Alexander the Great, paranoia, power struggles at court: some thoughts

This is me thinking publicly about a hangup that I have about one of the major scholarly debates surrounding aristocratic politics at the Macedonian court. There is no research beyond what I have done in the past and it relates right now to a single line in a nineteen page paper. Nonetheless, it is a pivotal concern because it basically dictates how the Macedonian court is perceived.

Ernst Badian wrote his classic article “Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power,” in which he defaults to some of the Romantic notions about the nature of genius and ambition, but concludes that Alexander’s relationship with the aristocracy hinged upon Alexander’s paranoia and lust for power. He describes Alexander as being increasingly unstable, approaching ever closer to madness. Alexander became king as the pawn of several older aristocrats from whom he consistently rebelled, always trying to actually be king in his own right. He goes so far as to call Alexander’s removal of Parmenion in 330 a “coup d’etat.” For Badian, Alexander’s compulsion to achieve first genuine kingship, then ultimate power, shaped his further actions and caused him to be increasingly hostile towards any member of the aristocracy who opposed him.

In her doctoral dissertation, Elizabeth Carney claims a similar setup of the Macedonian court, with there being a competition between the aristocracy and the king, and Sabine Mueller provides a clever construction in her book Massnahmen der Herrschaftssicherung genegüber der makedonischen Opposition bei Alexander dem Grossen in which she argues that the conflict between aristocracy and king was an ongoing tension at Alexander’s court rather than something that was a result of Alexander’s increasing paranoia. The tension, she claims stems from Alexander’s control not being unlimited, which brings her back to Badian’s basic point that Alexander desired ultimate power unrestrained by any constitution or aristocracy.

These arguments have roots in two related places: the cult of personality surrounding Alexander the Great and the narrative record that we have. Basically, everyone has their own opinion of Alexander the Great, who he was, his behavior, and his motivations. This perception then dictates how credulous each person will be in regard to Alexander’s actions, and, say, whether his cause of death was alcoholism, poison by any number of suspects, or repeated injuries and illness, or some combination thereof. This is not a problem with history of Alexander per se because there is no solution to it. Instead, I consider this the most fundamental fact to the history of Alexander the Great, and believe that it is the reason that so many people are drawn (professionally or otherwise) to this larger than life figure.

Then we have a varied historical record that describes a repeated pattern of conflict between Alexander and the aristocracy, though usually in the form of Alexander ordering the deaths of people or stabbing people himself. It is at this point that people usually put on their tinfoil hats and claim Alexander was executing a long-term plan to eliminate any potential threat to his throne. It is also this record that is hard to argue against.

I believe that Alexander was prone to paranoia, perhaps to a greater degree that your run-of-the-mill autocrat (somewhere less than Pol Pot and Stalin, and probably Nixon, but greater than Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, and his father Philip), but I also believe that he was no fool. In this light, I am not convinced that he had a grand plan to eliminate any of his many talented followers simply because they were talented, and there are plenty of instances in which he gave second and third chances. Nevertheless, when presented with evidence of treason or a threat to his life, Alexander was more apt to believe it because of his paranoia. Alexander was also notoriously rash/audacious, so, when presented with a threat or a problem, his wont was to deal with it immediately and directly (see: Mallian Fortress, Philotas, Attalus, Gaugamela, etc). Even those people who believe Philip greater than Alexander and those people who believe Alexander to be dangerously unstable do not deny that he was an incredibly talented individual. We also have only a few accounts of Alexander becoming uncontrollably angry, with many more claiming that he had a temper, but was remarkable in part for his control over it. Coming full circle, whether you believe in the calm, rational instances, or the ones wherein Alexander does his best Hulk impressions, or a little of both, relates directly back to what type of individual you believe Alexander was.

My take is that a degree of paranoia is possible in even the most calm and rational people, something that would only be exacerbated in a position of power, with a mother like Olympias, a father like Philip, and an adult life entirely consumed by war, drinking, and sex–particularly when the latter two are sometimes punctuated by people trying to kill you.

There is also a tendency to make Alexander out to be younger than he was. He was about twenty years old when he took the throne. Young, yes, but still a grown man, and old enough that he would likely have been beyond Ephebe status at Athens. He also would have needed to have aristocratic support to be king whether he was twenty or forty. It might have been easier to directly appeal to the soldiers were he older, but aristocrats played a key role in supporting the king, and other than the instances such as this one where someone raised a rebellion (in this case Attalus, who was doing so on behalf of his niece and her child), the aristocracy necessarily chose sides. In this case the choice was the talented young man who had first taken the regency upon himself at sixteen, his mentally deficient half brother, or an unborn child, and I suspect that Alexander’s inheritance was not actually threatened as much as some people believe, particularly if he rallied his supporters quickly. This depended as much or more on Alexander than it did on the aristocrats who (supposedly) were the main reason for his accession. Basically aristocratic support was a fundamental part of the Macedonian kingship, but he did not really have rival claimants.

