ALEXANDER THE GREAT
This battle being thus over, seemed to put a period to the Persian empire; and Alexander, who was now proclaimed King of Asia, returned thanks to the gods in magnificent sacrifices…Eager to gain honor with the Greeks, he wrote to them that he would have all tyrannies abolished, that they might live free according to their own laws…. Among the sayings of a philosopher…he most approved of this: that all men are governed by God, because in everything, that which is chief and commands is divine. But what he pronounced himself upon this subject was even more like a philosopher, for he said, God was the common father of us all…–Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks & Romans, Alexander
THE FIRST COSMOPOLITAN
Maracanda, Persia, 327 B.C.
THIS WORLD will never see again a warrior, king, or philosopher, of more magnificent heart or mind or beauty than my lord Alexander. He, god-like, dared the greatest things, and yet knew how to rule more wisely than the most renowned philosopher. I was a Persian slave and a boy, but in my bondage to him, he helped me become truer to the divine in me, and a freer man. He outshone all others in the art of war and conquest, in part because he had mastered the art of peace. His kingship surpassed in worldly wisdom even that of his tutor, Aristotle, the most learned and celebrated philosopher of any time before or since. This arrogant Stagirite, called the “Master of those who know,” recited to Alexander in his Greekish snootiness, one of their poet’s sayings: “It is meet that Hellenes should rule over barbarians.” Aristotle thought that all mutterers of strange tongues, such as we, were no more than “communities of slaves, male and female.” But Alexander learned better than to adopt Hellenic contempt for foreign ways. He showed those who followed him how, by treating even barbarians as children of the gods, we could become one even with Hellenes in civil peace. In his achievement of this wisdom, I played a small but noble part.
Alexander’s passion was greater for action and glory, than for either pleasure or riches; but above the glory of his conquests, as he told Aristotle in his first angry letter, he “had rather excel in the knowledge of what is excellent, than in the extent of his power and dominion.” And if his death proved he was not really an immortal, there is no man –no matter how great the number of years he may attain– who will be able to claim he lived more god-like than did my lord Alexander during a life cut short. The sweet scent of his skin is fresh with me after thirty years, and I still weep when I remember he is gone. I will tell you now the part I played in Alexander’s greatest conquests.
He was a man of twenty-six when we first met, and I a youth beginning my seventeenth year. The Persian general, Nabarzanes, brought me to him, after Alexander had destroyed Persia’s army, to tell how King Darius died, with Nabarzanes playing no part in it. I had served the Great King for three years, and was his favorite. He had been as kind to me as to any in his harem, and everyone knew how close to Darius, and loyal to him, I had been. (Nabarzanes might also have thought I would make a clever gift, and give Alexander pleasures he had never known, but would desire if he learned them. My dancing had brought me fame in Persopolis, and it helped that I already spoke a little Greek.) Great Alexander came to love me as Darius had, and no less than if I had been a free-born companion. My story, then, is how it was Alexander broke with Aristotle –who he once had loved and cherished as a second father– partly over me, the Persian slave Bagoas, who brought Alexander more pleasure than even the dearest of his friends and lovers, Hephestion, could bring.
Alexander had one fault that made two: He was addicted to drinking. In his drunkenness, he was quick to anger. And his anger, once aroused, was truly terrifying. Everyone knows of the terrible night when, in a drunken rage, Alexander ran his spear through his boyhood friend Clitus, and saw him die. Clitus had saved Alexander’s life at the battle on the Granicus, and the king’s grief at Clitus’s death was as great as his anger had been. Alexander, some said, even had to be restrained that night from turning the spear upon himself. He wept bitterly through the next day, and took no food for two days after that. But the consolations of his courtiers brought him back to his composure, though in a way that served him ill. It was the advice of Anaxarchus that finally consoled him, when Anaxarchus said to him: “Do you not know that Jupiter is represented to have Justice and Law on each hand of him, to signify that all the actions of a conqueror are lawful and just?” With these and like speeches, Anaxarchus allayed the king’s grief, but badly influenced Alexander by his flattering excuses for a dangerous fault.
