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Whoever was responsible for this composition wanted certainly to draw our attention to the victim in this famous struggle between the waning power of Persia and the rising power of Macedon—even to elicit sympathy for the losing side.These debates have continued through the centuries. Recently there has been some highly charged political controversy focused on Alexander’s “Greekness.” Was he, as the government of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM) would have it, a Slav (and so an appropriate symbol of the Slavic FYROM, and a good name for Skopje airport)?Other Romans had a much better claim to be “new Alexanders” than the normally desk-bound Cicero; and they made even more of the connection, with less sense of irony.Cicero’s contemporary Cnaeus Pompeius has been eclipsed in the modern imagination by his rival Julius Caesar, but as a young man he had achieved even more decisive victories over even more glamorous enemies than Caesar ever did.“The same thing as drives you to terrorize the whole world,” the man sharply replied.There were plenty of acts of terror he could have cited: the total massacres of the male population after the sieges at Tyre and Gaza; the mass killing of the local population in the Punjab; the razing of the royal palace at Persepolis, after (so it was said) one of Alexander’s inebriated dinner parties.The story was that a petty pirate had been captured and brought before Alexander.
Dating to the end of the fourth century BC, and almost certainly the marble coffin of a junior monarch installed by Alexander himself, it depicts scenes of battles and hunting from Alexander’s life—and it was made closer in date to his lifetime than any other detailed image of him that we now have.
Borza shows in a judicious appendix to the new Landmark Arrian, an illustrated edition of The Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis, written around 140 AD) by Lucius Flavius Arrianus, Roman senator and historian of Greek extraction, born in what is now Turkey.
But that did not prevent several hundred academics, mostly classicists, from writing a letter to President Obama in 2009, in which they declared that Alexander was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek” and asked him to intervene to “clean up” the FYROM’s historical errors. Only a few months ago, this controversy flared up once more when a huge kitschy thirty-ton statue, almost fifty feet tall, on top of a thirty-foot pedestal, was erected in the central square in Skopje.
Predictably, Livy concluded that the Roman Empire would have proved as invincible against Alexander as it had against its other enemies.
True, Alexander was a great general, but Rome at that period had many great generals and they were made of sterner stuff than the Persian king, with his “women and eunuchs in tow,” who was by any reckoning “an easy prey.”Besides, from early on, Alexander showed signs of fatal weaknesses: witness the vanity, the obeisance he demanded from his followers, the vicious cruelty (he had a record of murdering erstwhile friends around his dinner table), and the infamous drinking.
Even if he himself is missing, the objects these tombs contain take us about as close to Alexander as we are ever likely to get.