The truth about Alexander

Oliver Stone's movie portrait of one of the greatest military leaders in history opens this week. Allan Massie looks at how a prince who conquered the world became an icon for us all
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In the year 30BC, Octavian Caesar, the future Emperor Augustus, arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his rival, Mark Antony, whom he had defeated a few months previously at the Battle of Actium. The Egyptian business was soon completed. Antony and Egypt's queen, Cleopatra, were dead. Octavian was master of the Roman world. But before returning to Rome he had one ambition to fulfil.

In the year 30BC, Octavian Caesar, the future Emperor Augustus, arrived in Egypt in pursuit of his rival, Mark Antony, whom he had defeated a few months previously at the Battle of Actium. The Egyptian business was soon completed. Antony and Egypt's queen, Cleopatra, were dead. Octavian was master of the Roman world. But before returning to Rome he had one ambition to fulfil.

He ordered the sarcophagus containing the mummified body of Alexander the Great to be removed from its mausoleum and opened. Then he looked on the face of the greatest conqueror the ancient world had known, crowned the head with a golden diadem and strewed the trunk with roses, violets and lemon flowers. It was not only an act of tribute: he was proclaiming himself to be Alexander's heir, as Rome was heir to Greece. This happened in Alexandria, the great Greek city in Egypt founded by Alexander, now the second city of the Roman Empire. The symbolism of Octavian's gesture was unmistakable

Alexander's life was short. He was dead at 33. His career was dazzling. It dazzled antiquity; he was the conqueror for all to measure themselves against. Four hundred years after his death a Greek officer in the Roman army, Arrian, wrote a history of his campaign, drawing on the narratives of two of Alexander's companions, one of whom had access to Alexander's official journals and to the work of Callisthenes, appointed by Alexander as his historian but put to death in 327BC for his part in a plot against the king.

Many versions of the story were already in existence, some fabulous; and these were translated from the Greek into Latin, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic and Arabic. The Latin versions passed in the Middle Ages into Old French and English. The popularity in Scotland of the name Alexander is said to derive from these; in Muslim countries the version is Iskander. In Henry V Shakespeare allows the Welsh officer Fluellen a detailed knowledge of Alexander's campaigns.

He continued to dazzle: Napoleon thought him the first of commanders, and sought to emulate him. Throughout the centuries he was the man against whom generals measured themselves, as batsmen do against Don Bradman. We may no longer esteem conquerors as our forefathers did, but Alexander still dazzles. He dazzles Hollywood as Oliver Stone's epic movie, drawing on Robin Lane Fox's biography, shows. He is a figure of history, legend and myth; there are Afghan tribes that claim descent from his soldiers.

Alexander was first the boy who mastered the most famous horse in history. Bucephalus, which means "ox head", was brought to his father, King Philip of Macedon. Nobody could manage him until the boy prince came forward, took the bridle, turned the stallion's head toward the sun, so he should no longer be alarmed by his shadow, spoke soothingly, then mounted.

"My son," Philip said. "Look for a kingdom greater than Macedonia, for it is too small for you." Alexander rode Bucephalus in his battles and when the horse died in India, at almost the extremity of the king's conquests, he mourned "as at the death of a beloved friend" and founded the city of Bucephalia.

Every well-educated schoolboy used to know that story, and also this one. On a visit to Corinth Alexander met the cynic Diogenes who, despising worldly goods, lived in an earthenware tub. Alexander asked him to name any favour he chose. "Stand out of my sunlight," replied the philosopher. "Were I not Alexander, I should like to be Diogenes," the king said. A fine soundbite, if scarcely sincere.

The prince had grown up dreaming of glory, but he was also an educated soldier; one of his tutors was Aristotle. He was credited with planning the library in Alexandria, the most famous in the Ancient World, and also another in Nineveh.

Alexander took part in his first battle when he was 16, and was king before he was 20. His father, Philip, had established Macedonian control over mainland Greece, although many Greeks regarded the Macedonians as almost barbarians and Philip once said they were "a rude and clownish people".

Philip was murdered in 336BC at the instigation of Alexander's mother, Olympias, whom he had deserted for a new wife. Philip's death gave the states and cities he had ruled the opportunity to regain their independence, and so the first year of Alexander's reign was spent putting down rebellion and establishing his authority. Then he prepared for the Persian war his father had been planning.

Persia was the age's superpower. Its ruler, Darius, called himself "the Great King", implying he was king of kings, and ruled all of known Asia and Egypt. There were, however, Greek cities within that empire, and other subject peoples who resented Persian rule, and were ready to welcome Alexander.

Nevertheless his task would have daunted a less self-confident man. When Alexander crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) in 334 he led an army of perhaps 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Darius could put armies into the field that were at least five times as large. That at Gaugamela (otherwise known as Arbela) in 331 was said to be a million strong. This figure was a wild exaggeration, yet in the previous battle, Issus in 333, the Persian army is reliably estimated, according to John Keegan in his History of Warfare, at 160,000, almost three times as large as Napoleon's at Waterloo.

It took three great battles - the first being at the River Granicus - to break the Persian Empire. In all Alexander displayed daring and tenacity. His method was bold and simple: he attacked the enemy at its strongest point. Victory there provoked demoralisation and flight. Alexander himself would lead the decisive cavalry charge; he was wounded at the Granica.