Thus it was that one night, after another of his drunken rages, when he had retired to his tent alone, he sent for me. I thought at first he might want me to dance for him to distract him from the remorse he continued to feel after such episodes, and then, by my love-making, help him fall to peaceful sleep. (Whatever his state, he always needed love as a palm tree needs water. Though he often said that weariness and the pleasures of love were what chiefly made him remember he was mortal.) As soon as I entered his tent, I saw how flushed with wine his pale skin was, and how unsteady his gaze. Then he surprised me with his first command. “Bagoas,” he murmured, his eyes cast down, “fetch me my book of Homer.” I went at once to his table and brought the book to him, from which he had read to me many times. Then he collected himself and, raising his head, said to me: “I almost forgot; though your Greek is better than ever Bagoas, you cannot yet read very well in Greek or Persian. And I am now in no state to read myself.”
I replied: “My lord, you have told me more than once that A man who can read may be less a slave than a king who cannot; and a man who can read deeply, may find dominions greater than empires. I shall try to make out whatever it is you wish to hear me read, my lord.”
No, no,” he said, shaking his head: “You remind me what it is I really should think about. Ah!!” (His face brightened in that weaving countenance of light. Fresh ideas always inspired him to go beyond himself.) “What is to be free, Bagoas, truly free, and not to be a slave? How can it be that a king who has won dominion over half the world, cannot conquer himself as well? How can he be a slave to his pleasures or his passions, when he never fails in his command of any others? And can one in bondage yet be free? You, Bagoas, who know so well how to serve another: can you yet be free in that, though a slave to the world?”
He lay down for a moment upon his couch, and I thought to go to him. But before I could, he rose again, sat upright, and gestured to me not to venture any nearer. Then what he said to me sent a chill down my spine.
I think we should play a game, Bagoas, a serious game. Quite serious. I will be “Alpha;” and, you, Bagoas, will be “Beta.” Let us pretend to instruct each other –as philosophers might– how to learn the truth about slavery and freedom. Or, as Socrates or Plato might say, what freedom itself, and slavery itself, really are. What could be more fitting for the two of us? And if you play your part well in this game, I will offer you the gift of your freedom, and 50 talents. But if you fail to play your part well, then, as much as it might grieve me to do it, I will give you back to Nabarzanes, and you will become the plaything of whomever else he shall choose. But to be fair about it, I give you now, Bagoas, the freedom to refuse to play this game with me; in which case you will remain the same as you are, and lose nothing you now have, including your lord Alexander.”
Now some might think that such prospect of my freedom would thrill me, and move me to accept at once his half-drunken challenge. But, in fact, the thought of being separated from Alexander terrified me far more than the threat of being returned to shrewd Nabarzanes, who, I knew, would make no ill use of me. But I quickly recovered myself, for I knew that, with such a challenge from Alexander, it would displease him if I did not use my wits. And he had actually spoken of the “two of us!”
My lord,” I replied, “there is an ancient saying among the Persians. No contract should bind those who enter it, until it is agreed upon twice: once while those who seek agreement are sober, and once while they have drunk enough to make them light-headed. And among those Persians who follow this saying, very few fail to keep their agreements.”
Alexander: That seems then to be a sensible custom among you.
Bagoas: Would it not then also be sensible for a Persian boy to ask of Alpha, whether, if Bagoas were to play this game, he may not also justly ask to play it twice before receiving Alpha’s judgment as to his success or failure?
Alexander: You are tactful, but far too clever a slave boy, Bagoas. You seek to double your chances to please me. I would not have it so unless you agree as well to double the risk of failure. Beta may have his second game in the second half of tomorrow’s daylight, when I have rested and my head is less clouded. But only on the condition he drinks as much –well, a like amount for him– as I have drunk, before this night’s game is over. And if Beta then fails to prove himself by the sun’s next setting, Bagoas’s life will be forfeit, not just his service to Alexander. What now is your choice, Bagoas? I could not, of course, take this at all lightly, though it passed my mind that I might try to turn his frown to smiles again. Despite Alexander’s famous mercifulness and magnanimity –he always sought reasons to forgive those who offended him, was as gentle in victory as he was terrible in the field, and he loved to give great gifts– I dared not doubt the seriousness of both his offer and his threat. In fact, however, I feared losing my life less than losing Alexander, or greatly displeasing him. And, sensing the anguish moving him to make such an unusual dare, it occurred to me that, by helping to remove his pain with this game, I would be doing him a great service. And what was the heart of my life, except to serve my lord Alexander? And so I answered:
Bagoas: Is it not Alpha who must begin the game? For I am only Beta.
