Alexander the Great’s military expedition brought many Greeks and Macedonians to the East through the Persian Empire and into India. The men in his army, families, historians, philosophers, poets, scientists and others traveling with Alexander carried their Western customs with them and he made sure to place Greek and Macedonian people in charge of his conquests along the way. As a result, Western culture mixed with Eastern culture to create a new cultural phenomena throughout Alexander’s Empire. Through commerce, trade, and travel, contact had existed between the East and West for centuries, but Alexander’s conquests facilitated integration and assimilation on a grand scale. Some historians examining the period after Alexander’s death known as the Hellenistic Age argue that Alexander intended to create a cultural syncretism, while others claim that it was merely a natural consequence of his actions. It is clear that Alexander set out to create a unified empire including Greeks and non-Greeks. However, there is insufficient evidence to support a policy of racial fusion and cultural syncretism.
Literary and archeological evidence from the Hellenistic period illustrate that Greco/Macedonian customs flourished in Eastern regions. Moreover, Hellenistic cities architecture, education, and religion provide proof for new cultural norms combining elements from East and the West.1 Historians agree that cultural assimilation marks a distinct feature of the Hellenistic Age. In addition, few argue the notion that Alexander the Great and his conquest, in large part, facilitated this significant cultural transition. The question arises as to whether Alexander intended to create a culturally intertwined empire.
It is important to note that although considerable intermixing occurred between the Greeks and the Persians, the Hellenistic world should not be viewed as a cultural melting pot in the modern sense. After Alexander died his empire broke down into three separate kingdoms, one in Egypt under the rule of the Ptolemies, Asia controlled by the Seleucids, and Macedonia and Greece ruled by Antipater. Wars took place over land and succession of the kingdoms, yet these three spheres of influence remained the political landscape throughout the Hellenistic Age until the dawn of the Roman Empire. While some Persians and other Easterners had some local control within their provinces, Macedonians essentially ruled these kingdoms. In addition, it is impossible to ascertain how much intercultural activity occurred among the majority of the population living in rural agricultural areas. The acknowledgment that cultural assimilation studied during this time refers mainly to findings from thriving cities and political administrations helps to keep the notion of cultural syncretism in perspective.
The best way to determine the nature of Alexander’s motivations and intentions is to examine his behavior and actions. The primary sources for Alexander including Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, Arrian, and Plutarch are useful, however they are all writing after Alexander died. Due to the nature or intent of the primary authors, their assertions as to Alexander’s motivations differ depending on what kind of portrayal they set out to create. Nevertheless, the primary documentation significantly contributes to our understanding of Alexander’s behavior and decisions. Historians exploring cultural syncretism and Alexander tend to focus on the following issues; his inclusion of Persians in his army and political administration, personal adoption of Persian dress, arrangement of mixed marriages at Susa, and Alexander’s prayer for harmony between the Persians and Greeks at Opis.
N. G. L. Hammond wrote an article entitled, “Alexander’s Non-European Troops and Ptolemy’s Use of Such Troops.”2 Hammond divides Alexander’s recruitment of Persian troops into two categories, infantry and cavalry. The first kind of infantry, referred to by Hammond as native infantry, were trained within their satrapy or local region and initially served under the command of their satrap. Eventually, Alexander summoned these units to join the main army. Both Arrian and Curtius provide evidence of summoned infantry, “Alexander was also joined … by further reinforcements from the coast in charge of Syria and if Asclepiodorus, the provincial governor,”3 and “From Lydia had come 2,600 foreign infantry.”4 Hammond asserts that Alexander had local troops trained with the responsibility of policing and defending their satrap. Alexander could not spare members of his army to accomplish this task every time he liberated a city from Persian rule. Accordingly, local infantrymen trained under their local leader and Alexander called upon them when he needed their support in battle.5
The other group of infantry aside from the ethnic units comprises a large group of young Persian soldiers who were trained together for four years in Macedonian combat and Greek literature. Alexander referred to the 30,000 young men as his Epigoni translated as inheritors. “Alexander had formed this unit from a single age group of the Persians which was capable of serving as a counter-balance to the Macedonian phalanx.”6 According to Diodorus Siculus, Alexander summoned his Epigoni because his own army had mutinied at the Ganges River and were in general somewhat unmanageable. Since the “inheritors or successor” came from various regions and had no real ties to any satrapy, they would fight displaying all their loyalty and dedication to their King.