He showed himself chivalrous in victory. When Darius fled from the field at Issus, his mother, wife and children were taken prisoner. Alexander assured them they would be treated with the respect and consideration due to their rank. His humane behaviour is said to have astonished contemporaries. When Darius was murdered by some of his own courtiers, Alexander covered the Great King's body with his own cloak as a mark of respect.

He had set out to subjugate the barbarians, but, when he found himself master of the Persian Empire, he treated his Greek and Asiatic subjects equally, taking Persian noblemen into his confidence, and even adopting the manners and dress of the Persian court. This angered some of his Macedonians. There was a plot against his life. In a drunken rage he killed his companion Cleitus, who had saved his life at River Granicus, because Cleitus taunted him. His remorse was said to be bitter, but nevertheless other Macedonians were executed that year (327) for conspiracy.

Like Napoleon, Alexander could put no rein on his ambition. It wasn't enough to have made himself master of the Persian Empire. He must go further. India lay before him. His followers saw in the adventure a repetition of the legendary conquest of India by the god Dionysus. He crossed the Hindu Kush while his friend since childhood, Hephaestion, took control of the Khyber Pass. Alexander crossed the Indus, defeated a large army made more formidable by a contingent of elephants, occupied Punjab, and was ready to advance to the Ganges, then thought to be the extremity of the earth. But his Macedonian veterans had had enough. They had marched 12,000 miles, and refused to go further. So Alexander had to submit to their will.

Back in Persia he extended his policy of fusing the Greek and Asiatic parts of his empire, by colonisation, by unification of the military services, and by marriage; he married, as his second wife, one of Darius's daughters, and his friend Hephaestion was married to another.

Much is made today of Alexander's bisexuality, and I read that Oliver Stone hints at least at a sexual relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion. There is no doubt they were close and Alexander was wretched when Hephaestion died in 324, but, whatever they had been as youths, it is highly improbable they remained lovers when grown up. Greeks disapproved of sexual relations between adult men and despised those who practised them. Although as a Macedonian, Alexander was not a pukka Greek (Albanians even today claim him as their own), this was not a convention he was likely to flout.

It was quite another thing for a soldier to have a paideka (which Robin Lane Fox translates as a "sex-boy"). That was quite acceptable. Relations with a boy, such as the Persian eunuch, narrator of Mary Renault's novel The Persian Boy, where he is the paideka of Darius and then Alexander, are far more probable than a relation with an equal such as Hephaestion.

Alexander's story remains astonishing. No wonder it has attracted film-makers. No wonder it appealed so to Napoleon. Asked once on St Helena which had been his greatest battle, he replied Borodino, fought on the way to Moscow. Asked why, he said, "because it was so far from home". Alexander would have understood the answer. Perhaps, in his delirium, dying of fever in Babylon in 323, his only regret may have been that he had been compelled to turn back in India.

Viewed from the perspective of our times, his career may seem one of pointless conquest and slaughter. We no longer approve of war. Yet that conquest changed the world, if only for a time; it resulted in the extension of Greek civilisation over Asia. Paul Harvey's Oxford Companion to Classical Literature sees that Hellenistic Age as one in which the idea developed of world inhabited by men possessing a common civilisation. "Commerce increased and helped to extinguish the hatred of the stranger. The notion of a brotherhood of man, imperfectly conceived by Alexander and developed by the Stoic philosophy, bore fruit" - even if Alexander's empire fell apart, divided between his generals, one of whom, Ptolemy, became King of Egypt and the ancestor of Cleopatra.

It is no wonder that the young Octavian Caesar, soon to be Augustus, imposing the Pax Romana on the Roman world, was so eager to gaze on the face of Alexander, three centuries dead. Few men have ever exerted a more powerful influence on the imagination of succeeding ages.

Bombast, battles and an abysmal blond dye-job

Concede this at least to Oliver Stone, he's never been afraid of bluster and bombast. We get plenty of both in this long and pretty humourless footslog through the life of Alexander the Great, warrior, tyrant, visionary and all-round alpha male.

Alexander, a "force of nature", we're told, had conquered most of the known world by the age of 25; by the time he died seven years later, in 323BC, he bestrode a vast empire that covered the greater part of Central Asia. What's more, if this film is to be trusted, he did it all while sporting one of the worst blond dye-jobs in history.

Colin Farrell, in the title role, has an epic struggle of his own here, locked in an Oedipal tug-of-love with Val Kilmer as his dad, Philip of Macedon, and Angelina Jolie as his mum, coiling more snakes about her than Medusa and essaying an accent that's straight from the Russian Book of Bond Villains.

Farrell, a good actor, does the best he can with the role, but its multifarious demands baffle him. How to soften this monster of ambition with human doubts? How to be a strapping leader of men when wearing eyeliner that thick? How to play the king by day when, with epicene friend Hephaestion (Jared Leto) at his side, he plays the queen by night?

The story, narrated in flashback by former comrade in arms Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), proceeds in ragged fits and starts, chronicling the tumult of Alexander's boyhood, his accession to the throne and his first great victory at Gaugamela, where he put a quarter of a million Persians to rout. Here, for once, Stone hits his stride, whipping up a dusty maelstrom of blood, flesh and steel and shoving us right into the middle of what feels like an open-air abattoir. Nothing else, even the elephant battle in India that bookends the movie, comes close to matching this sequence for brutal, kinetic exhilaration.

"Fortune favours the bold" runs the film's epigraph, and one senses Stone's pride in the overweening scale of this project - he's a daredevil visonary too! - but realistically he shouldn't raise his hopes of being hailed "Oliver the Great" any time soon.

Anthony Quinn