Alexander: We shall soon know, Beta, if your choice is courage or folly. But again, to be fair, you must agree to take the liberties of speech we Greeks take with one another. Even, in fact, the liberty I give to Hephestion. In this game, Beta need not fear to speak to Alpha as if Beta too was a king. You must not fear to correct me, or I shall never learn. Do you understand me, Bagoas; and can Beta do that?
Bagoas: I do; and he can, with your leave, my lord.
Alexander: Then I will send for some unmixed wine, and you shall drink as I have, and then Alpha and Beta shall begin their game.
The wine was brought and set before me. Alexander commanded me to sit and drink. The frowns of his flushed but still beguiling face changed to smiles as I did so. He seemed steadily to sober in the same proportion I became light-headed. After I had drunk fully four or five cups while he paced about his tent and watched, he took another cup himself. Then he asked me to dance for him so he could see whether I had yet become drunk enough to begin the game. I started to stand up from my couch, but I had drunk so much so quickly, that before I could get completely up, I fell back down. At this, Alexander let out a laugh, but said softly: “It is fair now to begin.”
What is Slavery?
Alexander: Can you tell me now, Beta, what slavery is? Is it a condition of war and conquest, the just or unjust act of empires and men? Does one man make another a slave? Or is slavery the will and act of the gods, and ordained by them, or fate? Or is it of some other nature?
My head was still swimming with the unmixed wine, but not so much as to make me feel ill. And the challenge of playing such a game with him so stimulated me, it may as well have been a bath in mountain water. So I stretched myself a bit, as I do before the dance, and looked on him intently to further sharpen my senses.
Bagoas: Since you ask me, my lord, I will tell you. Slavery is service to the will of another, at the risk of death or tortures or deprivation for disobedience. He is a slave who is not at liberty to go where he will when he will, or use his hours as he pleases. And some slaves are most unfortunate in their masters, and others, like myself, most blessed.
Alexander leaned his head to his left shoulder in thought, as he often did. Then, he rose, came to my couch and, placing his hand gently upon my face, said to me with a smiling voice: “I warn you Beta, this answer displeases me, and in two ways. First, in this game, I am no longer your lord.’ I am Alpha’ and you are Beta’.” Then he added, more sternly: “If you wish to continue with our game, I shall forgive your mistake this once, but no more.”
Then, taking both of my shoulders in his strong hands, and looking into my eyes, he said: “I understand this may be difficult for you. So we may end our game now, my dear Bagoas. But if you choose to continue, then you must also meet my second displeasure: I have asked you to tell me what is slavery itself, not this or that act of slavishness. A soldier, for example, serves his general “at the risk of death,” or “deprivation for disobedience.” Is even a prince, then, a slave, who willingly follows his general? And is one necessarily still a slave when the man to whom he is bound treats him as if he were a kinsman –not with cruel threats, but with kindness and good discipline? And, as for yourself, Bagoas, did you not tell me when I asked on the day you were brought to me, that you came to serve me of your own free will? Now, if you wish to play this game, use your wits as if you were a king, and tell me in your kingly wisdom: What is slavery?”
I was thrown for a moment into terrible perplexity and near panic, fearing now again that my wits might not be brave enough to meet his challenge with success. But then I considered: he had given me this warning with gentleness and good humor, and with a gaze at me now from his couch both so steady and tender, that, as I looked upon his handsome face, my love for him helped me overcome my fear. So I ventured again to please him with the kind of answer I believed he sought.
Bagoas: As you recall, Bagoas came here willingly to serve you, thinking it an honor to be able to do so. And as long as he shall continue to regard service to the king an honor, and remain, at his own wish, in the king’s service, he is a servant, and not a slave. But…
Alexander: Yes, “But…” When does he become a slave? What places him in “slavery,” not service? What would make Bagoas a slave?
