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.

Who can critique

One of the required courses in nearly every graduate history department is Historiography, in one form or another. At Missouri, this takes the form of a co-taught course, one Americanist, one Europeanist, who select a book a week and then discuss the ideas, theories and methods of those works. Some of these actually cover topics of historiography (though rarely theory), while others simply are topical and from a wide range of subjects, styles and methods.

My own thoughts on the discussion, purpose and failings of the course aside, the intent is to make us think about what we are doing, and to expose us to a wide range of styles and methods. The department is distinctly anti-theory for reasons I will not broach here, and so the thrust of the course is this: “The better your method is–including languages–the more viable your research will be.” Bits and pieces actually address method and some (though not enough) of the class discussion is directed to this end, but realistically this assessment is self-evident or should be.

One of the issues that arose this past semester was over who can and should criticize scholarship. The book in question was well researched and conducted through a study of numerous languages and documents. The method and the research was generally sound, but I, at least, had some problems with the application at various points. Nonetheless, the class was repeatedly told that we were not qualified to critique the method. None of us were familiar with the other research in the field (which was characterized as a political agenda covering for shoddy scholarship), or the languages to properly critique the book. If someone without the proper credentials attempted to challenge the method and findings, they would have no basis for doing so.

Though I agree that method is important and that proper language use is essential to history, this argument that one must be credentialed to critique a work is nonsense. Someone with more credentials will bear more weight, but anyone is qualified to critique any book, and in fact they should. To not do so is the opposite end of the spectrum from accepting something because of a political agenda and as bad. Nothing should be taken for granted. This is true in history, as in any field. I am perfectly qualified to critique theater or cinema, even though I don’t necessarily have the ‘proper’ vocabulary. Some people will find my review helpful and accurate, while others will staunchly disagree. In some instances I will find myself corrected by so-called experts, while in others I will assert my right to hold an opinion. The point is that I can still do it; feel free to disagree.

“scholarship,” “Historical Scholarship,” and “Historiography”

In a discussion about the progression of historical scholarship throughout history on In Our Time (BBC radio program hosted by Melvyn Bragg), John Burrow, Emeritus Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford, made an offhand remark that there was a difference between being a historian and being a scholar. This was encased within a discussion about objectivity versus bias, argumentation and persuasion versus fact.

The implication here is that most historians are trying to persuade the reader of something, often that their subject is truly worthy of study. This is true of the modern historian as well as it is of the historical historian, whether talking about where the world has come from or what is currently happening, often framed in reference to where the world is going. Of course there are the myriad of quotes, from Kennedy, to Santayana, to Hoover, to Jefferson that claim that the best predictor of the future is the past and that the study of history (and by extension historians) are vital to the continued “improvement of the human race. ” (My quotations). This claim would be true whether studying the brilliance and folly of great men, or the winds of cultural change.

The scholar is instead interested in truth. Why did things happen, and, in many cases, what actually happened. This seems to me more important than the argumentation and worth of various events. Indoctrination of values is not what the study of history should be about. At the purest sense, the study of history should be about what happened and why people should care about a given historian is the connections they are able to draw between periods and their ability to persuade people that their information is correct; in this regard the study of history should be about knitting the history of the world and the human race throughout time closer together.

I must be careful; my enthusiasm for scholarship must not be mistaken for disagreement with those who find insight and lessons from the study of history. Quite the contrary, I just don’t think that in scholarly historical research there need be overarching lessons explicitly stated. This is why history, in an ideal world, is discussion based; the lessons are those that each person discovers for themselves or are come to in discussion. It is not the job of the historian to proclaim morals, values and “lessons;” it is the job of the historian to provide stories that are true and well written. There will be enough interest for all, or nearly all, facets of history to be covered. It is the job of the history teacher to provide students a forum and the expertise to mine the lessons for themselves.

Aside from these lessons from history, which people may be steered towards, but ultimately derive from the individual, the purpose of studying history is to prepare students for life. It opens the eyes to a wide world, a rich world, which should in turn open students to new ideas; and above all, the ability to read, write, discuss and argue. These are skills which every person should be endowed with and will serve people in all walks of life. Sure, this information and these skills are available elsewhere, but not in the same condensed location.