cherished plan to invade Persia. Retracing the route that Xerxes had taken against Greece, he liberated the Greek cities of Asia, then moved south and west, occupying the Persian naval bases so that their fleet was rendered powerless. He took Phoenicia, Palestine and Egypt, then moved inland to Mesopotamia and the final confrontation with Darius III, who was routed at Gaugamela and murdered by his own men shortly afterwards.
At this point, Alexander's expedition had achieved its ostensible purpose. Persia was conquered and the kingship was his. However, he pressed on north and west, past the Caspian Sea, over Parthia to the Caucasus, then into Russian Turkestan on a campaign which lasted another three years. Finally he entered India, defeated Porus and took the Punjab. He had now been away from Macedonia for nine years and his armies had had enough. Reluctantly, he abandoned plans to push eastwards and made his way back to Persia across trackless desert, losing more men to sand and thirst than had ever perished in his battles. Disaffection and mutiny ensued. None the less, in his last weeks in Babylon he was planning new exploits - an invasion of Arabia, to link Egypt with India. His death is thought to have been caused by an acute fever, possibly malaria, aggravated by alcohol.
Professor O'Brien's minutely researched book takes Alexander's relationship with alcohol, both in its material form and in the numinous aspect of the god Dionysus, as its central theme. The Macedonians were celebrated drinkers, viewed by Athenians as barbarian boar-hunters; 'moderation in all things' was not their credo. Philip himself was known as Philopotes, drink-lover, and Olympias was involved in Dionysiac rites. Symposia, lengthy and competitive drinking parties, were an accepted part of drinking life, celebrating with equal vigour weddings, funerals, victories and relief from the tedium and stress of long campaigns. Alexander's greatest friend, Hephaestion, died after ingesting a half-gallon of chilled wine for breakfast, and 35 men died during a drinking contest to commemorate the self-immolation of the ascetic philosopher Celanus.
As a young man, Alexander criticised his father's excessive habits, but as he grew older he followed suit. This does not seem abnormal. O'Brien would have Dionysus overshadowing Alexander's life, but in fact Alexander, who was exceptionally zealous in sacrificing to the gods, seems seldom to have bothered with him. He razed Thebes, the city of Cadmus, Dionysus's grandfather, to the ground, and did feel later that this was a sacrilegious act, but he encouraged an actor who should have been leading Dionysian festivals in Athens to abscond from his sacred duties and come out to perform for him in Asia. He also ignored Dionysus's special day of worship on several occasions. It is possible, of course, that he feared the wrath of an affronted god, but it is more likely that his increased drinking was encouraged by a combination of heredity, social expectation, exhaustion and anxiety.
Alexander won great victories but also committed horrible and impious crimes, and many of these took place before 330, when O'Brien believes alcohol began to destroy his psyche. He had dragged an enemy general behind his chariot, he had burned down the great palace at Persepolis and slaughtered the people of Tyre. He had displayed what O'Brien quaintly calls 'creative religiosity', by manipulating the calendar so that he might fight in the forbidden month. As a very young man he had pulled the Pythian oracle priestess off her sacred stool. Yet at the same time, both before and after 330, he was deeply attentive to the needs of his men, sharing every danger with them personally, organising their medical aid, looking after their families. He was able to perform astounding feats of strategy, as in the taking of the 7,000ft Rock of Aornus or his confrontation with Porus and his elephants. He was able to summon up rhetoric which moved an army in mutiny to tears, and to weep himself at the mangled body of the dying Darius and the fate of the mutilated Greeks he met in the desert. The chivalric honour he paid to worthy foes remained constant, as did his courtesy to women.
None of this suggests a brain ravaged by alcohol. His troops were weary of endless campaigning, nine years of bitter cold alternating with desert conditions or the Indian monsoon and plagues of snakes. They loathed his policy of orientalisation, involving ritual abasement to a Macedonian king dressed in Persian robes and a conical hat worn at a sharp angle. There had been attempts, or rumoured attempts, on his life; it is not surprising that he should become suspicious and quick- tempered, or that he should deal ruthlessly with dissidents. As O'Brien says in his preface, one can only guess at the truth of his nature, and it is questionable to suggest that it was perverted by drink rather than by the natural outcome of circumstance and years.
Although one can only respect Professor O'Brien's scholarship, this is an uneven and unsatisfying book. The first part, dealing with Alexander's boyhood, is full of conjecture, and there are some cringe-making twinkly remarks: 'It was no small task to be great, when measured against Philip of Macedon'; or, concerning a mythic brawl involving Zeus, Pericles and Apollo: 'Members of this family insisted on having things their own way and Alexander, who thought of himself as a direct descendant, was no exception'.
At this point, the book reads like a Boy's Own story. However, the remaining two-thirds, covering the campaign, murders and demise in Babylon, are lucid and compelling. Two jarring notes persist. One is O'Brien's constant desire to mingle the mythic and the factual, with gods smiling to themselves as Alexander commits some headstrong impiety. The second, which is profoundly irritating, is his arbitrary rearrangement of lines from the Iliad and Bacchae so that they read like lisped messages for those of small concentration span:
Winning for myself great glory and for my father.
In the end, the lines which best explain Alexander's driven and exacting life and early death are not the irreverent ones prompted by the early pages of this book:
Do you remember an inn Alexander, do you remember an inn? but those assigned to Cleopatra, in origin also Macedonian:
Bring me my robes, put on my crown
I have immortal longings in me.
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