Now I had to use my wits most carefully; for, despite this “game,” and Alexander’s constancy to his word, he was still my master. So I had to be sure not to give him offense in either of two ways: first, by failing to give him the kind of answer he sought; and, second, by giving an answer that would insult his trust in me as his willing and faithful servant. Even Alexander’s Macedonian friends and kinsmen, though thinking it base to flatter him, yet found it hazardous not to do it.
I had not before engaged much in philosophic discourse with Alexander, but he had read to me many times from his books of philosophy, and even his letters from Aristotle. So I knew the music of this kind of speech, and searched my memory to recall it well. Then it occurred to me that, if I was in danger of giving offense in two ways, I should seek to give him pleasure in two as well. In doing this, however, I thought it best not to speak of myself, but to return to his original question. And so I answered thus: “We are inquiring into the question What is slavery?’ And I believe that slavery is of two kinds. (This is how Aristotle often began his discourses.) First, there is slavery by law or custom, and that is in the power of men. Then there is slavery decreed by the gods, or fate, in the bondage of a man’s own limits. In each kind, however, a man is not free to do as he would choose, if he were wise enough to know what is best for him. So slavery, I would say, is being unable, through the power of others, or one’s own weakness, to do as one would do if he was wise and free.”
I made this speech very slowly, thinking over each phrase as I made it, and held my breath when I had finished. There was a moment of silence, during which my head swam, not from the wine, but from anxiousness I had not done well. And then Alexander, who had again held his glorious head to his left side listening, threw it back with laughter; and I knew right away that I must have done very well. And, indeed, he then said to me: “Ah, king Beta, you have done very well with this answer. But now you must tell me whether the weakness of a man that makes him a slave is the decree of the gods or fate, or whether a man can enslave himself. And if he can, in what ways does he do so? And can he avoid such slavery? And, if so, how?”
With the royal approval of my effort by Alexander, I felt free to risk going farther in our game than I might have otherwise, and turn from answering his questions, like a servant, to asking my own, like a king. And so I did.
Bagoas: To judge, king Alpha, the rightness or wrongness of answers to such questions, is it not necessary, sooner or later, to consider how one would answer such questions for himself? If so, I now ask Alpha: how would he himself answer them?
Alexander’s face, which had returned a little to its natural paleness from the ruddy wine complexion it had when I first entered his tent, now turned crimson again with a blush. Seeing this, I froze, with fear my boldness had offended him. But Alexander prized his word, and his sense of justice, and recalled the rules he had himself imposed: I was free to speak like one king to another. So the blush quickly passed away, as he leaned his head left to consider my question.
Alexander: I confess to you Bag—, king Beta, my questions were not entirely just, or even necessary. I know, and I recall, Aristotle’s thought on questions such as those I have just asked. And since you cannot read Greek, and I have not read to you this writing of Aristotle’s, I should not expect you –even you king Beta– to have his philosophic answers at hand, nor even to guess them on your own. I recall his exact words in answer to at least part of my question. He has written: “He who can foresee, by the exercise of his mind, the natural and probable consequences of his acts, is by nature intended to be lord and master; and he who cannot so foresee, is by nature intended to be a slave.” For those who are without such foresight, are unable either to achieve what they will, or prevent evils they would avoid, but are always subject and slave to consequences beyond their power to control, or to choose of their own free will. Now I have told you, Beta, what I believe, with my tutor Aristotle, is the weakness of a man that may make him a slave by nature. But can you tell me whether such slavery is only the work of the gods and fate, or whether a man so enslaved can free himself from shackles of thoughtlessness, and, if so, how?
