Dr Paul Cartledge on Alexander the Great’s Tomb, Netflix & More

A discussion on Alexander the Great, the recent Netflix docudrama, his tomb, and more with Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge.

Feb 13, 2024By Richard Marranca, PhD & MA World Literature, B Art History with Film

paul cartledge alexander the great interview


Is Netflix’s docudrama Alexander: Making of a God (2024-) an accurate representation of Alexander the Great? Where is Alexander’s tomb, and will it ever be found? What was his relationship with Hephaestion? Professor Paul Cartledge* one of the most renowned scholars of ancient Greece and author of one of the most popular biographies of Alexander, answers these and more questions in an interview with Richard Marranca.

*Paul Cartledge is the inaugural A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge and the Hellenic Parliament Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. He is an honorary citizen of modern Sparta and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honor awarded by the President of Greece. He has published more than twenty books, including Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past and Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander (co-editor).


“Most of today’s complainers assume that the truth of what Alexander was, is clear, unambiguous, well documented, and agreed. Alas — it is not, not by a long chalk.” 


Professor Paul Cartledge


Hello Dr. Cartledge, you have written one of the most popular biographies of Alexander the Great and edited a collection of responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander. Mr. Stone also visited you at Cambridge University. Netflix’s Alexander: The Making of a God is receiving a lot of attention. What do you think of this six-part docudrama? 


Not much! I am, in a way, up to a point, sorry to say that I agree with most of the — highly negative — comments presented on IMDB. However, as a historian myself, not of 21st-century filmography but of 4th-century BCE ancient Greek history, I must issue one caveat: most of today’s complainers assume that the truth, the actuality, of how/what Alexander was, is clear, unambiguous, well documented, and agreed. Alas — it is not, not by a long chalk.


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One reason why I subtitled my own Alexander book ‘the hunt for a new past’ is that, given the parlous state of our current and likely future evidence, the hunt goes on and must go on. But the holy grail of ‘the truth’ about Alexander is just that: a mythic prize never to be attained. Because of that, but not only because of that, we all — including myself – fabricate the Alexander of our dreams or nightmares. Not unreasonably, therefore, the search for the historical Alexander has been likened to, even equated with, that for the historical Jesus (equally poorly attested, historically speaking).


For many Greeks, in his lifetime, Alexander was indeed regarded — and worshipped — as a god: in that regard at least, the Netflix series gets it right. However, what a living or dead ‘god’ meant to his ancient worshippers is not something a series such as this can even begin to answer.


Do you like docu-dramas? Do they do justice to the subject? With a feature film, the story has a chance to boil at many points — the story’s arc. 

Source: IMDB


I do not like docu-dramas one little bit. Historically-based movies or TV series, yes, some, but very, very few. Oliver Stone’s much re-cut and re-edited Alexander failed to satisfy me, not in its very worthy intentions but in its ineffectual realization of them. Documentary is, in principle, fine. Ditto drama. Mixing up the two? Not such a good idea, and in this particular practice of it, pretty ghastly. I don’t even much like documentaries — whether presenter-led or talking-heads — that include snatches of supposedly authentic ‘dramatization’. Yes, the viewer can indeed learn a lot from the scholarly interventions in the Netflix docu-drama, but those could be presented more forcefully in another, more appropriate, and more educationally informative format.


“What fascinates me most is his exorbitant, possibly unique leadership quality both on and off the battlefield. How was it that he never lost a major battle?”


“The Alexander Mosaic” depicting the Battle of Issus, Naples Archaeological Museum, discovered in Pompeii. Source: Wikimedia Commons


What fascinates you about Alexander the Great? 


Where to begin and end? The sheer scale of his achievements, what the Romans called his res gestae (things accomplished), both in his life and, not least, in his afterlife. Dying young helped. The inordinately ambitious Julius Caesar, one of his many would-be emulators, is said to have wept when he contemplated the fact that at the age Alexander died, 32, he, Caesar, had achieved nothing by comparison.


Almost as breathtakingly astonishing as his actual deeds is his myth and legend. He has been featured in over 70 national literatures. He was not only worshipped by pre-Christian, pagan Greeks as a god but also became the equivalent of a saint in the Egyptian Christian Coptic church, an honorary Persian king worthy of inclusion in the Qu’ran. Even Jews have wanted to have their piece of him, inventing the wholly fictitious scenario of an encounter in Jerusalem between him and the High Priest.


