The Macedonians

It was now that a new power sprang into life. Macedonia was a hilly country on the northern boundaries of Greece; a Greek colony having settled there in ancient times, the reigning house and the language of the courts were Hellenic; the mass of the people were barbarians. It was an old head placed on young shoulders—the intellect of the Greek united with the strength and sinews of wild and courageous mountaineers.

The celebrated Philip, when a young man, had passed some time in Greece; he had seen what could be done with money in that country; he conjectured what might be done if the money were sustained by arms. When he became king of Macedon, he made himself president of the Greek confederation, obtaining by force and skilful address, by bribery and intrigue, the position which Athens and Sparta had once possessed. He was preparing to conquer Persia and to avenge the ancient wrongs of Greece when he was murdered, and Alexander, like Frederick the Great, inherited an army disciplined to perfection and the great design for which that army had been prepared.

Alexander reduced and garrisoned the rebellious Greeks, passed over into Asia Minor, defeated a Persian army at the Granicus, marched along the Ionian coast, and crossed over the snowy range of Taurus, which the Persians neglected to defend. He heard that the Great King was behind him with his army entangled in the mountains. He went back, won the battle of Issus, and took prisoner the mother and wife and daughter of Darius. He passed into Syria and laid siege to Tyre, the Cherbourg of the Persians, and took it after several months; this gave him possession of the Mediterranean Sea. He passed down the Syrian coast, crossed the desert—a three days’ journey—which separates Palestine from Egypt, received the submission of that satrapy and made arrangements for its administration, visited the oracle of Jupiter Ammon in The Sahara, and returned to Tyre. Thence making a long detour to avoid the sandy deserts of Arabia, he entered the plains of Mesopotami, inhabited only by the ostrich and the wild ass, and marched towards the ruins of Nineveh, near which he fought his third and last great battle with the Persians. He proceeded to Babylon, which at once opened its vast gates. He restored the Chaldean priesthood and the old idolatry of Belus. He took Susa, Ecbatana, and Persepolis, the other three palatial cities, reducing the highlanders who had so long levied black mail on the Persian monarchs. He pursued Darius to the moist, forest-covered shores of the Caspian Sea, and inflicted a terrible death on the assassins of that ill-fated king. The Persian histories relate that Alexander discovered Darius apparently dead upon the ground. He alighted from his horse; he raised his enemy’s head upon his knees; he shed tears and kissed the expiring monarch who opened his eyes and said, "The world has a thousand doors through which its tenants continually enter and pass away." "I swear to you," cried Alexander, " I never wished a day like this. I desired not to see your royal head in the dust, nor that blood should stain these cheeks." The legend is a fiction, but it illustrates the character of Alexander. Such legends are not related of Genghis Khan or of Tamerlane by the people whom they conquered.

Alexander now marched by way of Mushed, Herat, and the reedy shores of Lake Zurrah to Kandahar and Kabul. He entered that delightful land in which the magpies fluttering from tree to tree, and the white daisies shining in the meadow grass, reminded the soldiers of their home. Turning again towards the north, he climbed over the lofty back of the Hindu Kush, where the people are kept inside their houses half the year by snow, and descended into the province of Bactria, a land of low, waving hills, destitute of trees and covered only with a dry kind of grass. But as he passed on, crossing the muddy waters of the Oxus, he arrived at the oases of Bokhara and Samarkand, regions of garden-land with smiling orchards of fruit trees and poplars rustling their silvery leaves. Finally he reached the banks of the Jaxartes, the frontier of the Persian empire. Beyond that river was an ocean of salt and sandy plains, inhabited by wild Tartar or Turkish tribes who boasted that they reposed beneath the shade neither of a tree nor of a king, who lived by rapine like beasts of prey, and whose wives rode forth to attack a passing caravan if their husbands happened to be robbing elsewhere—a practice which gave rise to the romantic stories of the Amazons. These people came down to the banks of the river near Khojend and challenged Alexander to come across and fight. He inflated the soldiers’ tents, which were made of skins, formed them into rafts, paddled across and gave the Tartars as much as they desired. He returned to Afghanistan and marched through the western passes into the open plains of the Punjab, where perhaps at some future day hordes of drilled Mongols and Hindu sepoys will fight under Russian and English officers for the empire of the Asiatic world. He built a fleet on the Indus, sailed down it to its mouth, and dispatched his general Nearchus to the Persian Gulf by sea, while he himself marched back through the terrific deserts which separate Persian from the Indus.