When Alexander asked me these questions, I recalled how little I really knew about the reasoning of Greek philosophers, and how much I had depended in my successful answer upon the way they wrote and spoke, and the music of their phrases as Alexander had read them to me. I remembered too how, just the day before, Alexander had read to me –with a question in his eyes I had not answered– a letter from Aristotle in which the Stagirite (who, I knew, held all us Persians and our customs in contempt) had written that we were “communities of slaves, men and women.” This, it seemed to me, showed that Aristotle’s thinking mind could not see very far in some things of great importance. Was it not, I thought, a foreseeable, “natural, and probable consequence” of Aristotle’s writing so confidently about matters of which he was ignorant, that his reputation for wisdom would suffer? For he in fact knew nothing of the wisdom of Persian ways. It made me laugh inside myself, to think that Aristotle had thus named himself, at least in this respect, a “slave by nature.” So I was boldened to answer Alexander in the following way:
Bagoas: Alpha is kind to give an answer Beta could not or would not have given. Nor can Beta disagree with you, or Aristotle, that such weakness is a kind of slavery, and that some men are cursed by the gods or fate with little more wit to reason than a child. But even Aristotle may think too much and wrongly, if he believes that only those may be free who can follow his kind of lectures without sleeping. Beta would rather play games with Alexander, or dance for him, to learn how to make him laugh, than to ask him to explain how his laughter comes about. A wise heart may give light that will help one see further in the dark than a sharp mind blind to such light. Can a man not be as much a slave to his thought as to his thoughtlessness? And may a man not free himself from fate’s unfairness if he yet can hear the music of his heart, and feel the coursing of his own blood? Beta says that man may also be a “natural slave” who cannot free himself to go beyond reason if reason should fail him, and be guided by the promptings of that divine love even Aristotle says all creatures have for life, and for their own human kind. We Persians sing:
Love’s wordless ways may wisely plan Things speaking mind does not foresee, nor can.
As Alexander listened to my speech and song, I rose from the couch on which I sat and came to his. He lifted his gorgeous head, and I, now kneeling before him, put my arms around him. He gently stroked my hair in silence, and then I raised my eyes to his. He gazed through me, as he always did when he gave consent to my passion and desire to please him; and then he let me kiss him, an affection he never permitted to any Hellene. Not long after, we both slept deeply. And in the late morning, when we awoke, he told me to return to his tent in the middle of the afternoon, after he had finished with his mid-day council.
What is Freedom?
No serpent’s tongue darts more quickly than tongues do wag about a soldier’s camp. I had but breakfasted, bathed, and dressed, when I heard the following news. Well before Alexander and I had risen from his couch that morning, there had been a great stir among the augurers. When one of Apollo’s priests went to sacrifice the bird whose entrails he would read, the one he chose, it happened, was found to have a broken wing. The priest then dropped the bird, and fell back in fright. While he still stood there, trembling with fear, the bird then leaped away, took flight, and disappeared from view. At news of this happening, the diviners assembled to decide what this omen might mean. At first they thought it a terrible thing to happen at the beginning of the day, and augured crippling dangers, and an unknowable fate. But when the eldest priest came to hear the news, he said they had it wrong, and that what was foretold was a cause for great rejoicing. Seemingly impossible obstacles, he said, would soon be overcome, and on that day, or soon, heights of glory would be achieved beyond any seen before, whose nature would be later known. And, indeed, an hour after, the bird was seen to alight upon the highest tree on the hill adjacent to the camp, completing the omen just as the elder had foretold.
Alexander was always impressed by supernatural influences, and when extraordinary things happened, he always took it for a prodigy or presage. If the omen was bad, his mind became easily disturbed and alarmed with fear; but if it betokened good, his own extraordinary courage was further heightened, and he dared greater things than others even would conceive. It was at that very day’s council Alexander discovered thaat there had been a conspiracy against him, led by the noble young page Hermolaus. The philosopher Callisthenes, who was Aristotle’s own nephew, educated in Aristotle’s house, was accused of having inspired Hermolaus by his spoken resentment of Alexander’s Persian ways. The eldest priest was present at the council, and told Alexander he could now see a wing of his retinue broken, but that it would not impede the progress of his Asian wars if he found ways hitherto unknown to expand his dominion. Alexander, sober, contained his rage at the treachery of Hermolaus and the others, but had them put in chains at once while he decided their fate. Then (as his scribe confided in me), in the midst of the council, he dictated a letter to Aristotle answering the one in which the Stagirite had styled the peoples of Persia “communities of slaves, men and women.”
Alexander, now alienated from Aristotle on two counts, but not so much as to wish to do him any fatal hurt, sharply chided the philosopher for his suspected contribution to the plotters’ thinking, and quoted the poet’s words in his reply:
That vain pretence to wisdom I detest Where a man’s blind to his own interest.