Alexander incorporated ethnic cavalry units into his army from Lydia, Lycia, Syria, and other Asian satraps. By the end of his reign, several Asian cavalry units served alongside Macedonian elite cavalry troops.7 Were the Epigoni and elite Asian cavalry a foreshadowing of Alexander’s vision for a unity of Persians and Greeks or was this strategically motivated for Alexander to maintain a loyal army who would follow Alexander’s orders unconditionally?
From a strategic standpoint, it would be foolish for Alexander not to utilize troops from conquered regions. The creation of the Epigoni, coupled with the elevation of Persian troops to serve alongside the Macedonian elite illustrate that Alexander went a step further than simply calling on the Persians for support. An argument could be made that Alexander’s motives went beyond strategy. On the other hand, as time went on Alexander increasingly encountered difficulty galvanizing his Macedonian troops. Historians such as Bosworth and Worthington, argue that Alexander’s military decisions regarding the Persians served to counterbalance his army. In other words, the Persians provided loyal service and while the Macedonians resented the Persian soldiers, they strived to maintain their military status among the ranks.
Diodorus’ states that the guard was divided into two bodies, one armed Macedonian style and the other melophoroi.8Other primary documentation confirms that although the Persians and Macedonians fought next to each other in the latter part of Alexander’s campaign, they never mixed completely to form one body of soldiers.
Another issue to consider is Alexander’s decision to adopt the Persian style of dress. Plutarch explains this decision and offers possible motivations behind it,
“From this point he advanced into Parthia, and it was here during a pause in the campaign that he first began to wear barbarian dress. He may have done this from a desire to adapt himself to local habits, because he understood that the sharing of race and of customs is a great step towards softening men’s hearts. Alternatively, this may have been an experiment which was aimed at introducing the obeisance among the Macedonians, the first stage being to accustom them to accepting changes in is own dress and way of life. However he did not go so far as to adopt the Median costume, which altogether barbaric and outlandish, and he wore neither trousers, nor a sleeved vest, nor a tiara. Instead he adopted a style which was a compromise between Persian and Median costume, more modest than the first, and more stately then the second.”9 Plutarch was a philosopher living from 46A.D. to about 120A.D. He wrote his biography of Alexander in the context of the Roman Empire under emperors such as Hadrian. As a philosopher and Roman citizen he creates a unique picture of Alexander, attributing philosophical virtues to him that other primary authors do not. To complicate things further, Plutarch is inconsistent in his portrayal of Alexander. He argues that Alexander’s mission was to bring Greek language and culture to the barbarians, yet in other passages Alexander’s intention was to mix the two cultures together. These two ideas conflict as the former would result in the domination of Greeks over Persians and the latter a unified ruling class.10 Nonetheless, this passage shows that even the ancient sources were uncertain as to Alexander’s motives. Like his military decisions, Alexander’s dress can be viewed as a symbol of cultural syncretism or an action of strategic motivation.