I also suspect that there is more at work in terms of geopolitics, human realities, and ideologies that caused the conflicts between Alexander and the aristocracy. The first “conflict” was Alexander’s having a legitimate threat (the uncle of his father’s last wife) executed, but he was attempting to foment rebellion against Alexander. There were certain minor incidents at points during the next six years, but it was not until 330 that there was another major incident (at which point Justin claims that Alexander began acting as though he was an enemy toward his followers). It was then that he had Philotas put on trial, and then had Parmenion, Philotas’ father, executed. I believe that the former was the victim of a coup in the Macedonian court, but prompted by the lower ranked aristocrats who coveted his position. Parmenion was executed because Philotas was found guilty of treason, which also extended to family members under Macedonian law. Thus, Alexander was not to blame for this action. Other people suffered from the fallout, but it was all related to the perceived treason of Philotas–which was cunningly linked to an actual plot to kill Alexander.

Then there was the murder of Cleitus, for which Alexander cannot be exonerated since he physically held the spear. This is the one incident in which Alexander became incoherent with rage, but he was also drunk. Moreover, there is an episode from his father’s reign where, at a similar banquet, he threw his cup at another aristocrat at an off word. Yet, even in this instance, there was some provocation in that the two men were at odds over a song or poem, with Cleitus defending some Macedonians. Alexander is to blame, but it does not seem to be a product of a long-standing plan so much as a momentary rage for which Alexander reputedly repented.

The next death attributed to this plan was Coenus, the man who spoke out against Alexander’s drive to conquer the entire world on the Hyphasis. Coenus died on the return from India and there was some supposition that Alexander poisoned him for his opposition. Of course there is no proof. Does this at all change if he wasn’t alone in opposing Alexander, much less if the confrontation at the Hyphasis is pure fiction (i.e. that Alexander decided to turn around on his own)? How does this change our interpretation of Alexander? Of course, the histories are riddled with such incongruities and fictions.

Then there is his “reign of terror” where, by all accounts, Alexander replaced and punished governors and officers who had misbehaved. Rather than punishing people who threatened him, he was punishing misrule. There were other issues, of course, and at various points Alexander threatened genocide because his horse had wandered off, slaughtered and enslaved the city of Tyre, and had done any number of other reprehensible things. Conquerors usually do. But the fact is that Alexander make rather feeble attempts to establish rule over a huge swathe of land in a period when the speediest messages went by horse. Without enough oversight, the opportunities for mischief were too great. The most notorious criminal of the bunch was Harpalus, Alexander’s treasurer who took off with (supposedly) 5,000 talents —somewhere on the order of 2.5 billion dollars or more. Yet Alexander is often portrayed as the megalomaniacal monster for punishing these actions. Perhaps he is at fault for not doing more to establish infrastructure, but by most accounts these actions are not those of a madman or of someone hellbent on freeing himself from the aristocracy. They are the actions of a talented, if paranoid and driven, individual who put himself in a position to eventually fail because he tried to do too much. Scholars then try to present a case of Alexander and the aristocracy being at odds that is not borne in the sources.

The problem that I have with this is that it is an easy and compelling case to make that Alexander and the aristocracy were at odds. I hope my present work can beat back some of the of those claims. But as cathartic as this was, I’m not sure that it makes my case as well as I’d like, or that it is really that pertinent to my current inquiry.

Assorted Links

  1. The Land of Big Groceries, Big God, and Smooth Traffic-a note in The Atlantic about a number of misconceptions and American idiosyncrasies that people visiting for the first time experience. Some speak highly of the United States, some are funny, some are depressing.
  2. Gore Vidal obituary – From the Guardian. Vidal is one of my favorite authors, from his essays to his novels (of which I have only read five or six). My favorite is Creation, in which Vidal discusses politics and religion, but mostly tries to break free from the conception that the Greeks were the spark that lit civilization. Since I am working on my doctorate in Greek history, this is a particularly pertinent reminder and something I subscribe to. A final project for a course I took at graduate school we had to write a world history syllabus, and Creation was an assigned reading on mine.
  3. Syria: Lamp in the Storm– An article about Syria (originally posted by Will), non-violence and what the UN can do to stop combat. He is critical of the limited numbers and limited mandate of the UN contingent preparing for Syria, and argues that what is happening in Syria is not merely a limited conflict that only matters to Syria, but is something that does concern the world at large. If only Syria had nuclear weapons.
  4. Siri, Take This Down – An article in the Atlantic about the next possible evolution in writing, namely the widespread use of voice to text. Right now it is not that widely used, and the use of dictation has fallen by the wayside, too. I personally prefer writing by hand, as I have written here and here. This article cites Heidegger’s lectures on Parmenides where he touches on some of the same issues, and so I may revisit the topic.
  5. How to save an independent bookstore-An article in the Washington Post about some innovative and ambitious plan to save an independent bookstore in San Fransisco.
  6. Faces of Hope– Some pictures on The Atlantic from Afghanistan.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?


