King Alexandros III of Makedonia, or, as he is more commonly known today, “Alexander the Great,” still looms large in our history books and in popular culture, where he is often portrayed as a benevolent ruler and a glorious conqueror, spreading the light of Greek civilization to the supposedly barbarous peoples of the east. In Greece today, Alexander is widely revered as a national hero.
Nonetheless, we must wonder why it is that Alexander is portrayed as such a glorious conqueror; whereas other historical figures known for their conquests, such as Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, are remembered as ruthless barbarians and destroyers of civilization.
As many readers have doubtlessly already suspected, the primary reason why Alexander the Great is seen in a positive light while Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun are seen in a starkly negative light is indeed western bias. The traditional view that Attila and Genghis Khan were ruthless barbarians hellbent on destroying civilization and that Alexander was a benevolent conqueror who wanted the best for all peoples is not accurate. The people who still promote this view are operating under western, Eurocentric assumptions.
Contrary to the impression you may have gotten from popular culture, the peoples of the Achaemenid Empire were, in fact, highly sophisticated. They had great cities, great works of art, and even great works of philosophy and literature. Indeed, the civilizations of the ancient Near East were far older than the civilization of the Greeks.
Living under the rule of the Achaemenid Empire at the time of Alexander the Great were the Persians, the Medes, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Jews, the Phoenicians, and countless other peoples whose achievements are well known. Indeed, there were even some Greeks who were still living under the rule of Achaemenid Empire at the time.
ABOVE: Second-century AD Roman marble copy of a fourth-century BC Greek bust of Herodotos, identified as him by the inscription. Herodotos had a great deal of praise for the accomplishments of the Persians and the Egyptians.
Although there were certainly many people who did not enjoy living under the Achaemenids, especially in places such as Egypt, most of the people living under the rule of the Achaemenid Empire in Alexander’s time were living relatively happily. Furthermore, compared to pretty much any other ancient empire, the Achaemenid Persians were actually extraordinarily tolerant towards the various peoples living under their rule.
As I always say, it was never fun being conquered in the ancient world, but, if you had to pick an ancient empire to conquer you, the Achaemenid Persians would probably be your first choice. Generally speaking, as long as the people they ruled acknowledged the Achaemenid king as their supreme ruler and paid regular tribute to him, the Achaemenid Persians let them keep their culture, their language, their religion, their traditions, their national identity, and sometimes even their government. Although, like all ancient empires, the Achaemenids were capable of brutality, their usual policy was one of mercy.
Then Alexander came along with his armies and destroyed that empire, slaughtering thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—in the process, including many civilians. To give just one chilling example of Alexander’s brutality, according to the first-century AD Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus in his Histories of Alexander the Great, after Alexander conquered the city of Tyre in Phoenicia in July 332 BC, he executed 6,000 Tyrians, then had an additional 2,000 Tyrians crucified along the beach. He sold nearly all the remaining Tyrian civilians (i.e. around 30,000 people, mostly women and children) into slavery.
Alexander’s conquests almost certainly resulted in at least as many deaths as Attila’s notoriously bloody rampage through Italy. (I will not compare Alexander’s body count to Genghis Khan’s, though; suffice it to say Genghis Khan definitely killed far more people than Alexander.) Nonetheless, the devastation and bloodshed that Alexander’s campaigns wreaked is frequently glossed over in popular culture and people like to imagine him as leading a series of predominately bloodless conquests. This was hardly the case.
Historical figures like Attila and Genghis Khan only seem like savage barbarians if we look at them from an outsider’s perspective. From the perspective of the Hun or the Mongols, they were glorious conquerors—just like Alexander is from our western perspective. Likewise, Alexander only seems like a glorious conqueror because we view him from a western perspective. If we stop and look at Alexander from the point of view of the peoples he conquered, he stops looking so much like a “glorious conqueror.”
ABOVE: Illustration from the book The Illustrated History of the World for the English People, published in 1881, intended to represent Alexander the Great at the Siege of Tyre
Superficially likable attributes of Alexander
Eurocentrism is not the only reason why Alexander is so revered, however. Even in many eastern countries, Alexander is widely revered as a great leader and military commander. If admiration for Alexander were an exclusively western phenomenon, this would not be the case. In my view, there are also at least two other reasons why Alexander the Great is generally better regarded today than similarly brutal conquerors such as Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun.
The first of these is because people are incredibly superficial and there are a lot of superficial reasons why Alexander seems more likable than Genghis Khan or Attila. For instance, unlike Attila or Genghis Khan, Alexander was young and handsome at the time of his conquests. Also very much unlike the other two, Alexander was of wealthy birth, highly educated, and steeped in the ancient Greek literary tradition.
ABOVE: Detail of the iconic first-century AD Roman mosaic of Alexander in the Battle of the Issos from the House of the Faun in Pompeii
There is no denying that Alexander was something of a prodigy. He was only twenty years old when he became king of Makedonia. He conquered the entire Achaemenid Empire in less than a decade before he died at the young age of thirty-two. All surviving accounts describe him as very handsome and all his surviving portraits portray him as such.
