Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 7


Alexander's Fusion of European and Asian Monarchic Traditions

JAMES ROMM Paul, in our last segment we agreed to discuss what is sometimes called Alexander's "fusion" policies — Principally, his attempt to hybridize Greco-Macedonian and Persian styles of monarchy in his own person. I wrote the appendix in the Landmark Arrian on fusion, and I said there that the difficulty for historians lies in distinguishing Alexander's policy choices from his personal predilections. The decision to sport royal purples, for example — an affectation of Asian monarchies, seen as arrogant and autocratic by Europeans — has often been regarded as a sign of Alexander's megalomania. But Arrian, in the eulogistic assessment of Alexander with which he ends the Anabasis, describes it as a carefully thought-out strategy by which Alexander increased his authority and legitimacy among his Asian subjects. Alexander had an enormous leadership challenge, after all: How to win acceptance from the elite of the Persian empire, whom he had invaded, defeated, and whose royal house he had devastated. He could not hope to succeed among these proud nobles by pure intimidation; he ultimately had to win their respect and cooperation. All his "fusion" strategies have to be looked at in that context, do they not?

PC They do indeed have to be looked at in context, Jamie, and I suppose the largest context of all is what overall view one takes of Alexander – positive or negative, pragmatic or idealist, and so on. I tend myself to the view held for instance by the great French scholar Pierre Briant that Alexander was in general and on the whole a pragmatist, but I would add that he infused his pragmatism with a certain amount of romanticism (modelling himself on Achilles, e.g.). In the case of 'fusion', I think Arrian got it basically right – Alexander's aim was to create a new Greek/Macedonian + Iranian ruling elite for his new kingsom of 'Asia', so he began (330) by appointing an Iranian (Mazaeus) to the top satrapy of Babylonia, then (327) recruited a huge number of young Iranians to bolster and eventually replace his mainly Macedonian core military forces, and then (324) conducted the mass-marriages at Susa. In 327 he'd had to abandon the idea of literally fusing his Graeco-Macedonian and his Iranian court circles, but it was in recognition of the absolute necessity of winning the respect, admiration and co-operation of the old Iranian ruling elite that he took on more and more of the outward trappings of oriental especially Persian regalia (the 'purples' you mention, etc).

JR And might I add to your pairs of antithetic views of Alexander, "emotional vs. rational." It seems to me that where Arrian, and those who essentially follow him, differs from the vulgate sources and those who follow them, is that Arrian tends to see Alexander as a rational man making rational decisions, where others see him driven by emotion, impulse, and appetite. It's an antithesis that goes right to the heart of the fusion question. To "Asianize" or "Persify," in the Greek world, implied giving in to desires and impulses, as opposed to European models of behavior based on restraint and self-control. For Arrian, self-control — or karteria in Greek — was Alexander's outstanding quality, whether in combat, relations with women, or drinking habits. So also in matters of royal style: Alexander mixed his purple with plain white cloth, avoiding the temptation to go whole-hog despot.

PC I couldn't have put it better myself… The West vs East (hard/rational/self-controlled West vs soft, irrational and self-indulgent East) culturally stereotyped dichotomy goes back to 5th-century BCE Greek writers. But in the case of Arrian it could be argued that, against his own better judgement perhaps (the ideal of karteria you mention), he did also see some degree of deterioration, some sort of decline, in Alexander from the ideal Greek-style monarch into an excessively despotic, oriental-style ruler. It is a good measure, I think, of how difficult it was for him to escape the cultural stereotyping he'd inherited, though it's also a token of how good a historian he was that he didn't swallow the Vulgate sources hook, line and sinker.

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