So ended Alexander’s journey of conquest, which was marked not only by heaps of bones on battlefields and by the blackened ashes of ruined towns, but also by cities and colonies which he planted as he passed. The memory of that extraordinary man has never perished in the East. The Turkomans still speak of his deeds of war as if they had been performed a few years ago. In the tea booths of Bokhara it is yet the custom to read aloud the biography in verse of Secunder Rooni—by some believed to be a prophet, by others one of the believing genii. There are still existing chiefs in the valleys of the Oxus and the Indus who claim to be heirs of his royal person, and tribes who boast that their ancestors were soldiers of his army, and who refuse to give their children in marriage to those who are not of the same descent.

He returned to Babylon, and there found ambassadors from all parts of the world waiting to offer him the homage of their masters. His success was incredible; it had not met with a single check. The only men who had ever given him cause to be alarmed were his own countrymen and soldiers, but these also he had mastered by his skill and strength of mind.

The Macedonians had expected that he would adhere to the constitution and customs of their own country, which gave the king small power in time of peace and allowed full liberty and even licence of speech on the part of the nobles round the throne. But Alexander now considered himself not king of Macedonia but emperor of Asia, and successor of Darius, the King of Kings. They had supposed that he would give them the continent to plunder as a carcass; that they would have nothing to do but plunder and enjoy. There were disappointed and alarmed when they found that he was reappointing Persian gentlemen as satraps, everywhere treating the conquered people with indulgence, everywhere levying native troops. They were disgusted and alarmed when they saw him put on the tiara of the Great King, and the woman’s girdle, and the white and purple robe, and they burst into fierce wrath when he ordered that the ceremony of prostration should be performed in his presence as it had been in that of the Persian king.

In all this they saw only the presumption of a man intoxicated by success. But Alexander knew well that he could only govern an empire so immense by securing the allegiance of the Persian nobles; he knew that they would not respect him unless they were made to humble themselves before him after the manner of their country, and this they certainly would not do unless his own officers did the same. He therefore attempted to obtain the prostration of the Macedonians, and alleged as a pretext for so extraordinary a demand the oracle of Ammon—that he was the son of Jove.

It is possible, indeed, that he believed this himself, for his vanity amounted to madness. He could not endure a candid word, and was subject under wine and contradiction to fits of ungovernable rage. At Samarkand he murdered Clitus, who had insulted him grossly but who was his friend and associate, and who had saved his life. It was a drunken action, and his repentance was as violent as his wrath. For Alexander was a man of extremes: his magnanimity and his cruelty were without bounds. If he forgave it was right royally; if he punished he pounded to the dust and scattered to the winds. Yet with all his faults it is certain that he had some conception of the art of governing a great empire. Mr. Grote complains that "he had none of that sense of correlative right and obligation which characterised the free Greeks," but Mr. Grote describes Alexander too much from the Athenian point of view. In all municipalities, in all aristocratic bodies, in all corporate assemblies, in all robber communities, in all savage families or clans, the privileged members have a sense of correlative right and obligation. The real question is, how far and to what extent this feeling prevails outside the little circle of selfish reciprocity and mutual admiration. The Athenians did not include their slaves in their ideas of correlative right and obligation; nor their prisoners of war, when they passed a public decree to cut off all their thumbs, so that they might not be able to handle the pike, but might still be able to handle the oar; nor their allies, when they took their money and spent it all upon themselves. Alexander committed some criminal and despotic acts, but it was his noble idea to blot out the word "barbarian" from the vocabulary of the Greeks, and to amalgamate them with the Persians.