Furthermore, Alexander grew up as the son and heir of King Philippos II of Makedonia. Consequently, he always had the best of everything: the best armor, the best clothes, the best food, etc. Growing up, he received a first-class education and was tutored by none other than the great philosopher Aristotle (lived 384 – 322 BC). He was also a lover of literature. He especially loved the Iliad and reportedly kept a personal copy of it given to him by Aristotle, with all Aristotle’s annotations, and carried it with him wherever he went.
Read more: dazed of the past wow
ABOVE: Illustration from 1866 by Charles Laplant depicting the young Alexander being tutored by Aristotle
Attila and Genghis Khan, by contrast, were both born into nomadic tribes. They both grew up in what Alexander would have almost certainly regarded as poverty. It is unlikely that either of them ever received anything resembling a formal education. Furthermore, they were both older and not-so-attractive when they led their conquests.
As shameful as it may be for us to admit, people in general have a fascinating tendency to admire people who are young, handsome, rich, and highly educated. We certainly tend to admire them a great deal more than we admire people who are older, less attractive, born of lower social status, and less educated.
When we take this into account, it makes a lot of sense why so many people admire Alexander more than they admire Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan. Alexander, in a sense, is sort of like the “cool kid” at every high school; people admire Alexander because they envy him and want to be him. Not many people, on the other hand, want to be Attila the Hun.
ABOVE: The most accurate surviving portrait of Genghis Khan, which was made over a generation after his death under the supervision of his grandson
Widespread pro-Alexander propaganda
The third reason why Alexander the Great is remembered more fondly than Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan is because Alexander and his successors were masters of propaganda. During his own lifetime, Alexander understood the importance of controlling the historical narrative. He had the professional historian Kallisthenes of Olynthos, the grandnephew of Aristotle, follow him around everywhere and write a detailed account of all his deeds and accomplishments.
Kallisthenes, of course, portrayed Alexander extremely positively and praised him in almost hagiographic terms. Multiple of Alexander’s generals later went on to write accounts of Alexander’s campaigns as well, which likewise portrayed him in a strongly positive light, praising him for his charisma, his strategic genius, his courage, and his leadership.
Alexander and his successors also flooded the Hellenistic world with images of Alexander, all of them portraying him as the handsome young conqueror, a benevolent despot, godlike in majesty. Alexander minted coins with his own face on them—something few Greek monarchs had ever done before. His successors commissioned statues and sculptures depicting him and scenes of his exploits.
Furthermore, Alexander’s successors kept minting coins with his name and image on them, even long after his death. For people living in the Hellenistic world, Alexander became the iconic king simply because he was the king whose name and image were everywhere.
ABOVE: Coin of Alexander the Great dating to between c. 333 and c. 327 BC, depicting Alexander’s face on the obverse, minted during his reign
ABOVE: Marble statue of Alexander the Great from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, dating to the late fourth century BC, within a few decades of Alexander’s death
ABOVE: Depiction of Alexander defeating a group of Persians from the Alexander Sarcophagus, dating to within a few decades of Alexander’s death
Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, on the other hand, did not have professional historians following them around everywhere, writing glowing accounts of their adventures and exploits. Instead, our accounts of their lives come mainly from their enemies, who, needless to say, portrayed them negatively as ruthless barbarians.
Furthermore, neither of them ever produced any images of themselves. We have no surviving portraits of Attila the Hun and our only surviving description of his physical appearance is second-hand. For Genghis Khan, the earliest and most accurate portrait we have of him was made over a generation after his death under his grandson’s supervision.
To be clear, I am not saying that Attila and Genghis Khan were not brutal; there is no denying that, even if the most horrifying tales about them are exaggerated, they both certainly massacred a lot of people. What I am saying, though, is that Alexander, the man we call “the Great,” unfortunately falls into a similar category of violent conqueror.
We should regard Alexander neither as a benevolent conqueror nor as an inhuman monster, but rather as an exceedingly flawed human being whose actions have made an indelible mark on our history. He was extraordinarily arrogant and he could be insanely brutal at times, but he was also a strategic genius, a founder of several dozen cities across the Near East, and a patron of the arts.
We cannot deny one aspect of Alexander’s life while affirming the other. You cannot have Alexander the military mastermind without Alexander the slaughterer of thousands. You cannot have Alexander the founder of cities without Alexander the destroyer of cities.
Believe me, it is harder for me to accept Alexander as the ruthless man he was than anyone; after all, I am literally named after him. Growing up, I will admit that, though I did not know much about him, I could not help but admire him. I even did a project about him in my seventh grade social studies class where I dressed up as him and gave a presentation about his life. Now, as an adult, I still find some qualities to admire in Alexander, but I also see his faults.