Why Are We So Obsessed with Alexander the Great?

Netflix’s new docu-drama Alexander: The Making of a God is the latest entry in a long tradition of romanticising Alexander the Great as a hero.

Alexander the Great the Making of a God trailer screengrab
Photo: Netflix

Alexander the Great was an objectively terrible person. The 4th century BCE Macedonian king and military leader came to power when his father was assassinated, and immediately had any rivals for the throne killed. When Alexander executed a man who had conspired against him, he had the man’s father killed as well, just to make sure he could not try to avenge his son. This might be explained away as a powerful ruler doing what was necessary to protect himself, but that does not excuse his murder of Cleitus – a man who had earlier saved his life – in a drunken rage. Alexander’s stated aim was to conquer the whole world, something that should surely make him a villain in any version of his story. Emperors who kill and take over other people’s land are usually the bad guys.

And yet, we are obsessed with him, and have been for over 2,000 years. Julius Caesar’s interest in Alexander makes a lot of sense considering he was also pretty keen on going a-conquering, but Caesar was not alone. From the ancient Romans to modern movies, from novels to poems to Netflix’s new docu-drama Alexander: The Making of a God, people have been telling and re-telling Alexander’s story for millennia. And when we tell a story, we usually need to feel some kind of sympathy for the main character. Sure, there are dramas about villains (see Breaking Bad, or any drama focusing on Hitler) but if we are going to follow someone’s life story, we usually want to feel invested in their story somehow, not just sit and wait for them to meet their comeuppance.

Blame the Parents

And so these versions of his story have to twist Alexander into a hero. We have to pin the blame for his worst deeds on other people as much as possible, especially his parents. His father Philip is a bad influence (he was also pretty fond of conquering) who put Alexander in an difficult political position with his marriage to his last wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, raising the threat of a rival half-sibling.

Alexander’s mother Olympias gets even more of the blame. It is Olympias, apparently, who ordered the brutal murder of Cleopatra Eurydice and her baby daughter, despite that being a both logical and in-character thing for Alexander himself to do. Olympias gets depicted as ambitious (not just surviving in an impossible situation, credit given to the Persian Queen Stateira in the Netflix show) and rumours swirl around her. This depiction of Olympias goes all the way back to the Romans and to Greeks living under Roman occupation, who can probably take the blame for some of it. Her portrayal fits the tropes of the wicked stepmother who harms her husband’s other children to protect or support her own.

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None of the histories of Alexander written by people who knew him have survived – the earliest versions of his life that we can read now were written in the Roman period. These writers read all those earlier versions that we don’t have any more, and then put together their own version. In the biography of Alexander written in the first century CE by the Greek writer Plutarch, after telling the usual stories about how Olympias told Alexander he was the son of Zeus, Plutarch says, “But other authors maintain that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me?’” Hera is Zeus’ wife in Greek mythology and is famous for attacking the various other women Zeus slept with, so the implication is that it might actually have been Alexander who made up this story because it suited his own ambition, and Olympias just got the blame.

Genuine Believer or Pure Imperialist?

Alexander’s imperialism gets an interesting treatment in modern versions. The new Netflix series spends far more screen time on Alexander’s campaign against Persia, which positions him as a sort of David against Goliath, than it does on his campaigns in Egypt, and it barely mentions his conquest of the other Greek kingdoms and city-states before the Persian campaign started. It also, as we can tell from the subtitle, shows him taking on the identity of a living god. If the docu-drama is renewed for a second season, it will be interesting to see how it deals with his conquests in what is now India and Pakistan, which will be harder to frame as a duel between him and the now-dead Darius III.

As well as showing the political reasons for having people address Alexander as a god, especially in Egypt where the Pharaoh was already divine, the Netflix series shows him having visions in the temple of Zeus Amun at Siwa, implying that he believes in some kind of god-like destiny for himself. Whether Alexander really believed he was divine or not is something we can never know. But through a combination of his mother getting in his head and visions experienced at a religious site, the series depicts the claim to godhood and his insistence on conquering everywhere he goes as character traits coming from genuine beliefs, rather than ruthless and politically savvy acts of pure imperialism.

Part of the appeal of Alexander is the sheer, almost incomprehensible scale of his military achievements. He set out to conquer the known world and he got about halfway through it before his death. He defeated and conquered the Persian Empire, which had forces that far outnumbered his Macedonian forces, and he never lost a battle. It’s easy to ignore the brutality of that while focusing on how impressive he is as a tactician and fighter.