The timing of this decision is an important factor to consider. Curtius, Plutarch, and Diodorus all agree that Alexander began to adopt Persian style dress in the autumn of 330 during a rest period in Parthia. During this time, Alexander learned that Bessus had claimed sovereignty over the Persians after the death of Darius. The news of a Persian challenger to the thrown could have motivated Alexander to further exert his influence over Persia.11
The sources tell us that Alexander married a Persian woman Roxanne and later at Susa in 324 B.C. He organized a mass marriage ceremony in which he married about eighty of his Macedonian soldiers to Persian women.12 Alexander included himself in this ceremony and married the oldest of Darius’ daughters Barsine and possibly another Persian woman. Alexander’s ceremony may have been a step toward creating a unified culturally mixed people. The children of these couples would indeed embody both Macedonian and Persian blood. Curtius offers a passage in which Alexander addresses his troops on this issue,
That is why I married the daughter of the Persian Oxyartes, feeling no hesitation about producing children from a captive. Later on, when I wished to extend my bloodline further, I took Darius’ daughter as a wife and saw to it that my closest friends had children by our captives, my intention being that by this sacred union I might erase all distinction between conquered and conqueror … Asia and Europe are now one and the same kingdom. Foreign newcomers though you are I have made you established members of my force, you are both my fellow citizens and my soldiers … Those who are to live under the same king should enjoy the same rights.
It is important to keep in mind that there is no way of knowing if Alexander really said
this and the former passage represent Curtius’ perspective of Alexander’s motives. If he
is accurate, Alexander’s mass marriages can be viewed as a tool used to obliterate the
friction between the races and make all of Alexander’s subjects equal under his rule.
While Alexander wanted his subjects to be equal, the passage does not show that he
wanted them to mix together as a unified culture.
It is a common custom for rulers and kings to solidify power and influence
through marriage. Alexander definitely needed the support of the Persians to maintain
control over his empire and to continue on his conquests. Arrian tells us that Alexander’s
purposely married the most prominent soldiers in his army to members of Darius’ family
or women related to Persian satraps.13 It is important to note that the marriages were one-
sided. Alexander aligned the noblest daughters and sisters of the Persian Empire to
Macedonians commanders. The fact that Alexander did not marry any Greek or
Macedonian women to Persian men does not support a policy of racial fusion, but rather
may be interpreted to reflect the contrary.
Arrian tells us about a prayer and banquet given by Alexander after the attempted mutiny at Opis in 324B.C.. “To mark the restoration and harmonoia, Alexander offered sacrifice to the Gods accustomed to honor, and gave a public banquet which he himself attended, sitting among the Macedonians, all of whom were present. Next to them the Persians had their places, and next to the Persians distinguished foreigners of other nations; Alexander and his friends dipped their wine from the same bowl and poured the same libations, following the lead of the Greek seers and the Magi. The chief object of his prayers was that Persians and Macedonians might rule together in harmony as an imperial power.”14
Whether Alexander actually said these words and whether he had ulterior motives for asserting this claim is source for debate. But assuming the prayer is authentic, Alexander is here advocating a fusion of solely the ruling class rather than unification on a civic or provincial level. The fact is, Alexander’s empire never came close to developing a joint ruling class during or after his reign. He is said to have appointed eighteen Persian satraps, and of those eighteen only three remained at the time of Alexander’s death. Two of the Persian satraps died, one retired, two remain unaccounted for, and ten were either removed or executed for treason and replaced by Macedonians.15
Aside from the prayer at Opis, there is little evidence to support efforts made by Alexander to achieve this goal, which underscores the proposition that Alexander’s prayer was more for appearance than reality. Alexander did appoint Persians as satraps in Babylon, Susa, Media, and a few other regions. But each place Alexander appointed a Persian satrap he divided the power into three categories civil, military, and financial. In Babylon he appointed a Persian Mazaeus to satrap, however he put a two Macedonians in charge of military and financial affairs. In fact, Alexander never delegated military control of satrap to a Persian.16
