Skip to content Skip to footer

Alexander the Great: History’s Superstar

Detail of the Alexander Mosaic, c. 100 BC, originally from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, currently in Naples National Archaeological Museum. (Image: Museu Nacional Arqueológico de Nápoles)

The discovery of a vast tomb in Amphipolis in northern Greece, which archeologists believe dates back to the era of Alexander the Great, has captured the public’s imagination both in Greece and around the world like few other archeological finds in the modern period.

The reason, of course, is speculation over who is buried in the tomb of Amphipolis. The size of the tomb, 500 meters in circumference, and its splendor – the entrance is guarded by a pair of sphinxes while two beautiful and enigmatic Caryatids serve as support columns and sleepless guards to keep intruders away – indicate that only someone extremely rich and of the stature of a great king would have merited such a resting place. And who greater than Alexander the Great? Except, of course, that historical records tell us that Alexander died in Babylon and was finally buried in the city he founded in Egypt, although his body was initially on its way back to Macedonia when one of his generals diverted the funeral cart back to Egypt.

The main contenders then for occupants of the tomb are Alexander’s mother Olympias, his wife Roxanne and their son Alexander IV, all of whom were murdered after Alexander’s death by Cassander, who hated and envied Alexander. There is also speculation that the tomb may have been ordered by Alexander for his beloved friend, comrade and possibly lover Hephaestion, who died a mere eight months before Alexander himself in 323 BCE.

But who was Alexander really, and what made him “great” – audacious, aggressive, fearless and victorious? What leadership qualities did he possess such that he was able to conquer half of the then-known world at such a young age and be revered throughout the ancient world as a god? Was he an imperialist war monger or a cosmopolitan visionary?

In this exclusive interview by C. J. Polychroniou for Truthout and the Greek national newspaper the Sunday Eleftherotypia, Guy MacLean Rogers, who is Mildred Lane Kemper Professor of History and Classical Studies at Wellesley College and author, among many other works on ancient Greece, of the biography, Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness, published by Random House in 2004, explains the uniqueness of Alexander the Great, his vision and his character, and also what may have happened to his body and tomb.

C.J. Polychroniou for Truthout: In just 12 years, Alexander III of Macedon changed completely the nature of the ancient world, making him probably the most iconic military commander of all times. What were the qualities of leadership that Alexander possessed that allowed him to conquer half the world before the age of 30?

Guy MacLean Rogers: Alexander was the kind of leader that comes along once in history. He was extremely intelligent, observant, brave beyond reason, and lethal in combat. He set clear goals and focused relentlessly on how to achieve them. He knew and respected his enemies, but feared no one. He motivated his soldiers by displaying a willingness to sacrifice on their behalf. In sum, he was a charismatic, inspirational leader, and his unbroken string of victories suggested that he was beloved of the gods. That is why tens of thousands were willing to follow him from Macedon to the Indus River.

What factors drove him to expand to the end of the known world?

Originally Alexander was the leader of a Pan-Hellenic war of revenge against Persia for their actions against Greek city-states, particularly their burning of the temples on top of the Athenian Acropolis in 480 BCE. But he eventually developed a revolutionary theological justification for his plan to conquer the entire world. In my book, Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness (2004), I argue that Alexander wanted to unite all of Zeus’ children under the rule of the best – the Macedonians and the Persians – and the best of the best, Alexander. Alexander’s imperial vision thus included sharing rule over his empire with the Persians that he had conquered.

Alexander was a controversial figure even in his own times – a heavy drinker, just like his father, Philip II, fearless but with a violent temper – and certainly not infallible. Yet, he was able to unite people and actually be revered as a god. Was Alexander born a success, thereby supporting the claim of those scientists who believe that DNA dictates if we succeed or fail?

I am a firm believer in the importance of DNA or what is hard-wired into us genetically. But family, education, and culture are equally important to success.

Alexander was born with great intellectual and physical capacities. He could see things that the rest of us can’t. When he was a boy, he alone observed that the wild horse Bucephalas (which was being offered for sale to his father) was afraid of its own shadow. Alexander turned Bucephalas toward the sun so that the horse would not be frightened by his own shadow and then mounted and rode him. Before battles, Alexander instantly understood how his opponents wanted to fight from observing their battle formations, and he made the necessary tactical adjustments. He also was a naturally gifted athlete. He was a fine runner, and was tough as nails. He had superhuman powers of endurance. I don’t think such capacities are teachable. In that sense, Alexander was born to become Alexander, just as Mozart was born to become Mozart.

Yet Alexander’s upbringing and his education were at least as important to his development and success. Both of his parents, Philip II and Olympias, set the highest expectations for him. And they hired the best tutors for him, including Aristotle. You could say that Alexander was born and then raised to be a leader, indeed to make history. In my book, I especially emphasize Olympias’ influence upon Alexander. Olympias was history’s ultimate tiger mom. Alexander may have been the only man in Macedon not afraid of his mother.