An academic books I read the other day had the word “Crepuscular” in the very last sentence of a chapter. After puzzling at the sentence for a minute without knowing the definition, I decided that it made no sense and looked up the definition. It means “dim” or “of or like twilight.” Suddenly, the entire sentence made sense…and it turned out that the author was trying to say that without that particular historian, we would know little of the time period because no other sources survive. That’s it. Instead he had to write a sentence about how the knowledge of the time period would be crepuscular.1 It was reminiscent of a line from The Wise Man’s Fear (Patrick Rothfuss) wherein Kvothe, the main character, comments that a particular philosopher writes as though he is afraid someone might understand what he is saying.

A day later, another academic book went on an extended lament about how the publishing industry does not particularly like academic books because they do not sell well, and, in instructions for a textbook he was writing, the publisher had recommended a causal tone, short sentences, small words, and that he not use foreign phrases in order that the students who would have to use the book would find it approachable.3 This seemed to be a sign that the academy was losing in a larger culture war, overtaken by transient fads and (shock!) the unwashed masses.2 Moreover, he claimed that this attack on intellect has breached the bastion that are academic journals. Suffice to say that I was not sympathetic to his lament.4

Somewhere along the line developed the notion that for something to be “smart” (in all its ambiguity), it must also be all but unintelligible. After all, if just anyone could understand your point, how would we know that you are smart? Sometimes books are difficult to understand because they are presenting really difficult ideas and topics, but more often they are merely jargon-y and obtuse for no particular reason–something that the previous author seemed to regard as a virtue. I venture that it is not, particularly in a field that is designed to educate people. Have a good vocabulary is a virtue, but so too the ability to convey information clearly and concisely.

The glorification of obtuse writing is something that is bought into by both the initiated academics and the lay-person. Several months ago a smart person who is not in graduate school asked me what I study, adding a request as an afterthought that I use words that he is capable of understanding. During the conversation he asked good questions and then, after I had finished, he remarked “I understood all those words!”

This was meant partly in jest and certainly not as a slight or even really praise toward me, but it was telling that after a short conversation with an academic that phrase was at all relevant. At the same time, I often feel that academics are defensive about their position in the world and therefore worship complex writing because it “proves” that we are smarter and better than other people. The need to cater to people who are not readily versed in a battery of French phrases and Latin terms offends the sensibilities because those people are forcing us to stoop to the level of everyone else. I think, though, that this says a lot more about our insecurities than it does about our intellect. It is perfectly acceptable to have a level of assumed knowledge as a prerequisite for academic work, but the idea that the ability to explain your ideas diminishes their intelligence is false. If anything, the ability to explain a complex or new idea in such a way that is intelligible makes that idea smarter.

I think that we would be better served working on our ability to explain our ideas than on writing another essay that is only comprehensible to insiders or (worse) complaining that the real world is cramping our style.5 This does not mean that there should not be books about the musicality of Theocritus, the poetics of Homer, or other obscure topics. These books should exist, but they should also be written in such a way that the uninitiated do not get a headache trying to read the title.6 Hoarded knowledge, hidden knowledge is of no use to anyone.

1 Later in the book he used “vertebrate” as a verb, in that “x vertebrated y with z.” The meaning of this was easy to come by, but I rolled my eyes at it nonetheless.
2 Okay, fine, he doesn’t actually seem worried about the non-bathers taking over the academy, so much as the people who do bathe, but who would rather watch the movie version, read Twilight, and get drunk while they stumble toward a degree and a mid-level bureaucracy position for a career.
3 I refer everyone to Orwell’s rules for writing at the end of Politics and the English Language, with particular emphasis on numbers two and five.
4 I have actually surprised people by supporting the publishing of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey because from a business perspective, the return on those books keeps companies in business and able to publish academic books. There is not a 1:1 correlation, but there is some.
5 I do not agree with them entirely, but Hanson and Heath in Who Killed Homer? are populists in this respect, too.
6 The Violent Body: Marxist Roots of Postmodern Homoerotic Mysticism and the Feminine Form in St. Augustine’s Confessions is actually a relatively benign example of this type of book.