As to the ‘real’, historically authentic Alexander, what fascinates me most is his exorbitant, possibly unique leadership quality both on and off the battlefield. How was it that he never lost a major battle? How was it that he persuaded thousands of both Greeks and non-Greeks to follow him to what he fondly believed would be ‘the ends of the earth’, the encircling Ocean, long after the strictly military and political goals of his expedition had been fulfilled?


Can you tell us about his extraordinary parents and his teacher? 


All three certainly were out of the ordinary. Philippos (meaning ‘lover of horses’ and pronounced Bilippos in Macedonian Greek) became a cavalryman, not infantryman, and raised his elite ‘Companion’ Cavalry to a level superior to anything his rival Greek states could produce. Alexander raised it even higher, taking on and defeating the superb horsemen of the Middle East.


Bust of Philip II, Roman copy of Greek original, by Roger Mortel. Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, by rights of birth and succession, Philip should never have become ‘King’ of the Macedonians in the normal course of affairs. He was not the eldest son of his father Amyntas III, and it was an older brother who succeeded him — only to be killed in battle, whereupon, in 359, Philip seized the throne. Nor was Olympias, scion of the royal house of the Molossians of northwest mainland Greece, the first of Philip’s many wives — not by a long way!


A later source said that Philip ‘fought his wars by marriages’, meaning that he either sealed or prepared a military victory and conquest by marrying the most important marriageable female among the defeated enemy. Philip did not actually have to fight the Molossians; rather he won them over, later marrying his daughter Cleopatra, full sister of Alexander to her uncle, Olympias’s brother, another Alexander.


Contrary to that very pragmatic, utilitarian view of marriage — the normal among sole rulers, then as now — propaganda had it that the Philip-Olympias union was a love-match, fuelled by hot sex. What seems certain is that besides producing Alexander (born 356) and Cleopatra, the union produced a powerful lot of animated discord, so great indeed that some ancient sources, for which I have certain regard, claimed that Olympias, aided by Alexander, arranged for Philip’s assassination, at Aigai, in 336. Again, according to rumor, this one being less credible to me, Alexander, now King Alexander III, hired one of his old tutors, Aristotle, to investigate the truth of that royal murder.


What was Arisotle’s relationship with Alexander? 

Aristotle, Francesco Hayez, 1811. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Aristotle, son of Nicomachus, was a Greek from Stageira in neighboring Chalcidice, an area absorbed by Philip through conquest into Greater Macedon. His father had been physician to Philip’s own father, Amyntas III, at the royal court in Pella, but such was Aristotle’s intellect that in 367, aged 17, he took himself off down south to Athens to enroll in Plato’s higher-learning Academy, where over two decades he became the master’s star pupil. In 343, however, Macedon, in the shape of a royal command, came to call again, and Aristotle returned up north to tutor the teenage Alexander for a year or so.


Aristotle’s own political views are well known, and they were not exactly monarchist, but the two struck up a longlasting relationship over a shared love of literature and botany. During the campaign, Alexander would allegedly not sleep without the copy of the Iliad annotated for him by Aristotle under his pillow. How much Aristotle taught Alexander about kingship — or rather, how much Alexander chose to learn about that from his teacher — is another matter altogether. What he did learn from his reading of the Iliad was that for him the mythical Achilles was the ultimate role-model warrior, and that a short, glorious life was far preferable to an inglorious longer one. Achilles himself liked to strum a lyre while singing of ‘the famous deeds of men’. Few were more famous than those of Alexander.


“Alexander’s undoubted fondness for his near-coeval Hephaestion may or may not have had a sexual component, but if it did, that wouldn’t have been all that ‘odd’.”


Alexander the Great in His Conquest of Asia by Marzio di Colantonio, 1620. Source: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


In the Netflix series, Alexander is clearly close to Hephaestion and Ptolemy. Who are they, and what became of them? 


Kings and especially crown princes such as Alexander always was from his birth tend to have their education very closely managed and monitored. The companions of Alexander’s early years were, therefore, both very carefully chosen (and not only by Philip) and very carefully watched for any signs of disloyalty to Alexander, let alone treachery to the Macedonian throne.


Both Hephaestion and Ptolemy (many elite Macedonians had this name; this is the one who was to become Ptolemy I, pharaoh of Egypt) passed all the necessary tests of loyalty with flying colors. Both were taught together with Alexander by Aristotle. Both rose to political heights under and in Ptolemy’s case, after Alexander.


