Modern Themes from Ancient Greatness

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Modern Themes from
Ancient Greatness

Alexander the Great in Fiction, Music and Film

Eric Hanson

HI361F: Alexander the Great

Professor Arnush

May 2, 2003


Historical examination focuses on objectivity. To be objective, as an observer, as an analyzer and as a writer is about as important to a historian’s credibility as a proper presentation of the facts. Indeed, because the interpretation of facts for their proper presentation is subject to level of objectivity of the analyzer, objectivity may be the most important quality a historian can have. However, as humans, it is impossible for us to be completely objective; we cannot hope to observe all angles of a situation, especially when working from accounts by others. Even if a historian were to collect fifty separate accounts of a fight, for example, each observer would invariably describe the events of the fight not as they happened, nor even as they saw the events from their vantage point, but how they interpreted the events as happening. These difficulties make even the most careful study of history severely skewed and does not even take into account the historian’s unintentional bias, which creates further problems.

On the other side of the equation are histories with agendas, where the writer has taken a clear bias and attempts to defend it through their interpretation of the evidence. While one could argue that this category covers any analytical history, where scholars refer to the agenda as an argument, I would like to include another sort of “history” in the histories with agendas category: popular works of interpretation. These popular works can include mediums like art, music, historical fiction and film and tell the story they are interpreting with a particular goal in mind. Further, they reflect, consciously or subconsciously, the biases of their time of creation. In the case of Alexander the Great, there are a number of popular interpretations that artists, musicians, writers and directors have created since Alexander’s death, starting with the Greek Alexander Romance. Many of these works have attempted to turn Alexander’s character into an archetype, reducing many of the Macedonian king’s conflicting personality traits into defined facets that readers, viewers and listeners can learn from, emulating the good facets and eschewing the bad. By way of example, I have chosen four modern works: a piece of music, Iron Maiden’s “Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.);” a trilogy of historical fiction novels, Mary Renault’s Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games; a novella, Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King; and a movie, John Huston’s interpretation of Kipling's work of the same name. Like other interpretations of Alexander throughout time, these four works perform a certain level of reduction on Alexander’s character. However, as products of a modern time, they use Alexander’s story to address modern social issues, which can be more abstract than the problems of being a good king, which an earlier popular interpretation (like the Khamsa of Nizami) might address. The results are interpretations that contain lessons, in the form of themes, from Alexander’s life, that the reader must tease apart to understand. It is my intent to examine several of the themes present in these works.
Example 1: Iron Maiden – “Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.)”
Released as a part of Somewhere in Time (1986), an indicative and appropriate album title considering the song’s title and musical devices, “Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.)” is Iron Maiden’s interpretive retelling of the Alexander story. Written and composed by bassist Steve Harris, the song’s agenda focuses around demonstrating how Alexander was a personification of the modern idea of a legend, someone who does things that are out of the realm of the possible for the ordinary human, but still credible to the modern mind. In contemporary popular culture, Alexander fulfills a role similar to the hero of the Western or the action movie through his superhuman qualities, given not by grace of God but developed from natural talents through years of discipline and hard work.1 To paraphrase the words of Raphael Patai in his comparison between Herakles and the heroes of Westerns, the modern mythology of the hero compels us to identify with Alexander, to feel an emotional and moral satisfaction in the feats he performed.2 Working off this emotional and moral satisfaction, Harris delivers his interpretation through a combination of musical and lyrical devices, which I examine in detail below.

Key to Fonts


Times New Roman (italicized)


Informal Roman

Description of Music:

University Roman


Cronos Display


No lyrics

Sound of wind blowing

According to Plutarch,3 Phillip made this comment after Alexander tamed Bucephalas. In the note attached to the anecdote, the translator puts Alexander’s age at about fourteen, although the exact date of this story, if it occurred at all, is unknown. Regardless of whether or not Alexander was fourteen or seventeen (his age in 339), this quote is meant to help establish Alexander’s status as a legendary figure. With this quote, Iron Maiden gives us direct evidence for the impetus for Alexander’s conquest (his desire for a larger kingdom) and through the quote’s connection to the Bucephalas story, we have an indirect representation of Alexander’s incredible deeds – only a legend could accomplish such a feat, especially at the young age of seventeen.


“My son ask for thyself another

Kingdom, for that which I leave

Is too small for thee”

According to the lyrics, King Phillip says this line in 339 BCE. Wind continues blowing and trails off at the end of “thee.”

No lyrics

Two guitars, bass, synth and drums enter. Second (clean output) guitar and bass plays repeating pattern [riff 1] from E to B to upper E an octave apart from each other. Drums play a slow march beat the snare, while the first guitar plays a slow, clean melodic line that drifts upward in pitch. Synth plays a held E.