In the rapid discoveries of that day, not a single Persian –servant, slave, or free-born– was brought under suspicion in the conspiracy. And Alexander later told me that while his mind was disturbed and racing with thoughts of what to do next, he recalled what I had said the very night before against the limits of Aristotle’s reasoning, and for the power of love. Inspired thus by my Persian wisdom, he then and there chose to turn his mind away from his fears and hatred of those suspected, to what he most loved: the greatness of his honor and glory among men. He then dictated his second letter, in which he told the Greeks he would abolish all the tyrannies of Asia in the realms of his conquest, and let their people live free, according to their own laws, treating them not as barbarians and slaves, but as children of the same God as the Greeks.
At the appointed time for my return to Alexander’s tent, I had had no news of how he had reacted either to the omens or to the plot, although I had already learned of both. So, while I had begun the day with confidence from my triumphs of the night before, it was with a new and great anxiety I awaited Alexander. His occupations of that day had, of course, kept him later than either of us had expected. But the summer Asian sun was still well above the horizon when Alpha came to play Beta the second half of the game, for Bagoas’s freedom or his death.
King Alexander entered his tent, where I sat waiting anxiously, with Hephestion on his right and his physician, Philip the Acarnanian, on his left. Hephestion had called for a bodyguard, which Alexander usually went without, and had them posted all around the tent. As soon as they entered, I rose, of course, from the couch on which I had been sitting in some dread, and my presence immediately caught Hephestion’s quick eye. He raised his arm and pointed to me, thus asking Alexander, without a word, about the fitness of my being there. Hephestion and I were not enemies, though we each, I thought, had some reason to be jealous of the other. His love of Alexander, and his loyalty to him, and Alexander’s love for Hephestion, were no less in fame than that of Damon for Pythias or (as they thought of themselves) as Achilles for Patroclus, so Alexander took no offense at Hephestion’s crude and silent question. “We were to meet before this hour;” Alexander answered, “and he is here at my command. We have unfinished business. See to it now that our decisions in council are quickly carried out, Hephestion, and come back here for supper. You too, Philip, may go. Attend the cooks’ dinner preparations.”
As soon as they had gone, Alexander dropped on to his couch. He breathed a loud sigh of liberty from the awful business with which that day had occupied him. His attendant Tireus at once brought a cup of wine to him. I still stood at attention beside the couch across from Alexander’s. Without taking the cup from Tireus’s hand, .he gestured to me to sit. He cocked his head sideways while he looked for a long moment, first at me, and then at the cup of wine. Then, lying down, he said to Tireus: “I will have my wine later, as soon as I next call for you. Leave us for now.” Not a word was said between us for a while, as Alexander covered his forehead tightly with both hands, and lay there quietly. After some time had passed, I thought to pick up the lyre and play it, to soothe him further with its gentle sounds. But, as if reading my thoughts, at that moment Alexander sat up, swung his smooth and supple legs to the ground with his uncommon agility and, now facing me, said with quiet light in his voice: “Now is a good time, Bagoas, to resume our game. Are you ready to play?”
Though I thought my dread had quieted with Alexander’s rest, there must have been some tremor in my voice when I replied “He is, king Alpha.” For, at my answer, Alexander bent down his head and, resting his elbows upon his knees, placed his forehead upon his hands, much as he had covered it while lying down. Again some moments passed in silence, after which he lifted his head, shook his golden locks, and said, very sternly, to me:
Alexander: We spoke last night, Bagoas, of two kinds of slavery: being ruled by others against one’s will, and being unable to rule oneself, through weakness of one cause or another. But I will tell you now, Bagoas, without first asking your opinion, that freedom is of three kinds. A man is free who need not bend to the will of others, or be restrained by their commands. And a man is free who can see what his own greatest good is, and find the will to do it. But, as the poet says:
How shall man compel his God? We are Fortune’s child, not Man’s. Therefore, O Man, beware; Look toward the end of things that be, The last of of sights, the last of days; And no man’s life account as gain Until the tale be finished And the darkness find him without pain.
This is the third kind of freedom, Bagoas: no man is fully free who will not accept the limits of his freedom, and can suffer what the gods alone can give him, and what they take away. Even a child of Zeus must bend to fate or break.