Today — and the Netflix series is no guiltier of this than any other mass media — interest in Hephaestion tends to focus on the nature of the personal relationship between him and Alexander. What is reprehensible is to cast that relationship in a totally anachronistic way, as being ‘gay’ and so involving ‘gay sex’. What is equally reprehensible of course is to take offense at that, again wholly anachronistically. Alexander’s undoubted fondness for his near-coeval Hephaestion may or may not have had a sexual component, but if it did, that wouldn’t have been all that ‘odd’.


Anyhow, historically, what mattered far more was how Alexander managed Hephaestion when both were world-conquering adults. The answer? Not too well. As for Ptolemy, he progressed firmly on the military-political side of things, rising by the time of Alexander’s premature death in 323 to the supreme eminence of being one of the king’s innermost circle of just seven most trusted bodyguards. Both Hephaestion and Ptolemy were ‘Companions’ of Alexander in a strong sense; members of his chosen circle of several dozen men, mostly but not exclusively Macedonians, granted exceptional material and social privileges, including the privilege to drink with him.


What about Alexander’s sexuality and relationship with Hephaestion? The Netflix series has a clear view on this — his bisexuality is introduced early in the first episode. 


It is now widely accepted that ‘-sexuality’ as in homo- or hetero- or bi-sexuality, signifying an identity, is a modern, indeed perhaps no earlier than the 19th-century CE in the West, phenomenon. Alexander was not therefore ‘a’ bisexual but a by his contemporary standards ‘normal’ Greek male who had both homo- and hetero-sexual encounters and relationships, some simultaneously.


Suppose Alexander and Hephaestion were, in their adolescence or early adulthood, a ‘couple’. In central Greece to the south, such homoerotic pairing relationships were the organizing basis of an entire infantry regiment of Thebes, the so-called ‘Sacred Band’. Elsewhere in Greece, there was normally an age-graded, hierarchical separation between young adult lover and adolescent junior beloved, but Macedon, including Alexander-Hephaestion, may well have operated more on the Theban model of age-equivalence.


Portrait of Alexander the Great likely by Leochares, 340-30 BCE. Source: The Acropolis Museum, Athens


Alexander was only just an adult, 20, when he became king, only 22 when he assumed command of his late father’s planned Asiatic expedition. But with one exception, the actual believable evidence for his sexual activity post-334 is all on the heterosexual side, including three marriages, all — like those of his father — dynastic-imperially motivated.


The one exception is the one that gave rise to Mary Renault’s second Alexander novel, The Persian Boy. As Jeanne Reames, principal academic adviser to the Netflix Alexander, has written, there’s reason for believing that Alexander did indeed have a sexual relationship with eunuch Bagoas after defeating Darius III at Gaugamela and entering Persepolis in triumph.


In the Netflix series Alexander, we don’t see much of the wild drunkenness of Alexander and his companions. They are young warriors, far from home, on a dangerous quest. Can you say more on the parties and entertainment they enjoyed?  


Ah, there’s so much to say here, so little space or time. One modern historian has even seen alcohol or rather his alcoholism as the key to accounting for the evolution or rather devolution of Alexander’s entire career, including a premature death. One of the two main sources exploited by Arrian, the architect Aristoboulus, claimed that Alexander, so far from being an inveterate soak and boozer, liked only to have social drink with his mates. Tell that to the birds! Drinking — not just social but hard — was an integral part of male Macedonian and not least male Macedonian royal culture.


It’s difficult to be certain but it wouldn’t be surprising if, unlike Greeks further south, Macedonians didn’t drink their wine mixed with as much water as might have been prudent. Drinking wine neat was thought to be un-Greek, though, so there were probably limits set even here. On the other hand, there is unimpeachable evidence that Alexander did on occasion get blind drunk and that on one utterly notorious occasion (at Maracanda, today’s Samarkand, in 328) in his cups he murdered — or manslaughtered — the noble Macedonian, Cleitus the Black, who’d saved his life at the Granicus Battle.


So, on occasion, wild drunkenness, yes. But alcoholism? The jury is out, and what can be said for sure is that drink hardly slowed or otherwise seriously impaired his hyperactivity.


What gods did Alexander prefer and emulate?  

Bust of Zeus-Ammon, 1st Century CE. Source: Liverpool Museum


When Alexander entered Egypt and took it over, without a blow, from its Persian rulers in 332, he had another object in view besides having himself — as he probably did — crowned Pharaoh at Memphis, and then laying the groundplan for his new and greatest city, Alexandria. He had a date with the god whom the Greeks called Ammon, the Egyptians Amun, and at a very specific — desert oasis — site on the western border with Libya, Siwah, an oracular shrine hundreds of kilometers away and separated from easy access by fatal sandstorms.


