The once and future king

Menas’ 3  rd   century B.C. statue of Alexander, Instanbul Archaeology Museum

Menas’ 3rd century B.C. statue of Alexander, Instanbul Archaeology Museum

You would think that someone whose earthly life ended more than 2,000 years ago would be beyond controversy. But then look at Jesus.  He’s still “a sign to be contradicted,” to quote the Gospels, almost two millennia after he was crucified.

So it is with Alexander the Great. Some 330 years before Jesus was born, this king of Macedon and hegemon of Greece conquered the Persian Empire, ushering in a Hellenistic age that would unite East and West. (The reason we call Jesus Christ “Jesus Christ” is because of the Alexandrian spread of the Greek language and culture.)

Such is the Alexander mystique – he never lost a battle but died at age 32 in Babylon, possibly of cerebral malaria – that he thrives in the imagination today as a metaphor for many things, including leadership from the front; the ultimate gay in the military (many consider him to have been the lover of his right-hand man, Hephaestion); and the tension between East and West.

That tension has escalated recently with Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski’s decision to give waxworks of Alexander, his father, Philip II of Macedon and his mother, Olympias, pride of place in a new archaeological museum in the capital city of Skopje, which already has the world’s largest statue of Alexander in its central square. 

A little background here: Macedonia is a republic in the former Yugoslavia. But Macedonia is also the name of a region in Greece. Both Macedonias see themselves as the heirs to Alexander’s native kingdom, given the overlapping of territory back then. Such is the dispute that Greece has so far blocked the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – which Greece insists the country be called – from joining the European Union. The two sides were set to sit down recently at the UN but the prospects for rapprochement do not look good. The dispute continues at a time when archaeologists have unearthed what may be the remains of Alexander’s mother and a fabulous mosaic depicting Hades carrying Persephone off to the Underworld, accompanied by Hermes the messenger-god, which is actually believed to be a triple portrait of Philip, Olympias and Alexander. (Ah, the irony as historians also think Olympias was actually the one who sent Philip to the Underworld by conspiring to assassinate him.) 

The discovery has some gay-friendly sites suggesting that the tomb may contain the remains of Hephaestion, even though he died in Ecbatana (modern-day Hamadan in Iran) six months before Alexander’s death and was buried there amid great fanfare. (When it comes to Alexander, gays don’t always see clearly. They forget that homoerotic relationships among young men in ancient Greece and Macedon were rights of passage to heterosexual ones, and that Alexander also had three wives and at least as many mistresses. I myself believe Alexander loved Hephaestion and the Persian eunuch Bagoas fully, including sexually, but we history buffs mustn’t ignore one set of facts in pursuit of another.)

What really troubles me in all this is Prime Minister Gruevski, who seems to have missed the real point of Alexander: His power was the love of his people.

Gruevski’s people are struggling, with a 30 percent unemployment rate. Perhaps he should lead from the front by putting them first – which is what Alexander would do. That would be the ultimate monument to his hero.