Arrian's Assessment of Alexander


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(you may be interested to compare Arrian's comments below with those of Curtius and/or Diodorus)
Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander 7.28–30
Alexander died in the hundred and fourteenth Olympiad, when Hegesias was archon in Athens. By Aristobulus’ reckoning, he was thirty-two years eight months old. He was king of Macedonia for twelve years and eight months.

He was a very handsome man, most capable of hard work, very keen in judgement; he was outstanding in bravery, and his love of honour and in his capacity for risk, and he was most attentive to religious matters. He showed great self-control over the pleasures of the body, and as for the pleasures of the mind, he was insatiable only for praise. He was very quick to see what needed to be done in situations that were still uncertain, and he was very successful in judging what was likely to happen from the facts available to him. He was very experienced in organising, arming and equipping his troops, and he was outstanding in raising the spirits of his troops, and filling them with confident expectation, and dispelling their terror in dangerous circumstances through his own lack of fear. When it was clear what needed to be done, he did it with the greatest boldness, and whenever he had to secure an objective before any of the enemy even suspected what would happen, he was very skilful at taking the initiative and acting first. Arrangements or agreements made with him were absolutely secure, and he was very successful at avoiding the tricks of those who tried to deceive him. He made very little use of money for his own pleasure, but never held back when helping anyone else.
If Alexander made mistakes through haste or anger, or if he was led on to act in a barbarian and rather arrogant manner, for my part, I do not consider these serious faults, if one considers reasonably Alexander’s youth and his continual success and the nature of such men as associate, and will always associate, with kings to please them, not for the best of motives, but for evil.

I know that the remorse he showed when he had done wrong because of the nobility of his nature was unparalleled amongst the kings of old. The majority of men, even if they acknowledge that they have done wrong, think they can hide their mistake by making out that what they did was well done; but in this they are mistaken. In my opinion, the only remedy for wrongdoing is to agree that one has done wrong and to be clearly repentant for it; the sufferings of those who have been harmed would not seem so bad, if the man who has harmed them admits that he has not acted well, and for the wrongdoer also there is some reasonable expectation for the future that he will not behave badly in a similar way again, if he has shown remorse for what he has done wrong in the past.

That Alexander kept claiming divine origin for himself does not seem to me a serious fault, and perhaps it was a device directed at his subjects to gain greater respect. Alexander does not seem to me to be a less distinguished king than Minos or Aeacus or Rhadamanthys, whose birth was attributed to Zeus by men of old without any insolence; so too with Theseus, son of Poseidon and Ion, son of Apollo.

As for Alexander’s adoption of Persian dress, this seems to me a device aimed at the barbarians to make sure that the king did not appear completely foreign to them, and also at the Macedonians, to give him some relief from Macedonian sharpness and insolence. For the same reason in fact, in my opinion, he mixed the cream of the Persian forces into his Macedonian battalions, and the Persian nobleman into his best divisions.

As Aristobulus says, his drinking bouts were not long because of the wine, as Alexander drank little wine, but because of his friendship with his companions.
If any writer wants to reproach Alexander, he should not do so by bringing together all those actions of his he considers reproachable, but rather he should review everything that Alexander did altogether, and then let him consider what sort of a man he is himself, and what sort of success he has achieved, before he reproaches a man like Alexander who reached the peak of human success, undisputed king of both continents, whose name reached every corner of the world; since the writer is himself a meaner person who has pursued trivial goals and not even achieved these.

In my opinion, there was no race of men, no city in those times, not even a single man the name of Alexander had not reached. So I do not believe that a man without equal in all the world would have been born without the involvement of the gods. Oracles are said to have shown this at the time of Alexander’s death, and visions and dreams came to different people; so too the honour paid to Alexander by men up to the present day and the greater than human memory of him; even now after so many years further oracles in his honour have been granted to the Macedonian people.

I have myself criticised in this history some of Alexander’s actions, but I’m not ashamed of my admiration of Alexander himself. I have criticised some actions because of the truth in my opinion, and at the same time to emphasise the benefit for men; I started on this history for that reason and I also have been helped by god.

Quintus Curtius Rufus, History of Alexander Book 10, Chapter 5.26-37
To be sure, it is obvious to anyone who makes a fair assessment of the king that his strengths were attributable to his nature and his weaknesses to fortune or his youth.

His natural qualities were as follows: incredible mental energy and an almost excessive tolerance of fatigue; courage exemplary not just in comparison with kings but even with men possessing this virtue and no other; generosity such that he often granted greater gifts than even the gods are asked for; clemency towards the defeated; returning kingdoms to men from whom he had taken them, or giving them as gifts; continuous disregard for death, which frightens others out of their minds; a lust for glory and fame reaching a degree which exceeded due proportion but was yet pardonable in view of his youth and great achievements. Then there was his devotion to his parents (he had taken the decision to deify Olympias and he had avenged Philip); then, too, his kindness towards almost all his friends, goodwill towards the men, powers of discernment equalling his magnanimity and ingenuity barely possible at his age; control over immoderate urges; a sex-life limited to the fulfillment of natural desire; and indulgence only in pleasures which were socially sanctioned.

The following are attributable to fortune: putting himself on a par with the gods and assuming divine honours; giving credence to oracles which recommended such conduct and reacting with excessive anger to any who refused to worship him; assuming foreign dress and aping the customs of defeated races for whom he had only contempt before his victory. But as far as his irascibility and fondness for drink were concerned, these had been quickened by youth and could as easily have been tempered by increasing age.

However, it must be admitted that, much though he owed to his own virtues, he owed much more to Fortune, which he alone in the entire world had under his control. How often she rescued him from death! How often did she yield him with unbroken good fortune when he had recklessly ridden into danger! She also decided that his life and glory should have the same end. The fates waited for him to complete the subjection of the East and reach the Ocean, achieving everything of which a mortal was capable.

Such was the king and leader for whom a successor was now sought, but the burden was too great to be shouldered by one man. So it was that his reputation and the fame of his achievements distributed kings and kingdoms almost throughout the world, with those who clung on even to the tiniest fraction of his enormous estate being regarded as men of great distinction..