Besides its direct musical function as a part of the introduction to the piece, what role does this section play? Because of the floating melodic line in the guitar, I would suggest that this section takes on the role of the guide, the Virgil to the listener’s Dante, who will lead the listener around through the story of Alexander’s life. First, however, the guide must bring the listener into the past, so the listener can see the events first hand.

This section also has a martial air, a mood that continues in the next section. The listener is therefore offered a combination of a pathway into the past and a military feel, suggesting that the listener is about to find him or herself on an ancient, misty battlefield, watching long-dead warriors fight to the death for honor and glory.

No lyrics

Entire musical structure moves down a step to D and continues.

No lyrics

Entire musical structure moves back up a step to E and continues.

No lyrics

Entire musical structure moves down a step to D and continues.

No lyrics

Subtle changes start to build the music [riff 2]. Guitar 1 switches to a chorused, distorted output and plays a more concrete melody line built on the pentatonic scale, while guitar 2 plays an E minor chord at beginning of every measure. Bass now plays an E once every four beats, matched by a bass drum. Snare is now playing a roll pattern.

The musical changes in this section build the tension, as the vision of the battlefield gets sharper.


No lyrics

General chord change to C.

No lyrics

General chord change back to E. Guitar 1 melody resolves.

No lyrics

Guitar 1 melody begins again.

No lyrics

General chord change to C.

No lyrics

General chord change back to E. Guitar 1 melody resolves.

No lyrics

New riff [riff 3] changes tone and tempo of the song. The rhythm becomes faster and much more bouncy, with a clear establishment in the bass and drums of a 4/4 beat. The melody line played by guitar 1 is a variation off the melody from the previous section and guitar 1 now has an added octave doubler. Guitar 2 drops out.

The music has successfully guided the listener to the past and the listener now finds him or herself marching along with Alexander’s army. The mood remains one of honor and glory – without irony. In many ways, this piece is not postmodern in its view, lacking the cynicism that condemns, from a modern perspective, Alexander for his actions. Instead, Iron Maiden as bards tell Alexander’s story uncritically.


No lyrics

Riff 3 repeats with the guitar 1 lead line.

Near to the east

In a part of ancient Greece

In an ancient land called Macedonia

Was born a son

To Philip of Macedon

The legend his name was Alexander
At the age of nineteen

He became the Macedon king

And he swore to free all of Asia Minor

By the Aegean Sea

In 334 B.C.

He utterly beat the armies of Persia

A new riff [riff 4], very similar to both riff 3 and the melody line from the previous section, becomes the backing for the verses. Like riff 3, riff 4 is a bouncy, marching beat, but it has a slightly longer, descending chord structure. Guitar now plays a quasi-call-and-response with the vocals.

The first verse introduces the hero to the listener and gives the listener the immediate impression that this Alexander was an important person living in an almost mythical past – words like ancient and legend are used to provide for Alexander’s heroic status.

In this story, Alexander is far more important than his father Philip is; we do not realize that Philip is king of Macedonia until Alexander becomes king himself in the second verse. Steve Harris ignores Philip’s struggles for dominance of Macedonia and Greece and his appointment as Captain-General of the Greeks against the Persians in 337 BCE.4 Instead, Harris chooses to focus on Alexander’s decision to take up his father’s mantle, casting it as a choice Alexander made independently and without the help of any of the Greek states.
As the Battle of the River Granicus (the place where Alexander beat the Persians in 3345) took place inland of the Aegean, it is probable that Harris used “Aegean Sea” as a rhyming device for “334 B.C.” The important part of these last two lines of verse two is the suggestion that Alexander “utterly beat the armies of Persia.” Although this line is inaccurate in itself, the next verse mentions the Battle of Gaugamela/Arbela, but not the Battle of Issus, where Alexander did defeat many of the armies of Persia. Because the chronological format of the lyrics is rather odd, combining events like the Granicus and Issus not only fits in with the style of the lyrics, but also furthers Alexander’s status as legend: in Alexander’s first battle, he completely defeats the armies of the entire Persian Empire.

Alexander the Great

His name struck fear into hearts of men

Alexander the Great

Became a legend ‘mongst mortal men

A new riff [riff 5] for the chorus. Riff 5 changes the tone of the piece; the synth returns (using a patch that sounds like large pieces of sheet metal being hit with a stick) and both the synth and the guitar play whole note chords over the drum and bass’ bouncing beat.

