Alexander's influences - Nature or Nurture?


The Primary Record

For many ancient writers, of course, Alexander was not 'influenced' at all – he was destined.  It is Plutarch who fills up his account of Alexander’s life with portents of Alexander’s greatness – the Persian ambassadors, his desire for ‘honour’, Bucephalus – all based around the inevitability of his future: ‘My son, ask for yourself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for you’ (the phrase which provided the inspiration for Iron Maiden’s 1986 interpretation of Alexander’s achievements and legacy).

I suspect the question you need to ask yourself is whether you believe ANY of these stories, or whether you consign them lock, stock and barrel into the ‘retrospective myth’ category. How did even writers like Callisthenes and Aristobulus know what happened, what was said? There is an argument which says that, at best, they heard the stories from Alexander and his Companions, which carries the danger that they simply bought into and retailed Alexander’s propaganda about himself.



The Secondary Interpretations

The novelist Mary Renault (Fire From Heaven, 1969) portrayed a child psychologically determined (damaged?) by his parents’ conflicts and their conflicting wishes for his future. Renault interprets the whole of Alexander’s life as a consequent search for love, driving his conquests (seeking approbation) and his relationships (generous, but furious when betrayed). You may wish to reject such a modern psychological interepretation of Alexander as anachronistic - though, to be fair to renault, most of this kind of psycho-history – in which most historians indulge to some extent or another – comes from the pointers Plutarch laid down in his Life of Alexander.

Adults are essentially formed by their education, and it would make sense, too, to interpret Alexander in terms of his education. There are frequent references throughout Alexander’s life to the Greek stories of Heracles and Achilles, and to Homer, and Greek poetry and plays. Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, and it is hard to imagine that Alexander was not affected by him at all – Oliver Stone’s 2005 film Alexander the Great takes this idea to its ridiculous limit when it suggests that Alexander’s campaigns were an attempt to prove Aristotle’s theories about geography!

Macedonian Context?
Academic historians, as you would hope, reject the psycho-babble, and concentrate more on the context of the Macedon from which Alexander came. The famous Greek scholar NGL Hammond (1981) rooted everything about Alexander – the nature of his kingship, his court, his relationship with the army, his wars, his new towns and even, right at the end, his conflict with Antipater and succession by Arrhidaeus – primarily in terms of the customs, practices and beliefs of Macedon.  


Alexander's Unique Genius?
As you are studying Alexander's life, of course, what NONE of these theories suggests, of course, is that Alexander was a 'one-off' ... that he was not 'created' by any underlying forces, but that he was a new, unique, fresh force in the world – who, yes, perhaps drew on his background and childhood, but who was, essentially, 'his own man'. 






The following websites will help you complete the task:

You can hear Iron Maiden's Alexander the Great (1986) here.



On a large sheet of paper, put the title: 'Influences on Alexander'.  Divide the sheet into four sections, headed 'Parents', 'Education', 'Macedon' and 'New-by-Alexander', and then:

Go through the EVENTS of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative moments, categorising them as you feel they were influenced by his 'Parents', 'Education' or 'Macedon' or were 'New-by-Alexander'.
Make sure you include details and minor events, as well as just the 'big things'.


Go through the SOURCES of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative passages, categorising them as you feel they were influenced by his 'Parents', 'Education', 'Macedon' or were 'New-by-Alexander'.
Remember to evaluate their validity - a single valid source will outweigh a dozen passages which are all imaginary or full of errors.

In your opinion, what did make Alexander 'Alexander'?