There he boldly went to try to find out his genesis, literally his begetting or, put it another way, his true ancestry: who, on the one hand, was his ‘real’ father, his genitor — was it a human or was it a superhuman being? And who, on the other hand, was he therefore descended from? Alexander being Alexander, and the oracular priesthood of Ammon/Amun what it was, the answer was never unambiguously divulged. But Ammon became thereafter one of his favorite and favored gods, to add to the two that he had, more conventionally, been literally born to venerate and worship, Zeus and Heracles, in that order.


The Macedonian royal house of the Temenids traced their descent in direct male line back up as far as Zeus of Mt Olympus, father of gods and men. It helped that Olympus (over 10,000 feet, its peak normally shrouded in clouds like Japan’s Mt Fuji) actually lay within Macedonian territory, near the town known as Dion (lit. ‘Zeus’s place’).


One generation before the patriline hit Zeus, it went through Heracles, born a half-divine, half-human hero, who thanks to fulfilling his extraordinary 12 Labours, was granted the unique honor of full godhead divinity and access to a seat atop Olympus. Alexander being Alexander, it wasn’t enough for him merely to be descended from Heracles: he had also to rival, and if possible, outdo him. That was a key part of the Asian, and specifically the Indian, justificatory narrative.


Another god folded into that same self-promoting narrative was Dionysus, a god with strong oriental associations if not origins, and one whom his mother Olympias had a special fondness for, to the extent of practicing his enthusiastic, ecstatic rituals. Dionysus, always conceived as eternally youthful and beardless (just like Alexander, a pioneer shaver), had many attributes, including metamorphosis, shape-shifting, and a special attraction for female devotees. Alexander did not stint his ‘feminine side’, but it was his attraction to imbibing Dionysus’ patent fermented grape juice for which he was even better known — or notorious.


Why did Alexander wait so long to have children? Wasn’t that a dangerous thing to do? The proof is what happened when Alexander died. 

Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus against the Persians, by Cornelis Troost, 1737. Source: Rijksmuseum


It was indeed dangerous. One might almost say a rash thing for Alexander not to do! His ‘excuse’ of course might have been that fighting had to come first, only after that marriage. And later he could say that building and maintaining an entirely new kind of Graeco-Persian empire meant that he would have to wait and see exactly who would best perform their allotted dynastic-imperial roles. Note that his first known child (called ‘Heracles’!) was born of a mixed-race Greek-Persian woman (Barsine) whom he could not possibly have married. When he did finally marry for the first time (Rhoxane of Bactria), he was able to make a special point of it being a ’mixed’ – Greek/‘barbarian’ marriage — since he was creating precisely such a ‘mixed’ empire. His second (two, simultaneous) marriages were to Persian royals: again, he was making a point — that he was the new king of a significantly Persian empire.


Alas, unforeseeably so not culpably, Alexander died — or was killed?? — before his first child with Rhoxane was born: whence, significantly, the succeeding appallingly bloody wars of ‘succession’ lasting half a century and causing the permanent breakup of Alexander’s empire..


“The exact cause of his death, the precise infection or disease, will never be identified”

The Death of Alexander the Great, by Karl Theodor Von Piloty, c. 1885-1886. Source: Alte Pinakothek


Do you think that Alexander was assassinated, and if yes, by whom?


On the whole, I do not. Yes, many of his predecessor Macedonian kings had been without question assassinated, most openly his own father. That was a function of the nature of the Macedonian kingship — monarchy tempered by assassination.


But my suspicion of the ‘assassination’ scenario is aroused by the immediate circumstances and consequences of Alexander’s death at Babylon in June 323: Alexander’s legacy was at stake, and it was a highly potent one, so, rather than determining and expressing neutrally the truth, there were too many articulate, ambitious, self-promoting people with powerful reasons for wanting him dead, and for wanting him to have been murdered rather than to have died a ‘natural’ death, in order to suit their own agendas.


That’s the negative. Positively, I am not all surprised that he should have died when — as early — as he did, and where he did. He had been wounded so many times, near-fatally a few years before.e He had once nearly died of a chill contracted from river immersion, so that he was therefore supremely vulnerable to any disease or infection for which there was no known or available cure. If I am right, all I can then go on to say, rather disappointingly, is that the exact cause of his death, the precise infection or disease, will never be identified, short of — per impossibile — exhuming his mummified corpse (wherever that might or might not be).


