Political Masterclass: Alexander, Liberator of the Greeks II
For purposes of this series, the details of Alexander’s campaign itself aren’t really relevant. We all know how it goes: Alexander invades the Achaemenid Persian Empire, inflicts a series of devastating defeats on the Persian army and gradually overruns their territory, turning it into his own empire which he then expands into Bactria (modern Afghanistan) and the borders of India before turning back and dying without an heir, leaving his generals to fight amongst themselves over possession of the vast territories he had conquered. What we are going to concern ourselves with is Alexander’s rule once a region was under his control.
Following Alexander’s final victory over the Persian king Darius, he issued a proclamation declaring that the Greek cities were finally free of tyranny. However, the cities of Greece and Anatolia were free only in name, being in truth merely subordinated to a new ruler. The simple reality was that the Greeks were powerless to resist the might of Alexander’s armies. The traditional Greek citizen-militias, though heavily armed and armoured, lacked the discipline, numbers and coordination of the professional Macedonian soldiers, leaving the cities open to the whims and dictates of their military superior. As well, the resources of any one city-state were woefully inadequate when set against the reserves that Alexander had at his command, just as they had been against the vast ranks of the Achaemenid armies that had come before him.
Despite their massive military superiority, Alexander’s governors often found themselves involved in putting down one uprising or another: from 336 to 322 BCE there was no Greek city-state in Europe or Asia that did not rise up in armed revolt against their Macedonian overlords at least once. Even when the Greek soldiers were operating as Alexander’s allies, either in the field or as part of garrisons, he was careful not to trust them with crucial assignments or manoeuvres lest they waver or betray him at a critical moment. He could never trust a Greek soldier as he could his loyal Macedonians, for the Greeks often remained sullen and resentful of their subordination beneath Alexander’s kingdom.
The unequal and uneasy relationship between Macedon and the Greek city-states was defined and no doubt aggravated by the manner in which the city-states found their attempts at entreaty or negotiation treated by the mighty conqueror forging his new empire. Alexander imposed settlements upon the Greeks of Asia. Unilaterally, he would determine their governments, tributary status, and how much – if any – autonomy they would be permitted to enjoy. There were no negotiated treaties or alliances, merely terms dictated as the young king pleased. If a city did try to approach and negotiate on equal terms, they quickly found themselves being spoken to by a man who would not step down from his superior position. When the city of Phaselis in 334 BCE attempted to negotiate a separate peace with Alexander, their attempts were rebuffed: the king would tell them the terms of peace, or they would have none at all. The conqueror would have their complete surrender, with no negotiation or compromise permitted.
To Alexander’s credit, he was not always a harsh or unreasonable victor. His terms could be fair and, at times, he was even capable of being generous. The city of Priene had a new temple to Zeus dedicated to it by Alexander following its liberation from Persian rule, and the city of Ilium was positively showered with gifts from the exuberant conqueror, who dedicated new public buildings, gave generous terms of autonomy, and exempted them from the burden of tribute. As a general rule, the Greeks of Anatolia who opened their gates to Alexander’s armies and did not offer resistance to his advances would find themselves greeted with Alexander’s kinder side, becoming recipients of praise and often granted nominal autonomy from the Macedonian satraps and light or nonexistent tax burdens. However, even these generous conditions were still those dictated by Alexander, not negotiated between equals. Alexander was simply the new overlord, and by the standards of the Greeks themselves many of their cities were no more free under Alexander than they had been under the Persian kings, due either to the burden of tribute, a Macedonian garrison in the city citadel, or both. So long as such conditions persisted in a Greek state, its inhabitants could not consider themselves free men, and that knowledge festered, resentfully, within their minds.
Meanwhile, Alexander’s rule over the Greeks of Europe was not only unhappy, but fragile, with the conqueror concerned almost from the very start that any word of a Persian victory over his forces, even in a naval conflict, would incite the Greeks of both Europe and Asia to rise in revolt against his garrisons. The young king’s fears were not unfounded, as he had no sooner begun pushing deeper into Anatolia than the simmering discontent and hostility hiding just beneath the surface in many of the Greek cities back in Europe began to show itself, their fear of his armies fading the further the man himself was from their shores. Athens, still smarting from the repeated humiliations Alexander and his father before him had heaped upon the city, became a leading instigator in the coming uprisings. The city even went so far as to offer asylum to those expelled by the authorities from other cities for attempting to foster anti-Macedonian sentiment, simultaneously increasing the rebellious feelings within their walls and thumbing their collective noses at the decrees of the Macedonian governors attempting to maintain Alexander’s authority in the king’s absence.
The fragile state of Macedonian-Greek relations was well-known to Alexander’s enemies: the Persian counter-offensive in Anatolia in 333 BCE, led by Darius’ generals while the Persian king himself prepared to clash with Alexander a second time, had as one of its goals inflicting enough setbacks upon Alexander’s armies that the Greeks would see weakness in the Macedonians and seize the opportunity to rise in revolt. Unfortunately for the Persians, the Macedonians stood firm. It would not be until after Alexander’s death that Athens would lead a coalition of Greek cities in attempting to throw off Macedonian rule, since the brilliant and seemingly unstoppable young king was no longer a threat. Athens and its allies would be joined by the Greeks of Asia, just as incensed as their European kinsmen. Prime among the reasons for the ill feelings among the European Greeks was the League of Corinth.
Initiated by Alexander’s father Philip as part of the establishment of Macedonian hegemony over Greece, the League was in theory a legislative body to bind the Greek cities and Macedon in a common alliance and allow disputes to be resolved through diplomatic means rather than feuding and warfare as had been done in the past. In reality, the League of Corinth was little more than a tool for the Macedonian leaders to use in exploiting the Greek cities held under their thumb, leveraging them for soldiers to use in Alexander’s distant campaigns where they would also serve duty as hostages to ensure good behaviour, and providing an excuse for Macedonian officials to interfere with what would previously have been the internal affairs of Greek cities, spurring resentment among a people long used to a tradition of fierce independence.
For the Greek cities of Asia, however, things were to be even worse…