Almost all historians examining Alexander’s legacy agree that his conquests, in large part, facilitated cultural assimilation of the Greeks and non-Greeks. As stated earlier, the debate surrounds Alexander’s motives and objectives. Historians such as Bradford Welles, W. M. Rollo, and Moses Hadas acknowledge Alexander’s influence but explicitly avoid taking a side. For example, Hadas states, “In any case, whatever Alexander’s personal motivations may have been, he is the great catalyst for the Hellenistic melting pot. Intercourse between east and west had antecedents, as we have noticed, but what had been a trickle now swelled into a flood.”17
W.W. Tarn’s “Alexander The Great and The Unity of Mankind,” remains the
prevailing argument for attributing Alexander with the idea and purpose of melding Greeks and Persians. Tarn traces the use of the Greek concept of Homonoia meaning concord and unity and tries to find its origin. Isocrates, a Greek living during Alexander’s time conceptualized homonoia as unity among Greeks only. Like Aristotle, Alexander’s mentor, Isocrates viewed the non-Greek or “barbarian” as the inferior enemy. The stoics of the third century B.C. did not determine the value of man according to his origin, but instead they divided men into the worthy and unworthy. Zeno, one of the founders of stoicism, put forth the idea that the worthy were men with all virtues and no vices. Tarn asserts that a writer Theophrastus, who studied under Aristotle and taught at his school in 322 B.C., wrote, “All men were of one family and were kin to one another.”18 Along the same lines, a man named Alexarchus, brother of Cassander, created a mini kingdom on the Athos peninsula called “City of Heaven” and minted coins in which the people are referred to a “Children of Heaven.” Tarn argues that Theophrastus and Alexarchus must have had a common source for the ideal of unity for mankind. It was not Isocrates or Zeno, so it had to be Alexander.19
Tarn’s argument differs from the others, as he does not analyze Alexander’s behavior or actions to gain insight of his motives. He briefly mentions four examples from the primary sources in the beginning of the essay. The thrust of his argument is spent exploring an emerging philosophical notion of time and, by process of elimination, attributing it to Alexander. It seems problematic to assign the creation of a major philosophical ideal by default to Alexander without examining his actions during his lifetime. In addition, it is distinctly possible that Theophrastus and Alexarchus were inspired by ideas emerging from Isocrates, stoics of the time, and the outcome of Alexander’s conquest. Tarn does not show direct evidence to prove that they inherited the concept of unity of mankind from Alexander.
On the other side of the spectrum, A. B. Bosworth and Ian Worthington argue that Alexander’s motives contained no cultural ideal or philosophical vision whatsoever. In regards to the examples in which Alexander appears to include Persians or intermingle Persians and Greeks, both historians claim a motive of calculated strategy. Bosworth goes so far as to claim that Alexander had no intention of intermixing the races, but instead the evidence leans toward a policy of division.20 The evidence definitely does not support a purposeful division of the cultures, but the Macedonians did comprise the ruling class, dominate most aspects of Alexander’s Empire, and Macedonian women did not marry Persian men.
Bosworth presents a narrow and calculated view of Alexander’s intentions. Bosworth offers sound arguments in favor of strategically motivated decisions, such as the reasons for the marriages at Susa and why Alexander adopted Persian dress when he did. However, by taking each event and providing various tactical rationale for Alexander’s behavior, Bosworth fails to capture the complexity of Alexander’s character as a whole.
Arguments for Alexander’s intentional cultural fusion are based primarily on the following: his prayer at Opis, facilitation of mass marriages at Susa, inclusion of Persians in his army and administration, and a number of passages from the primary sources some of which are ambiguous. These issues and passages provide fragmentary evidence for the nature of Alexander’s actions but they do not take into account the inconsistencies of his actions towards the Persians. For example, at Opis Alexander elevated noble Persians declaring them equal with that of the Macedonians. However, Alexander also burned the Persian city of Persepolis. Arrian tell us that Alexander ordered the destruction of the Persian palace and city for revenge against the Persians for invading Greece years earlier. Other primary sources like Diodorus and Curtius claim that Alexander was in the midst of a drunken rage before he decided to burn and loot Persepolis. Regardless of his motive, the point is that in this instance he treated the Persians as a conquered enemy and brought destruction upon them. The events at Persepolis and other instances in which Alexander used brutal tactics against his Persian enemies distinctly contrast his behavior in the Opis affair and during the Susa marriages. The inconsistencies in Alexander’s actions towards the Persians considerably diminish arguments for a concerted policy of racial integration.