The chorus of this song works in a two-part format: the first two lines are always the same and the second two lines change with each repetition. Why is there an emphasis on Alexander striking fear into the hearts of men? In some ways, this situation is an example of the summarizing quality of these lyrics at their best. All throughout his campaigns, Alexander would arrive in an area and find that many of the cities were willing to surrender to him because of his reputation. While it is debatable as to whether or not the inhabitants of these cities were afraid of Alexander or merely being practical and sparing themselves the hardship of a siege for the reputedly light yoke of Alexander’s sovereignty, their feelings can be summarized as fear. Further, choosing to describe Alexander as fear causing increases his status as a legend – it is human to fear something you do not entirely understand, even if you revere it at the same time.
The second part of the chorus merely emphasizes Alexander’s legendary status by describing him as a legend – he becomes legendary by association.

No lyrics

Interlude between chorus and verse. Introduction of a new riff [riff 6] on guitar, backed rhythmically by the bass and drums. Riff 6 is played through twice.

The function of this interlude seems to allow the listener to process the information imparted by the first verse and give the instruments a new martial theme to play. The riff reinforces this second function through its similarity to the sound of trumpets announcing a king.


No lyrics

Riff 6 goes up a step the synth comes back in, playing the backing chords for the melody on the guitar.

King Darius the Third

Defeated fled Persia

The Scythians fell by the river Jaxartes

Then Egypt fell to the Macedon King as well

And he founded the city called Alexandria

By the Tigris river

He met King Darius again

And crushed him again at the battle of Arbela

Entering Babylon

And Susa, treasures he found

Took Persepolis the capital of Persia

Return of riff 4 for the verse.

If the first verse is the introduction, then the second verse is the hero’s rise to fame. It is in the second verse that the chronology of the song becomes the most tangled, as Harris chooses to summarize some of Alexander’s greatest successes in two stanzas.

The reference to Darius may refer to the Battle of Issus, although Harris does not specifically name the battle (see my note above) and the emphasis is more on Darius’ defeat than on the battle’s location.
The Scythians and the River Jaxartes (which Arrian also calls the Tanais6) refers to Alexander’s defeat of the Asian Scythian tribes who had come out of Scythia to challenge him. The inclusion of this reference is interesting, because Alexander had a rock dropped on his head during a siege several days before and came down with dysentery during his pursuit of the fleeing Scythians;7 not necessarily one of his finest moments. The implication, however, is that Alexander managed to win a decisive victory despite these obstacles, contributing further to his legendary status. An ordinary human would not have been able to chase down the Scythians. Alexander did it several days after having a concussion and while suffering from dysentery.
Egypt, of course, did not fall to Alexander after his encounter with the Scythians at the River Jaxartes, but the attempt here seems to be to reestablish the chronological connection. If Harris intends this verse to demonstrate how great Alexander’s reputation had grown, then the inclusion of the battle at the Jaxartes River is appropriate (although one wonders why Harris chose the Scythians at the Jaxartes and not Porus and the Indians at the Hydaspes). The verse finishes with Alexander having effectively taken Persia – he has beaten the Great King twice and seized his chief cities, including the capital Persepolis.

Alexander the Great

His name struck fear into hearts of men

Alexander the Great

Became a God amongst mortal men

Return of riff 5 for the chorus.

Here, the second half of the chorus is a double entendre, simultaneously reinforcing Alexander’s legend status through a new qualifier (a god) and touching on the issue of Alexander’s self-proclaimed godhood. The use of the term god for Alexander’s status after the second verse is in keeping with the idea that the second verse demonstrated Alexander’s growing reputation in the ancient world. By now, simply calling him a legend was not enough for the ancients; they could only describe him as a god.
Calling Alexander a God (with a capital G, as printed) is interesting if it is intentional, tying in later with Harris’ claim, later in the song, that Alexander’s conquest paved the way for Christianity. As the son of a god, Alexander was the first of a long line of self-proclaimed divine children, making the implied connection between Alexander and the Judeo-Christian God even more interesting.

No lyrics

Another interlude, this time with a new riff [riff 7]. This riff, played by the bass, guitar, drums and synth, is highly rhythmic, giving the impression of expectation.

The similarity between the lead guitar in this section and the guitar line from the introduction of the piece is striking and may be related, but there is also the possibility that this extended instrumental section is a musical version of Alexander’s life within the song, broken into four parts.

