What Made Alexander So Great?

Philip (played by Val Kilmer in the movie) was an extremely successful general, and his victories in Macedonia and Greece created a solid foundation for what would become Alexander's empire. But Philip was easier to get along with.

"Philip is a sort of Lyndon Johnson-y type or Clinton-y type; he's a glad-hander," said Carney. "The kid is stiffer, not so much one of the boys, more humorless."

Alexander was very much a product of the Homeric world of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." "He is very much compelled by the desire to be a hero in the way that heroes were in Homer," she said.

Alexander's own personal hero was Achilles, the Greek warrior who is invincible until one lucky Trojan finds the weak spot on his heel. Alexander claimed descent from both Achilles and Herakles (known as Hercules to the Romans).

"He emulates both heroes, and he takes this heroic emulation much further than anyone else had," Carney said.

Alexander experienced some kind of epiphany during a visit to the shrine of the god Zeus-Amon in the Egyptian desert. "I think he really did believe he could become a god by the remarkableness of his accomplishments," Carney said. "I think it's possible that he believed himself to be the son of Zeus-Amon."

The Relationship Question

Whether or not he believed he had a divine dad, Alexander was certainly influenced by the strength of his mortal mother, Olympias.

"She was one tough cookie," said Carney, who is working on a book about her. "She certainly kills a few people."

After Philip's death, someone disposed of his baby daughter and the child's mother. That someone was probably Olympias, who would have wanted to rid her son of some potential rivals. "Lots of people think killing the baby is mean and nasty, but it's clearing off the dynastic ranks," said Carney. "All the deaths we know her to be responsible for are for political reasons."

In the new movie, Angelina Jolie plays Olympias as a power-hungry woman who will stop at nothing to turn her son against his father. At 29, the actress is all of a year older than her on-screen son. Since snakes were prominent in the religious rituals the queen practiced, Jolie had to film scenes with serpents writhing at her feet or winding around her neck.

There's been some controversy over the movie's treatment of Alexander's relationship with best friend Hephaestion (played by Jared Leto, wearing gobs of eyeliner). Some have been angered by the film's suggestions of a sexual relationship between the two men -- which almost certainly existed. Others think it should have been more explicit: While there's plenty of innuendo about Alexander's interest in men, his only sex scene is with a woman.

Whether Alexander was gay, straight or bisexual shouldn't be an issue, scholars say, because the ancient Greeks just didn't think that way.

"You have to remember that ancient conceptions of sexuality don't map exactly onto ours, and you could have loving, even sexual, relationships with persons of the opposite sex and persons of the same sex," said Martin.

Scholars think Alexander was probably married three times, mostly for political reasons. He also had a longtime mistress named Barsine (who isn't in the movie). He had two young sons, neither of whom survived him very long. But Carney thinks Alexander was always more interested in military conquest than in sex of any sort.

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