Monday, February 28, 2011

Will Cuppy Tonight: "Alexander the Great" (from "The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody")


"[Aristotle] taught that the brain exists merely to cool the blood and is not involved in the process of thinking. This is true only of certain persons. . . .

"Alexander seldom killed his close friends unless he was drunk, and he always had a good cry afterwards. He was always weeping about something."

-- Will Cuppy, in "Alexander the Great"


Alexander III of Macedonia was born in 356 B.C., on the sixth day of the month of Lous.1 He is known as Alexander the Great because he killed more people of more different kinds than any other man of his time.2 He did this in order to impress Greek culture upon them. Alexander was not strictly a Greek and he was not cultured, but that was his story, and who am I to deny it?3

Alexander's father was Philip II of Macedonia. Philip was a man of broad vision. He drank a good deal and had eight wives. He subdued the Greeks after they had knocked themselves out in the Peloponnesian War and appointed himself Captain General so that he could uphold the ideals of Hellas. The main ideal of Hellas was to get rid of Philip, but he didn't count that one. He was assassinated in 336 B.C. by a friend of his wife Olympias.4

Olympias, the mother of Alexander, was slightly abnormal. She was an Epirote. She kept so many sacred snakes in her bedroom that Philip was afraid to go home after his drinking bouts.5 She told Alexander that his real father was Zeus Ammon, or Amon, a Graeco-Egyptian god in the form of a snake. Alexander made much of this and would sit up all night boasting about it.6 He once executed thirteen Macedonians for saying that he was not the son of a serpent.

As a child Alexander was like most other children, if you see what I mean. He had blue eyes, curly red hair, and a pink-and-white complexion, and he was small for his age. At twelve he tamed Bucephalus, his favorite horse. In the same year he playfully pushed Nectanebo, a visiting astronomer, into a deep pit and broke his neck while he was lecturing on the stars. It has never been entirely proved that Alexander shoved the old man. The fact remains that they were standing by the pit and all of a sudden Nectanebo wasn't there any more.

For three years, until he was sixteen, Alexander was educated by Aristotle, who seems to have avoided pits and the edges of roofs. Aristotle was famous for knowing everything. He taught that the brain exists merely to cool the blood and is not involved in the process of thinking. This is true only of certain persons. He also said that the sheatfish is subject to sunstroke because it swims too near the surface of the water. I doubt it. In spite of his vast reputation, Aristotle was not a perfect instructor of youth. He had a tendency to wander, in the classroom and elsewhere. He didn't keep his eye on the ball.

With a teacher like that, one's values might well become warped. On the other hand, even Aristotle couldn't help some people.7 As soon as he had finished reading the Nicomachean Ethics, Alexander began killing right and left. He exterminated the Theban Sacred Band at the Battle of Chaeronea while his father was still alive, and then got some fine practice killing Thracians, Illyrians, and such others as he could find around home.8

He was now ready for his real career, so he decided to go to Asia where there were more people and more of a variety. After killing a few relatives who might have claimed the throne,9 he declared war on Persia and crossed the Hellespont to spread Hellenic civilization. The Greeks were embarrassed about this, but they couldn't stop him. They just had to grin and bear it.

Asia proved to be a regular paradise. In no time at all Alexander had killed Medes, Persians, Pisidians, Cappadocians, Paphlagonians, and miscellaneous Mesopotamians.10 One day he would bag some Galatians, the next he would have to be content with a few Armenians. Later, he got Bactrians, Sogdians, Arachosians, and some rare Uxians. Even then, an Uxian, dead or alive, was a collector's item.11

Alexander put an end to the Persian Empire by defeating Darius in three important battles. This Darius was not the Darius, but only Darius Codomannus, or Darius III, who had been placed on the throne by Bagoas, a eunuch.12 Bagoas had poisoned Artaxerxes III and his son Arses and had in turn been poisoned by Darius, just to be on the safe side.13 Darius was easy to defeat because you could always count on his doing exactly the wrong thing. Then he would whip up his horses and try to escape in his slow-motion chariot. He did this once too often.

The Persian army was all out of date. It relied chiefly upon the Kinsmen, who were allowed to kiss the King, and the Apple Bearers, or royal guard, who had golden apples on the handles of their spears. Darius believed that if he kept adding more Apple Bearers to his army the Persian Empire would never fall. But life is not like that. Apple Bearers are all right, if you know where to stop. After a certain point is reached, however, the law of diminishing returns sets in and you simply have too many Apple Bearers.

Darius also had chariots armed with scythes on each side for mowing down his enemies. These did not work out, since Alexander and his soldiers refused to go and stand in front of the scythes. Darius had overlooked the facts that scythed chariots are effective only against persons who have lost the power of locomotion and that such persons are more likely to be home in bed than fighting battles in Asia.

Alexander's best men were his Companions, or heavy cavalry, and his Phalangites, or improved Hoplites, who composed the Macedonian phalanx. There was some doubt about what the Hypaspists were expected to do. They acted as Peltasts at times and they could always run errands. Alexander never advanced without covering his rear. The Persians never bothered about that, and you see what happened to them.

