Alexander the Great Endnotes
Hello and welcome to another episode of How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson. Special episode today, we’re doing the endnotes from the life of Alexander the Great. All of the thoughts I had, all of the random notes, all of the stuff that just barely missed the cut for getting into the main episodes is going to be here. It’s a little more free-flowing, and a little more loose.
So on the list of topics that I’m going to cover, I’ve got:
- What happened after Alexander’s death and the successor kingdoms
- Alexander’s sexuality
- If Alexander was Greek, why did he have blond hair and light eyes?
- A review of the Alexander the Great movie directed by Oliver Stone in 2004
And some other stuff here and there. So let’s jump in.
One thing I wanted to address is a question I got after last episode which is essentially “so what made Alexander so great?”
Why is what he did considered so much greater than what other general and conquerors have done?
So I think the first thing that added to his mystique is that he was literally undefeated. He never lost a battle ever. And that’s not something that Caesar or Napoleon or most other great conquerors can say.
The other thing is that the territory wasn’t that big but the power was. Because Greece was that powerful. That wealthy and successful and powerful. And so was Persia. So it’s not just that it was big in terms of land. It was like China and the US being united in a single country or something.
I think part of the other part is that he was doing this in the style of an old war lord. He was literally charging in there and swinging a sword and through the strength of his arms and those of his companions, as well as through his charisma and diplomacy and strategic brilliance, he forged this unprecedented empire.
So it’s not just what he did in having an undefeated record and creating what he did, it is that the person of Alexander is a uniquely impressive specimen.
I’d like to read from the end of Arrian’s biography where he gives his assessment of Alexander’s character.
“He lived thirty-two yeard and eight months and reigned for twelve years and... eight months. He had an extraordinary physical beauty and hardihood and an exceedingly shrewd and courageous spirit; he was unsurpassed in his love of honor, his zest for danger, and his scrupulous attention to the rites of the gods… He was extremely adept at seeing immediately what had to be done when it was not yet obvious, and was exceptionally good at guessing what was likely to happen based on the available evidence; he showed outstanding talent for drawing up, arming, and equipping an army. In raising his soldiers’ morale, filling them with good hopes, and dispelling their fear in times of danger by his own fearlessness, he showed himself supremely gifted. All that needed to be done openly he did with the utmost courage, while in situations requiring stealth and speed he also excelled at getting the jump on his enemies before they suspected what was coming.”
Okay so it wasn’t just what he accomplished, it was who he was. It was his good looks, his charisma, his courage, his honor, his grit, and his cleverness. That is what made him Alexander THE GREAT.
The next thing I want to talk about is the successor kingdoms.
So just before Alexander dies, he says that the kingdom should go to the strongest. That’s actually a little too neat and most historians think that was a later invention, but whether or not it actually happened, it was a good summary of how things would turn out.
So immediately there was a problem that people only wanted a blood relation of Alexander’s to be king. So there was his legitimate son, Alexander, who was actually not born yet, but his wife Roxanna was pregnant when he died, there was an illegitimate son that he had by his mistress Barsine, and that child’s name was Herakles. And then there was his mentally disabled brother, Arrhidaios.
So the arrangement is supposed to be that a guy named Perdikkas, who was not powerful and had no real power base, would serve as the regent until Alexander’s son could come of age.
The most powerful generals would all take separate satrapies and be governors, sort of under Perdikkas, but really as peers to him.
Well the problem is that some of the borders of the empire start crumbling, especially in Afghanistan, which is famous as a graveyard of empires. Essentially the Macedonians and Greeks there start defecting saying “screw this, how long are you going to keep us posted at the end of the world?” and then the locals are rebelling, so Perdikkas calls on some of the satraps, these very powerful generals, from nearby regions to come help maintain the territorial integrity of the empire.
Well they tell Perdiccas to go pound sound. You can’t tell us what to do. Perdikkas tries to attack these wayward generals but he fails and dies.