The first part, from 3:54 to 4:39, covers Alexander’s life from his youth until around the time he goes into Asia. The rhythmic quality of riff 7 presents the idea of a building force, reinforced by the use of a rising chord structure from 4:17 to 4:37. Historically, the Macedonians knew Alexander well by the time of his father’s death and supported his kingship.8 He quickly established his control over Illyria, Thessaly and southern Greece and the Greeks made him commander-in-chief of the exhibition against Persia.9 The spiraling resolution at 4:37 is indicative of Alexander’s invasion of Ionia at last getting underway.

No lyrics

Guitar with a clean tone comes in over riff 7, playing a floating melody line much like the one from the introduction of the song.

No lyrics

Riff 7 goes down a step.

No lyrics

Riff 7 goes back up a step.

No lyrics

Riff 7 goes up another step.

No lyrics

Riff 7 goes up another step.

No lyrics

Guitar suddenly goes into distortion and along with the other instruments cyclones the music up into a resolution.

No lyrics

The music moves into a new transition, simplifying itself down to a menacing, distorted guitar line on guitar 1 in the Aeolian mode, backed by a gong and rhythmic slashes by the bass, guitar 2 and drums on accented beats.

This transition is marked with a distinctly Eastern flavor by the gong and an ancient Western flavor by the use of the Aeolian mode,10 creating the sensation of ancient West (the Greeks) meeting and clashing with ancient East (the Persians). This music marks Alexander first major confrontation with Persian power at the River Granicus, where failure to win would have doomed the expedition.


No lyrics

The music explodes into a new, heavy riff [riff 8], similar to riff 7 in its construction. Guitar 2 and the bass play a rhythmic pattern on a chord and the drum creates a slow, driving beat with accented snare hits and sixteenth notes on the hi hat.

After the Granicus, Alexander’s campaign meets with greater and greater success, building on itself much like the music in this section. This period probably extends from the Battle at the Granicus until Alexander’s capture/liberation of Egypt and his march towards Gaugamela to meet Darius in battle for a second time.


No lyrics

Guitar 1 enters on top of riff 8, playing a new melody line.

No lyrics

Guitar 1 repeats its melody line, this time with the signal harmonized. The synth comes back in to play the background chords.

No lyrics

Guitar 1 begins an extended solo (unharmonized, distorted tone), demonstrating the guitarist’s virtuosity. Guitar 2 joins riff 8 in the background.

This listener can see this section as encompassing the rest of Alexander’s life, from Gaugamela to his lightening course across Asia and back to Babylon. The drum and bass breaks could symbolize every setback Alexander encountered along the way, including the hunt for Bessus, the Mardians and the stealing of Bucephalas, the horse’s later death in India on the Hydaspes, the mutiny at the Hyphasis and the end of the campaign’s movement into India, Alexander’s arrow wound by the Malli, the crossing of the Gedrosian Desert, the mutiny at Opis and Hephaistion’s death in Ecbatana. The solo’s rather abrupt end suggests Alexander’s own end: sudden and cut off in the midst of development.


No lyrics

Quick drum and bass break.

No lyrics

Solo continues.

No lyrics

Another drum and bass break.

No lyrics

Solo continues.

No lyrics

Guitar changes tone and adds in a harmonizer. Solo continues.

A Phrygian king had bound a chariot yoke

And Alexander cut the “Gordian Knot”

And legend said that who untied the knot

He would become the master of Asia
Hellenism he spread far and wide

The Macedonian learned mind

Their culture was a Western way of life

He paved the way for Christianity

Sudden transition back to riff 4 and a verse.

While the second verse speaks of Alexander’s growing fame through achievement, the third verse describes his legacy to Asia. By referencing the cutting of the Gordian Knot, Harris is implying not only the direct result – the prophecy of the knot proved true and Alexander did become the master of Asia – but the indirect results: Alexander’s life saw the beginning of the Hellenistic period through his efforts to spread Greek culture across his new empire (an indirect reference to Alexander’s attempts at cultural syncretism) and Alexander’s introduction of a mortal-divine-child concept may have prepared the region for the idea of Christianity some 400 years later.


Marching on, marching on

False chorus using a variation of riff 5 [riff 5a].

Bringing the listener back to the image from the beginning of the song, this line is a lyrical representation of Alexander’s triumphant army marching undefeated across Asia.


The battle weary marching side by side

Alexander’s army line by line

They wouldn’t follow him to India

Tired of the combat, pain and the glory

Return to riff 4.

In the fourth verse, Harris portrays the beginnings of Alexander’s fall, mentioning the revolt in India at the Hyphasis River indirectly when he tells the listener that Alexander’s army would not follow him further into India – they were tired of the combat, the pain and, most revealingly, the glory of Alexander’s campaign. Clearly, Alexander’s stamina for campaign is greater than even the battle-hardened soldier, again implying some sort of legendary status for Alexander. The description of the size of the army (“side by side” and “line by line”) also implies superhuman skills, for it would take someone of extraordinary talent to convince a large army to march from Greece to India.

