Moral Degeneration of Alexander the Great

Published: 2021-09-11 16:35:10
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The changes in the character of Alexander the Great throughout his extensive campaigns in Europe, Asia, and India provide for scholars an excellent opportunity to examine his story from multiple viewpoints, and precisely determine where along his journey did success begin to impede with logic and rational thinking. Beginning shortly after the defeat of the Persian king Darius’ army at Gaugamela, Alexander’s visions of grandeur, coupled with a growing sense of paranoia, began to harm those in whom he placed the most trust. Indeed, this issue was not merely a result of his military conquests, but as some sources show, a form of retribution for his insult of certain gods, particularly Dionysus. When examining sources from the Vulgate tradition and others, a consistent message about this moral degeneration in Alexander does appear, but its extent amongst the different writers varies greatly, each developing an independent view, which in turn scholars have used as tools to judge whether this psychological change was truly so pronounced, or else the product of more devious minds.
Scholars such as Ernst Badian, whose critical views on Alexander rely on this notion of moral degeneration, look to the information provided within the Vulgate tradition for the strongest examples. From Alexander’s entrance into Babylon, until the verge of his Indian campaign and the death of Callisthenes, it is the account of Curtius Rufus that reveals the most in terms of actions and speeches. The accounts of Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch, though lacking in the great detail presented by Curtius, nevertheless provide support for these stories, and in some cases, add additional elements and viewpoints that alter more noble perceptions of Alexander as found in other sources.After the decisive victory at Gaugamela and the retreat of the Persian army, Alexander and his forces entered the heartland of the Persian Empire. The lavish wealth and splendor present in Babylon had a profound effect on the Macedonian army, who were weary from months of campaigning. Curtius noted that “The moral corruption there is unparalleled; its ability to stimulate and arouse unbridled passions is incomparable . . . Babylonians are especially addicted to wine and the excess that go along with drunkenness.” One can no doubt imagine the morally squalid lifestyle that the Macedonians would have welcomed, under the pretense of reliving themselves before undertaking further military action. For Alexander, a man who now effectively ruled almost the entire Persian Empire, and had been taken to be the son of the Egyptian god Ammon during his visit to the Siwah oasis, this newfound glory in such an expansive territory began to change his own perceptions dramatically.
Soon after his departure from Babylon, Alexander begin a gradual process of adopting Persian forms of dress and court etiquette, raising questions for modern scholars as to how Alexander considered his position at this point. “The traditional ways of his people . . . the Macedonian kings, he considered beneath his eminent position and he began to ape the Persian royalty with its quasi-divine status.” His men, especially the oldest, most trusted generals, no doubt would have seen this as a great insult to the Macedonian name; a veritable stab in the back for those who had served under Philip and had helped bring Alexander to his current position. No doubt, Curtius tries to convey these feelings through these passages of Alexander’s assertion of divine rule. Indeed, many of these resentful feelings held by his generals do not say suppressed for long, and result in a series of two prominent deaths that also highlight the problem of excessive drink and waste first discovered in Babylon.
After the deaths of Parmenio and Philotas: trusted, high-ranking commanders within the Macedonian army, whose fates no doubt tied in with this sense of growing paranoia to an extent, Alexander made a great err in judgment as result of his excessive partying. Cleitus, co-commander of the Companion Cavalry, had taken great offense at a party to his king’s increasingly boastful claims of divine status, which were borderline insulting to his own father Philip’s exploits. As Curtius reports, the audience as a whole became weary of these pronouncements, and Cleitus, who had served under Philip, decided to vocalize his anger. “‘If someone has to die for you, than Cleitus comes first. But when you come to judge the spoils of victory, the major share goes to those who pour the most insolent insults on your father’s memory’ . . . and finally [he] ridiculed the oracle of Jupiter whom Alexander claimed as his father.” Up until this point, Curtius does not present such an intense reaction to Alexander’s changing psyche from one of his officers. Such a reaction, especially under the influence of alcohol, greatly angered Alexander, who speared Cleitus dead.
Curtius notes how Alexander quickly realized the consequence of his actions, and shut himself away for days in an inconsolable mood. Several remarks are made here against the character of the king, and provide possible reasoning as to why Alexander took such extreme actions against his general. “With a foul murder he had punished intemperate language that was attributable to wine . . . So it was that the god’s anger had displayed itself against him – for the crime he committed was drinking and feasting.” Though not mentioned outright by Curtius, failure to properly sacrifice to the god known as ‘Father Liber,’ or Dionysus, undoubtedly played a role in this murder. Indeed, this is not the first time that Alexander had angered this god; the destruction of Thebes early in the European phase of the campaign is noted in multiple sources as a grave action that would haunt Alexander for the rest of his days.