In the ancient Greek mindset, myth and reality seemed to work in tandem. Thus, Alexander’s great role models were Hercules and Achilles, and he seemed to embrace Olympias’ claim that he had been conceived by Zeus, not Philip, although Alexander clearly never rejected Philip as his biological father. What was the role of myth in ancient Greek society?

We must be indeed careful about assuming that among most ancient Greeks there was a clear division between what we would call myth and history. The ancient Greek word mythos did not necessarily mean a story about the past or present that was untrue. I do not think that Alexander considered the Trojan War to be a myth (in our modern sense of the word) or that Achilles and Patroclus were mythological characters. On the contrary, I am convinced that Alexander really believed that there was a Homer, and a Trojan War, and that Achilles, his ancestor, was a real person.

What does the personal relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion, which seems to resemble closely the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus as recorded in Homer’s Illiad, tell us about friendship and homoeroticism in ancient Greece?

Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion tells us both less and more than many people want it to. People want to use the evidence for that relationship to argue that Alexander was fundamentally homosexual or bisexual, while ignoring the evidence for his heterosexual relations.

My argument is that we should not impose our own sexual categories (homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, etc.) upon the ancient Greeks, including Alexander, because those categories are modern constructs that are alien to the ancient world in which Alexander lived. The ancient Greeks had their own ideas about what we call sexuality. They did not think that if someone acted upon an attraction to a man or a woman that that action placed that person irrevocably into one kind of sexual camp or another.

If you look carefully at Alexander’s intimate relationships over time what you discover is that Alexander was a lover of beauty, without regard to modern sexual categories or ancient ethnic prejudices. Alexander shared his bed with both beautiful Greeks and Asians. As far as Alexander’s specific relationship with Hephaestion is concerned, I would make a couple of further points. There may well have been an erotic facet of it. But I do not think that it was the focus of the relationship. Alexander knew Hephaestion from boyhood, and clearly they became close friends who trusted and cared about each other. The experience of fighting together in combat no doubt intensified that bond, as it often does.

One more point: If Alexander and Hephaestion were indeed lovers, it tells us a lot about ancient Greek culture that no one really seems to have cared very much. You do not find a lot of comment about the relationship in the sources. Were Alexander and Hephaestion lovers? No one seems to have been bothered by it.

Certain parties in Greece’s geographical neighborhood like to claim that Alexander the Great was not Greek, but a Slavo-Macedonian? Yet, we know that ancient Macedonians spoke Greek, believed in Greek gods, and participated in the ancient Olympic Games, which only Greek city-states could do. Furthermore, Alexander’s mission was to spread the culture of Hellenism throughout the rest of the world. So, is there any historical evidence to suggest that Alexander was not Greek?

In the modern world, we talk about identity in terms of DNA or (unfortunately) race or ethnicity or national citizenship. But in the ancient Greek world, what we would call national identity was based upon an idea of biological descent from an ancestor or ancestors. In Alexander’s case, Plutarch tells us that on Alexander’s mother (Olympias’) side, he was descended from Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles. And on his father’s side, he was a descendant of Herakles. If Plutarch is right, it follows that Alexander was considered to have been directly descended from some of the greatest heroes, and even later gods (Herakles) of Hellenic history. We also know that Alexander spoke and wrote Greek and that his education was a thoroughly Hellenic one. His favorite work of literature was the Iliad, as everyone knows. He called the Iliad a handbook of warfare, and he slept with the copy of it that Aristotle had annotated for him.

What is your opinion about the Amphipolis tomb, and what’s your speculation about what may have happened to Alexander’s tomb?

I have been reading about the excavation of the Amphipolis tomb just about every day, and, like everyone else, feel a sense of excitement about what the archaeologists may find. I know that some people are anxious to hear the results, but my sense of the situation is that the archaeologists are being careful and don’t want to put forth any conclusions before they have analyzed all the data. That is exactly the right way to proceed. I hope that when they enter the inner part of the tomb that there will be some kind of evidence, such as an inscription, that will make the identity of the occupant and/or the purpose of the monument clear.

As far as Alexander’s tomb is concerned, that is one of the greatest mysteries in history. We know that a long list of famous people, including Octavian (then-soon-to-be-the Roman emperor Augustus), actually saw Alexander’s body in its tomb in Alexandria, and it was reported to have been visited periodically into the late medieval or early modern period (depending upon how you define those eras). But then there have been no more sightings until now, and no one has been able to demonstrate conclusively that Alexander’s body was removed from Alexandria. Because of the urban growth of Alexandria, it has been very difficult for archaeologists to explore the possible places beneath the streets of the city where he might be buried. However, at present, there are archaeologists working in the city and news has come out that they may be closing in on finding Alexander’s final resting place.

I hope that I am still alive, if and when they find the tomb. Finding Alexander’s tomb – and especially his remains – would be a sensational achievement, maybe the greatest archaeological discovery in history. With all due respect, many were the pharaohs of Egypt, many the emperors of imperial Rome, but there was, and only ever will be, one Alexander.