Political Masterclass: Alexander, Liberator of the Greeks IV

by northernbeholder

The cities of Greece and Anatolia already groaned beneath the rule of Alexander and his governors, the populations incensed and resentful at the burdens of foreign rule, military garrisons and tributary taxations, yet that was not the worst they would face. The true crux of Alexander’s insults towards the Greeks, the final measure of his control and autocratic rule over the allegedly free and liberated cities of Europe and Asia, was a measure that threatened to destabilize the very society of the city-states and minor nations that made up the Greek world. The date when it was implemented is in debate, with some scholars placing in 324 BCE, scarcely a year before Alexander’s death, while others date it earlier, to approximately 332 BCE, when Alexander’s conquest of Asia Minor was complete and the Greeks of both Europe and Asia were united under his hegemony. Whatever the true date is, the reaction of the Greeks was the same: outrage.

The measure in question was a royal proclamation, alternately known as the Exiles or Mytilene Decree. Taking the form of a letter, its terms are short and to the point. Alexander would no longer be responsible for the Greek exiles who thronged the towns and countrysides, banished by their fellow citizens or by Persian decree – or as was sometimes the case, by Alexander or his generals. Instead, they were to be returned to the cities from which they had been banished, and with the exception of those guilty of committing sacrilege the Greek cities were permitted to turn no-one away. Antipater and the other representatives of Alexander were given free reign to coerce any cities who showed reluctance to undertake the king’s bidding.

The very substance of this act contravened the tenets of the League of Corinth under which the Greek cities were expected to abide. As has been said, the League itself was already little more than a tool Alexander and his father Philip before him could use to control the Greeks: by commanding the return of the exiles, Alexander was violating a guarantee set out in the League’s creation and showing that he did not need even the pretense of negotiation and compromise that the League provided. His rule was that of the autocrat, and his will carried out by force.

The disruption to the Greek communities was immense. Returning exiles would need to have their property restored to satisfy Alexander’s edict, which was no mean feat when said exiles were sometimes second- or third-generation offspring of the original banished families. Old records would need to be found, family stories shaken out for memories of who had owned what a hundred years ago or more. Once property values had been assessed, it had to be taken from somewhere: the city and its citizens would find themselves impoverished, forced to give up wealth and land to those they had exiled long before. The social fabric would be disordered, prominent families now poorer, sudden newcomers trying to find their place in a society that had rejected them.

The Greek cities, on hearing the decree, naturally objected. Outraged embassies flocked to Alexander’s court to loudly protest his proclamation, fighting for their homes and people, arguing on behalf of communities that were unwilling or, in some cases, unable to take in the exiles flooding their streets. The Athenians, when faced with the exiled Samians coming to reclaim the isle of Samos, used armed force of their own to force the exiles away. With their interests on Samos threatened, and under pressure from Alexander’s officials to comply, Athens came to the brink of open warfare with Macedon yet again, refusing to yield Samos back to its original inhabitants despite Alexander’s explicit commands. Nor were the Athenians the only Greeks arming themselves in response to the threat of the returning exiles: the Aetolians, facing the loss of the city of Oeniadae when its exiled Acarnanian populace returned, quietly began to prepare for their own confrontation.

The Greek cities attempting to avert the coming catastrophe with diplomacy rather than the spear found that Alexander, as was the case with previous decrees, was willing to consider modifying the terms of his proclamation on a case-by-case basis, depending on the needs of the city in question. He would not, however, repeal it, nor would he provide any city with exemption. Tegea, the only city for which there is evidence the exiles were integrated back into society as had been ordered, managed to wring a number of concessions from Alexander over how the reintroduction of the long-banished citizens should proceed: the maximum amount of property any exile could receive was a single modest house and garden, and there were a whole host of conditions that could disqualify a returning family from receiving anything at all – if a female member of the family had remained in or returned to the city at any point during the period of exile, the rest of the returnees were no longer entitled to receive anything and must make do with what they can get from the family of their female relation.

The reason Alexander would compromise but not stand down was not due merely to his considerable pride, but because the manipulative king stood to gain considerably from the chaos his decree would sow. Athens and the Aetolians, arming themselves to do battle with fellow Greeks coming to reclaim their land, had become too distracted by the new threat to organize themselves in rebellion against Alexander. The other Greek cities, no less discontent than Athens though perhaps less strident about their feelings, were thrown into chaos and disarray attempting to find a way to deal with the exiles and the disruption being caused to their society and economy by the flood of returning former citizens. Preoccupied, they could no longer afford to devote attention to protests and meetings aimed against Macedonian hegemony, let alone consider joining Athens in an uprising. In one swift stroke, Alexander slashed the capacity of the Greek cities to mount a serious resistance against him.

Furthermore, once the exiles had been settled within the towns, he would have a base of loyal supporters within each city to help shore up his rule. After all, it was hardly likely the former exiles were going to be more favourable towards the citizens who banished them to begin with and who continued to treat them with resentment and hostility for the upheaval their return caused, rather than the benevolent ruler who had given them back their homes. The very same tactic had been used by the Persians before Alexander’s rise, seeding the Greek cities of Asia with colonies of former exiles who gave their loyalty to their benefactors rather than their hostile kinsmen.

Unfortunately for Alexander, his plan did not come to fruition. The Greeks fought bitterly against the return of their exiles, and Tegea is the only city for which there is evidence that their return went forward. Upon his death in 323 BCE, the Greek cities declared victory. Antipater, the Macedonian regent for Europe, proved to be indifferent to the matter now that Alexander was not pressuring him to coerce the cities into behaving, and the luckless exiles found themselves banished once again.