“Alexandria was Alexander’s final resting place. Forget Siwah. Forget Venice!”


Last year, you and Dr. Salima Ikram — the narrator and one of the scholars in Netflix’s Alexander — and I were in an email exchange about the whereabouts of Alexander’s tomb. She mentioned possible locations in Alexandria, while you did not have much hope for it being found. Alexander’s tomb is the holy grail of archaeology. What happened to it? Where was Alexander buried?

Augustus Before the Tomb of Alexander, Sebastien Bourdon, 1643. Source: Meisterdrucke Fine Art


Originally, of course, he was buried where he died, in Babylon, where his corpse was embalmed, no doubt using skilled Egyptian embalmers. A couple of years later, that corpse was part of a baggage train, en route eventually to Macedon and Aigai/Verghina, the land of his forefathers. But near Damascus in Syria the train was held up, and his corpse snatched, on the orders of one of his closest associates in life, Ptolemy son of Lagus, who had been entrusted by Alexander with rule over the province of ‘liberated’ Egypt. Ptolemy had far bigger ambitions, however, realized in 306 when he had the cheek to have himself declared in Greek ‘King’, in Egyptian ‘Pharaoh’, of Egypt. By then, the old native capital of Memphis had been superseded by Alexander’s own eponymous Alexandria, and that was Alexander’s corpse’s final — I emphasize ‘final’ — resting place. Forget Siwah. Forget Venice!


But where exactly in Alexandria? Several competing locations have been argued or advocated for. Fatal to all of them, in my not-so-humble opinion, is the environmental-climatic change ongoing there since the 320s BCE that has led the whole of the Royal quarter of ancient Alexandria to reside today in a watery grave. It would be the most extraordinary coincidence if such massive topographical displacement had not engulfed Alexander’s tomb.


“One can only applaud Dr Limneos-Papakosta’s 20-year persistence…but I will not be singing from the same songsheet as regards the sighting and siting of Alexander’s tomb.”


Entrance to the Tomb of Philip II, Vergina, Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons


What are your thoughts about the excavation of Dr. Calliope Limneos-Papakosta. As she says in Netflix’s Alexander, it would be the greatest archaeological discovery. What might be found in his tomb? Would it be like his father Philip’s tomb but more magnificent?  


Such is the nature of archaeology, any archaeology, that its conclusions are always only temporary, always capable of being ‘revised’ in light of new finds. It’s a classic sign of that state of affairs that the identification of what you call ‘Philip’s tomb’ is itself the subject currently of revision! Is it — as was argued and indeed promoted from the late 1970s on — Tomb 2 under the Great Tumulus at Verghina (ancient Aigai) in Macedonia? Or, as the new consensus suggests, Tomb 1?


As for the location of Alexander’s tomb — as opposed to the corpse: though embalmed, it’s unlikely in the extreme to have been preserved even as ‘well’ as Lenin’s in its Moscow Mausoleum — one can only applaud Dr Limneos-Papakosta’s 20-year persistence! The original bearer of her given name, Calliope, was the Muse of song, and the original Museum (Greek Mouseion) was built in Alexandria in the 3rd century BCE, but I for one will not be singing from the same songsheet as Dr Limneos-Papakosta as regards the sighting and siting of Alexander’s tomb.


The story of Alexander is never-ending. I am very fond of your books and also various documentaries, such as In the Footsteps of Alexander by Michael Wood. Do you like the latter? Can you give us your recommendations for understanding Alexander? And what is the Alexander Romance genre, and do you have a favorite one? 


Let’s start at the end, with the Alexander Romance — now, there you have either opened a can of worms or an Aladdin’s cave of treasure … The original Romance, written in Greek and created in Alexander’s Alexandria towards the end of the first millennium BCE, is known to scholars as the Pseudo-Callisthenes. Pseudo- because of course it wasn’t actually by Alexander’s real official historian, a relative of Aristotle, Callisthenes of Olynthus. Various versions of that Greek original survive, as do Latin versions or translations — those are the two official languages of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. But it’s the versions that were derived from them — in semitic Syriac, for instance, or Persian, or medieval French, that are the really extraordinary excrescences of the evergrowing, never-ending Alexander myth or legend, often beautifully illustrated too!


Thanks to them, Alexander has featured in over 70 national literatures. Thanks to them, we ‘know’ that Alexander flew up into heaven on a griffin-drawn chariot, descended to the bottom of the ocean in a glass bathyscape, entered he holy shrine of Mecca — I could go on. And on. Of all the fictional Alexanders in English, my favorite is that of novelist Mary Renault — a figure to be sharply distinguished from and preferred to the one delineated in her wildly hagiographic, supposedly historical The Nature of Alexander.


