My single favorite observation about Alexander the Great and his empire is attributed to Joseph Stalin, in a series of articles published in Pravda in 1950 called “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” In this, he answers a series of questions about language, its relationship to marxism (e.g. “is language a superstructure?”), whether language is inherently “class language” whether this changes if a society possesses multiple languages. Along the way, Stalin notes that empires of the “slave and midiaeval” eras, including Alexander’s was a “transient and unstable military and administrative association” that was unable to create a solid economic foundation of their own. Stalin expands this observation to apply to all ancient empires, but it particularly suits Alexander’s kingdom, which is sometimes credited with aspiring to form a more unified kingdom through intermarriage, at least among the ruling class, and that quickly disintegrated.
I was reminded of this today as I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation. In this novel, a scientist named Hari Seldon perfects “Psychological History,” which is a way to mathematically predict the history of the future based economics, sociology, and group behavior. The process works best for large groups and when most independent variables can be eliminated. At the outset, Seldon predicts the fall of the millennia-old galactic empire and claims that his method has shown there will be thirty-five thousand years of barbarism, but that this dark age can be reduced to a thousand years if he is allowed to establish an outpost of science and knowledge on the periphery of the galaxy–The Foundation.
The basic narrative is based on the fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes in clever ways, sometimes in somewhat clumsy ones, but Asimov spins out an engaging story over a long extent of time and space, but one passage in particular jumped out:
“Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.”
One of the issues I have with the basic accounts of Alexander’s conquest is that they rely extensively “brilliant heroics.” The sources make this largely unavoidable, and Alexander’s cult of personality is particularly potent. Asimov’s “Psycho-History” doesn’t offer a solution, but I am struck by the juxtaposition and that the exceptional (Alexander) seem to defy the broad trends. Of course there were economic and social currents that made Alexander’s conquest possible, including Philip’s reformation of the Macedonian Kingdom, but the actual conquest will forever be considered at least largely the product of Alexander’s implacable drive.