A link to a JSTOR-Daily post came across my Twitter feed this morning commenting on an article arguing that Alexander the Great was the founder of globalization because his vision of a universal empire of “indeterminate identification,” led by humanist transcending the limits of any one identification. Since the chapters I’ve been buried in the past two weeks now walks, talks, looks, and feels like a dissertation chapter (finally) and happens to focus on Alexander, I thought I’d offer a few of thoughts.
First, the basic argument (as is often the case with this topic) is rehashed to the point of exhaustion and reframed, but not new. The principle adaptation that the article advocates for is to consider the supposed “universal empire” described by Plutarch as a truly humanistic impulse rather than a sign of philosophical training or of his determination to Hellenize the world. The basic observation that Macedonia was at a crossroads and introduced young Alexander to a variety of cultures is a valuable observation, but why this would make him more tolerant of exotic cultures than his Macedonian followers is not explained. Most likely, Macedonian resistance to the elevation of others was the result of political friction as their place within the hierarchy was challenged. It is easy to be humanistic when you aren’t being threatened.
Second, the article’s main point is that the “indeterminacy of identity” is at the root of globalization, as distinct from moral or economic factors. This is fair, but hits a snag because he hinges much of the argument on the idea of national origin in antiquity. Taking on these multiple roles was also nothing new for ancient rulers. The Macedonian kings were kings of the Macedonians, but were also alone formally ruled to be Greeks—-similarly the Spartan kings were formally not Dorian because they were descended from Heracles instead of the later interlopers. Cultures and identities, in those examples, but also elsewhere in the Greek world and beyond, were much more fluid than are often imagined, so why Alexander ought to be special in this regard is a mystery.
Third, and most importantly, I question the idea that globlization is something that can be achieved by individuals rather than larger forces. This is not to say that I particularly like or subscribe to the idea of the invisible hands of markets, but rather that a truly humanistic globalization as described by the article is, when made by an individual, a political decision that, in this case, was a way to unify an empire that consisted of a large number of disparate forces and factions. The easiest way to rule such a state was for Alexander to wear all of the hats simultaneously—-and when the easiest way to conquer or rule the state was bloody slaughter, that is what he did. Alexander was a pragmatic and (usually) open-minded political actor whose policies cannot be divorced from his drive for domination. The fact that he dominated Greeks and Macedonians as well as barbarians is irrelevant.
I do believe that we should look at the ancient world as an interconnected system not unlike globalization. However, genuine globalization cannot seen as the work of an individual without recognizing the benefits that person gains in pushing the agenda.