The First World Conqueror
The story of the empires of the peoples of Europe begins in ancient Greece. For the Greeks, who devised the vocabularies with which we still think about how to live our lives, were also, as they described themselves, "extreme travelers." The Cyclopes, one of whom devours Odysseus's crew, are the embodiment of barbarism, because, among their other defects, they know nothing of navigation and have never left their island home. Travel, as we know, broadens the mind. The first person to have made the connection between voyaging (plane) and wisdom (sophia) was supposedly Solon, who also gave the Athenians their laws, and thus created the first true political society in European history.
Subsequent Greek history is filled with wanderers in search of knowledge. Sometime in the fifth century B.C., Herodotus, the "father of history," traveled well beyond the limits of his world, to Egypt and to Libya, Babylon, and the Phoenician city of Tyre, even to southern Russia, and reported extensively on what he had found there. Pythagoras, the great sixth-century-B.C. mathematician, journeyed from his native Samos to Egypt and Crete before settling finally in Croton in southern Italy, and the earliest of the ancient geographers, Hecateus of Miletus, visited Egypt even before Herodotus.
The knowledge to be gained from travel was almost always, however, also a means to possession. The Greeks were not only great travelers, they were also great colonizers. Beginning in the eighth century B.C. when Corinth established a colony on what is today Corfu, the Greek city-states moved steadily across the entire Mediterranean until by 580 they had occupied, to some degree, all the most obviously desirable areas in the world then available to them.
Colonization and conquest on this scale required skilled navigators and relatively large ships. Most of all, however, it required the evolution of a certain kind of warfare. Immanuel Kant believed that human conflict was nature's means of forcing primitive men to leave the settled comfortable boundaries of their homes. There, like grazing cattle, they might be happy, but because they were not also anxious and active, they could not be properly human. Kant credited nature with too much insight. But in one way or another war has contributed more than any other single factor to the steady distribution of peoples around the world.
Yet if all peoples engage in some kind of warfare, wars themselves are of many different kinds. The conflicts that took place between the tribal peoples of North and South America, parts of East Africa, and Australia and that still occur among the few remaining peoples of the world's rain forests is often harsh, cruel, and sudden; but it rarely does, nor is intended to do, much lasting damage. Such struggles are, as one sympathetic Spanish observer in the sixteenth century described them, "no more deadly than our jousting, or than many European children's games." They are fought for limited and often symbolic gains, and they rarely aim at conquest or subjugation. They do not intend to change the world.
The kind of war of which Kant was thinking was something very different. It emerged out of the eastern Mediterranean and the steppes in the late Bronze Age. It is the warfare celebrated in the Iliad, and it aimed at the total transformation of entire peoples, or sometimes, as in the Trojan War, at their ultimate destruction. The Trojan War, not only the best-known but also one of the longest recorded wars in history, ushered in a new era in human conflict, at least in the Mediterranean. Agamemnon and his crew of semidivine warriors have no objective beyond revenge for the insult inflicted upon the Spartan Menelaus by a Trojan prince. They are not conquerors, much less empire builders. When they finally leave after ten long years of unceasing conflict, Troy will be no more. Their sole desire is to have done with the war and go home. But they leave behind them a world in which conquest and subjugation have become possible. And they inspire at least one empire, possibly, in its constant retelling, the greatest of them all. Plutarch, who has left us so vivid a psychological portrait of Alexander the Great, tells us that his copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey never left his side. He slept with them and a dagger under his pillow.
The Homeric poems are the mythic celebrations of the emergence of a people. Similar stories have been told about other places and other peoples at other times. They serve many roles. But they all celebrate the moment when a group acquires the means to impose itself upon its world. In the Mediterranean world this moment was made possible by the discovery and invention of hard, resistant metals, bronze and later iron, that could be sharpened and would remain sharp. As many contemporary observers pointed out, it was not their firearms 'which often did more harm to their users than to their intended victims' nor even their horses that allowed the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs and the Incas. It was instead their steel weapons, weapons that had not changed substantially for centuries. Against these the brittle obsidian axes of the Aztecs, which shattered and blunted after the first blow, could make little impact.
