By Douglas Van Anda
There exists a king who founded an empire that would have a huge amount of influence on the modern world. From his father, he inherited a large army that would defeat a large empire and gain control of its territories. After destroying this empire, he would continue farther into the east and conquer many different peoples, joining them together and instituting a period of amazing wealth and prosperity. He would treat them well and most would live as his subjects willingly, even adopting him as their own king. He would create a new title, Mansa, which means “the king of kings” and would be known as “the lion.” His legacy would go on to influence a region of the world for centuries. The empire that he created would last for about 400 years and his name was Sundiata Keita. The empire he helped form was the Mali empire, an empire so rich that a later emperor, his great-nephew, would be known possibly as the wealthiest man to ever exist. However, I had never heard of Sundiata Keita. I heard references to his great-nephew, but the man who created them empire was an unknown historical figure. Yet still, Sundiata Keita is not unique. There are many more princes, kings, and emperors whose exploits are unknown to me. This goes to show that the reason that Alexander of Macedonia is known as Alexander the Great is that he was lucky. He was born at a time when the west had not known kings like him. “Alexander was the standard-bearer of Greek civilization. His influence in…civilization has been profound, extending even into our own age.” It is a simultaneous fact that Alexander does not deserve to be revered to the extent that he is, and that he is one of the most influential people in western history.
Imagine that an author wrote down everything about known history from all over the world and bound it in one book. If you had never taken a history class before and decided to read this book, how well do you think you would remember Alexander after you finished? On the one hand, you might remember that Alexander was a great tactician who led massive numbers of men to victory against countless civilizations. You also might remember that he was an intellectual king who valued all the wonders of ancient Greek science. But it seems to me that you would most likely only barely remember Alexander. In the most basic of terms, he was just a king who did what kings do, conquered. Additionally, he is historically surrounded by the likes of Julius Caesar, ruler of Rome, Ashoka, emperor of the Maurya Dynasty, Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, and Suleiman, sultan of the Ottoman empire, all of whom administered or founded massive empires. It might be that Alexander is easy to remember because of how play-like his life and death seemed to be. How much might we remember Alexander if his empire had collapsed should he have returned to Macedonia? Because of his reckless failure to have a proper succession plan, it is easy to blame the collapse of the empire on his generals because he was not around to control their greed and lust for power. Though, it seems more apt to blame the collapse on the faulty foundation allowed to exist by Alexander and realize that he too would most likely have failed to maintain an empire so large and diverse. E. E. Rice summarizes it nicely when he states “What would Alexander have been like at the age of sixty? We will never know.”
There exist two prominent arguments when arguing to revoke Alexander’s “the Great” title: that he was surrounded by very intelligent and competent officers who did most of the work for Alexander, and that he committed so many atrocities during his reign that no person should feel comfortable referring to him as great. Even Alexander seems to acknowledge that the successes of his armies are not his alone when he says, “With all that accomplished, why do you hesitate to extend the power of Macedon--your power.” These points are well made, but they seem in contrast to each other. Why does Alexander bear the full amount of blame for committing these horrific acts if he does not receive the full number of accolades for the accomplishments made by his armies? It seems more reasonable to take a nuanced view of history and realize that Alexander was a great leader and many of his men followed him gladly, but that he also allowed for and oversaw some of the worst punishments and most barbaric events in this period. Alexander should stand as a symbol of why we should not allow ourselves to become infatuated with a historical figure and forget about the horrible things that almost always comes from a person having almost ultimate power.
We come now to the crux of why Alexander is so important to us now; because almost all other great western conquerors were influenced by him and his deeds. It is said that Julius Caesar cried when he read about the life of Alexander the Great. He no doubt saw him as a great king and would go on to try and emulate his leadership style and his philosopher persona. Additionally, Napoleon Bonaparte saw Alexander as someone to emulate the tactics of. Some of Alexander’s greatest military tactics are still being used in military academies the world over. It is to be understood that Alexander was the first great empire builder of the world that we all agree is western. Because of this, his legacy was destined for greatness. Countless princes, kings, tsars, and presidents would be inspired either by him or indirectly through the people which he did inspire. King Alfred of Wessex, King Frederick of Prussia, and Queen Catherine of Russia have also been dubbed with the title of “great”, but Alexander will always be the western king that created an empire first and because of that, he will always be known as Alexander “the Great.”
Alexander is one of the most important figures in all western history not because of anything that he did, but because of what others he inspired did. He committed horrible atrocities, took credit for others’ work, and hinged the success of an entire empire on whether he would lead it. He also created a cosmopolitan world based on western Greek culture, was one of the most brilliant tacticians in his time and oversaw the creation of one of the most important empires the world had ever seen. I think that it is impossible for me to judge whether Alexander deserves his title of “the Great.” That is something that society will have to decide on together. I do think that Plutarch says it well though when comparing Alexander to other Greek philosophers, “Then why are they believed to have been philosophers? Because of what they said, how they lived and what they taught. Then let Alexander be judged on the same basis and he will be revealed as a philosopher by what he said, by what he did and by what he taught.”