How do The Persians Teach Alexander the Great and When Did He First Become “Great”?
We’ve all heard of him. Alexander the Great has been for many centuries a household name in much of the world- an impressive feat for a king who’s been dead for two millenia and reigned only for a little over a decade.
In western countries, his defeat of the Persian Empire in the 320s BC has often been depicted as bringing culture to barbarian lands. And thus, the events of his life are put in a context of the clash between East and West.
As you can imagine, however, there is another side to the story and indeed, to history: the one of the defeated Persians. And if you have seen our video on how the Crusades are taught in these regions, we are always interested in discussing what a historical event we might know from one point of view looked like from the other side. So how do the defeated peoples view Alexander and who first called him “Great” anyway?
To begin with a little background to his “greatness”- as king Alexander III of Macedon, Alexander ruled from 336 to 323 BC. He was born as the son of king Philipp II, came into power when he was 20 years old, and died thirteen years later as a living legend, undefeated in battle but brought to heel only by an unidentified sickness.
During his short reign, he managed the unthinkable: Not only did he secure the unity of the Greek nations under his banner, but he also went on to begin a streak of conquests so successful, the world would arguably never see their like again – though not for lack of trying. In fact, despite many anecdotes highlighting different aspects of his character – such as cutting the unsolvable Gordian knot – Alexander might be best-known for being a major role-model for a huge number of significant historical figures that came after.
Not just admired after death, generally the first in line of battle, he was reportedly loved by the soldiers and heralded as an example of excellent leadership. From his practice of literally leading his men into battle, unsurprisingly, he was almost killed countless times and regularly got injured trying to imitate his personal hero, Achilles. One of many examples of this comes from the siege of a Malian city along the Indus river in the winter of 325, when Alexander grabbed a ladder and led his men up it himself. The ladder broke and he found himself alone on top of a wall. Instead of jumping back down to safety, he dove inside the city with only two comrades. Somehow, he survived the ordeal, walking away with nothing but an arrow in the chest. Naturally, his comrades and even enemy were impressed at his boldness and courage.
For his people, who had their entire world established around the shores of the east Mediterranean, the experience of reaching lands previously unheard of – up to the Indus river! – seemed like a mythical experience happening in their lifetime. The very fact that Alexander’s military achievements surpassed anything the Greeks had hitherto known also made a big difference in propelling him to godhood.
This went right down to performing miracles, like reports of the sea retreating to let him pass through near Phaselis or being greeted as the son of Ammon-Zeus by priests in Egypt. In other instances, he was shown to even surpass other gods, for example during the attack on the Aornos fortress that according to legend, even Heracles could not conquer.
The worship of Alexander is a complex phenomenon. Although it was based on an existing tradition, it still differs from both his immediate predecessors and later developments. His cult was established in many cities in Asia Minor, probably already during his campaign in response to his achievements and his benefactions.
An important difference from the cult of both earlier mortals and that of later kings is the wide diffusion, popularity and persistence of Alexander’s worship, which in some places lasted until the Christian era.
Moving on from his boldness, Alexander was also a savvy politician. The attack on the Persians was strongly portrayed as Just Vengeance of the Greek Peoples (of whom Alexander was declaring himself leader) in response to the Persian attacks of Xerxes and Darius against Greece 150 years earlier. These were the Persian Wars of 490 to 479 BC with the whole big fuss about Marathon and “this is Sparta”, which were very traumatizing for the Greek subconscious. Thus, by getting revenge for this, he helped unite these groups under his banner.
Alexander’s revenge policy culminated in perhaps the most hideous act Alexander the Great committed during his illustrious career, a deed he allegedly regretted after the fact: Namely, the burning of Persepolis, the symbolic capital and sacred ground of the Persian kings.