Alexander the Great

His name struck fear into hearts of men

Alexander the Great

He died of fever in

Switch to riff 5 for the final chorus.

As the song enters the final chorus, the Harris’ implications for the reason for Alexander’s fall become clear: his army failed him and the betrayal left the king no choice but to die.
The implications for the listener are clear as well. There is no coda to this song and the music does not guide the listener out of the past. Instead, the music leaves the listener with vocalist Bruce Dickenson’s tragic cry of “he died of fever in Babylon” over the song’s short end, the guitar line echoing the sentiments of majesty and tragedy in Alexander’s young death. Both the track and the album end, leaving the listener to contemplate the story in silence.


As the vocals hold the word “Babylon,” the guitar plays a slower, more majestic version of the melody line from 1:39.

No lyrics

Melodic line crashes down on the tonic chord, highlighted by the synth. As the bass plays a run down the fret board, the drums roll off cymbal crashes and the piece fades out into nothingness.

No lyrics

End of track.

Example 2: Mary Renault – Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games

Mary Renault wrote her trilogy of historical fiction on the life and legacy of Alexander the Great over a period of about 12 years. She divides Alexander’s life and immediate aftermath into three pieces, from the viewpoints of a number of different and important characters in Alexander’s life, including Alexander himself. Told mainly from Alexander’s perspective, Fire from Heaven covers Alexander’s childhood up to Phillip’s murder and Alexander’s assumption of power as the new Macedonian king. The eunuch Bagoas, a minor character in the Greek sources that Renault expands into a major influence on Alexander’s life and later, on his fate after death, is the narrator of The Persian Boy. The Persian Boy tells of Bagoas’ life as a Persian until Nabarzanes gives him to Alexander after Darius’ death; from there Bagoas travels with Alexander until the Macedonian’s death. Funeral Games covers the last five days of Alexander’s life and the power struggle that Alexander’s successors pursue for fifty years in an effort to secure the throne of his empire. Told from multiple perspectives, including Ptolemy, Perdiccas, Euridice (wife of Phillip Arridaios), Cassander, Sisygambis, Olympias, Roxane and Alexander IV, the book covers the period from Alexander’s death in 323 BCE to the finishing of Ptolemy’s book in 286 BCE.

Renault has one underlying theme throughout all three novels: Alexander’s love. Alexander, Renault feels, was such a charismatic person that he won many people over with his nature and those that he won over, he tended to trust. Further, he was such a generous person that he did not understand the jealousy of others for his position and success. Any breach of his trust was more harmful to him than any physical wound; a betrayal, especially one motivated by jealousy, was something he had great difficulty in forgiving. As such, the only characters that succeed in Renault’s books are those that do not attempt to trade in on Alexander’s love, either during his life or after. Renault uses Alexander’s life as a morality ploy, showing not only that betrayal and opportunism are bad things that lead to bad ends, but that it is unwise to give love unconditionally to those who have not proven themselves worthy.

Renault’s love theme evolves throughout the novels. In Fire from Heaven, she attempts to establish the roots of this love theme by developing Alexander’s psychological profile, focusing on his relationship with his parents. Renault feels that the holds Alexander’s father and mother each tried to put on him and the antagonistic relationship they had with each other governed Alexander’s future relationships. In essence, Alexander’s generous outpouring of love later in life was the result of a sort of love complex that developed when he was young.

Further, Renault attempts to explain Phillip and Olympias’ near state of war by examining Phillip’s attempts at cultural syncretism in Macedonia. Phillip’s desire to Hellenize the Macedonians and with them his son, conflicted directly with Olympias’ desires for Alexander. As an Epirote, Olympias found southern Greek ways repugnant and as a devotee of Dionysus, feared retribution by the Hellenized Macedonians against her cult. Renault couches these fears in a form of feminism; as a female-centered institution, the cult of Dionysus becomes a threat to the misogynistic southern Greek ways and Olympias’ attempts to maintain its power become a form of defiance.

