Donald the Great? Alexander, the Middle East, and President Trump

Guy MacLean Rogers's picture
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Thursday 19 January 2017 11:39 UTC
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What difference will the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States make to the peoples of the Middle East?

As I write these words, citizens all over the Middle East surely are thinking about how Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the American presidential race and his imminent arrival in the White House will affect their lives.

Given some of President-elect Trump’s campaign speeches, particularly his 7 December 2015 call for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until America’s representatives could “figure out what was going on”, many undoubtedly fear what Trump might do after his inauguration.

But ever since the time of the (real) King Gilgamesh of Uruk (2700 BCE), the inhabitants of the Middle East have known that what politicians say and what they do are not always consistent. And the stubborn recalcitrance of facts tempers the rhetoric and plans of even the most charismatic leaders.

Revenge on the Persians

More than 2300 years ago, for instance, Alexander the Third of Macedon – later known as Alexander the Great – led a Pan-Hellenic army across the Hellespont into Asia Minor (now the west coast of Turkey) on a campaign of revenge for alleged Persian crimes against the Greeks.

Unlike their imperial predecessors in the Near East, the Persians exercised their power flexibly, in response to local customs and traditions

The region where Alexander began his war had been incorporated into the rapidly expanding Persian empire during the reign of King Cyrus II (the “Great” before Alexander) in the mid-sixth century BCE. By the fourth century, the Persian kings ruled an empire of some 2.9 million square miles that extended from Egypt to the Indus River.

To rule effectively over such a gigantic area, Cyrus and his successors (including his sons Cambyses, Darius I and Xerxes I) used local leaders and institutions to advance their own interests. Unlike their imperial predecessors in the Near East, the Persians exercised their power flexibly, in response to local customs and traditions.

As a result, by the time Alexander ascended to the Macedonian throne in 336 BCE, the Persians ruled the largest and most successful empire in the history of the Middle and Near East.

Outnumbered, but triumphant

It is doubtful therefore that very many people in Greece or Persia fancied Alexander’s chances against the Persians in 334, especially because the army Alexander brought with him across the Dardanelles was so small in comparison to the mighty Persian army. Some 32,000 infantrymen and 5100 cavalry crossed over to Asia with Alexander, while the Persian King Darius III ultimately was able to muster a force at least four times as large.

Contrary to expectations, however, Alexander and his pike-wielding infantrymen and superb cavalry defeated Darius and his generals in three large scale, set-piece battles, first at the Granicus River in 334 in northwestern Asia Minor, then at Issos along the south coast of Asia Minor in 333 (as shown on the remarkable “Alexander Mosaic” in the archaeological Museum in Naples), and then decisively at Gaugamela (near modern Mosul in northern Iraq) in 331 BCE.

At each of these engagements, Alexander personally led massed cavalry charges that turned the tide of battle. After Gaugamela, Alexander was proclaimed King of Asia and, by January of 330, he was sitting on the throne of the Persian kings in their imperial capital of Persepolis. At the age of 25, Alexander had reversed the tides of history.

A conquest interrupted 

Following Darius’ murder in July of 330 by some of the Persian king’s disgruntled generals and governors, Alexander was then confronted with a Persian nationalist resistance movement. When the movement’s leaders retreated eastward into Bactria (northern Afghanistan), Alexander pursued them.

Alexander had heard that the Arabians only worshipped two gods, Uranos and Dionysos and he planned to add a third deity to their small pantheon: himself

It took Alexander three years of hard fighting in Bactria, Sogdia, and across the Jaxartes (Syr-Darya) River into Central Asia to stamp out all resistance (330-327 BCE). Afterward, Alexander led his army still further eastward across the Indus River, intending to push on and conquer the area up to the Ganges River and beyond.

But Alexander’s soldiers, weary of marching, constant warfare, and soaked by the monsoon rains, mutinied and forced Alexander to sail down the Indus and return to Babylon (by way of the notorious Makran desert in southern Pakistan). There, in June of 323 BCE, in the shade of Babylon’s hanging gardens, Alexander died before his 33rd birthday, either of a fever or poisoned by some of his closest friends and officers.

