Alexander’s Invasion of Persia

“It is one of the paradoxes of history (and of historiography) that this king… should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma.” “Indeed, there is no figure about whom more writers are more at variance.” Yet what is so surprising about the fog which surrounds the myth and man who was Alexander is it need not have happened, for the Great King had set the precedent of appointing an official historian, Kallisthenes, and invested much time and energy in the dissemination of his image throughout his empire.

Yet an unfortunate combination of non-surviving contemporary literary sources, few surviving official and unofficial records, and the immense effusion of myth, legend, lies and fact which surround so great a figure as Alexander, leaves the modern historian with a sea of contradictions through which a navigable path to the shores of fact is often hard to find. Yet among the flotsam and jetsam is some lagan, such as the works of Lucius Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, more commonly known as Arrian. Yet even this inestimable source for the life of Alexander warns against attempts to drag the god back down to earth for mortal judgement. With such sentiment resonating from the ancient world it is little wonder, at the remove of more than two millennia, we are unable to be sure how Kallisthenes died in 327 nor why Alexander visited the shrine of Ammon in 332. Within this context, placing Alexander’s motivation for the invasion of Persia is difficult at best.

One of our best ancient sources, Arrian, gives his method for piecing together the historical record at the start of his Anabasis Alexandrou. Wherever histories of Alexander concur they are recorded as true. Where they differ the more plausible should be selected. It is not uncommon for students of history to read this passage and, with the approbation of their own professor ringing in their ears regarding their use of the historic record, leap to the conclusion this Arrian fellow had a slap dash approach to history and take an ever increasing amount of salt with their reading of the Anabasis. I would argue this is to misunderstand the nature of history and to do a disservice to an ancient scholar. If history teaches us one thing, it is just how uncertain the historic record can be. As a result historians are always balancing what is recorded against what they believe is probable about the life or events concerned. As a result I think we can have greater faith in a historian of the ancient world who is aware of the difficulties posed by the historical record and cognisant of his own bias* than we can of another writer who delivers their entire work as though it were produced without fear or favor.

Looking to Alexander’s motives for his invasion of Persia, the first which strikes us is heredity. Plutarch asserts, so dark was the shadow Philip cast over the young Alexander that the boy would despair there would be nothing important left to conquer. Following his father Philip’s assassination, Alexander not only inherited the throne of Macedon but also hegemon of the League of Corinth and with it leadership of the Persian campaign.** In this sense Alexander was continuing a work already begun by his father while also wanting to prove his own mettle in the crucible of war. Though circumstantial, I would also argue that Alexander’s route of conquest, described by Arrian, neatly retraces the path Xerxes took during his invasion of Greece in 480 and echoes a sentiment of revenge for the events of the earlier Persian war.

Finance too played a role to let slip the dogs of war. As Cicero was later to write: “Great sums of money are the sinews of war.” While Arrian suggests that Alexander began his reign heavily in debt, it should be remembered that Alexander’s relative poverty provided the ideal “rags to riches” story that ancient writers, as concerned with morality tales as they were with history, would have readily embellished. Yet while Alexander was not, perhaps, as poverty stricken as some ancient authors make out, it is clear he did begin his reign with some financial difficulties, in part due to Philip’s poor management of the Macedonian resources that had allowed him to acquire a standing army in the first place. In much the same way militarism in other centuries has proved a catalyst for war, the necessity to maintain the standing army as a power base proved a powerful motivator for a young king who was keen to expand using the vast wealth of the Persian empire. This ties in with the warrior ethos, which Alexander seemed to exude in spades. Arrian expresses Alexander as being filled with a desire for endless conquest. N. G. L. Hammond, citing Diodorus Siculus, takes Alexander’s thirst for conquest a stage further arguing Alexander actually aimed to conquer the whole world, in which the Persian campaign simply becomes a stepping stone to further glory. But I think this takes a line of thought, most likely a post Alexandrian construct, and places more emphasis on the situation than our explicit sources can truly support. Rather I suspect Alexander was simply a bellicose genius, initially hard pressed militarily to maintain his hegemon and stricken with a wanderlust. Driven by a need to give a fragmented Hellenic world, shattered by the Persian invasion, a sense of unity and purpose who ranged far and wide not to conquer the whole world, but simply to conquer what lay over the hill.

* I understand this is a very simplistic discussion of the source material concerned, but the scope of this article prevents an expansion on the theme to look at problems in the Anabasis such as Arrian’s acceptance of Ptolemy’s account because as a king it would have been unbecoming for Ptolemy to lie (Arr. preface).

** Though not within the scope of this article, it should be noted here that Alexander’s ascension to head of the League of Corinth was not uncontested. Though barely mentioned by Arrian (2.13.4-6) it is documented in the other ancient sources as a great trial for the young king (Diod. 17.62-3; Curt. 6.1; Just. 21.1). Even after his triumph Alexander was always having to keep a close eye on the home front while fighting abroad and the uneasy situation never allowed Alexander to fully trust his Greek allies or even his Macedonian court.

Alexander Mosaic (detail), House of the Faun, Pompeii is licensed under Public Domain.

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