What Made Alexander So Great?

Caesar crossed the Rubicon. Napoleon had a good run before he met his Waterloo. But when it comes to capturing the popular imagination, they can't hold a candle to Alexander the Great.

"When you look at the imagination that was necessary to be Alexander, the effect he had on other people's imaginations -- he was head and shoulders above them," said Thomas R. Martin, author of "Ancient Greece."

"Alexander is a legend, but he's not a myth. He's real. What he did -- for better or worse -- shows in the starkest and most exciting terms the lack of limits of human possibility."

One of the most successful (and some would say the most successful) military commanders of all time, Alexander has been inspiring would-be conquerors for centuries. He's been immortalized in story and song. The latest movie version of his life, Oliver Stone's epic "Alexander," opens today with Irish bad boy Colin Farrell (sporting a bad blond dye job) as the Greek hero who never lost a battle.

"He has no failures," said Elizabeth Carney, a history professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. "That's the glamour -- he's the invincible, the unconquered one."

Braving the Unknown

Alexander is a pretty hot property these days. When Stone got the green light for his film, Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge") was planning his own Alexander picture, with Leonardo DiCaprio tapped to play the conqueror. (That project has now been pushed back.)

The accomplishments of Alexander still sound pretty impressive today: Born in 356 B.C., he became king of Macedonia when he was 20 years old, on the assassination of his father, Philip II. Not long after, he set out in search of glory and had conquered most of the known world by the time of his death in 323 B.C., just before his 33rd birthday.

"He starts in Greece, crosses over what is today Turkey, gets down into today's Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Then he heads off into Iraq, which was just as dangerous then as it is today," said Martin, the Jeremiah O'Connor Professor in Classics at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. "Not only did he get past Iraq, he got into Iran, and he kept going."

He made it as far as the Indus River, in what is now Pakistan, before his troops demanded they turn back. This is especially impressive, says Martin, because he was taking a leap of faith into the virtually unknown.

"In Alexander's day, people lived in a world that was conceptually different from ours in the 21st century," he said. "We know the world is a globe, we've seen maps, we have a geographic picture. They didn't."

Some latter-day Alexander admirers have posited that the Macedonian set out to bring Hellenistic culture to the rest of world, or to spread Greek ideals of democracy.

Not a chance, says Carney, author of "Women and Monarchy in Ancient Macedonia."

"He was an absolute monarch," she said. "He's conquering to conquer, which is pretty much what conquerors do."

Good Guy, Bad Guy, Divine Guy?

In fact, some modern scholars consider Alexander an imperialist who committed atrocities as he battled his way east. Others contend he was comparatively humane for a warrior of his time.

Carney sees Alexander as "scary."

"I'm not sure that he was unusually bad. I'm not saying he was an evil person. I'm saying he was a scarier person than his father," she said.

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