So now you’ve got all these independent regions led by these generals, who end up eventually declaring themselves kings.
Back in Macedonia, good ol Antipater is still in charge and he’s protecting Alexander’s family. But he’s an old man, and he soon dies. He does something rather similar to Alexander, rather than leave the kingdom to his son, he leaves it to a nobody, an old veteran general named Polyperchon.
We don’t know why he did it but it seems that the idea was to do something similar to what Alexander did. Leave a nobody in charge who will just hold the kingdom until Alexander’s son can come of age.
But Antipater’s son, Cassander, was ambitious and did not go along with this, and overthrow this guy Polyperchon and had Alexander’s family imprisoned, and then years later had them quietly killed.
And that was the tragic end of Alexander’s family. In terms of the other heirs of Alexander’s empire, it stabilized into four main kingdoms with some smaller around the edges.
You had Cassander in Macedonia, who eventually gets taken over by a dynasty called the Antigonids. In Egypt you had the Ptolemy, and his descendants would be the most successful and long-lasting of the kingdoms. They ruled Egypt for hundreds of year - until Julius Caesar came along. And Cleopatra was a direct descendant of Ptolemy.
In Persia you had the Seleucid empire and in Asia Minor you had Lysimachus, although this would eventually go to the Seleucid empire as well.
So anyway, you have these successor kingdoms, the Seleucids, the Ptolemies, the Antigonids, and Lysimachus, and as soon as one of them gets powerful enough that they look like they could take over the entire thing and inherit Alexander’s empire, the other ones team up to defeat them and keep them in their place.
And so Alexander’s empire is never reconstituted. But what the successor kingdoms did do was spread Hellenic culture and language throughout the Mediterranean and near east. And this environment where there was a Greek lingua franca that everyone could communicate in created the environment in which Christianity could spread from Judea to become the dominant world religion that it now is.
So though Alexander’s empire was a flash in the pan, gone almost as soon as it was created, it had very far reaching effects.
The next thing to talk about is Alexander’s sexuality. So obvious content warning if you are listening with children in the car or anything like that.
And to start with we need to understand that Greek sexuality was very different from our own. The phrases straight, gay, and bisexual have no exact corresponding ancient Greek counterpart.
And that’s because we tend to view sexuality as something that you are born with, that’s fixed. You are born either gay/lesbian, straight, or bisexual.
The Greeks of Alexander’s age did not view sexuality that way. They tended to view being the passive partner in sex as feminine, and being the active partner as masculine, no matter who your partner was.
And we should also add that female sexuality was not much discussed, the Greeks were quite misogynistic, even by ancient standards. Except for the Spartans actually, women were quite liberated in Sparta.
That’s a simplification. There were also a lot of other rules and expectations that would be foreign to us. For example, homosexual sex between adult men was not common, it was expected that there should be at least 10 years between the senior and junior partner, and usually the junior partner was a minor.
Which is obviously the inverse of the current day when homosexuality between adults is accepted and pedophilia is forbidden.
And there are a lot of other assumptions abous sex and sexual nature that our society does not share with theirs.
Okay so, when people ask the question “was Alexander the Great gay?” or ask “Was Alexander bisexual?” They’re asking the wrong question.
So here is what we do know:
He married three times and fathered two children and one miscarriage, suggesting a certain level of attraction to women. One of those children was fathered with a mistress, suggesting that it wasn’t all just performing duty and there was at least some level of genuine attraction toward women.
We also knew that he carried on an affair with a male, a eunuch named Bagoas, while he was in Persia. We also have reports of his mother being concerned when Alexander was in early adulthood that he was overly fond of boys and not sufficiently interested in women. Arrian, who I think is the most reliable, doesn’t mention these rumors, but he was quite friendly in his portrayal of Alexander so it doesn’t mean that the rumors are completely untrue.
