Did Alexander become great because of or despite his personality?
Some incidents of Alexander’s personal dealings with others were scandalously famous. In the seventh year of his campaign, his army was in Samarkand, far away in what is now Uzbekistan. At one of their frequent drinking-parties, Alexander got into a dispute with one of the Companions of the elite cavalry. It was his oldest friend, Cleitus — his foster-brother, since Cleitus’ mother had nursed and brought up the two of them together. Both were drinking heavily. Cleitus began badgering Alexander about introducing Persian customs, especially making everyone who approached him prostrate themselves on the ground, treating him as a god on earth. Cleitus said it was offensive to his old friends, that an army wins as a group but he was taking all the credit for himself, that he is forgetting who — Cleitus — saved Alexander’s life at Granicus.
Alexander grew angrier and angrier. Cleitus’ friends tried to pull him out of the room, but he barged back in through another entrance, shouting another insult. (This is the typical escalation of a bar-room quarrel; it is usually when one of the partisans in a face contest has been ejected and makes a return, that somebody gets killed.) What happens next is revealing in the way Alexander was treated by his personal companions and servants. Alexander called on his guards to sound the alarm — the signal that would have roused the entire camp to arms. None of the guards obeyed the order; they must have been used to such quarrels, and defied their god-playing King to keep the situation from getting out of hand. Since no one obeyed him, Alexander grabbed a spear and hurled it at Cleitus, killing him.
Immediately he calmed down. He tried to kill himself with the same spear but his guards prevented it. He retired to his room, and stayed there berating himself for days. Finally his advisors prevailed on him to put the incident behind him. He resumed acting like a Persian king-god, at least in public. About this time began a series of plots, rumoured assassinations and real executions. Two of his favorite Companions had drawn swords on each other; Alexander settled the matter by telling them he would execute them both if they quarreled again. He also delegated them separate tasks, one to convey orders to the Greek-speakers, the other to the Persians and foreigners in his army.
A flashback reveals something deeper in the interactional style of Alexander, and the Macedonian court where he grew up. When Alexander was 18, his father had taken a new wife, and at the wedding party the girl’s uncle — one of Philip’s generals- — gave a toast to a new heir. Alexander threw his drinking cup at the man’s head and shouted: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” Philip drew his sword to cut down his son, but failed because he was too drunk to stand up. Alexander and his mother had to go into exile, but eventually he was recalled. Not long after, Philip was assassinated by another intimate with a dagger, Alexander’s mother had the new wife and her baby killed, and Alexander became the new King.
Heavy drinking, brawls, plots and assassinations were common at the Macedonian court (as the latter were in Persia too, although it is not clear that drinking was involved.) There are striking similarities between Alexander killing Cleitus, and Philip trying to kill Alexander. Philip was a tough, brawling fighter, years of violence having left him with one eye, a crippled hand, and numerous wounds. Alexander was wrecking his own body the same way. Both did heavy drinking with the aristocratic heart of their army. Both relied on the same battle tactics, leading the charge, inspiring the cavalry attack. There was no way Alexander could avoid keeping up these drinking bouts; he continued them until he died from one of them Drinking was the ritual of bonding among the group that won his victories. Alexander’s carousing seems to contradict his patience in arranging logistics and awaiting the proper moment for marching or battle. But these were parts of the same thing: having to wait around so much gave occasion for carousing, a way of keeping up morale during dead time.
Now Alexander is in a structural bind. As Persian King, and in constant diplomacy playing King of Kings to the chieftains around him, he is caught in the ceremonial that exalts him. As leader of the world’s best military, he needs to keep up the solidarity of his Companions. The ambiguity of that name — more apparent to us than it would have been at the time — displays the two dimensions that were gradually coming apart: his companion buddies, a fraternity of fellow-carousers, fighters who have each other’s back; and the purely formal designation, members of the elite with privileged access to the King.*
*Compare the protocol of King Xerxes (reigned 485-465 BC) described in the Old Testament Book of Esther. She is a beautiful Jewish woman who has become Queen, top rank in the harem. But she risks her life in leaving her house to enter the King’s presence uninvited. Fortunately for Esther, and for her people, the King is happy to see her, and she is able to countermand an order sent out by royal messengers that would have killed all the Jews in the Empire. The storyline in Esther hinges repeatedly on who is allowed into the royal presence; at the outset, the previous Queen is deposed because she refuses to come when the King wants to show her off at one of his all-male drinking parties. Which way the royal scepter pointed meant favor, or death. Similar protocol at Babylon is described in the Book of Daniel. Alexander was moving towards being that kind of Oriental potentate — and the Greeks were the first to formulate Orientalism. Thus it is striking how much freedom from deference, how much equality existed in Alexander’s drinking parties. It is astounding that his guards refused to obey his orders, and even laid hands on him forcefully to prevent his suicide. They too were part of the team.
Philip and Alexander have the same double personalities.** Philip, though a bad-tempered brawler and ferocious battle leader, also is the master of diplomacy. We have seen that Alexander’s conquest would not have been possible without having learned to solve logistics problems by diplomacy. After some battles he could massacre the defeated; but also he could be magnanimous. With some conquered kings and other high aristocrats, Alexander not only would restore them to their position, but treat them with great courtesy. Such magnanimity would also have been good for his diplomatic reputation, encouraging side-switchers to approach him. I am not suggesting it was simply a strategy Alexander played. Personality is made from the outside in; habitual styles of interacting with people become part of the way one is. Since Alexander’s daily life fluctuates among different kinds of situations, he has many personality facets — to fall back on talking in nouns, an unavoidable but misleading feature of our language. His life consisted of situations when he played the hard-drinking fraternity boy, and when he played the diplomat; increasingly as he took over Persian organization, he took on the side of arrogant ruler, paranoid about plots.
**One respect in which they differ is that Alexander was not very interested in sex. He joshes his friends for their love affairs, but seems to have been a virgin until age 23, when Parmenio gave him a captive Persian woman. Plutarch records that the captive wife and daughters of the King and women of the court were “tall and beautiful”, but Alexander would say sardonically “What eyesores these Persian women are!” Nor does it appear that he was homosexual — although that would have been normal in Greece — since he forcefully rejected a present of two beautiful boys. Alexander was a monomaniac about the army and dangerous physical action — he preferred hunting lions. Very likely he regarded women as dangerous entanglements, sources of strife and assassination. Observing not just his father, but his mother, would have taught him that.