By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Every summer I have to reorganize my bookshelves. Over the course of the school year I acquire a huge number of new texts; and it has become increasingly difficult to find space for all of them. Consequently, I have had to go through my old books and novels to see what I can donate to local thrift shops and churches in order to clear up some room. During one of these summer cleanings, I found one of my favorite childhood books about Alexander the Great. I have vivid memories of reading this book while my dad drove me to elementary school. Even though I have always gotten carsick when reading in the car, I still powered through in this case because I was so enraptured by Alexander’s story. The illustrations in this book set my mind on fire, and I couldn’t help but daydream about images of Alexander the Great’s historic fight with the Persian Empire, his friendship with his reliable steed Bucephalus, and his ultimate mission to become the king of Asia.
As a junior in college, I have had the opportunity to study a huge swath of topics. Furthermore, as a classics major specifically, I have been able to take courses on some of my favorite ancient Greek and Roman poets (Horace and Virgil, for example) and some of the most exciting figures from ancient times. This past semester, I was fortunate enough to take a class entirely devoted to the discussion of Alexander the Great. Although I already knew a lot about his life, this course revealed his lasting impact on literature, culture, and religion all over the world.
Alexander the III of ancient Macedon was born in the year 356 B.C. to King Phillip II of Macedon and Queen Olympias, who was born in Epirus, Greece. Because he lived so long ago, many reliable sources that could tell us about his life have been lost. However, the 2nd century A.D. historian named Arrian wrote the Anabasis of Alexander, which is one of the most reliable sources we have to gain some insight into the world of Alexander. We do know for sure that he took the throne when he was just 20 years old, following the assassination of his father. He wasted no time in beginning a campaign to fight the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire, which was at the height of its power. Years before, the Persians had invaded mainland Greece, and Alexander wanted to do away with the threat they posed. Additionally, Alexander had the higher aspirations of becoming the king of all Asia. At that time, he could not have been certain of what Asia consisted of, but he knew that he at least wanted to conquer everything up to and including India.
With the help of Macedonian and Greek soldiers, Alexander traversed some of the roughest terrain in the world to defeat the Persian Empire, which was led by the infamous King Darius III. One by one, Alexander overthrew the Persian leaders in every city and town he came across. He either established one of his own men to rule over these subjugated areas, or allowed a Persian to continue ruling—if they swore allegiance to him. Alexander also adopted several customs from the Persians, to make his ascent to power less harsh. Ultimately, his army succeeded in defeating the Persian Empire, and he soon moved on to conquer areas further east.
It would take volumes to delve into all the triumphs of Alexander, which is all the more impressive since he died at a very young age (32). His legacy, however, still remains relevant over 2,000 years since his death. First of all, he presided over one of the largest empires in history and is still to this day regarded as one of the most intelligent and successful military leaders to have ever lived. His settlement of Greek colonists all over his empire led to a huge spread of Greek culture, which resulted in the start of the Hellenistic period, lasting from the time of Alexander to the beginning of the Roman Empire. Greek became the common language of speaking and trade until the 15th century A.D.
Additionally, stories of Alexander the Great are featured not only in Greek texts, but in several languages. This tradition is called the Alexander Romance. A very popular text, The Greek Alexander Romance, suggests that Alexander was part divine, fathered by an Egyptian wizard named Nectanebo. Josephus, an extremely popular Romano-Jewish historian, also wrote about the legendary Alexander the Great. Alexander also appears in the Quran, Surah 18, as the protector of the gates guarding Gog and Magog, who will be released at the end of the world. He also appears in Syriac, Ethiopic, and Malay Alexander romances.
Alexander remains popular in today’s modern media, such as movies and TV shows. In Alexander (2004) actors Collin Farrell and Angelina Jolie relate his story to a modern audience. An anime called Reign: The Conqueror was released in the late ‘90s as a tribute to him as well. It is amazing how the legacy of one man can traverse endless countries, legends, and languages for thousands of years.
Although some people have trouble understanding why I would choose to be a classics major, the story of Alexander the Great proves that classics is a worthwhile field of study. It also shows that even though human history has been comprised of a plethora of different significant figures and cultures, so many of them are connected. Aristotle, the tutor of Alexander, proposed a system of ethics that would be adopted by the church over a thousand years later; however, it would have been impossible for Christianity to spread the way it did had Alexander not paved the way for the Roman Empire, and later the Holy Roman Empire. It is very important to study the past because there is no doubt of it’s influence on cultures and media in ways that are still relevant today.
Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos is a graduate of the Brearley School and, currently, a Dana Scholar majoring in classics and philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross. She is a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper, The Spire, associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer. Anastasia has contributed to WestView News since 2018.