Mr Grote declares that Alexander intended to make Greece Persian, not Persia Greek. Alexander certainly intended to make Greece a satrapy, as it was afterwards made a Roman province. And where would have been the loss? The independence of the various Greek cities had at one time assisted the progress of the nation. But that time was past. Of late they had made use of their freedom only to indulge in civil war. All that was worthy of being preserved in Greece was its language and its culture, and to that Alexander was not indifferent. He sent thirty thousand Persian boys to school, and so laid the foundations of the sovereignty of Greek ideas. He behaved towards the conquered people not as a robber but as a sovereign. The wisdom of his policy is clearly proved by the praises of the Oriental writers and by the blame of the Greeks, who looked upon barbarians as a people destined by nature to be slaves. But had Alexander governed Persia as they desired, the land would have been in a continual state of insurrection, and it would have been impossible for him, even had he lived, to have undertaken new designs.

The story that he wept because there were no more worlds for him to conquer would seem to imply that after the conquest of the Persian empire there was nothing left for him in the way of war but to go out savage-hunting in the forests of Europe, the steppes of Tartary, or the deserts of Central Africa. However, there still remained a number of powerful and attractive states, even if we place China entirely aside as a land which could not be touched by the stream of events, however widely they might overflow.

Alexander no doubt often reflected to himself that after all he had only walked in the footsteps of other men. It was the genius of his father which had given him possession of Greece; it was the genius of the Persians which had planted the Asia that he had gathered. It is true that he had conquered the Persian empire more thoroughly than the Persians had ever been able to conquer it themselves. He had not left behind him a single rock fortress or forest den uncarried, a single tribe untamed. Yet still he had not been able to pass the frontiers which they had fixed. He had once attempted to do so and had failed. When he had reached the eastern river of the Punjab, or "Land of the Five Streams," he stood on the brink of the empire with the Himalayas on his left and before him a wide expanse of sand. Beyond that desert was a country which the Persians had never reached. There a river as mighty as the Indus took its course towards the sea through a land of surpassing beauty and enormous wealth. There ruled a king who rode on a white elephant, and who wore a mail coat composed entirely of precious stone; whose wives slept on a thousand silken mattresses and a thousand golden beds. The imagination of Alexander was inflamed by these glowing tales. He yearned to discover a new world, to descend upon a distant and unknown people like a god, to enter the land of diamonds and rubies, of gleaming and transparent robes—the India of the Indies, the romantic, and half-fabulous Bengal. But the soldiers were weary of collecting plunder which they could not carry, and refused to march. Alexander spent three days in his tent in an agony of anger and distress. He established garrisons on the banks of the Indus; there could be little doubt that some day or other he would resume his lost design.

There was one country which had sent him no ambassadors. It was Arabia Felix, situated at the mouth of the Red Sea, abounding in forests of those tearful trees which shed a yellow, fragrant gum grateful to the gods, burnt in their honour on all the altars of the world. Arabia was also enriched by the monopoly of the trade between Egypt and the coast of Malabar. It was filled with rich cities. It had never paid tribute to the Persians. On the land side it was protected by deserts and by wandering hordes who drank from hidden wells. But it could easily be approached by sea.

On the opposite side of the Arabian gulf lay Ethiopia, reputed to be the native land of gold, but chiefly attractive to a vain-glorious and emulative man from the fact that a Persian emperor had attempted its conquest and had failed. There was also Carthage, the great republic of the West, and there were rich silver-mines in Spain.

And can it be supposed that Alexander would remain content when he had not yet made the circuit of the Grecian world? Was there not Sicily, which Athens had attempted to conquer, and in vain? Rome had not yet become great, but the Italian city-states were already famed in war. Alexander’s uncle had invaded that country and had been beaten back. He declared that Alexander had fallen on the chamber of the women and he on the changer of the men. This sarcasm followed the conqueror into Central Asia, and was flung in his teeth by Clitus on that night of drunkenness and blood, every incident of which must have been continually present to his mind.