By ancient historians, it was regarded as a political act, a sort of “mission accomplished” move in direct vengeful parallel to the burning of Athens by Xerxes in 480 BC. In an effort to remove the blame from Alexander, some also accuse an Athenian girl of having proposed this during the feast, with the troops burning the ancient city under the influence of alcohol, and with sobriety came Alexander’s regret. Of course, it is very convenient that gold and other valuables were removed from the city first in a very orderly, non-drunken fashion in preparation for the destruction…
Another thing to chalk up to earning the “Great” moniker was his pivotal role is the formation of the so-called Hellenistic World, which now consisted of all of the eastern Mediterranean, including Egypt and Syria. These regions, although holding on to their traditional values (see the maccabees) participated in the new Greek and later Roman civilization and helped in the distribution of historically significant ideas and even religion.
Unsurprisingly, conquering the known and partially unknown world in a series of victories that stretch from the Danube to the Punjab and the Indus river without being defeated once, all the while living life to the fullest- fighting by day and partying at night- until his sudden death – all between the age of 20 and 33, won him the epithet ‘the Great’.
However, it wasn’t the Greeks that came up with the moniker, but the Romans, as the first known historian to call him that was Quintus Curtius Rufus, a 1st century AD historian. And the earliest mention we have of Alexander Magnus (‘the Great’ in Latin) is in a play written by Titus Maccius Plautus around 200 BC, so more than a hundred years after the death of Alexander.
But the name stuck and is an indicator of the Alexander hype having reached the young and growing Roman Empire. On the note, many historically significant imitators came after, such as the Roman general Pompey the Great, who not only adopted the same epithet ‘Magnus’ but also Alexander’s hairdo. He also imitated Alexander in other aspects of his life, such as the friendly attitude towards his subordinates or his habit of naming cities after himself- a fact still visible in places like Pablona, Spain, which comes from Pompeiopolis, the camp of Pompeius during the civil war against Sartorius, around 75 BC.
In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch also states that when Caesar was reading from the history of Alexander, he burst into tears realizing he could never accomplish what Alexander had accomplished by the age of 33.
Moving on from there, Octavian, the future first emperor Augustus, visited Alexandria in 31 BC after defeating Cleopatra. There, Suetonius informs us, he made a great deal out of honoring Alexander’s grave by reverently placing a golden crown there. When his guides asked if he would also like to view other important tombs of the Ptolemies – the last Pharaohs – he abruptly dismissed the suggestion by saying that ‘he came because he wanted to see a king, not dead men”.
(In Latin: “regem se voluisse ait videre, non mortuos” – Suetonius, Augustus. 18)
But that’s the western perspective- how was Alexander perceived and taught by the people he conquered and those in the region that came after?
To begin with, very quickly following Alexander’s conquest, some of the Persians regrouped to form the Parthian empire – more or less around today’s Iran – then bordering the Hellenistic world and its later Roman successors to their west. From their point of view, they did not necessarily distinguish between the terms Greek kingdoms and Roman empire, as to their eyes these two belonged to the same cultural group.
In 224 AD, a revolution brought a change in the name and attitude of the empire. Namely it saw the rise of what would become the archnemesis of the Roman empire: the Sassanids. Their policy was a conscious callback to the good old days and aimed to revive the glory of the Achaemenid empire – the one that Alexander conquered over 500 years prior – implying their intention to reclaim all the lands that were once part of said empire and which now lay deep within the Roman domain.
The Sassanids’ declared maxim could be seen in all forms of expression, as a renaissance of Achaemenid art and style. Even archaism in language was all around. To understand this anachronistic tendency, imagine an English person walking around downtown Manhattan in colonial clothes and speaking Shakespearean English. He’s either a history geek cosplayer, or… he’s up to something. Now imagine a whole culture doing this.
Some of the things the Sassanids revived would remain very important elements in Eastern symbols, such as the crescent moon and star, then reappearing on coins and monuments as elements of the Sassanid king’s crown.
