In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

alexanderThis is a superb presentation which has, nevertheless, some flaws. Segment one, which tells the story of Alexander’s youth and the launch of the great expedition, gives due credit to Alexander’s father, Philip II, as strategist and politician, but fails to mention that Philip planned the expedition to conquer Persia, raised an army and its supply lines and had a route mapped out. He was murdered just before he was due to leave Macedonia. Alexander was able to move so quickly because the work had been already prepared by Philip. Wood gives the impression that Persia was Alexander’s idea. Wood also fails to emphasise enough Alexander’s rivalry with Philip. A brilliant and commanding personality, Alexander spent his youth being eclipsed by his father’s achievements, and it made him furious to excel Philip. This rivalry was cultivated by his mother Olympias, who had been set aside by Philip and would not accept it. The murder of Philip was most likely organised by Olympias, with Alexander’s connivance.

Segment two, which deals with the conquest of Darius, fails to mention that Darius was an usurper who did not command the allegiance of his nobles and their forces. An ambitious eunuch removed the legitimate heir and used Darius, who was of the royal house and of an impressive appearance, as a pawn through whom he could rule the empire. This was not accepted by the nobles, and if Alexander had not come it is likely the empire would have broken up in civil wars unless another Darius the Great had emerged. This explains why the Persian army was so ineffective, with whole divisions not engaging or deserting during combat. Alexander was fighting an already beaten enemy. These two instances lessen Alexander’s achievement but make it much more understandable.

Segments three and four, on the circuit of the empire and arrival at India, return and death, are more of a travelogue, recounting surviving folklore in a leisurely way while reflecting on the possible collapse of Alexander’s character through excess. It gave me the feeling that Wood was running out of steam, filling up his allotted time with lesser material. It is true there is less source material available for this section of Alexander’s career.

On the positive side Wood illuminates Alexander’s deeds and character by experiencing the same terrain as Alexander did, and in some instances is able to shed light on Alexander’s actions. Wood is, as always, scholarly, and engaging, prompting audience involvement.

As a whole the documentary reinforces the myth of Alexander the great general and inspiring leader which was promulgated by his successors, while highlighting aspects of it less known to western audiences. It’s a populist, and amazing, travelogue. For some reason Wood refers to Hercules (the Roman god) throughout, not Herakles (the Greek god).

Alexander? A spoiled boy with a megalomania fostered by his unscrupulous mother, he was able to steal the achievements of Philip, a military and political genius of the calibre of Julius Caesar, by taking advantage of his murder. Then, fortuitously, he was able to take the Persian Empire away from an usurper who could not have held it. He is famous because he was a prime example for Christian moralists of the futility of human ambition by having conquered the world and then dying at 32. Debate is endless as to what his policies were or if he had any. Those who see his empire as a significant cross fertilisation between east and west with implications for all later histories are perhaps ignoring the effects of trading activities in these areas, which might have done as much in Alexander’s absence.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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