Although Renault is clearly elaborating to create an interesting and insightful story, her ideas do have basis in the historical record. Olympias was a devotee of Dionysus, a cult that Plutarch describes as “denot[ing] the celebration of extravagant and superstitious ceremonies.”11 Plutarch goes on to describe Olympias as a particularly devoted follower of Dionysus, given over to scaring the male participants of the ceremonies with large snakes.12 Phillip did seem to have a desire to Hellenize his kingdom; there was his reform of the Macedonian infantry around lines he had learned while in Thebes13, the importation of Greeks into his court at Pella14 (including Aristotle) and his attempts to create a Panhellenic league against Persia.15 Because the details about Alexander’s childhood are so sketchy, Renault is able to take elements like Olympias’ devotion to Dionysus and Phillip’s attempts at Hellenization and interpret them into a broader cultural conflict. Olympias and Phillip become the opposing leaders in this conflict, Phillip representing the new civilizing forces drawn from southern Greece and Olympias representing the traditional tribal ways of the north. The opposing desires of his parents tear Alexander apart psychologically; his parents love him only insofar as to achieve their own ends. The result of this bad parenting is Alexander’s love complex.

Some might make the argument that by using modern psychology to explain Alexander’s behavior, Renault is guilty of using contemporary standards to judge ancient events. It is my contention that the use this method is Renault’s entire point. Renault is attempting to get the reader to understand the story of Alexander by creating characters that are understandable to the modern mind. This attempt requires the use of modern methods of explanation, including psychology.

Although Fire from Heaven abounds with examples of the development of Alexander’s love complex, the two quotes below make good illustrations.

“‘Are you teaching him now? Are you making him into a back-country, snake-dancing, howling mystagogue? I tell you, I’ll not endure it…for by Zeus I mean it, as you will feel. My son is a Greek, not one of your barbarous cattle-lifting hillmen…’

‘Barbarous!’ Her voice rose ringing, then sank to a deadly undertone…‘My father, you peasant, sprang from Achilles, and my mother from the royal house of Troy. My forebears were ruling men, when yours were hired farm-hands in Argos. Have you looked in a mirror? One can see the Thracian in you. If my son is Greek, it is from me. In Epiros, our blood runs true.’”16
These paragraphs, which are included in a larger scene that runs from pages 10 to 14, are part of a fight that Phillip and Olympias have in Olympias’ room, in Alexander’s presence, while Phillip is drunk. Alexander is still a young child during this scene and, confused by his father’s motives ends his participation in the fight by yelling at Phillip to get out because Olympias hates him. Phillip then picks the boy up and throws him out of Olympias’ room. The content of the quote above and the scene as a whole is about the Hellenization that Phillip is attempting to introduce into Macedon and Alexander’s future education. Olympias’ implication is that Phillip has no right to imply that Alexander will become a barbarian under her guidance; she has more noble Greek blood in her than Phillip does and Phillip learned his southern Greek ways as a hostage to Thebes. That Alexander’s parents carry this battle out in Alexander’s presence is a demonstration of how each parent cares more about their own agendas than protecting Alexander from psychological harm.

“Alexander did not weep. He had understood the whole business of the appointment [of Leonidas]. No one needed to tell him that if he did not obey this man, it would lose his mother a battle in her war; nor that the next one would then be fought over himself. He was scarred within by such battles. When another threatened, the scars throbbed like old wounds before the rain.”17

This quote is from a scene sometime in Alexander’s boyhood, when his parents assign him Leonidas as a tutor to train him by way of a physical regimen. Plutarch mentions Leonidas as being a stern disciplinarian and a relative of Olympias.18 Renault takes these ideas and creates a character who is taken on as Alexander’s tutor as a concession between Alexander’s parents. Leonidas molds Alexander’s physique around the ideals of Sparta, disciplining him to withstand a great deal of hardship (and, in the process, stunting his growth). As such, he is an acceptable option to Phillip and as a relative of Olympias, the queen sees him as a potential pawn in her war against Phillip to control Alexander. Alexander himself does not wish to have such a tutor, but he has become wise to the ways of his parents and realizes that he must make sacrifices to things he considers truly important. In a sense, the realization of Alexander’s sacrifice of his freedom of action to his parents’ desires becomes in Renault’s novels a part of the foundation of his generosity and love complex later in life.

The Persian Boy goes from the implication of a developing love complex to a full-on explanation. Bagoas, the central character, is a victim of a tragic childhood who becomes one of Alexander’s closest confidants because he truly understands the power of Alexander’s loneliness. As such, he becomes the prime motivator for a number of Alexander’s actions (like the attempt at a Persian/Greek cultural syncretism) for which he probably had little historical involvement. The result is a slightly unrealistic story, but Renault still manages to develop her love complex idea by focusing on how the ravages of power changed Alexander into a solitary soul, in need of the companionship that characters like Bagoas and Hephaistion gave him. Renault demonstrates this need through quotes like the following:

“Whatever [Alexander] said, he would not go on without the Macedonians. This army, before which he had proved himself in boyhood, was part of his blood. It was like a lover. Why not? It had greatly loved him. He was shut up here, not in grief alone, but to bring the lover to his feet, asking for pardon.

