“Conquest is easy. Control is not.”
Captain Kirk, Mirror Mirror
Alexander III of Macedon was, in truth, one of history’s greatest conquerors. Over the corpse of his murdered father, Alexander solidified his European kingdom, sacked Thebes, secured the allegiance of the League of Corinth,1 conquered Persia, invaded India and died having been almost entirely successful for thirteen years. His conquests, everything from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River, seemingly in the blink of an eye, have captured the imagination of people ever since.
Despite his success, Alexander died young.2 He was remarkably successful during his life and seemingly accomplished any objective he set his mind to. This aura of perfection has led to a mythic reputation for Alexander. An Alexandrian Utopia, a golden age of man that promoted peace, stability and equality for all. Since Alexander left no written record of his own, it is impossible to entirely discount this possibility, yet it seems improbably.
Conquest was the easy part. Even before Alexander’s death there were a series of revolts, corruption and dissent. These first failed attempts at governing the conquered peoples were resolved through brutal suppression and replacement. Not all governors were corrupt, but enough were that the so-called reign of terror received much attention. The same governmental power struggles and corruption continued after Alexanders death; the most notable example of this was in the outbreak and repression of the Lamian War, funded by the defection of Harpalos.3
Even if Alexander set out with the ideals of equality and a brotherhood of mankind, as Toynbee would say, is methods suggest anything but. Overlooking the murders of Parmenion, Philotas and Kleitos, the fires of Persepolis, slavery of Tyre and Gaza and the massacres in India and Thebes, Alexander relied on fear and suppression as much as rewards to control his subjects at all points during his reign.
Suppose for a moment that Alexander succeeded in expanding and solidifying the heterogeneous empire into a stable and unified state, his successors would have had to be as capable to continue its hold. Compared to China and even Rome there was no central bureaucracy in either Persia or Macedon.4 This meant that the local powers retained much more independence, so when the poewr at the center waned, they broke free. Perhaps the result would have been similar to the Hellenistic Kingdoms, wit hthe progeny of Alexander leading one state.
Alexander went into Asia with the goal of conquering Persia, and may have even expected to defeat the PErsian navy by land from an early date. What he did not have was a plan for administration. As the campaign drew on, the administration changed, each “solution” was that which seemed most appropriate for the circumstance. This does not make each solution bad, per se, but it demonstrates that he had, at best, a bare outline of what he was doing. Alexander also had no idea how far his conquests would go. Definitely Asia Minor, probably Syria, Palestine and Egypt, hopefully Babylon. Beyond that Alexander may not have known what there was. New enemies arose and Alexander conquered them; permanent administrative solutions could come after the conquests stopped. If the conquests ever stopped.
Then, once forced to pause, Alexander must have realized that his empire was that of Persia. Whether this was a gradual realization or an epiphany can not be known, yet it happened. Alexander was the new Great King, and to cement the ruling class, the Macedonians would marry into the Persian nobility. Thus the next generation would be the best of both worlds; of the conquerors, yet also of the traditional powers. Now neither side seemed to embrace the unions, but, as always, Alexander succeeded. The marriages were political. If Alexander considered the equality and brotherhood of mankind supposedly proclaimed by the weddings, it was in that happy, placated subjects are easier to control, not altruism.
In the end Alexander died, but with him did not go ideals of equality. In fact his final words were supposedly hoi krateroi, or ‘to the strongest.’ From a young age Alexander was a man of action, a conqueror. Any number of reasons make Alexander great, but he died a conqueror, even as he lived. The effects of his conquests were extraordinary, spreading through time and space to this very day, but the empire itself was fleeting. The impromptu solutions were far-sighted and likely would have helped, but this assumes Alexander would have remained to enforce them. Most likely it would have been a break long enough to raise a new army, then more conquests. Once a conqueror, always a conqueror. The Hellenistic Age was inevitable. Alexander simply formed the boundaries.
1 An organization of Greek states for the common goal of defeating Persia. Alexander’s father was the hegemon of the league at the time of his death.
2 Although not as young as sometimes thought.
3 Harpalos took 5,000 talents and fled Alexander’s retribution. This money was taken by Athens.
4 Instead the power of the government largely lay on the strength of the King.