Part of the appeal is the fact that he lived fast and died young. He squeezed all of that incredible military success into just thirteen years, before dying shortly before his 33rd birthday after a two-week illness. The cause of his death has been debated ever since. Several different infectious diseases have been suggested, as well as assassination by poisoning, alcohol poisoning, or even a long-term condition like scoliotic syndrome. The appeal of the story of someone who achieved incredible things, but over-reached and died young goes back to the myth of Icarus and isn’t going away any time soon.

A Tempting Soap Opera Mystery to Solve

Alexander’s reign is bookended by mysterious deaths. His father Philip was quite definitely murdered by a man called Pausanias, who was immediately killed by Philip’s bodyguards. But why, and was Pausanias working with anyone? Was he working with Olympias to bring down Philip and get Alexander on the throne? At the other end of Alexander’s reign, Hephaestion’s death the year before Alexander himself followed a seven day fever, but because Hephaestion had apparently been recovering, some have speculated that he was poisoned. And then there is the ongoing mystery of Alexander’s own death. All of these murder mysteries are just too tempting for modern writers and historians to try to solve.

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Alexander’s family life adds a fascinating soap opera featuring relationships all tangled up in a dramatic way. The Macedonian royal family, unlike other ancient Greeks, practiced polygamy. This is what led to Alexander’s mother rivalry with Philip’s new, younger, Macedonian wife Eurydice (Olympias was Molossian, another Greek kingdom). Alexander himself held a mass wedding in Persia after his conquest where he and several of his officers all married Persian wives at the same time, and Alexander may have married two at once.

Not only did Alexander continue this practice, marrying three wives overall, he also had extra-marital relationships, possibly with a woman called Barsine, possibly with Queen Stateira, and almost certainly with his companion Hephaestion. It was common for older Greek men in this period to have sexual and/or romantic relationships with younger men, referring to the older partner as the “lover” (erastes in Greek) and the younger as the “beloved” (eromenos). It was assumed by Greek writers like Plato during the fifth and fourth centuries BCE that the mythic heroes Achilles and Patroclus from Homer’s Iliad were a romantic couple, though there were a number of arguments about which was which (as Patroclus was older, but Achilles was the better warrior). Homer, who wrote centuries earlier, says nothing specific either way but the custom was so common that later Greeks just assumed it was obvious.

Alexander was a big fan of the Iliad and of Achilles. According to the Greek historian Arrian, while they were at Troy, Alexander decorated the tomb of Achilles with a garland, and Hephaestion did the same for the tomb of Patroclus. This would be a pretty clear signal of their relationship to other Greeks at that time. Alexander and Hephaestion were childhood friends rather than being one older and one younger lover, but Alexander’s higher status may have compensated for that, or the age issue may not have been as important in Macedonia as in Plato’s Athens. Between their actions at Troy, their closeness, Alexander’s great grief at Hephaestion’s death, and how common openly male homosexual relationships were in ancient Greece, there is no reason to think their relationship was anything other than romantic.

Romanticised as a Hero

Every version of Alexander’s life we have has already been romanticised before we in the 21st century got anywhere near it. We are told from the earliest surviving texts that Alexander was a great hero, and so we believe it. And on top of all that he also takes on the persona of a god, or at least of the son of a god. He is an almost mythic character, who fascinates people in the same way as his own hero Achilles fascinated him.

Put it all together and you have a compelling story, but only one problem – the lead character is not very sympathetic. And so we shift blame to Olympias, we focus on his romantic relationships, we emphasise his skill and cleverness. We brush over his murderous temper, alcoholism, and disregard for others as some kind of necessary baggage that comes with “greatness”, and we ignore the fact he was a colonizing, imperialist conqueror who made a show of adopting some cultural practices from the places he conquered (like his infamous attempt to get Greeks and Macedonians to bow to him in the Persian way, which for them was supposed to be reserved for gods), but in fact he spread the Greek language and Greek cultural practices across the Middle East and into India.

And on top of all that, Alexander’s mysterious death left the areas he had conquered to fall into absolute political chaos because he conquered too much land to control and died too young for his heir, who was not even born at the time, to be able to protect himself. Only Egypt stayed fairly stable, which was taken over by Alexander’s general Ptolemy, the ancestor of the famous Cleopatra VII. Ptolemy ruled for years and started a dynasty that lasted three centuries. We should really be making films and TV shows about him…

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Alexander: The Making of a God is streaming now on Netflix.