What of the … reality? There I am indeed a big fan of (my friend) the intrepid Michael Wood’s In the Footsteps of Alexander, a giant trek (undertaken in the late 1990s) that today – for geopolitical reasons, mainly war, would simply be impossible. That was a genuine documentary, not, heaven forfend, docu-drama. It is still, after over a quarter of a century, one of the best ways to try to enter imaginatively into the, or an, experience of Alexander. I cannot, rather sadly, recommend strongly any Alexander movie that I have watched nor — to return to where we started — any televisual dramatization.


“In sordid reality, Alexander’s mortal life came to an end in 323 BCE. But in his magnificent, plastic afterlife he reigned supreme. ”

Alexander and Porus, by Vincenzo Camuccini, 1771-1844. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art


In India, Alexander asked some Brahmins or fakirs, how long a person should live. And they answered, “As long as a person prefers life over death.” Alexander was so ambitious and fearless, leading from the front in battle. Did he expect to live a long life? What were his plans for the future? Did he die too soon? 


I rather think and hope that I may have at least started to answer the first of those two already — given his lifestyle and career choices, given his known admiration for Achilles, it would have been irrational in the extreme for him to have expected to live long, though he may, of course, have wished and hoped to live even a little longer than he actually did. Because, yes, he did have plans. Or rather, the ancient sources attribute him with several ‘plans’, including many grandiose and as yet unfulfilled, apart of course from getting to ‘the ends of the earth’, something which his own rebellious troops had definitively denied him.


Since he almost died fightin — he was in military action not all that long before) —  the supposed ‘plan’ for him, having conquered all the previous Persian empire and more, to turn next on/against the Arabs of the neighboring Arabian peninsula is not entirely farfetched. Had he achieved a satisfactory ‘result’ there, whatever that might be, then, yes, it’s not unthinkable — and certainly was anciently thought — that he might have anticipated the Romans in defeating the Carthaginians of what is today Tunisia. After all, he had already conquered and indeed won over and round the descendants of the Carthaginians’ Phoenician ancestors. And so it goes, and could go on. And on.


I’m not sure if the Netflix Alexander made me more interested in Alexander. Well, I already was. But it made me more interested in Darius and the Persians. Darius lost it all. He was king of kings and ended in a bad way… I have endless questions on Alexander, but time flies. Dr. Cartledge, thank you as always!


Tempus does indeed fugit, especially when you’re having fun, as I have had, and I hope you and our readers will too. Your suggestion of a shift of angle of approach and vision to Persia is utterly apropos. For that’s exactly where Alexander himself wanted it shifted. He wanted above all to be obeyed, respected, revered, indeed worshipped as a King of the Persians.


Darius III has never cut much of a figure for me. Far more impressive was the Artaxerxes III who recovered Egypt — for 60 years before ‘self-liberated’ — for the empire just a decade or so earlier. And of course far, far more impressive still were the empire’s founder Cyrus II, his successor Darius I, and even Cyrus’s grandson Xerxes. Yes, Xerxes failed to add Greece, as Darius I had failed to add Scythia, to the empire (the largest and most diverse the world had yet known), but the empire itself had been durable enough to last well over 200 years (c. 550-330) — until our Alexander delivered the coup de grâce, with just a little help from his friends, his comrades and companions, and his many thousands of both Greek and non-Greek footsoldier grunts.


In sordid reality, Alexander’s mortal life came to an end in 323 BCE. But in his magnificent, plastic afterlife he reigned supreme, cosmically, we might say, and not least in Persian Firdausi’s magnificent Shahnameh, Book of Kings, composed c. 1000 CE. The king is dead. Long lives the king.

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By Richard MarrancaPhD & MA World Literature, B Art History with FilmRichard is a teacher and author with recent publications in Minerva, Popular Archaeology, Ancient World Magazine, The Raven’s Perch, DASH, Coneflower Cafe. The latter nominated him for a Pushcart Prize. His collection, Speaking of the Dead: Mummies & Mysteries of Egypt, will be published by Blydyn Square Books. He, his wife Renah and child Inanna make films; Covid, A Child’s View received awards from the Cranford Film Festival & the London Shorts Film Festival. He has taught humanities and English for many years, including a Fulbright at LMU Munich. He’s had seven NEH grants, including Ritual Arts in Hinduism & Buddhism at Holy Cross last June.