The other major episode in this moral degeneration comes soon after, with the implication of Callisthenes in a plot to take Alexander’s life. As the noted philosopher and court historian, Callisthenes had great influence over many of the royal pages, with a habit of “giving a ready ear to the talk of pages when they were criticizing and finding fault with the king.” And Callisthenes, above all others in the court, was highly critical of Alexander’s newfound demand of proskynesis, or ritual prostration, a notably Persian practice: “ . . . and he gave orders for the Macedonians to follow the Persian custom in doing homage to him by prostrating themselves.” Indeed, by the time of the plot’s discovery, relying on a night watch to kill Alexander in his sleep, Curtius shows little doubt that Callisthenes’ enemies by now had sufficient evidence of past insubordination to condemn the historian, whether or not he was directly involved.
Unique to Curtius’ text is a lengthy interrogation scene and confession of a certain page, Hermolaus, of whose testimony the audience is given witness to an outright criticism of Alexander’s changing appearance, and his inability to logically reason with his Macedonian kinsmen. “But you revel in Persian clothes and Persian etiquette; you abhor the customs of your own country. Thus it was a king of the Persians, not of the Macedonians, we wanted to kill.” Hermolaus goes on to attack Alexander’s supposed divine status, inspiring a rebuttal from the king that defends these accusations: “Does he think I have power over the gods’ oracular responses? Jupiter held out to me the title of son . . . I only wish the Indians would also believe me a god!” By this point, Alexander’s view of himself had changed to the point where he felt the need to outright defend his godlike status, a solid foundation in Curtius’ account for later criticism of Alexander’s ambitions. Yet it is not only in this aspect of the Vulgate Tradition, but in the accounts of Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch does a similar degradation of character exist, even with the slight variances and omissions concerning Cleitus and Callisthenes.
In Diodorus’ account, one will notice less of an emphasis on speeches and personal reflection, and more of the solid facts presented by Curtius and Plutarch. Alexander’s time in Babylon is largely glossed over, and pertinent sections of the influence of wealth and partying on the king are omitted. It is not until later in the Persian heartland does the evolving psychological nature of Alexander emerge. “ . . . And he began to imitate the Persian luxury and the extravagant display of the kings of Asia . . . Then he put on the Persian diadem . . . and kept for the most part to his accustomed routine, not wishing to offend the Macedonians.” Here again, this adoption of Persian dress is described in great detail by Diodorus, yet it is interesting to note how in this report Alexander seems to have been trying to placate his troops by resisting the urge to adopt full Persian dress, noticeably omitted in Curtius.
Further to this, the deaths of Cleitus and Callisthenes are similarly omitted from Diodorus, suggestive of either a different source base than Curtius, or else a deliberate exclusion to lessen the effect on the reader of Alexander’s degrading character. What Diodorus does include, presented both in the Vulgate and Arrian, is the trial against Philotas, which, while important in many respects, does not focus on Alexander’s moral decline, but examines the defense of Philotas and the growing body of dissent and testimony brought to Alexander by the king’s peers. Overall, as a detrimental source to Alexander’s moral composition, Diodorus’ account seems to contain either the use of a different source base, or else deliberate omission to protect the king’s integrity.
Plutarch’s account in his Age of Alexander, while lacking in excessive rhetoric, covers many of the main points as presented in the two previous sources, validating much of what is described by Curtius. Here, drinking is heavily associated with Alexander’s downfall, relating both to the insult of Dionysus at Thebes, and Cleitus’ death. Shortly after his victory at Gaugamela and time in Babylon, Alexander reached Persepolis, a city with prominent temples devoted to the Zoroastrian religion. Cajoled by several women at a party, Alexander, in a drunken state, formed a riotous group that burned the local temple to the ground. Plutarch notes Alexander’s quick repentance, and how “according to a number of historians it was in this way that the palace was burned down, that is on impulse, but there are others who maintain that it was an act of deliberate policy.”
Again, the escalating extravagance and adoption of Persian custom is noted in Plutarch’s account, similar to Diodorus as an act that “[fulfilled] a desire to adapt himself to local habits . . . [as a means to] soften men’s hearts. Alternatively, this may have been an experiment which was aimed at introducing the obeisance among the Macedonians,” the latter view as more supportive of Curtius. Furthermore, it is noted how the Macedonians were truly appalled by this sudden change, yet they made concessions for their ruler, in whom they placed great faith.
The Cleitus event, as reported by Plutarch, follows similar patterns in Curtius as a result of Alexander’s drunkenness. The insult is taken by Cleitus as a result of a crude, onstage performance mocking the deaths of several prominent Macedonian commanders. Cleitus’ murder and Alexander’s retreat into solitude is used by Plutarch as a transition into the condemnation of Callisthenes. Plutarch contrasts the advice given by the court philosopher Anaxarchus and Callisthenes as a method of undermining the latter’s generally irritating, insubordinate nature. “Callisthenes used a gentle and comforting manner towards the king . . . Anaxarchus, on the other hand . . . as soon as he entered the room, he exclaimed, ‘Here is this Alexander whom the whole world now looks to for an example . . . Do you not know that Zeus has Justice and Law seated by his side to prove everything done by the ruler of the world is lawful and just?’” Clearly, these words had a profound effect on Alexander: the constant reassurance from an educated philosopher no doubt registered to him that any decision he made was just; direct proof of his divine status.
