Alexander’s brief and militant kingship won the renown of the ages and awarded him the title ‘Great.’ He is revered among the greatest military geniuses in history and with good reason! Bringing the mighty Persian Empire to its ruin, decreeing himself Pharaoh of Egypt, and spreading Greek culture as far east as India, Alexander amassed an Ancient Empire to rival any contester.
This impressive, militant, and somewhat brutal side of Alexander is often presented without hesitation and has crowned him the Warrior King… and rightly so. But while many think of him only as the warrior, there are those who keep a watchful eye from Mount Olympus that would frown at such an injustice.
The Greek biographer, Plutarch, said in his Life of Alexander:
“For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities.”
Plutarch understood that achievements alone do not completely illustrate character and therefore sought to show us the man underneath the helmet. While his military achievements and undoubtedly brutal conduct cannot, and should not, be dismissed, it is not the Warrior King to whom I pay homage.
It is, instead, the Poet King.
By ‘poet,’ I do not mean to imply that Alexander was a profound writer, although that is not entirely farfetched either. Poet, here, denotes a man capable of poetic, idealistic, and creative thinking and whose life is shrouded in romanticism… something that began long before Alexander’s military endeavors.
So, with Plutarch as our guide, here begins the story of the Poet King and his Kingdom.
Ushered into this world by the hands of a goddess, Alexander lived a life full of divine encounters, dreams, and visions. His father commissioned the great philosopher, Aristotle, to tutor the young prince, and it was through his influence that Alexander developed a love of learning which lasted his entire life.
Aristotle also fostered in his pupil an intimate relationship with Homer’s epic poem, The Iliad. A gift from his teacher, Alexander slept with the work under his pillow and next to his dagger. He carried it with him on expeditions and considered it to be his most valuable possession. Enraptured with the story of the great hero Achilles, Alexander found both a role model and companion in the legendary warrior. His fascination with this work of fiction, and his constant attachment to it, likely influenced his own character and actions.
Coursing through his veins were stubbornness and competitiveness, mixed with a healthy amount of sentimentality. As a young boy he watched his father give up on a difficult horse and decided to take up the challenge for himself. Whether led by his competitive spirit, or by an instant connection to the animal, Alexander convinced his father to let him try and tame him. When, to his astonishment, his son succeeded, King Philip gave perhaps the greatest commission ever given by a father.
He said: “My son, seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself; Macedonia has not room for thee.”
And so it was with that charge that Alexander set out to conquer the world.
Accompanied by his new hooved comrade on his militant endeavors, his idealistic, romantic nature and his desire for civilized, educated subjects remained strong. In Plutarch’s analysis of Alexander’s fortune and virtue, he claims that it was, in fact, this side of Alexander’s character that made him a successful military commander in the first place.
“Was, then, Alexander ill-advised and precipitate in setting forth with such humble resources to acquire so vast an empire? By no means. For who has ever put forth with greater or fairer equipment than he: greatness of soul, keen intelligence, self-restraint, and manly courage, with which Philosophy herself provided him for his campaign?”
Plutarch goes so far as to call the people Alexander conquered his pupils and puts them on a level with those of Plato.
From this we can see that despite his martial methods, Alexander’s vision for a unified kingdom went beyond the vast geographic empire of which he was ruler. Instead, he sought unification in morals, knowledge, marriage practices, and language. Quite an ambitious and, dare I say, poetic ideal… don’t you think?
Yet it is not this noble, albeit morally suspect quest that paints Alexander as the Poet King in my mind.
No. Instead, it is his founding of one city; one among many that bore his name. Alexandria, Egypt soared far above the rest in its purpose, intent, history, and the romance that radiates from its existence.
One might easily conclude that Alexander’s charge to “seek thee out a kingdom equal to thyself” was accomplished in his immense geographic and cultural empire… and certainly for the Warrior King this is true. But I present that for the Poet King this single island city on the northern coast of Egypt was the “kingdom” equal to Alexander and the triumph of his identity as a poet, over his occupation as a warrior.
Legend tells that Alexander wanted to build a city of minds, where great thinkers could meet, learn, teach, and debate.
Indeed, it would be the focal point of an intellectual empire. The story goes that the location came to him in a vision, in which his beloved Homer told him to build on Pharos, an island off the northern coast of Egypt. The building of Alexandria commenced under the watchful rule of Ptolemy, Alexander’s friend and officer. Alexander continued on his campaigns elsewhere, but left instructions for a great Library to be built with the grand intent that it would house a copy of every book in the known world.
Moreover, Alexandria became home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria.
As magnificent as the lighthouse might have been, I believe Alexandria’s true glory shines from the very foundation of her existence. Imagine a city, home to the vast extent of the knowledge of man and gods, with streets walked by the greatest minds in the entire world, and walls that echoed with teachings of men and women like Hypatia, Archimedes, and Eratosthenes.
I don’t know how much more poetic you can get than a city that seems too wonderful to be true.
Regrettably, Alexander never saw the completion of his beloved dream city, but he can rest in peace knowing that it was accomplished. His death at the young age of 33 from a mysterious illness marks the final flourish of the Poet King. Was it poison? Treason? Disease?
From his birth to his death, Alexander the Great has remained shrouded in mystery and romance. Indeed, he carries with him a story worthy of Homer. This Warrior King, so admired through history, is dishonored when remembered for nothing more than military conquest. As a poet, warrior, builder, and philosopher, Alexander deserves to be celebrated for all his being, not just the part that conquered the world.