He sat back on his couch after this speech, and I thought he was about to test me with a question. But then he said, without a trace of passion in his voice: “And so, for now, Bagoas, you are free. You need neither play our second game, nor serve me any longer. You may go where you will, with fifty talents of gold to do with as you choose, and with them all the other goods and gifts from me you now possess as well. And there will be others I will add. Persia itself will now soon be freer than it ever was, and so will all of Asia, and I will have many new things to do in the days to come.”
The shock of this speech at first just startled me; but when I took in its full meaning, I burst at once into copious tears. I rose, weeping, then fell to my knees, and crawled to Alexander, prostrating myself at his feet. I embraced his legs, and wailed, and begged him to withdraw his gift of freedom. “I pray you, my lord,” I beseeched, “let me use my freedom forever to be your servant and stay near you. My freedom would be worth nothing to me, if I could not use it to love my lord Alexander, and give him the pleasure I can give to him when he permits it.
Even in my agitated state, I knew this was a great presumption, and a risk; for Alexander was always more displeased with those who would not accept of what he gave, than with those who begged gifts of him. I was moved to take this risk, not only by my love for Alexander, and my passion, but because I knew he always endeavored to persuade, rather than to command. And I believed –rightly, as it turned out– that he knew my love was of a kind not even he could persuade away.
Within the next few months, my choice had become known among all that followed him. So, less than three short years after, no one tried to move me as, from the hour of his death, I sat by his side through all the sultry days and nights his body lay, otherwise neglected, until his funeral pyre was lighted as Achilles’ would have been.
Alexander The Great, Slavery, and Freedom
Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great, was born in Pela, Macedon, in July 356 B.C., the son of King Philip II of Macedon. At the age of 16, he led his first army and achieved his first military victories in the region of modern Bulgaria (where he established his first city, Alexandropolis), for which triumphs he became a general in his father’s army. He succeeded his father as King in 336 when Philip was assassinated. Alexander quickly consolidated his own rule, and by the time he was 21, he had gained power over all of Greece (335). Within ten years after, he conquered and occupied Egypt, in which he was named Pharaoh, and founded the city of Alexandria (332); defeated the Great Persian King Darius, destroyed the Persian Empire, and became its conqueror (331); invaded Eastern Persia (330-327) and Northern India (326); and became, in effect, King of all known Asia as well as Hellas. He died at the age of 32 in Babylon (323) from either malaria or typhoid fever. His empire was torn apart soon after his death by the power struggles of his generals and advisors.
. Most of the facts recounted in THE FIRST COSMOPOLITAN describing Alexander’s character (including his drunken rages), the incidents and people referred to, and the words quoted from Alexander’s letters, are taken from historical sources, most notably Plutarch’s ancient Lives of Noble Greeks & Romans, Stringfellow Barr’s book, The Will of Zeus (Lippincott, 1961), and Mary Renault’s biography, The Character of Alexander (Pantheon, 1975). I have also drawn on Mary Renault’s historical novel, The Persian Boy (Pantheon 1972) –a dramatization of Alexander and Bagoas’s relationship– to describe Bagoas’s history, character, and intimacy with Alexander. The statements ascribed to Aristotle in the story come directly from Aristotle’s Politics. The poetic lines quoted by Alexander in his speech on freedom are from Sophocles’ Oedipus, a play Alexander knew well.
Alexander was a man of extraordinary courage, charisma, political skill, and physical endurance. His soldierly example and personal valor, his powers of persuasion, and his magnificent generosity, inspired his men to endure prolonged hardships in marches of over 11,000 miles to achieve his victories. His military tactics and strategies are still studied at military academies. He is most famous as the ancient “conqueror of the known world,” but his cultural political achievement, though highly transient, was equally unprecedented for its time, and has left an enduring heritage. Alexander was sharply criticized by some of his generals and advisors for changing his Macedonian clothing while in Persia and dressing like a “barbarian;” that is, wearing Persian robes. He was likewise criticized when he accepted some of the honors the Egyptians gave to him as their Pharaoh. These symbolic acceptances of foreign ways were, however, much more for Alexander than vanity, affectation or hedonistic fashion. They advertised his respect for the customs of those he had conquered, told them that they could expect to be treated with courtesy, dignity, and respect, and expressed his stated personal belief that all human beings –whether Hellenes or “barbarian,” Greek or African or Asian– were “children of the same God.
