Political Masterclass: Alexander, Liberator of the Greeks I
Every westerner knows about Alexander the Great, if only in passing. If the history classes in your public school didn’t mention him, pop culture certainly did. He’s the golden boy of the pre-Roman era, the dashing hero who led Greece to glory over the trampled corpse of its long-time oppressor, the sprawling Persian Empire.
Or at least, that’s what his P.R. team would have you believe.
Like Constantine, the facts behind Alexander’s greatest claims to fame don’t quite line up with the public face put on it. There was a lot to choose from, as Alexander’s legend has grown over the centuries to gloss over many of the less polished aspects behind his rise to power. The fact that his father, Philip of Macedon, was the one to develop the powerful phalanx formations, unite the Greek states under Macedonian rule, and prepare the lion’s share of the logistics for the push into Persia tempted me, but it’s been done, and one ruler building off the success of another is hardly without precedent in history. Rather than pluck that low-hanging fruit, I aimed elsewhere: Alexander’s reputation as liberator.
Alexander was fond of making promises. They were the currency of his campaign: Promises to his generals, promises to his troops, promises to the cities that supported him, promises to the cities that trembled with his armies at their gates. His greatest pledge of all he made to the Greeks, to the city-states of both Greece proper and those that clustered along the western coast of Anatolia (modern Turkey): Liberty. And while it is true that he freed them from the Persians – whether the Persian presence was a distant menace as in Greece or the tax man in Anatolia – liberty was something that remained far from the grasp of the people he claimed to have freed, as the Greek cities found themselves just as subject to the whims of Alexander and his representatives as they had been to those of Persia.
In Europe, the high-sounding principles of the League of Corinth (a loosely structured alliance of Macedon and numerous Greek states instituted by Alexander’s father, Philip) masked a mechanism used by Macedonian rulers to interfere with the interfal affairs of the Greek states, while the Greek cities of Anatolia found themselves subject to tribute, under the thumb of Alexander’s appointed satraps (in essence, military governors) and playing the gracious, if unwilling, host to Macedonian garrisons occupying their citadels. While not all cities suffered indignities, even those that enjoyed Alexander’s favour did so only at his sufferance. There was no hint of equality in relations between Alexander and the Greek cities, resulting in years of rising tensions and culminating in a wave of violent protests, nearly leading to open rebellion. That we rarely, if ever, hear about this side of Alexander’s short-lived empire is why the King of Macedon is the second subject of the Political Masterclass series.
As before, my interpretation of events is not the final word on the situation. In all historical matters, it is up to the historian to collate and analyze what evidence is available and use that knowledge to re-construct events as best they can. My research has led me to conclude that Alexander’s promises of liberation went unfulfilled, and that those broken promises were a key factor in the near-rebellion of the Greek states he faced late in his campaign. The evidence and reasoning behind this position will, of course, be revealed as the series continues. Part II will be here on Wednesday.