A common theme that emerged was that the valuable centers of their religion were destroyed by the troops of Alexander the Great. Tales of Alexander paying respects to the founder of the Achaemenids, king Cyrus, or other noble behavior meant little for the Magi – the Zoroastrian priesthood – for whom the destruction was nothing short of a calamity. And according to the Iranians, the desolation did not just extend to the temples but had also ravaged sacred scripture as well. The Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrianism, was said to have been lost in the destruction of Persepolis.
From the early Sassanid period onwards, Alexander is referred to by the epithet gujastak in Persian literature, meaning “accursed”. A famous book stemming from around the 3rd or 4th Century, Ardaviraf-Namak, tells of a valuable copy of the Avesta in the Achaemenid archives in Persepolis that was destroyed by “Alexander of the Romans“ (as alluded to, Roman and Greek were regarded as the same.)
From their side, an ideological spearpoint was – similar to propaganda Alexander himself had used to get revenge upon the Persians- the idea of vengeance; seeking to rectify the sacrilege of Alexander who had burned Persepolis and destroyed the sacred texts of Ahura mazda, the sacred Avestas.
From the Roman side, clashes with the Parthians had become routine, but now, suddenly… it became an ideological matter.
This was quickly felt from Ardashir and Shapur, the first two rulers of the Sassanids, infamous to the Romans as a constant threat. They even managed to capture the Roman Emperor Valerian in 260 AD, who thus became the first Roman emperor to be taken as a prisoner of war, causing shockwaves in the Roman world.
All of this came with an unexpected benefit, however. In early medieval times, many works of literature and science were lost due to the decayed interest in things that were not purely about praising the emperor or dealing with religious matters.
A main way much of the ancient knowledge was saved, was a trend of translating Latin and Greek authors to Middle Persian and later into Arabic. The beginning of this trend has a surprising link to the propaganda against Alexander the Great.
A first systematic interest in translations of works of scientists and philosophers in the Middle East can be traced back to the time of the Sassanid Persian Empire. The Sassanid ideology up to the 6th century AD emphasized the superiority of the Persian tradition, and explained the advances of other rival states – such as the East Roman Empire (Byzantium) – as knowledge scattered from ancient Persia. Namely, they accused Alexander the Great of stealing the ancient Persian knowledge from the palatial library – where the sacred books were kept – to the later benefit of the Greeks.
This rhetoric was linked with the ties that the Sassanids tried to form to Achaemenid Persia and was useful politically during the constant conflicts with the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
This way, the Sassanids saw themselves as guardians of the ancient knowledge that was returning from Roman territory to the Middle East, where according to their view, it had initially originated. Thus a nationalistic propaganda that actually saved books for a change!
This transfer often happened in the form of books brought by Nestorian refugees, former citizens of the Roman and Byzantine Empire, who established schools within the Sassanid Persian Empire, for example in Jundishapur, where they were involved mainly in medicine but also dealt with other philosophical subjects. (This trend would continue later by the Arabic-speaking Abbasid dynasties.)
But what about Iran today? What do they think of Alexander and his supposed greatness? Does it follow their Sassanid predecessors in the criticism of Alexander? Well, yes and no.
Alexander of Macedon is again portrayed as the destroyer of their ancient empire, but since other parts of their history are far more focused on for political or religious reasons, these events are not typically greatly discussed in the education system.
One of the reasons is that the revival of the nationalistic Persian pride around the Achaemenid empire was undertaken by the Shah of Persia, the one that the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 overthrew.
In 1967, he had taken the title Shah-en-shah, or ‘King of Kings’ that the ancient Persian kings had carried before. As part of his efforts to modernise Iran and give the Iranian people a non-Islamic identity, he began the effort to celebrate Iranian history before the Arab conquest. An effort culminating in the celebrations at Persepolis in 1971 for the 2500th anniversary of the coronation of Cyrus the Great, the first Achaemenid king. This celebration was criticized by Khomeini and his followers who would later found the islamic republic, and who called it the “Devil’s Festival”.
