Alexander the Neocon
by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy
"With this American empire that we’re building in Iraq and Afghanistan and maybe next Iran, who knows how it will turn out? Depending on who writes the history books, Bush may become known as u2018George the Great.’"
There are two things a moviegoer should know about Stone’s "Alexander." First, it’s blinding awful — literally. Ten minutes into it one of my contact lenses fell out, right as a one-eyed Val Kilmer came charging into a snake-handling Angelina Jolie’s boudoir. The less said the better. If you’re thinking of seeing it, don’t. Go see "Seed of Chucky" instead. Jennifer Tilly vs. killer dolls won’t be any campier than Stone’s "Alexander" and Jolie’s take on the conqueror’s mother as Cruella DeVille.
The second thing worth knowing is that "Alexander" is mildly interesting as a document of left-wing Bushism. War, slaughter, and all that goes with world conquest are all right, as long as they secure such goods as improved literacy and the mixing of different races and cultures. This is a perfectly natural companion, by the way, to libertarian Bushism, or liberventionism, which says that a bit of bloodshed is perfectly fine as long as it secures open markets and the free flow of people and goods. There’s a line about that in Stone’s "Alexander," too.
For all that Stone has done to discredit the conspiracy theory — which is saying something — "Alexander" gets the history right, mostly. Olympias, Alexander’s mother, probably wasn’t behind the assassination of his father, Philip II of Macedon, but she might have been. And Alexander himself probably wasn’t poisoned, but it’s not altogether implausible. Where Stone has embellished the story he’s guilty not so much of distortion as bad taste. The two heterosexual scenes in the movie are near-rapes. Alexander gets an Oedipus complex. Olympias becomes a misogynist’s caricature. Gore Vidal might have made something of this, but Oliver Stone can’t.
What a shame, because the left-neocon Stone does have at least a rudimentary grasp on Alexander’s politics, if not his character. The "civilizing" mission of the conqueror was something Alexander’s propagandists played up at the time and perpetuated long after his death. It’s part of his enduring appeal to megalomaniacs of all stripes. By force of arms he changed the political culture, and indeed the culture generally, of the known world, East and West. He did what liberventionists and multicultural imperialists alike long to do. Alexander is any would-be world-shaper’s role model.
Like more recent imperialists, Alexander bent the forces of nationalism and superstition to his benefit. The Temple of Diana at Ephesus burned around the time of Alexander’s birth, ergo his birth was a divine event — and, seen in light of retrospect, the burning of that temple in Asia Minor seemed to presage his conquests. Rumors were put about that Alexander was literally divine, product of a union between his mother and Zeus himself. After conquering Egypt, Alexander accepted the old pharaonic mantle of divinity, and a visit to the oracle of Ammon at the oasis of Siwa confirmed his godly lineage; the oracle was reported to have recognized Alexander as the god’s son. Once he had crushed the Persian Great King — whose title, by the way, was shahanshah, the "King of Kings" — Alexander further consolidated his divine or semidivine status, after the oriental fashion. He went native in other ways, too, marrying a Bactrian princess, for example, but he also emphasized Greek culture and Macedonian military might. He didn’t create the "first universal nation"; instead he used different peoples’ characteristic forms of national pride to his empire-building advantage. Few imperialists since have done half as well.
Actually, more of the credit, if credit is the word for it, belongs to Philip II. He turned Macedon into one of the world’s first garrison states. Before him, Macedon had a kind of barbarian freedom, its various local chiefs enjoying almost total autonomy. Macedon didn’t have much in the way of cities but was a large tribal territory with considerable natural and human resources. Philip organized it militarily and politically. He had nobles send their sons to his court, where they would be both potential hostages and subjects for indoctrination. This was something Philip had learned from his own experience as a young man held hostage at Thebes, the most powerful Greek city-state of the time. Philip learned innovative military tactics there, too, which he brought back to Macedon. Applying city-state organizational principles to a large kingdom created a centralized military power unlike any the West had known.
Philip was already preparing to invade the East when he was assassinated. He was also preparing, or so it seems, to declare himself a god. At the wedding of his daughter he added his own statue to those of the twelve Olympians, but before he could do much more he was killed, leaving the project to Alexander to finish.
This is all in the movie, and all the elements are present for a tense political thriller, even if only as part of a larger narrative. Stone doesn’t do much with it, though the scene still stands out as one of the film’s better.