We might therefore fairly infer, even if we had no evidence to guide us, that Alexander did not consider his career accomplished. But in point of fact we do know that he had given orders to fit out a thousand ships-of-war; that he intended one fleet to attack Arabia from the Mediterranean Sea. He had already arranged a plan for connecting Egypt with his North African possession that were to be, and had he lived a few years longer the features of the world might have been changed. The Italians were unconquerable if united, but there was at that time no supreme city to unite them as they were afterwards united against Pyrrhus. It is at least not impossible that Alexander might have conquered Italy; that the peninsula might have become a land of independent cultivated cities like the Venice and Genoa and Florence of the Middle Ages; that Greek might have been established as the reigning language, and Latin remained a rustic dialect and finally died away. It is at all events certain that in a few more years Alexander would have made Carthage Greek, and that event alone would have profoundly influenced the career of Rome.

However, this was not to be. Alexander went out in a boat among the marshes in the neighbourhood of Babylon and caught a fever, the first symptoms of which appeared after a banquet which had been kept up all the night and the whole of the following day. At that time the Arabian expedition was prepared, and Nearchus the admiral was under sailing orders. Day after day the king continued to send for his officers to give orders, and to converse about his future plans. But the fever gradually increased, and while yet in the possession of his sense he was deprived of the power of speech. The physicians announced that there was no longer any hope.

And then were forgotten all the crimes and follies of which he had been guilty—his assumption of the honours of a god, the murder of his bosom friend. The Macedonian soldiers came in to him weeping to bid him the last farewell. He sat up and saluted them man by man as they marched past his bedside. When this last duty had been discharged he threw back his weary frame. He expired on the evening of the next day.

The night, the dark, murky night, came on. None dared light a lamp; the fires were extinguished. By the glimmering of the stars and the faint beams of the horned moon the young nobles of the household were seen wandering like maniacs through the town. On the roofs of their houses the Babylonians stood grave and silent, with folded hands and eyes turned towards heaven as if awaiting a supernatural event. High aloft in the air the trees of the hanging gardens waved their moaning boughs, and the daughters of Babylon sang the dirge of the dead. In that sorrowful hour the conquerors could not be distinguished from the conquered; the Persians lamented their just and merciful master; the Macedonians their greatest, bravest king. In an apartment of the palace an aged woman was lying on the ground; her hair was torn and dishevelled; a golden crown had fallen from her head. "Ah! Who will now protect my girls?" she said. Then, veiling her face and turning from her grand-daughters, who wept at her feet, she stubbornly refused both food and light. She who had survived Darius was unable to survive Alexander. In famine and darkness she sat, and on the fifth day she died.

Alexander’s body lay cold and stiff. The Egyptian and Chaldean embalmers were commanded to do their work. Yet long they gazed upon that awful corpse before they could venture to touch it with their hands. Placed in a golden coffin, shrouded in a bed of fragrant herbs, it remained two years at Babylon, and was then carried to Egypt to be buried in the oasis of Ammon. But Ptolemy stopped it on the road, and interred it at Alexandria in a magnificent temple, which he built for the purpose and surrounded with groves for the celebration of funereal rites and military games. Long afterwards, when the dominion of the Macedonians had passed away, there came Roman emperors who gazed upon that tomb with reverence and awe. The golden coffin had been sold by a degenerate Ptolemy, and had been changed for one of glass through which the body could be seen. Augustus placed upon it a nosegay and crown. Septimus Severus had the coffin sealed up in a vault. Then came the savage Caracalla, who had massacred half Alexandria because he did not like the town. He ordered the vault to be opened and the coffin to be exposed, and all feared that some act of sacrilege would be committed. But those august remains could touch the better feelings which existed even in a monster’s heart. He took off his purple robe, his imperial ornaments, all that he had of value on his person, and laid them reverently upon the tomb.

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