Dr R Balashankar
Alexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction, Pierre Briant, translated by Amelie Kuhrt, Princeton University, Pp 192 (PB), $19.95
There have been hundreds of books on Alexander, the great conqueror. But hardly a few of them were dispassionate, objective and went beyond the king, to see the other side. Pierre Briant’s Alexander the Great and his Empire seeks to remedy that. Written originally in French in 1974, it has run into several reprints, including one in 2005. The present volume by the Princeton University Press, thoroughly revised by the author in 2009, is a translation by Amelie Kuhrt. Says Briant “… we should not focus too much on the personality of Alexander, and must never “forget his adversary, who is too frequently left out of the picture as though Alexander was all alone as he embarked on his personal adventure.” In his original book, he had explained that this was not a straight biography but is devoted to examining the larger questions of his conquests, “the origins of the conquest and Alexander’s aims; the nature and relative importance of various forms of resistance encountered; the organisation of the conquered territories; and the relations between conquerors and conquered.”
It is not a continuous narrative of history. The march of Alexander through various terrains are looked at in political and organisational aspects. Briant feels that it is important to analyse the ambitions that drove Alexander. He as any other great individual, is a product of his history and legacy. Before him Darius I had come up to the Indus Valley and subjugated these regions. “In the first place, it is wrong to see Alexander as a kind of Christopher Columbus. Although his expedition did effectively provide the Greeks with new information about geography and plant and animal species in the conquered countries, it must be stressed emphatically that the king did not discover any virgin territory. Darius I had conquered the Punjab and the Indus Valley, and had integrated them into the Achaemenid empire, of which they still formed (at least nominally) a part. Alexander did not venture into the unknown… Alexander’s main aim must certainly have been to conquer for himself the whole of Darius I’s empire and gain control of the political assets and fiscal resources of the region as the Great Kings had done.”
Briant believes that Alexander did not go farther after the war with Poros not because of solider mutiny, but it was part of his campaign, the long term strategy to return via Persian Gulf after reaching the boundaries of the Achaemenid empire. Briant dismisses ambitions of Alexander on the conquer of the West of Persia, pointing out that with the Eguptians gaining freedom around 400 BC, Red Sea was lost to the Persians. “If we allow him only the smallest modicum of a military commander’s foresight, then we must admit that he can have had no intention of risking his forces in a fool’s enterprise” he says adding, if indeed he had western plans, there is no authentic source available to reach such a conclusion.
Unlike most of the eulogising accounts of Alexander, Briant quotes several instances when he acted in what must now appear cruel. Burning down of entire villages, killing of all able bodies men, killing his own troops to stem discontent and fear, to mention a few. The mutiny in his army was also partly because of the brutal treatment he meted out to the soldiers who spoke up. Alexander “stooped to base treachery” and selected from “among the Macedonians those who made remarks hostile to him and those who were distressed at the death of Parmenion as well as those who sent letters home to Macedonia to their relatives anything contrary to the king’s interests. These he assembled into one unit which he called the Disciplinary Unit, so that the rest of the Macedonians might not be corrupted by their improper remarks and criticism. (Diodorus XVII.80.4)”
On his return journey while the soldiers were convinced that they would return to Macedon, Alexander had other plans. They were very angry when they realised that he was “setting up the centre of his kingdom on Asia forever” which meant that they would never go home and see their kith and kin. They now saw his mission as a personal enterprise, for which they had little sympathy.
There are some who outright reject the achievements of Alexander, on the other extreme. But an analysis would show that his failures occurred after his death. One of them of course is that he did not produce an heir. The empire built by him broke up, because his successor could not hold it together is another charge against him. Both were matters beyond him.
An extensive bibliography and the History of Alexander Today add substantial further references for those interested in further reading. Briant’s book opens a new line of thinking on Alexander, an interesting perspective.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersey – 08540.)