At the Battle of Issus, Alexander captured Darius' wife and two daughters and the royal harem of 360 concubines14 and 400 eunuchs. He snubbed the harem, as did his inseparable friend and roommate Hephaestion, but the soldiers obtained many beautiful rugs. Alexander's project more than paid for itself, for he acquired valuables worth 160,000 Persian talents, or $280,000,000, in the cities of Susa and Persepolis alone. Unfortunately, much of this was stolen by Harpalus, a cultured Greek serving as imperial treasurer.

Alexander spent the next nine years fighting more battles, marching and countermarching, killing people at random, and robbing their widows and orphans.15 He soon grew tired of impressing Greek culture upon the Persians and attempted to impress Persian culture upon the Greeks. In an argument about this, he killed his friend Clitus, who had twice saved his life in battle. Then he wept for forty-eight hours. Alexander seldom killed his close friends unless he was drunk, and he always had a good cry afterwards.16 He was always weeping about something.17

Bucephalus died of old age and overwork in India, and the soldiers, who thought the whole business was nonsense, refused to march any farther.18 Three fourths of the soldiers died of starvation while returning through the Gedrosian Desert, but some of them finally got back to Susa and broke training. At this point Alexander and Hephaestion felt it was time to stop fooling around and get married, and they decided to marry sisters, so that their children would be cousins. Wasn't that romantic?

The girls they chose were Statira and Drypetis, the daughters of Darius, who had been waiting around ever since the old Issus days nine years before. I never heard how these marriages turned out. All of Alexander's biographers say that his nature was cool, if not perfectly frigid.19 He is said to have sinned occasionally, but he never quite got the hang of it. He was not unattractive, if you care for undersized blonds.20 His physique was reported to
 be all right, what there was of it.21 I have found no description of if Hephaestion's looks, but I gather he was tall, dark, and handsome.

Nothing much happened after the doings at Susa. Hephaestion died a few months later of drink and fever. Alexander passed away in Babylon from the same causes in the following year, 324 B.C. He was not quite thirty-three, and he had been away from home eleven years. He might have lived longer if he had not crucified his physician for failing to cure Hephaestion. Well, it was fun while it lasted.

Alexander's death left Macedonia rather at sixes and sevens. Roxana, Alexander's Bactrian wife, had Statira and Hephaestion's widow murdered and thrown down a well, and Sisygambis starved herself to death. Olympias executed Alexander's illegitimate and feeble-minded half brother Arrhidaeus and forced his wife to hang herself. Cassander executed Olympias, others murdered others, and it was all quite a mess.

Alexander's empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he had killed were still dead. He accomplished nothing very constructive.22 True, he cut the Gordian Knot instead of untying it according to the rules. This was a silly thing to do, but the Gordian Knot itself was pretty silly. He also introduced eggplant into Europe.

Just what this distressing young man thought he was doing, and why, I really can't say. I doubt if he could have clarified the subject to any appreciable extent. He had a habit of knitting his brows. And no wonder.
1 That is what the Macedonians called the month of Hecatombaeon, Plutarch says, and he ought to know.
2 Professor F. A. Wright, in his Alexander the Great, goes so far as to call him "the greatest man that the human race has as yet produced."
3 He spoke what was known as Attic Greek.
4 After Philip's death, Olympias had one of his wives boiled alive. Shows what she thought of her.
5 Having real snakes at home does an alcoholic no good. It just complicates matters.
6 He got so that he believed it himself.
7 Some years later, when Aristotle asked his former pupil to find out what caused the rising of the Nile, Alexander answered correctly, stating that it was caused by rain. This pleased Aristotle very much,
 as he had worried about it for years and had almost given up in despair.
8 The Thebans were only Boeotians, generally regarded as oafs. Plutarch, however, denies this with some heat. Plutarch was a Boeotian.
9 He had also connived at the liquidation of Philip.
10 "He boldly proclaimed the brotherhood of man." -- F. A. Wright
11 The Uxians, or Huxians, may have been the ancestors of the Loories.
12 The name Bagoas is a shortened form of Bagadata, meaning Given by God. It was often applied to eunuchs for reasons I have been unable to check.
13 Xerxes I was poisoned by the eunuch Aspamithres. Eunuchs were widely employed as royal advisers, as they had more time to think.
14 Among the Persians, sixty or any multiple of sixty was regarded as lucky.
15 He was often extremely brutal to his captives, whom he sold into slavery, tortured to death, or forced to learn Greek.
16 He evened an old score by hanging the historian Callisthenes, a grandnephew of Aristotle. Callisthenes refused to prostrate himself in the Persian fashion, then Alexander refused to kiss him, and things went from bad to worse.
17 Alexander did not conquer the world, by any means, since he had never been in Italy, Gaul, or Spain, to mention a few places. He might have spared the tears about that.
18 Alexander had always been kind to Bucephalus, after whom he named a city. He named another after his dog Veritas and seventeen after himself.
19 "From the weaknesses of the flesh, to which many great men have been subject, he was almost entirely immune." — F. A. Wright
20 There is probably no truth in that story about Alexander and Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons. Still, Thalestris usually got her own way.
21 He is said to have smelled like violets. I heard different.
22 But see F. A. Wright on Alexander s work "above all as an apostle of world peace."

TOMORROW in WILL CUPPY TONIGHT: "Own Your Own Snake" (from How to Become Extinct)

THURBER TONIGHT (including BENCHLEY TONIGHT and WILL CUPPY TONIGHT): Check out the series to date

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