Together with the new instruments of war there emerged a new kind of combat. The heroes of the Iliad still fight as individuals seeking individual gains and, in Achilles' case, pursuing private feuds onto the battlefield. But even among the Greeks in the ranks, who are of scant interest to Homer, there is evidence of cohesion, of organization, of a terrifying sense of purpose, a willingness to surrender the moment in order to win the day. All of this the earlier warrior hordes lacked, as did their American, African, or Australian counterparts. The Aztecs could never understand the kind of war that was being made against them. Even they who had secured some kind of tributary authority over a vast area of central Mexico were more concerned with acquiring sacrificial victims "the traditional objective of Mesoamerican warfare' than defending a civilization that was about to be extinguished. It was to be the final cause of their downfall, and in general, the weakness of all those in other parts of the world who would, over the centuries, be swept aside by the technologies and the sheer relentlessness of the European powers.
The war machine, the capacity to transform a large body of men into a single instrument of destruction, was to prove decisive in what has come to be called the "triumph of the west." The image of the Athenian army, in which a soldier held a spear in his right hand and in his left a shield with which he covered not himself but his neighbor, has long been used as an image of Attic democracy. And so it probably is. It is also, however, an image of the people as an army. Each man shelters and is sheltered by his neighbor. The survival of one depends upon the survival of the whole. Cowardice or desertion could only lead to immediate destruction of the entire unit. The Greeks and later the Romans were good at this sort of thing. The Greek phalanx, particularly after the reforms of Philip II of Macedon, in about 356 B.C., was capable of organizing the resources of thousands of trained infantry, in conjunction with equally skilled cavalry regiments, into a solid compact fighting force more formidable than anything that could be pitched against them. The person who benefited most from these new technologies of power, who used them to create what has, since antiquity, been looked upon as the first of the great European empires, was Alexander the Great.
During its relatively brief existence from 336 until 323 B.C., Alexander's empire was the most extensive the ancient world had ever seen. Although it did not last long, it transformed the world in ways that were to have immense consequences for the subsequent history of all the peoples of Europe. Alexander destroyed the great Achaemenid Persian Empire, which had been a constant threat to the cities of Greece since Xerxes' attacks on Athens in 480 B.C. He united, if only briefly, vast regions of what we now call Europe and Asia. He also succeeded in uniting the quarrelsome independent Greek states. In doing so, however, he deprived them not only of their independence, but also of their unique democratic forms of government. Henceforth, until its resurgence in the late eighteenth century, the rule of the many would, ultimately, surrender to the rule of the one. Alexander had been, if only briefly, the pupil of Aristotle, who, with Plato, had created not only European philosophy but many of the natural sciences as well. In his Politics, Aristotle had argued that in the ideal state a mixed constitution, one combining democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, would be best. But he also knew that ideal states existed only in the imagination. In the real world he inhabited, a world dominated by the experience of civil war and intercity conflict, monarchy was much to be preferred. This was one lesson from his old tutor that Alexander had taken to heart. The various leagues of the Greek city-states had ultimately proved to be ineffective against Persian aggression. Cyrus the Great, the architect of the Achaemenid Empire, is said to have remarked of the Spartans, "I never yet feared men who have a place demarcated in their city in which to meet and deceive each other on oath!" In Persian eyes, talk, and the lies upon which the democratic assemblies of the people thrived, would always weaken the Greeks' powers of decision. Cyrus, of course, underestimated Sparta. But Greece was ill equipped to defeat a consolidated monarchy. As early as the sixth century B.C., the philosopher Thales of Miletus had suggested that the only way to resist the Persians was to transform the loose-knit alliances of the city-states into a true federal state with a council at Teos. No one, however, paid any attention to him. As a consequence, the Greek states became progressively less able to resist outside aggression, so that by 346 the Athenian orator Isocrates was able to describe Thebes, Argos, Sparta, and Athens 'the once-great cities of the Greek world' as all equally "reduced to a common level of disaster." In the end it took a monarch to destroy the might of the Persian King of Kings.
