History, they say – whoever “they” are – is written by the victors.
Well, not exactly. Our age of revisionism and conspiracy theories, coupled with the unending vacuum that is the Internet, encourages us to consider just how victorious – or at least good – the victors really were and, thus, just how wronged the losers might’ve been.
That’s the backdrop of Pierre Briant’s “Darius in the Shadow of Alexander” (Harvard University Press, 579 pages, $39.95), newly translated by Jane Marie Todd and published in the United States after first appearing in French 12 years ago. In this book, Briant – emeritus professor of the Achaemenid world and Alexander’s empire at the Collège de France in Paris – explores how and why Darius III, who lost an empire to Alexander the Great, came to “haunt the realm of historical oblivion.” It is not, for obvious reasons, a biography. But it is a fascinating, extensively researched study of how branding can be as important as any battle.
Briant’s book arrives at a time when Persia (modern-day Iran) is very much in the news due to the controversial yet productive nuclear disarmament talks and Iran’s role in fighting ISIS – which some see as a play for greater power in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Israel’s recent discovery of coins bearing the likeness of Alexander go a long way to explaining why the Greeks – who knew how to spin – won and the Persians lost.
But first a bit of background: Some 130 years before the birth of Alexander in neighboring Macedon in July of 356 B.C., the Persians invaded Greece and burnt the Acropolis atop Athens, destroying its temples and worshipers. It was Greece’s 9/11 moment.
Alexander’s father – Philip II, king of powerful, rough-hewn Macedon and hegemon, or protector, of the more refined, resentful Greek city-states – seized upon Persian atrocity in his plans to invade Persia, liberating Greek nationals along its Mediterranean coast. But Philip – who loved much but none-too-well – was assassinated by a former male lover undoubtedly at the instigation of his ex-wife (and Alexander’s mother), Olympias. At 20, Alexander found himself heir not only to Macedon and the hegemony of the Greek city-states but to his mother’s dynastic ambitions and his father’s Persian dreams.
Already he had distinguished himself at the Battle of Chaeronea, in which Philip had established his hegemony over Greece. He had inherited a superbly trained fighting force, along with his mother’s fair-haired beauty and romantic nature. He had been educated by no less than the philosopher Aristotle to view the Persians as “barbarians” (a Greek word) but also to think for himself.
More than that, he had the genius’ ability to see time in space and a battlefield like a chessboard, anticipating and reacting with lightning speed, inspiring his men with his charisma and leadership to do the same. Even his enemies – and they have been legion – have been forced to admit that Alexander’s probably the greatest field commander the world has ever seen.
So when he took an army of about 35,000 (roughly the size of the New York City Police Department) across the Hellespont in 334 B.C. to confront an army that may have been as large as 250,000, he wasn’t really concerned about the odds. They had Alexander, he told his men. And he had his hopes.
And what did the Persians have? Well, for one thing, a first-rate culture. This was a world of astronomy and mathematics, legendarily terraced gardens and ziggurats, peacocks, parasols (a Persian invention) and pomegranates. It’s a world I conjure briefly in my novel “Water Music” – the first in my series “The Games Men Play” – in the story arc of Iraqi-American tennis player Tariq Alí Iskandar, whose love affair and rivalry with Greek player Alexandros Vyranos becomes a metaphor for the eternal struggle between East and West.
The Persian Empire also had a particular centrality that the clannish, mobile Macedonians and the Greek city-states did not possess. When Darius quit the field at the Battle of Issus, leaving his family to Alexander’s legendary mercy, he wasn’t turning tail but rather preserving his place as head of state and a style of leadership that left the fighting to his generals. This was captured in the 2004 Oliver Stone film “Alexander,” which conflated the battles of the Granicus, Issus and Gaugamela. (It’s a mystery why Briant, who had no problem drawing on pop culture works like Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy, saw no need to update the English version with an analysis of Stone’s sympathetic treatment of Darius.)
Like Stone, Briant depicts Darius as a decent leader and loving husband and father who was ill-equipped for a new, proactive kind of leadership.
And for a succession of Western historians– writing first for the Roman emperors and then the kings of Europe, who saw themselves as Alexander’s spiritual heirs.
“It is altogether clear that the Persian king’s conduct is described and conceived as a function of ethical norms for which Alexander serves as the sole paragon,” Briant writes. “The Great King (Darius) cannot acquire or hold on to the devotion of his intimates; he lacks the mark of a great strategist, namely, an understanding of situations; he does not fight on the front lines; he does not take cities by storm; and his body is not covered in glorious scars. Within the logic of history thus reconstituted and transmitted, he remains fundamentally ‘the Darius who was defeated by Alexander.’”
But it wasn’t just Western history and literature that conspired to confine Darius to the backwater. “The Shahnameh,” the 11th century Persian “Book of Kings” recast Alexander as a king of Persian descent, proving that if you can’t beat ’em, you can reinvent ’em.
Narrative, which drives public perception, is only one part of branding. Words go hand-in-hand with images, and here again Darius fell short, thanks to the conventions of Persian culture.
“It is not particular kings who are represented in (the empire’s ceremonial capital) Persepolis and elsewhere but rather kingship in all its glory, accompanied by impersonal and intangible attributes….In short, we must resign ourselves: there is no Persian portrait of Darius III.”
But there are plenty of Alexander portraits that have solidified his image as a new kind of leader – beautiful, brilliant, vigorous, youthful, sexy even. As Nigel Spivey notes in “How Art Made the World: A Journey to the Origins of Human Creativity” (Basic Books, 2005), Alexander allowed only three men to capture his carefully controlled image – the painter Apelles, the sculptor Lysippus and the gem-carver Pyrgoteles. That image is still so resonant that when those coins were discovered in Israel, there was no doubt as to whom the face belonged.
Darius had his revenge, Briant writes. The more Alexander conquered, the deeper he explored the Persian empire, the more this rigorous Westerner was conquered by the seemingly louche, luxurious East. It’s the thesis of Guy MacLean Rogers’ “Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness” (Random House, 2004).
Close but no cigar. Yes, Alexander adopted Persian dress and customs, developed a close relationship with Darius’ mother, Sisygambis; and took one of his daughters, Stateira, as a wife. But people don’t change. They become more of what they are. Had death not taken him a month shy of his 33rd birthday in his capital of Babylon, he would’ve moved on to Arabia and West to fledgling Rome. Truth is, for all his, the West’s and the East’s meticulous branding of him, we’ll never completely understand what motivated Alexander.
In a sense, he, too, is a shadow king.