In any case, what we can say is that Alexander had sexual relationships with both men and women. And that he would have rejected whatever modern labels we tried to put on him.
One of the most intense relationships of his life was with his childhood best friend Hephaestion. And many have suggested that this was a sexual relatinoship or have even sought to portray them as boyfriends or something of that nature.
That is a mistake. It’s possible that their relationship had a sexual component, especially when they were younger, but that wasn’t the basis of their relationship. Friendship and companionship. It was a way more intense friendship than we are used to.
- Hephaestion is also Alexander.
- Reminds me of David and Jonathan in the Bible, David says “my love for you surpasses that of women.” And people have taken that as a not-so coded reference to homosexuality but I think this is also a mistake. It’s just a mega intense friendship, and I find it tragic that our culture no longer understands these.
And again just to reiterate, I’m not saying that Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship was definitely not romantic or sexual, just that if it was, that was not the defining nature of their relationship, and it is likely that they would have found it very offensive and demeaning to their relationshi for it to be boiled down to a romantic affair.
Okay next on the list I am going to review the Alexander the Great movie directed by Oliver Stone in 2004.
The last thing I want to talk about is a question that I got asked which is “Why was Alexander light haired and light eyed.” And I think the implication here is that if you know many Greeks, they are not typically blond haired and blue eyed so if Alexander was a Greek, or you know as a Macedonian he was Greek-adjacent, why didn’t he look like the Greeks I know.
Okay so a few things, first of all I would call the Macedonians Greek. Basically all the ethnic Macedonians got rolled up into the Greek nation and ethnicity over the following centuries. Same thing with those who were from Epirus and pretty much every other people who spoke a Greek-like language.
Okay so why doesn’t he look like a Greek.
Well, Greece had been inhabited by a number of peoples, most notably the Minoans, who were what you might call indigenous Europeans. And then they were invaded by a Northern European people called the Mycaneans or Mykaneans. Mycanean is the more common pronunciation.
And these guys were Indo-Europeans, Hitler’s famous Aryans, though he was mostly wrong about them. So they brought the Greek language and they founded a ruling class in Greece. Now, by the time Alexander comes along, it is hundreds of years after the Mycanean takeover of Greece and by Alexander’s time, the native population and the Mycaneans had mixed to form what is the Greek ethnicity.
But it is likely that some structural inequities would have endured, to use modern parlance, and so it is probably likely that aristocratic Greeks like Alexander would have been somewhat more likely to have light hair and light eyes than commoners, though there was certainly nothing like racial segregation or a formal racial caste system or anything like that.
But as we know, light hair and light eyes are recessive, so as time goes on, it is likely for those attributes to fade from the gene pool. In addition, the Greeks went along mixing with their neighbors, especially their neighbors in modern day Turkey, and so they have done genetic tests on bronze-age Greek skeletons and they had slightly more similarity to northern europeans than modern Greeks do.
You have to be careful when you bring this up because Hitler and the NAZIs had this theory that every great European was an ARYAN, was an Indo-Europoean, and that the Greeks were great when they were Aryan and pure, but they went and mixed their blood with other populations and that is why they’re no longer as politically powerful as they once were.
And to be clear that’s not what I’m saying. And I’m not saying that Alexander was a pure Aryan or anything stupid like that. But it is clear that someone like Alexander would have had more steppe ancestry, which is to say Indo-European ancestry, than modern Greeks, and that is why he probably had a lighter complexion than most modern Greeks.
You can see a similar thing in the Visigothic invasion of Spain. The Visigoths were a German tribe, full of blondies and blue-eyed people. And they invaded Spain and set up a kingdom for themselves there. It’s why Spanish has a Germanic word for cheese, queso, whereas most other romance languages have a word like fromage or formaggi.
But despite this big Germanic invasion, how many blond-haired blue-eyed Spaniards do you know? I mean it happens, they definitely exist, but it’s not very common because lighter complexions are recessive and have disappeared over time.