Accordingly, instead of analyzing specific incidents the argument should focus on gaining a broader perspective on Alexander and his economic, political, and cultural legacy. As stated earlier, much of the cultural fusion that took place in Hellenistic times emerged in populated and bustling ancient cities. In general, Alexander seems uninterested in creating cities and civic institutions. Alexander names many conquered areas after himself, but he hardly played a role in developing these areas into metropolises.
Alexandria in Egypt serves as the exception to the rule. The sources reveal Alexander’s eagerness and participation in the planning of this prosperous city. Alexander’s buried his dearest friend and companion Hepheaston in this city and Alexander himself was laid to rest in Alexandria. In regards to why Alexander took the time to orchestrate this civic endeavor, Historian C. A. Robinson offers the explanation that because of its location Alexandria secured the safe arrival of reinforcements and supplies from the West.21 It may have served that purpose during Alexander’s reign, however after his death the city of Alexandria developed into a cosmopolitan mecca for intellectuals, poets, scientists, and philosophers from various regions of the Empire. At the center of this cross-cultural meeting place was a Museum and library which attracted scholars from many regions across the Hellenistic kingdoms. It is highly unlikely that Alexander had this end in mind because it was his successor Ptolemy I who founded the library and museum which enabled Alexandria to become a center for education and science in the Hellenistic World and it was Ptolemy’s successors who continued to enhance and expand the facilities.
Aside from Alexandria in Egypt, Alexander spent most of his life in camp with his men setting up towns with forts and garrisons along the way. Arrian provides an example of a temporary fortification along the Tanais River which Alexander set up specifically to guard trade routes and house Greek mercenaries or invalid Macedonian soldiers.22 For the most part, Alexander authorized these types of settlements as opposed to full-scale cities. P. M. Fraser in his book The Cities of Alexander notes, “The construction of numerous forts and temporary garrisons was a recurrent feature of operations throughout Alexander’s campaign and is frequently referred to by the historians.”23
Most of the cultural syncretism in the Hellenistic Age occurred in cities of which Alexander had little to no involvement. After Alexander’s died in 323 B.C., the inhabitants abandoned most of his new foundations for their homeland or another city. The fact that the majority of cities founded by Alexander dissolved shortly after his death is evidence that Alexander devoted little time and resources towards city building and development.
In order to keep a culturally diverse Empire together, it would have been crucial to implement a cohesive economic plan. Alexander adopted the Attic standard of coinage and distributed it throughout the Empire. Alexander’s adoption of Athenian coinage occurred right after the assassination of his father Philip. Tarn points out the distinct possibility that Phillip may be credited with this coinage decision.24 Alexander appointed financial supervisors throughout the Empire, with a corrupt man named Harpalus as the chief superintendent of financial matters. Aside from the infractions of Harpalus, several Persian satraps acquired local monetary support to raise private armies. Furthermore, a surviving document from antiquity provides details regarding the corruption of Alexander’s financial officials.25 Concerning the coinage, Persian mints began using the Attic standard at Alexander’s insistence, however he still allowed the minting of old coinage in Phoenicia, Cilicia, and Babylon. His approval to mint non-Attic standard coins would undermine the concept that he envisioned a unified economic plan.