Alexander did not create his vast empire entirely on his own. Much of what he achieved had already been prepared for him by his father, Philip II (382-336 B.C.). It was he who had transformed Macedon from a kingdom divided by civil war and foreign intervention into the most powerful of the Greek states. It was he who created the seemingly invincible Macedonian army, which in August 338, at Chaeronea, won a crushing victory over an alliance of southern Greek cities led by Athens and Thebes. Philip's forces on that occasion are said to have numbered thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse, a staggering number at a time when the male adult population of Sparta has been estimated at less than a thousand. The battle of Chaeronea made Philip the effective master of the Greek world and Macedon an unchallenged superpower.
Philip now turned his attention to the already weakened Persian Empire. In 336 a Macedonian expeditionary force of ten thousand men began the subjugation of the coast of Asia Minor. Philip, however, never lived to complete his conquest. Like so many rulers in the ancient world he fell victim to an assassin.
Two years later, Alexander, who had inherited both his father's throne and his ambitions, crossed the Hellespont determined to put an end to Persian power forever. His army, the largest ever to leave Greek soil, numbered 43,000 foot, armed with fearsome pikes six meters long, and 5,500 horse. The cities of the Achaemenid Empire, Sardis, Ephesus, Miletus, Phaselis, Aspendus, Calaenae, and Gordium in Phrygia all fell one after another. At Gordium, Alexander paused long enough to perform one of those symbolic acts whose memory survived long after his conquest had been forgotten. In the ancient palace of the Phrygian kings he was shown the legendary wagon of Gordius, the mythical founder of the Phrygian dynasty. The yoke of the wagon was fastened to its pole by an elaborate knot whose ends were invisible. Legend had it that anyone who was able to untie the "Gordian knot" would become lord of Asia. Alexander did not bother trying to undo the knot. He simply took out his sword and cut it. For later historians this act became a sign of divine endorsement for the entire campaign, and "cutting the Gordian knot" has remained a metaphor of decisive action and a presage of empire until this day.
In the early winter of 333, Alexander defeated a vast Persian army at Issus, giving him control of what is now the Near East as far as the Euphrates. He then moved into Egypt and Mesopotamia and finally in the winter of 331?330 seized the great Persian capital at Persepolis. Until now Alexander had been relatively constrained in his handling of defeated populations. But his men were growing restless, eager to lay their hands on some of the booty they had been promised. Persepolis was turned over to the victorious army. The houses of the nobility were looted, the men slaughtered, and the women enslaved. Some months later, after an orgiastic banquet, and urged on by the courtesan Thais (later to become the wife of Ptolemy), Alexander and his entourage burned down the great palace of the Persian King of Kings. It was, or so the Greek historians claimed, the final act of revenge for Xerxes' spoliation of the Acropolis in Athens. Alexander now marched eastward to consolidate his hold over the empire. Moving in a great swath through what is now eastern Iran and western Afghanistan, he crossed the Hindu Kush and invaded Bactria in the spring of 329. Here, however, his empire finally reached its limit. In 326, his troops, soaked and exhausted by monsoonal rains and facing an enemy equipped with elephant squadrons of legendary strength, refused to cross the Beas River, which separated them from the lands of the Ganges. Like Achilles, his favorite Homeric hero, Alexander retreated to his tent and for three days nursed his anger waiting for a change of heart. It did not come. Finally he made the regular sacrifice for a river crossing, and the omens proved-conveniently-to be most inauspicious. Now that he could interpret his retreat as a concession not to his men but to the will of the gods, he agreed to turn back.
Alexander returned to Persepolis and then moved to Babylon, where he began to prepare for the invasion of the Persian Gulf and the Arabian littoral. For this he created a new army (one less likely to challenge his ambitions) and a new navy, but they were never put to the test. Toward the end of May 323, Alexander attended a banquet and, if the traditional accounts are to be believed, literally drank himself to death. The climax came in an exchange of toasts in which he is said to have downed twelve pints of undiluted wine in one steady draft. He doubled up with a violent spasm and collapsed into a coma, from which his doctors were unable to revive him.
Copyright © 2001 by Anthony Pagden. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.