Political Masterclass: Alexander, Liberator of the Greeks III

by northernbeholder

Alexander is storming across the Persian empire, leaving cities in his wake occupied and under the command of military governors.  In Europe, the city-states of Greece proper seethe with discontent, forced into a allegedly collaborative alliance that serves only to bind them under Macedonian rule. Meanwhile, in Anatolia, the situation is even worse.  The situation of Rhodes serves as an example of the sort of treatment those cities received.

For the Greeks in Asia Minor (an old term of reference for Anatolia; according to the geographers of ancient Greece and Rome, everything east of Greece and Egypt was “Asia”, as they were unaware of the true scope of that continent’s enormity and so the concept of the “middle east” had not yet taken root), the situation was often even worse than that suffered by their cousins in Europe. Those who dared to mount a resistance against the mighty war machine of Alexander were subject to all the ravages of war once their defences inevitably fell, with sections of the city levelled or burned, treasures and possessions looted by adrenaline-fueled soldiers run amok, the population sold into slavery or left destitute. While such behaviour was, admittedly, more or less standard operating procedure for the times, it still reflects poorly upon a leader whose rallying cry was “liberation”. Some cities, such as Halicarnassus, were then handed over to tyrants to rule in Alexander’s name despite the young king’s high-minded talk of democracy, autocrats whose loyalty to the Macedonian master was absolute so long as he kept them on the throne, while others were subordinate to the Macedonian satraps and levies of tribute.

The surviving records of Rhodes, a maritime Greek city-state based upon a small island off the southwestern coast of Anatolia, bear out the situation many of the Anatolian city-states faced. Rhodes, being like all the Greeks of Asia within the Persian Empire’s sphere of influence, had maintained a strong anti-Macedonian policy for years, and did not sue for peace with Alexander until the Persian navy, which previously rendered the island state impervious to Alexander’s attentions, had been rendered impotent. Following the grudging surrender of an unprotected Rhodes, a Macedonian garrison was maintained in the acropolis (the central fortress-citadel of the city, a common feature of Greek city-states) until Alexander’s death, despite both the complete lack of external threats to the island and many strong protests on the part of the people of Rhodes to Alexander – there was no practical purpose served by the presence of the garrison other than to enforce the young king’s authority.

During the occupation, the Macedonian authorities did little to respect any notion of Rhodes’ autonomy, going so far as to openly arrest citizens who were outspoken against the occupation of their own nation and calling for independence. The fact that such men were considered dangerous enough to have arrested suggests that anti-Macedonian sentiment was uncomfortably powerful in the island, needing decisive action to keep in check. Still, Alexander was not completely heartless towards Rhodes: he received many embassies from them to hear their complaints, and did undertake to moderate his actions to some degree. The garrison was reduced after many complaints, though it was never removed, and eventually Alexander ordered his representatives to set the arrested citizens free. Years afterwards, when Alexander’s generals fought amongst themselves to rule over the crumbling empire left in the wake of the young king’s death, some in Rhodes would romanticize the relationship the island had shared with Alexander, but it was only fiction, propaganda to enhance the small state’s standing in the chaotic world of the Diadochi (a Greek term that essentially means “Successors”).

In the end, Alexander could never have done enough to placate the Greek islanders for the insults and indignities they felt they had suffered short of releasing them entirely from his control, an action the ego-driven king (we might come back to Alexander in the future to look at his psyche, which is fascinating) could never have contemplated; and therein rises all the issues with all the city-states he freed from Persia but left in chains.

Rhodes would rise in revolt with the rest of the Greeks upon hearing news of the king’s death, forcing out the Macedonian garrison and reclaiming their independence, at least temporarily – it would not be the last time they were occupied by a foreign power.  But the insults detailed here were not the worst they and the other states would suffer.  On Monday, the greatest sin Alexander ever committed against the Greek cities: the Mytilene Decree.