No love came. Over the camp lay a heavy, brooding silence.”19
“Alexander had kept his word, and never held [Coenus’] plain speech against him; now he gave him a fine funeral. Yet, within, something had altered. The many-headed lover had flawed its faith. They had patched things up, from need of one another; they still loved, but did not quite forget.”20
The idea of the army-as-lover becomes an intrinsic part of Renault’s idea of the love complex in Alexander’s life. Renault introduces the idea of the army-as-lover after the mutiny at the Hyphasis River; although we have known all along that Alexander’s men love him, it is only after betrayal that we realize that Alexander loves his army as an entity. The idea that it was to this entity that Alexander had proved himself in boyhood and the subsequent comparison of the army with a lover suggest that the pain that Alexander felt at his army’s refusal to follow him further is part of deep sense of betrayal. Alexander felt he had made the necessary sacrifices to his army’s desires (he had allowed them, for example, to go on a looting spree the day before the mutiny broke21); any further demands were outside of what the army should reasonably expect of the man it loved. But the army did not change its desires to go home and the damage was enough for Alexander to change his entire outlook on how he feels about his men. The shift is subtle, but one gets the feeling that Renault believes that Alexander’s increased Persianization is due to his sense of betrayal from his army. It was the Macedonians, after all, who demanded to return home; the Persians, through their unofficial ambassador Bagoas, actually continue to increase in standing in Alexander’s eyes.

Funeral Games sees the post-mortem fulfillment of Alexander’s love complex. Every major character (and there are a number of them in this book) who attempts to use Alexander’s legacy for their own purposes has a bad end. Only Ptolemy, who defends Alexander’s trust (with the help of the eunuch Bagoas) by diverting Alexander’s body from its route towards Macedonia into Alexandria and refusing to take part in the struggle for power over Alexander’s empire has a happy end. The chaos surrounding the lives of Alexander’s closest relatives and successors after his death suggests the influence of Alexander’s hand from beyond the grave, as if Alexander felt the betrayal of those he trusted and then punished them in ways that he never could in life. Such an ending demonstrates how Renault believes that part of Alexander’s greatness lay in his ability to bring out the best in people through the love he gave so freely; after his death, the vices of his lieutenants came to the surface and destroyed his empire.22

Irrespective of their actual historical accuracy, Renault’s theories about Alexander’s love complex present an interesting portrait of the Macedonian king, understandable to the modern reader, who can identify with themes of love and betrayal, no matter how old the subject matter. Further, by emphasizing this aspect of Alexander’s character at the expense of other aspects, Renault gives the modern reader a valuable lesson in understanding human faithfulness and duplicity. Emulate Alexander, her books say, and you may find yourself loved and used all at the same time. For these reasons, Renault’s trilogy makes for an effective representation of Alexander’s life.

Example 3: The Man Who Would Be King

In many ways, this example is the most concrete and most abstract example of the three. This conflicting dichotomy has much to do with its subject matter; the story is not directly about Alexander at all, but about two former British Army sergeants in India in the 1880s who attempt to carve their own kingdom out of the imaginary region of Kafiristan, near Afghanistan. The two men, Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnehan, though freebooters and scoundrels, are men who made the empire in the very realest sense: by being soldiers. As in the case of Alexander’s empire, the existence of the British Raj rested on the fighting spirit of its soldiers,23 an idea that Dravot and Carnehan understand and that they feel gives them license to behave how they wish, despite the feelings of any of their superiors. Like Alexander, they realize that they must take this energy out of their current habitat; there is much similarity between Carnehan when he says “therefore such as [India] is, we will let it alone, and go away to some other place where a man isn’t crowded and can come to his own”24 and Alexander when he says “Boys, my father will forestall me in everything. There will be nothing great or spectacular for you and me to show the world.”25 Both men realize that it is their destiny to bring about change through massive disruption and both hope that they will be able to ride this change for their own permanent betterment.

There are other connections between the two stories (especially in John Huston’s movie) and it is through these more obvious connections that Kipling is attempting to reinforce his point. Alexander’s character in The Man Who Would Be King is reduced to the flat personality of an invincible god, who passed through Kafiristan on his was to India, married a local girl and promised to send back one of his descendents in the future. As such, the inhabitants of Kafiristan do not know of his actual fate in Babylon a few years later; they remember Alexander as an immortal that passed through their country several thousand years ago and nothing since that time has changed their impression. Danny and Peachy, by exploiting this opportunity to become rulers over Kafiristan in one fell swoop rather than in smaller pieces, set themselves up to a comparison which they can never hope to uphold – a comparison that Alexander himself would have failed if he returned.