Free men

In the weeks before his death, as some Greek cities were voting him divine honours, Alexander was planning the conquest of the rest of the known world, beginning with Arabia. Alexander had heard that the Arabians only worshipped two gods, Uranos and Dionysos and he planned to add a third deity to their small pantheon: himself.

Why might some of Alexander’s closest friends have wished to poison a man thought to have become a rival to the gods? The answer to that question may remind us that the words and deeds of leaders – even those gifted by the gods with the greatest abilities - often change with circumstances.

Before his greatest battles against Darius, Alexander sought to motivate his soldiers with speeches in which he denigrated the Persians, calling them weak and cowardly. Prior to the battle at Issos, for example, Alexander made an impassioned speech to his officers, emphasising the differences between Greeks and Persians.

“We are free men,” he said, “and they are slaves." Moreover, he claimed, the Persians fought for pay while the (less greedy) Greeks fought for Greece.

We really don’t know whether such pre-combat pep talks had any effect (or indeed whether Alexander actually said what our sources tell us he said). Historically, however soldiers about to risk their lives in battle have not fought for the sake of abstract ideas. Foxholes are usually not overcrowded with atheists or super patriots. Soldiers fight for themselves and for their comrades to the left and to the right.

But there is no doubt that Alexander and his senior officers sold their Pan-Hellenic campaign to the Greek rank and file as a campaign of revenge against a hated and supposedly culturally inferior enemy.

Alexander the avenger

And then, after the defeat and death of Darius III in 330 BCE, something extraordinary happened. Alexander abruptly changed his rhetoric and began to act differently too. With the Persian king dead and his murderers stirring up a rebellion, Alexander dropped all references to a Pan-Hellenic war of revenge and proclaimed himself to be Darius’ avenger and successor.

As Darius’ avenger, Alexander vowed to track down the dead king’s murderers and to bring them to justice. Even more disturbing to some, as Darius’ successor, Alexander began to transform himself into a Persian king.

Alexander dropped all references to a Pan-Hellenic war of revenge and proclaimed himself to be Darius’ avenger and successor

First, he installed Asian-born ushers at his court and then he ordered the most distinguished Persians to act as his guards. He started to wear the special royal diadem of the Persian kings and put on the white robe worn by the Persian monarchs. He completed his sartorial make-over by sporting a Persian sash. To his closest companions he gave cloaks with purple borders (typically worn by Persian noblemen) and provided Persian-style harnesses for their horses.

He also added 365 concubines to his personal retinue, just as Darius had done before him. These women had been selected from all over Asia for their beauty. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus tells us that these women paraded around Alexander’s couch so that he might select the one he would sleep with that evening. But Alexander’s transformation went far beyond matters of court ceremonial, fashion statements, and erotic pleasure.

While he was in Bactria in the spring of 327, Alexander gave orders for 30,000 indigenous youths (later called the epigonoi or successors) to be taught Greek and trained to use Macedonian weapons for eventual service in Alexander’s army. During the same period, he wed Roxane, the daughter of a Bactrian nobleman, after seeing her perform some kind of dance at a dinner party.

The same spring he tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce the Persian custom of proskynesis or bowing down in front of social superiors into his court. Although some historians have tried to deny it, along his route from northern Iran to India, Alexander almost certainly acquired a Persian boyfriend, a eunuch named Bagoas. (Alexander already had an erotic relationship with one of his officers, a young man named Hephaestion, known for his good looks and difficult personality).

When he returned to the Persian city of Susa in the spring of 324 BCE, Alexander then married daughters of the last two Persian kings, and provided dowries for 91 of his Greek and Macedonian friends to marry Median and Persian noble women too.

It was with his new, ethnically mixed army of Macedonians and Asians that Alexander intended to conquer the world, starting with the Arabian peninsula.