The fact that Alexander affected change in the economy is unquestionable. As a result of his massive mobilization and colonization eastward, trade routes between east and west became more safe and accessible. Furthermore, his conquests boosted the Greek economy by enhancing their foreign market and thereby increasing exports.26 However, he failed to create a system that would ultimately unify his people. As a result, after Alexander’s Empire fragmented the Seleucids continued minting coins according to Alexander’s standard, however the Ptolemies changed to a lighter standard used by the Phoenecians.27
So far it is apparent that most of Alexander’s economic and civic reforms were
inconsistent and in any event died along with him. The collapse of his Empire after 323
B.C. underscores the temporality of Alexander’s consolidation efforts. As stated before
Alexander’s vast empire quickly transformed into three separate monarchical kingdoms.
These kingdoms remained separate, with a few territorial changes, until Romans
conquered and reunited the region under one rule. During his reign Alexander spent
most of his time fighting for more territory to add to his Empire. His father Philip set the
stage for Alexander’s initial goal of invading the Persian Empire to avenge Greece. After
Alexander succeeded in overthrowing Darius and taking over his empire, he continued
east across the Hindu Kush. He desperately wanted to continue his conquest eastward,
but his army refused forcing Alexander to backtrack through his Empire. Although
Alexander died in Babylon on his way back, there is sufficient evidence that he intended
to continue his conquests through the western Mediterranean regions such as Carthage,
Spain, and Italy. Some said that he also intended to circumnavigate Africa. Curtius tells
His ambitions knowing no bounds, Alexander had decided that, after the subjugation of the entire eastern seaboard, he would head from Syria towards Africa, because of his enmity to the Carthaginians. Then, crossing the Numidian deserts, he would set his course for Gades, where the pillars of Hercules were rumoured to be; afterwards he would go to Spain. Then he would skirt past the Alps and the Italian coastline, from which it was a short passage to Epirus28 It is most likely that we will never know with certainty what Alexander’s plans were before he died. Nonetheless, it is clear that his thirst for conquest had not been satisfied.
On balance, it appears that Alexander’s compulsion for conquest overshadowed any plans for consolidation. Uniting his subjects could not have been his main concern because Alexander made little effort to enhance the infrastructure and improve the stability of his Empire. The only thing keeping Alexander’s Empire together was Alexander himself, which brings us to a crucial factor in understanding his real motivation – the fact that Alexander purposely avoided securing an heir to his throne. Since he made no effort to consolidate or name a successor, it is safe to assume that Alexander’s intentions were not focused on his empire at all.
Alexander slept with Homer’s Iliad under his pillow every night. He desired to be a great hero and conqueror like Achilles. According to Arrian, Alexander traveled two hundred miles to visit the shrine of Zeus Ammon at Siwah.29 Alexander claimed that oracle greeted him as son of Ammon. Some historians argue that this journey served as a propaganda tool for maintaining sovereignty over his subjects. But his countless dedications and sacrifices to the Gods along his conquest seem to validate his piety. Alexander was motivated by his divine destiny to conquer the world. He was after glory and wanted to be elevated to a divine and heroic status along with Zeus and Achilles.
It is evident that Alexander respected and sometimes admired those he conquered. He did try to include some Persians in his army and administration. He did what he had to do in order to secure his sovereignty and continue his quest. The force driving Alexander’s was a heroic call to action and conquest not the unification and assimilation of mankind. Ironically, one man’s destiny became the catalyst for massive cultural rebirth and assimilation.
In the final analysis, Alexander aspiration for eternal glory became a reality. In modern times, over twenty-three centuries after his death, military leaders still admire him and study his strategies. Alexander continues to influence literature, film, and music of our popular culture. There is no other person in history whose name is always followed by the words “the Great.” That in it of itself defines the measure of the man his lasting impact on civilization. Alexander conquered most of the known world before his thirty-third birthday which is amazing by anyone’s standards. In the end, Alexander has joined his hero Achilles in the mythology of mankind.
Bosworth, A. B. “Alexander and The Iranians.” The Journal of Hellenistic Studies,
Cohen, Getzel M. The Hellenistic Settlements in Europe, the Islands, and Asia Minor.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995
Fraser, P. M. Cities of Alexander the Great. Oxford University Press, 1997.