Of all the documented stories in the histories of Alexander, the one that fills me most with awe at his strength, self-mastery, courage and foresight, and inspires me as an example of freedom from fear to achieve great things, is the story of the Maillan Wall. In November 326, Alexander was in India, sailing with his troops along the Indus River, when he was engaged in battle by a people called the Mallians. After suffering several defeats, the Mallians took refuge in the greatest walled city of the Brahmans. Here is how Stringellow Barr tells the story of what Alexander did next:
Convinced that some of his own men were hanging back from scaling the walls, Alexander seized a ladder and climbed the wall himself…Others tried to follow, but the ladder broke. Alexander was now a target for arrows. He leapt down inside the city, while two others followed. There they fought alone; one was killed, and Alexander was wounded almost mortally by an arrow. [A three foot arrow had gone through his corselet into his lung.] Just then the Macedonians broke in. (The Will of Zeus, p. 427).
Even after he had been so gravely wounded, Alexander fought on, dragging himself erect by clutching at a tree. His movement caused a massive hemorrhage, and collapse of his punctured lung, from which he then passed out. The account of what it took to remove the arrow piercing his lung through his corselet are horrific, but Alexander survived the wound and operation, and recovered in a remarkably short time (though the wound probably contributed to his death three years later). According to the ancient historian Arrian, the following is the reason Alexander decided to jump into the enemy’s walled city alone when the ladder broke, rather than staying on the ladder until his men brought another: He felt that by staying where he was, he would be at great risk without achieving anything fameworthy; but if he leaped down inside the wall, that in itself might scare the Indians; and if he had to be in danger he might then sell his life dearly after doing great deeds fit to be heard of by men to come.
Mary Renault, referring to the same ancient source, adds:
He did indeed scare the Indians to a distance, after killing some hand to hand; but from there they pelted him with weapons, while he had only stones to throw back. Meantime, his brave companions jumped down beside him (The Character of Alexander, p. 207)
The story of Alexander and the Mallian Wall shows Alexander’s heroic capacity to overcome fear to achieve his greatness. If Alexander was a “slave” to anything, it was to his thirst for glory and honor: a magnificent bondage. But in other important respects, he was one of the freest –perhaps in some sense, the freest– man of his time. Alexander had been taught by his tutor, Aristotle, and understood, that the ultimate purpose of any just war was peace. Alexander bravely defied Greek bigotry against “barbarians” when he treated them as children of the same God, and adopted some of their customs. He had the prudence and foresight to know that no people can be governed long in peace by rulers they regard as unfriendly aliens. His ambition was to rule the world –to found a cosmopolis– and to achieve this, he saw himself, and acted as, the first true cosmopolitan. So he leaped the political wall of bigotry with the same foresight and courage with which he leaped the Mallian Wall.
The seeds of American freedoms were first planted in the democracy of ancient Athens. They were nurtured by the ideal of the rule of law in ancient Rome, blossomed in the civil liberties established under English common law, and bore fruit in 1776 with the creation of the United States of America. Now, more than 2300 years after Alexander’s cosmopolis, we live in a world where no nation is further than minutes away from any other in the technology of both communications and mass destruction. The achievements of Alexander the Great, and his cosmopolitan character, thus seem especially relevant to the conditions for global peace and freedom in the twenty-first century. Can any nation in the world now realistically hope to enjoy freedom in peace –in fact, be a nation of truly free peoples –until each of the peoples of the world recognize that those of other nations are born from the same eternal source; that we are all “children of one God?”
The motto of the United States of America is “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of many, one”). This motto refers to the fact that the thirteen original states –which were highly diverse in their own cultures at the time — became one nation. Alexander the Great’s courageous demonstration of faith in the oneness of our human community showed, in its infancy, the possibility of global unity out of diversity, and humankind’s eventual release from the bondage of bigotry. I feel some debt of freedom to Alexander whenever I am privileged to embrace in friendship and understanding a person of very different national origin, race, culture, religion, belief, or custom –as my kin.