Alexander himself married his two Persian brides using the Persian wedding ceremony. Chairs were set up for the bridegrooms in order of precedence beneath some kind of gigantic wedding tent. After toasts were drunk, the Persian brides entered the wedding pavilion and sat down next to their husbands-to-be, who took them by the hand and kissed them. Alexander was the first to perform the ceremony, we are told.

After his soldiers mutinied again at Opis (near the Tigris River) in the summer of 324, Alexander broke the mutiny by starting to replace his Macedonian soldiers with Persians. Then, at a banquet of reconciliation that included the former mutineers and his Asian subjects, Alexander prayed for harmony and fellowship of rule between the Persians and the Greeks. 

Finally, in the weeks just before his death, Alexander appointed a Persian-speaking Macedonian officer as governor of Persia and began incorporating Persian and Asian troops into the combat infantry units of the Macedonian army. It was with his new, ethnically mixed army of Macedonians and Asians that Alexander intended to conquer the world, starting with the Arabian peninsula.

Alexander the Persian

What had happened to the man who had set out from Macedon to punish the Persians and disparaged them as slaves? After winning all the major battles Alexander understood that defeating his enemies on the battlefield was one thing, achieving strategic victory was something else entirely.

After winning all the major battles Alexander understood that defeating his enemies on the battlefield was one thing, achieving strategic victory was something else entirely

To achieve strategic victory, which meant being accepted as the legitimate ruler of Asia, Alexander realised that he needed to accommodate himself and his administration to the peoples, customs and institutions of his former enemies. So, in some sense, Alexander became his former foe, the once despised Persian – or some kind of Greco-Persian hybrid.

Some historians have argued that Alexander the Persian was a kind of mountebank, kitted out for show: Alexander’s “orientalism” (their word) did not involve a sincere personal transformation. It was just a pragmatic turn, worked up to assuage the feelings of the defeated locals. If so, however, Alexander’s performance was worthy of an ancient Oscar. It certainly fooled some of those who knew him longest and best.

For shortly after Alexander changed into Persian clothing, groups of Graeco-Macedonian conspirators, including members of some of Macedon’s oldest and noblest families, began to hatch plots against his life. In every case, our Greco-Roman sources claim that those who plotted against Alexander did so because of his adoption of Persian customs and ways - among other complaints about Alexander, such as his excessive fondness for quarts of fortified wine.

Indeed, the greatest conqueror in the history of the ancient world may well have been poisoned by some of his officers and friends, not because he was too good of an actor, but because he was not acting.

Seeds of harmony

In contact with the peoples of the Middle East, Alexander developed a more empathetic and inclusive attitude toward them than many of his Macedonian and Greek friends were willing to tolerate. Like his royal Persian predecessors, Alexander adapted himself to local cultures, to their social and religious practices, and to their institutions. Alexander learned that to be successful he could not ignore local beliefs and practices.

Alexander learned that to be successful he could not ignore local beliefs and practices.

Whether Alexander’s more flexible approach would have worked over the long run we will never know, because he died before his empire of harmony and fellowship was allowed to take root and blossom. What we do know is that the Greco-Macedonian successors to his empire, the Seleucids in Syria, the Ptolemies in Egypt, and the Antigonids in Greece, did not share Alexander’s desire to reconcile the peoples of Greece and the Middle East.

President-elect Donald Trump is no Alexander the Great. Nor should anyone wish the President of the United States to follow in the martial and imperial footsteps of either the Persian kings or Alexander in the Middle East.

But President Trump could and should learn from the examples of Cyrus and Alexander. Seeds of harmony and fellowship are planted by a willingness to learn, respect for social, religious and political diversity, and pragmatic flexibility.

Before he became the most recognisable reality TV star in America and then president of the United States, Donald Trump was one of the most successful builders in the history of New York City. In New York City, nothing is built unless someone is willing to listen and make compromises, whatever is said before a deal is sealed. A quick learner, President Trump may yet surprise the peoples of the Middle East.

- Guy MacLean Rogers is the Kenan Professor of Classics and History at Wellesley College.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Alexander in the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun in Pompeii (WikiCommons)