Alexander the Great’s world (still)

A coin of Alexander the Great wearing the lion’s head cap of his great ancestor, Herakles (Hercules), British Museum.

A coin of Alexander the Great wearing the lion’s head cap of his great ancestor, Herakles (Hercules), British Museum.

My family, friends and colleagues often tease me about my fascination for Alexander the Great.  I get it. Who cares about someone – a single-minded Greco-Macedonian conqueror, no less – who lived some 300 years before Jesus?

But you see, the fact that we call Jesus Christ “Jesus Christ:” – and not Joshua bar Joseph, his historical Hebrew name – is because of Alexander and the spread of Hellenistic culture. Before Alexander, culture flowed east to west. After his conquest of the Persian Empire (331 B.C.), it would tend west to east. And the resulting tension between the two has reverberated down through the ages, particularly in the Middle East, the heart of his empire.

Our soldiers have been following in his footfall since the start of the Iraq War in 2003, as I wrote then for the Gannett newspapers. We’re still living in Alexander’s world. We just don’t know it.

Well, some of us do. As Elizabeth D. Samet, author of “Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point,” observed in an opinion piece for The New York Times’ Sunday Review Nov. 23, the long guerilla war that Alexander waged in Afghanistan – the subject of Frank L. Holt’s “Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan” and Steven Pressfield’s novel “The Afghan Campaign – mirrors our quagmire in the Middle East today. But we must be careful here in casting a backward glance at history. Alexander was an absolute monarch and perhaps the greatest field commander the world has ever seen, who understood the warlord mind-set as his father, Philip II of Macedon, was one. Moreover, Alexander took a Bactrian (Afghan) princess – the beautiful Roxane, daughter of the warlord Oxyartes – as his chief wife. Alexander would die in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) of a fever (possibly cerebral malaria) at age 32.

Had he lived, he might’ve turned his questing heart west to Arabia or nascent Rome or east to China. The point is he had a pothos, or ineffable longing, for the ever-receding horizon. He was never going back to the Macedonian capital of Pella.

Ultimately, Alexander conquered Afghanistan as part of the Persian Empire. (He never lost a battle.) The idea that Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires” is true only as applied to the modern world that began with the 19th century. Afghanistan, a crossroads of the world, was endlessly conquered in ancient times.

Whereas we’re a democratic republic and reluctant empire that’s never going to conquer Afghanistan – not because we can’t but because it’s not in our mission and anyway, we’re unwilling to do what it would take, which is what Alexander did: We’re unwilling to stay. Once we see the tchotchkes – like Saddam Hussein’s Wedgwood Renaissance Gold china, which makes an appearance in “Water Music,” the first novel in my series “The Games Men Play” – our thoughts drift home.

So not only are we in a vastly different position from Alexander’s but we have failed to absorb his essential lesson – that you lead from the front, which means ironically that you put others first.  

As Iraqi-American tennis player Alí Iskandar, victim of the remains of Alexander’s day, notes in “Water Music”: We live with the past, not in it.  We can learn from the Alexandrian model.

The rest is up to us.