By the time the conspiracy of the Pages appears in Plutarch’s text, as in Curtius, a sufficient body of evidence exists for Callisthenes to be implicated, and a similar series of events occurs with Hermolaus’ defense of the philosopher, and attack of Alexander. Indeed, many parallels run between these three examples within the Vulgate Tradition, largely derived from the writings of Callisthenes and his students, who seem to have held a great deal of anger towards Alexander for the murder of their teacher. For those scholars who base their character of the king on these sources, it must not be overlooked as to the possibility of inaccuracies and deliberate additions to tarnish Alexander’s name. By contrast, the extent to which this degeneration appears in Arrian is well-documented in terms of the major events, yet it derives from a wholly different source base, which tends to reflect more positively on Alexander, promoting the more ‘noble’ view espoused by such scholars as William Tarn.
Arrian briefly touches upon Alexander’s time in Babylon, and the events at Persepolis in similar fashion. “Alexander’s answer [to the destruction in Persepolis] was that he wished to punish the Persians for their invasion of Greece; his present act was retribution for the destruction of Athens, the burning of the temples, and all the other crimes.” Noticeably absent from this description is the effect of drinking on this event, duly noted within the Vulgate. Such a description as Arrian’s relies on the account of Aristobolus and Ptolemy, two of Alexander’s most trusted generals, who, in the author’s eyes, “when these men wrote, there was no sort of pressure on them [since Alexander was dead at the time of writing], and they could not profit from falsification of the facts.”
What is mentioned, however, are the events leading to Cleitus’ death, and the subsequent reasons for it. Alexander’s failure to sacrifice to Dionysus, as reported in the Vulgate, leads to the unfortunate events that unfold at the party. Cleitus is said to have been highly distasteful of his king’s leadership, and even more so of the open comparisons being made to Alexander and Heracles. Arrian looks down upon Cleitus’ actions, reprimanding him for “ill-judged words . . . [and] personally, I strongly deprecate Cleitus’ unseemly behavior to his sovereign; and for Alexander I fell pity,” and goes further by complementing Alexander’s actions afterwards: his appropriate show of grief, and reasoning of basic human behavior for his wrongdoing. Arrian similarly looks down upon Anaxarchus’ consolation, shortly thereafter. The words of encouragement given by the philosopher, suggestive of Alexander’s relationship to Zeus and Justice, is perceived as a “wrong more grievous than [Alexander’s] grief, if he seriously, as a philosopher, put forward the view that a king need not act justly.” Indeed, Arrian’s commentary is quite critical of the very people presented in the Vulgate who bolster Alexander’s character and attempt to undermine his quasi-divine status. The king is presented as an archetypal, noble ruler, whose actions are justifiable in the eyes of the law, since he is the embodiment of the same.
Callisthenes’ role in Arrian is presented in similar terms: his suspicions of proskynesis fall under the same scrutiny as the acts of Cleitus and Anaxarchus. In this source, the audience is presented with more of an opportunity to see Callisthenes’ speechmaking in action: a chance for him to elaborate on why exactly he needed to define the “difference between honoring a man and worshipping a god.” Arrian also recounts a tale in which a cup is passed around a group of nobles, after a process of kissing and ritual prostration. Callisthenes, very much in character, ignored the prostration, and directly tried to kiss Alexander. The latter took great offense to this, and shooed the philosopher away, who muttered a darkly amusing “I must go back to my place one kiss the poorer.” Indeed the author’s personal taste for Callisthenes is very critical of these tales, and he is quick to rush to the defense of Alexander, commenting “credit was so readily given to the story that Callisthenes had a hand in the plot which was laid against Alexander by his young attendants.” Such statements as made by Arrian to protect Alexander’s integrity looks down upon the tarnishing of his character as presented in the Vulgate, and in the end provides strong views of the supposed change in morals of the Macedonian king.
Overall, the differences in the source base between Arrian’s account and that of the Vulgate, provide, in essence, four differing views as to the moral degeneration of Alexander the Great. The Vulgate, deriving from the writings of the court historian Callisthenes and his students, share a negative view of the king’s adoption of Persian custom, and the harsh treatment of those closest to him. Scholars seeking to place Alexander within such a context have found many interrelated examples between the accounts of Curtius, Diodorus, and Plutarch. Yet one must be wary for deliberate exaggerations and additions in these texts, as its writers and editors generally detested Alexander for his treatment of Callisthenes. Arrian’s account, based on the testimony of two of Alexander’s most trusted generals, and written after the king’s death, provides at what first glance seems to be a similar chronicle of events from the time in Babylon to the verge of the Indian campaign, yet upon closer study, Arrian himself interjects his personal insights into the issue, almost always defending Alexander’s moves as wise and just, akin to his position as king, or else quasi-divine being. Taking this wealth of information into account, it remains up to the individual scholar as to what path should be considered most valid when studying this quintessential part of Alexander’s life.

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