So, in the end here, it is not like the Achaemenid Empire has disappeared from the national identity – far from it. But it is not necessarily in the foreground, as the Islamic republic has other things they want to focus on.
More specifically, in the modern Iranian standard school books, Alexander does appear somewhat prominently in three subjects.
The first reference comes from the Social Studies textbook taught in primary years, which include the discussion of Iran’s historical sites, including Persepolis. Alexander’s successors in Persia and the dissemination of Greek customs and language are mentioned, but the expedition itself, its battles, or even the burning of Persepolis is completely missing.
In the 7th grade (so concerning around 12-year-olds) the Persian empire is presented analytically and so is the invasion of Greece, but no mention is given to the burning of Athens. Here the invasion of Alexander is described in some detail.
It is similarly treated within the 4th grade of secondary education (age 15).
As Fatima Faridi Majid noted, “In all, the Iranian books do not report the destructions in Greece such as the burning of Athens, although they admit the weakness of the Achaemenids, to which they ascribe Alexander’s conquests, and also mention the burning of Persepolis and other cities more than once. For Iranians, the Persian Wars and Alexander’s conquest of Persia are generally seen as short interludes in their long, turbulent history.”
Therefore, Alexander’s deeds are seen as an act of foregn infiltration, but it is not as big an issue as, say, the Crusades. As other issues have become prevalent, it is no longer as important as it was for their ancestors, the Sassanids.
Of course, the negative depictions are not necessarily representative of the Alexander tradition, as he was integrated into myths and legends of various peoples, as a semi-mythical king or personality.
And so, even in Persia, the mythical aspect prevailed. This is best seen in the Persian 11th century poet Farrukhi Sistani, in the introduction of some Alexander stories:
“The acts of Sikander (Alexander),
The tale of his exploits and of where he went
Have so much been heard by men wide and far,
His story now is known to all by heart.”
As Mendeghi in a 2018 article mentions, “To give an example of the popularity of Alexander’s story in the Persian tradition, it is worth mentioning that in Khāqānī’s twelfth-century Dīvāns and Farrukhī’s and ‘Unṣurī’s eleventh-century Dīvāns alone, Alexander and his deeds are mentioned more than 30 times.”
One of the most important works of literature of the Persian language, the 11th century epic Shahnameh (“The Book of Kings”) by Firdausi includes Alexander in a line of legitimate Persian shahs, a mythical figure who explored the far reaches of the world in search of the Fountain of Youth.
The trend of connecting mythical elements with Alexander began soon after his death. One such example is that when Lysander, a general of his, heard a story in his late years that Alexander had met with the queen of the Amazons, he ironically answered, “and where was I during this?”
Contemporary philosophers noticed the increasing mythical elements of the historical occurrences of Alexander, in both high and popular literature. Some were smart enough to recognize that they were witnessing the birth of legends and future myths.
One of these was the philosopher Euhemerus, who asserted that the origin of the Greek gods was likely similar, and that must have been kings or benefactors to the people, who had thus earned a claim to the veneration of their subjects. His most extreme example was that the highest Greek god, Zeus, was originally a king of Crete, who had been a great conqueror. This rationalizing method of interpretation is named after this philosopher and now known as “euhemerism” and is considered one of the first schools of atheism.
In the end, Alexander the Great does in many ways live up to his epithet, as the prime example of how a historical personality can inspire numerous generations across several cultures and in the end continued to change history in significant ways long after his death owing to his many imitators who sought to mimic and outdo their idol.
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Majid, Fatemeh-Koutlaki, Sofia. 2016. One Event, Two Readings: A look at Alexander’s Expedition to Iran in Iranian and Greek History Books
Manteghi, H. (2018). Introduction. In Alexander the Great in the Persian Tradition: History, Myth and Legend in Medieval Iran (pp. 1–9). London • New York: I.B.Tauris. Retrieved December 19, 2020, from http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350985230.0008
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