The wars Philip and Alexander fought did not bring peace. Before them, the Greek world was torn apart by a succession of conflicts following immediately upon the heels of the Peloponnesian War. There were Social Wars between Athens and its allies, Sacred Wars over holy lands and temple treasuries, and other wars of all sorts. Sparta had won the Peloponnesian War but emerged from it so weak that before long another power, Thebes, arose, and soon Athens embarked upon its self-destructive quest for hegemony once more. Philip exploited this chaos before he put an end to it the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC. The battle put an end to the independence of the Greek city-states as well, more or less permanently. Athens, which had opposed Philip, was spared — destroying the prize of Greek civilization would not have been a good propaganda move. But when Thebes revolted again after Philip’s death, Alexander annihilated the city, killing 6,000 men and selling the survivors into slavery.
Conquering Greece was just a prelude to war in the East for Philip and Alexander, an exercise in securing Macedon’s flank. The eastern campaign, as always, was fought in the name of freedom — freedom for the Greeks of Asia Minor and maybe in another sense, as Stone suggests, for the Persians and all the other wogs, too. They were slaves to their tyrannical Great King, after all. This was also a pre-emptive war to head off any chance of an attack on the West. If all this sounds familiar, well, it goes to show that Karl Marx wasn’t always wrong. History has no laws, but the human race as a whole never learns much from its mistakes, so history does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second and farce. And it keeps getting more farcical every time.
Alexander didn’t know when to quit. Having conquered lands that are now in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere, he tried for India, too. In Oliver Stone’s telling this was all because Aristotle, Alexander’s tutor, didn’t know much about geography, and so the warlord thought he would discover the end of the earth if only he pushed on just a little bit further. Again, there’s a bit of truth here, although Aristotle probably does not deserve much of the blame, and behind Alexander’s endless fighting was something much more than mere cartographic incompetence. The words imperial hubris come to mind, but Stone for some reason puts very little of that into his Alexander, as if the director can’t grasp the concept. No wonder he thinks we might wind up calling our George "the Great" one day.
The conqueror’s dream is to fight the final war, the war that ends all war, and Alexander did extinguish the chronic conflicts between the Greek city-states and the age-old enmity between those states and the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. But after his own death the empire Alexander built rapidly decomposed into new warring states. Instead of cities fighting cities, empires now fought empires. Alexander’s generals carved up the conquered territory into their own fiefdoms, most of which didn’t last long. Stone’s film is narrated by the founder of the longest-lived of the successor empires, Ptolemy (played by Anthony Hopkins who here resembles, as another critic noted, Yoda), whose Egyptian dynasty survived until the death of the famous Cleopatra and her children.
Precedents Alexander set endured. It became customary for the successor kings to affect godhood, a practice eventually picked up by Roman emperors. Alexander became the archetype for would-be conquerors. He influenced more than just the battlefield and palace, however. Culture, too, had to accommodate Alexander’s mythology. The relationship between the warriors Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, which had not been considered sexual for most of antiquity, came to be recontextualized in light of Alexander’s homosexual love for his friend Hephaistion. In this way, too, Alexander knew how to use myth and propaganda to have his way. Amorous relations between peers generally were frowned upon by the standards of classical Greek morality, but by deploying the authority of the most important text in Greek civilization to legitimize his lusts, Alexander could deflect some opprobrium. The Alexandrine take on Achilles and Patroclus still carries considerable force today.
(Here again Stone gets the history right but the character wrong. He doesn’t try to make Alexander more heterosexual than he was. But he has Hephaistion flouncing around in eyeshadow, and he turns the conqueror into Mr. Sensitive. You’d think this was meant as a parody.)
Alexander’s reputation not only flourished in the ancient word — Plutarch, writing in the second century AD, paired his life of Alexander with his account of Julius Caesar — but survived the transition from antiquity to the medieval period as well. He appears in the Koran. He later become one of Christendom’s models of chivalry, the so-called Nine Worthies. More recently, critics and some scholars have compared him to the likes of Hitler. But as Stone’s film shows, even a friend of Fidel Castro can find something to admire in Alexander and his ideology. The Macedonian still occupies the pinnacle of power worship, as he has for nearly 2,500 years.
Sometimes Alexander was just, merciful, and humane, but those attributes were very much secondary to his political guile and prowess on the battlefield; indeed, justice and tolerance were among his weapons. They were tools he used to advance his imperial project. His example provides inspiration to all sorts of would-be conquerors. But it provides an equally useful study for anti-imperialists to see how such a determined and cunning man could reshape not one but two civilizations through military and political force. Most important of all might be the lesson he provides on the folly of empire, though the chances of the right people learning from that lesson must be counted as nugatory. They certainly won’t learn it from Oliver Stone’s terrible film.