Kipling’s point is that like the British Empire, Carnehan and Dravot cannot hope to maintain permanent control over their country of choice (Kafiristan or India as the case may be). As a liberal constitutional monarchy, the British would not deliberately oppress their Indian subjects; the result would be another uprising like the Mutiny in 1857, which the British government wished to avoid at all costs.26 At the same time, by promoting a Western education among Indians and giving them advancement opportunities within the administration of India, the British were deliberately setting themselves up to be removed.27 Dravot and Carnehan can no more hold Kafiristan than the British can hold India – like the British East India Company, Dravot and Carnehan would have had much more success not by settling in Kafiristan, but exploiting it for all it was worth; robbing it six ways from Sunday and then leaving, as Dravot puts it in the film. What each seeks to bring to their new adopted country will fail because they are setting themselves up to fail – Dravot and Carnehan because they are not gods and the British Raj because it created social conditions that would allow it to be replaced by Indian self-rule. Kipling realizes this problem; although the Raj had not fallen when Kipling wrote his story, he knew it to be a hidden eventuality, much as Dravot’s death and Carnehan’s disfigurement were a hidden eventuality when they set out from his offices at the newspaper. In some ways, it is clear that Kipling admires his two characters for what they are attempting to do, much as he admires the British Empire and Alexander the Great himself. He realizes that their attempts are bound to fail, for only a god can hope to have the sort of unchanging influence that Dravot, Carnehan, the Raj and Alexander tried to have, but celebrates their efforts as inspirational.


Each of my four examples has an idea and a lesson they wish to pass on to the reader, listener or viewer about Alexander’s life. Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris wishes to portray Alexander in the inspirational role of the modern mythological hero or legend, who can accomplish extraordinary feats because of his years of training and self-discipline – inspirational because the mere mortal can hope to aspire to these heights by doing the same sort of training themselves. Mary Renault wishes to show that the modern reader can understand Alexander and his motivations through psychology; it was the desire to love and be loved that drove him on to greatness and that there is great potential for being hurt if you give too much of yourself to the world. Finally, Rudyard Kipling and John Huston wish to demonstrate the parallels between Alexander’s story and the fate of the British Raj through the characters Peachy Carnehan and Daniel Dravot; the writer and the director see Alexander (and the Raj) as a tragic character who took on more than a mortal could hope to carry, but who is inspirational because he made the supreme effort. The creators of these examples and other like them mean for their ideas and lessons to inform, while giving new and different perspectives on the story of Alexander the Great.


Iron Maiden. “Alexander the Great (356 – 323 B.C.)” from Somewhere in Time. Capitol

Records compact disc CDP 7 46341 2, 1986.

James, Lawrence. The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. New York: St. Martin’s

Griffin, 1994.
Kipling, Rudyard. The Man Who Would Be King and Other Stories. Edited by Louis L.

Cornell. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Parsons, Timothy. The British Imperial Century, 1815 – 1914: A World History

Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999.
Patai, Raphael. Myth and Modern Man. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1972.
Renault, Mary. Fire from Heaven. New York: Pantheon Books, 1969.
Renault, Mary. The Persian Boy. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972.
Renault, Mary. Funeral Games. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

The Man Who Would Be King. Produced by John C. Foreman, directed by John Huston.

2 hr. 9 min. Columbia Pictures. 1975 and 1997. DVD.

1 Patai, 215.

2 Patai, 215.

3 Plut. Alex. 6.

4 D.S. 16.89.3.

5 D.S. 17.19.1 – 17.21.4.

6 Arr. 4.4 – 4.5.

7 Arr. 4.3 – 4.4.

8 Justin 11.1.8.

9 Plut. Alex. 14.

10 Part of a set of scales originally developed by the Greeks and expanded in the Middle Ages by the Church to govern the composition of Gregorian chant.

11 Plut. Alex. 2.

12 Plut. Alex. 2.

13 Green, 20.

14 Green, 40.

15 Green, 83.

16 Renault, Fire from Heaven, 12.

17 Renault, Fire from Heaven, 43.

18 Plut. Alex. 5.

19 Renault, The Persian Boy, 298.

20 Renault, The Persian Boy, 304.

21 D.S. 17.94.1-4.

22 Renault, Funeral Games, 333.

23 James, 223 – 224.

24 Kipling, 252.

25 Plut. Alex. 5.

26 Parsons, 48 – 49.

27 James, 220.

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