Alexander. Of all the names in history his may be the most magical. In Greece he is both an ancient hero and a Christian saint. In China he fights beside heroes against monstrous beasts. India sees him seated at the side of Buddha. In Persian lore he becomes the great Skander. Among Moslems he is a warrior and pilgrim to Mecca. And the tribes in Afghanistan are said to be descended from his soldiers.
Alexander the Great, who lived from 356 to 323 B.C., linked the East and the West. And tomorrow the National Galery opens The Search for Alexander, an exhibition that portrays him both in legend and fact through his travels and conquests and through time, chronicled by portrait busts, coins, reliefs, jewelry and sculpture. The age of Alexander also is portrayed, a brilliant age as Greek culture was spread through the world. The climax of the exhibit are the gold and silver finds from a royal tomb, a tomb unearther only three years ago and thought to be that of Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon.
Ancient Macedon was the northern rim of Greece, as far south as Mt. Olympus, contained today in Greece, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. Philip himself swept south from there into the body of ancient Greece, conquering Athens and Thebes and other city-states and forming the Hellenic league. He was triumphant enough that a young Alexander, hearing of another of his father's victories, cried out jealously, "Will there be nothing left for me to conquer?" He need not have worried. As his father swept through Greece, he swept through the world, and merged myth and history.
Alexander. Warrior or warriors. Champion of champions. Descended of Achilles and Hercules. Tutored by Aristotle, argued with Diogenes. What mountains did he not climb? He penetrated the Himalayas. What deserts did he not cross? He marched through North Africa. What enemies did he not crush? There were none.
At 16 his father, fighting somewhere else, made him regent of all Greece. The Greek city-states, seeing this boy, planned revolt. He crushed it. At 20 his mother, Olympias, surned by Philip who married another, had the king assassinated. Alexander took the throne. And there were worlds left to conquer.
He turned first to the north, crossing the Danube. Hearing a rumor of his death, the city-state of Thebes rebelled. At 21 he destroyed it. Then he moved east, against Persia -- vast, powerful, wealthy Persia, so vast it seemed it must swallow any invader.
He crossed the Dardenelles with his army in 334 B.C., entering Asia, bringing with him Greek philosophers, poets, naturalists, bringing with him Greece, never to return to it. At Granicus, at the entrance to Asia, the Persian forces outnumbered him. He attacked. He struck for the heart and his enemies fled. Alexander was no strategist. He was will. Boldness and will. He followed the trail of his enemy.
He conquered Turkey and Syria, Egypt and Libya, and turned east again. Confronted with the Gordian knot, a deep thick tangled web of rope which it was said one must first untie if one were to conquer Persia, Alexander cleft it with his sword.
Battle after battle he met Darius, emperor of Persia. Battle after battle Darius fled, deeper into his empire. Alexander was a noble enemy. Capturing Darius' family, he treated them well. In 332 he conquered Tyre. Darius offered to him half his empire, to the Euphrates, and his daughter in marriage, in exchange for peace.
Parmenio, one of Alexander's generals, said, "I would accept, were I Alexander."
Alexander answered, "I too, were I Parmenio."
Alexander drove on. Yet Parmenio's advice bore with it admonishment. Alexander's army was weary. They cared not for this penetration of the Orient. They longed for Greece and home. Only his will and their loyalty to him moved them.
When Alexander rejected the offer, Darius assembled a vast army of 1,000,000 on foot and 40,000 on horse. In 331 Alexander faced him with 40,000 foot and 7,000 horses; he attacked. The enemy was routed. Darius, in flight again, was murdered by one of his allies. Persia crumbled. Alexander took Babylon and Susa, and entered Persepolis, the Persian capital, and burned it to the ground. Yet nothing slaked his will or his ambition; they burned too. And now he talked of his being a god.
His soldiers, men who drank with him, touched him, muttered and grumbled. The Orientals accepted his divinity. His men did not. Was that why they had been away from home for years? To further his ambition? For they feared that too. The Greeks knew well of hubris. In 329 the army entered the Hindu Kush, through a pass above 13,000 feet. They passed through Afghanistan. In 327 they crossed the Indus. But Alexander and his army were moving apart. He sought to unite Greek and Oriental, married Roxana, a Persian princess, offered bonuses to his men who would marry Easterners. His men cared not. They were Greeks and Macedonians. They were not of the East, and wanted not to be of the East. That Alexander called himself a god now betrayed them.
"Without us your army, god, whom do you conquer?" they grumbled "Whom do you conquer by yourself?"
At a banquet Cleitus, one of Alexander's two greatest friends, friends he loved, mocked his divinity. Raging, Alexander hurled a spear through his chest. Cleitus was dead. Alexander's grief came too late. And later, when Alexander sought to lead his men deeper into India, his men balked. His will was to go forward. They would not. No enemy could withstand Alexander's will; only his men could defy it.
"Take us home," they begged. "Lead us back."
Alexander took them back, but only to Persia. He tried to raise and train an army of Orientals. His men rebelled. They were weary, weary to the heart. Take us home, they repeated. It had been 10 years since they had seen Greece. Take us home.
Hephaestion, like Cleitus Alexander's great friend, died from fever. Again, Alexander was desolate. His friend dead, India before him but unassailable without an army, perhaps with his own mortality proved to him, Alexander too caught the fever. He lay in bed dying. A warrior felled. His army filed by him. They were reconciled at last. How he loved them! And he died. His men buried him secretly, in a place unknown. He was 33 years old. He had ruled for 12 years and eight months. He had not conquered the world, not quite all of it. To his mind he must have been a failure. Hero of heroes, conqueror of conquerors, yet less than what he demanded of himself.
After his death his empire split into three after some warring. One of his generals, Ptolemy, and his descendants ruled Egypt until 30 B.C. Cleopatra was the last, her reign ended by the Romans. The descendants of Seleucus, another general, ruled most of Asia almost as long.The Macedonian kingdom lasted for another two centuries.
Alexander. His name was magic. If not a god, surely he was more than a man.