Alexander the Great
Who is Alexander and why is he so great? Born in Pella in 356 BC (Central Macedonia, Greece) Alexander was one of the most successful military commanders in history, winning his first battle at the age of 16. By the age of 20 he was the king of his homeland Macedonia succeeding his father Philip II after he was assassinated. By 25 Alexander had conquered the known world (from Greece, Egypt to Pakistan). British Historian Tom Holland described him as ‘the ultimate conqueror’Order now
The film is based on Alexander the Great, the military commander and King of Macedonia, and his life experiences, hardships and triumphs. Directed by Oliver Stone, the cast included Colin Farrell, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer and Jared Leto and was shot in locations such as England, Morocco and Thailand. Overall the historical action film received poor ratings. 16% from Rotten Tomatoes, 2/4 from Roger Ebert, 5.5/10 from IMDb and 39% from Metacritic.
Alexander commemorated his conquests by naming over 70 military forts Alexandria, after himself and 1 Bucephala for his horse Bucephalus. Bucephalus originally was strong and untameable by even King Phillips best riders however a 13 year old Alexander tames the stallion, realising the horse is afraid of its own shadow he turns it towards the sun. Bucephalus served Alexander in numerous battles but died due to fatal injuries at the Battle of the Hydaspes (June 326 BC). The film captures the taming and death of Bucephalus perfectly according to historical accounts in 344 BC.
The film begins with Ptolemy as he narrates Alexander’s story, reciting his memories to a scribe in Alexandria, Egypt. Ptolemy (367 BC – c. 283 BC) actually fought alongside Alexander in his conquests as a Macedonian general and became ruler of Egypt in 323 BC. In the film Ptolemy refers to the hero as “Alexander the Great,” however history shows that the “Great” was not added until much later, in Roman times.
Stone recreated the scarred right eye of Alexanders father, Philip II as he lost his eye to a Greek arrow during the siege of Methone in 354B.C. Alexanders mother Olympias convinced Alexander that Phillip was not his father and that he was the son of Zeus himself, when one night in the form of a snake he impregnated her. Angelina Jolie’s portrayal is very historically similar to Olympias, who was the fourth of Philip’s seven wives and was believed to kill Philip or hire someone to kill him in 336 BC.
Alexander had to fight the battle of Granicus, Siege of Tyre, Issus and Gaugamela to eventually beat King Darius however the film only has 1 battle which is actually an amalgamation of two battles fought between the them (Gaugamela and Issus). The Macedonian military equipment seen in the battle was accurately reproduced due to the director’s historical consultant Fiona Greenland, an oxford graduate. However in the film, Alexander wore a lions-head helmet. According to Plutarch, Alexander wore a burnished iron helmet molded for him by the Greek craftsman Theophilus. Stone apparently decided to fashion a battle helmet based on later representation of Alexander as Heracles. Additionally there is an outstanding representation of the Macedonian infantry phalanx wielding their 17ft long spears.
Before the Battle
Before the battle, Alexander says to the Macedonians “for the glory of Greece.” Ancient sources however write that Alexander didn’t fight for Greece but for Macedonia. Three ancient historians detailed Alexander’s speech to the army before the battle and each one of them made a clear distinction between Greeks, Macedonians, Thracians and Illyrians as four distinct civilizations that made Alexander’s army. This created confusion throughout Oliver Stone’s film whether the people from Macedon differed from other Greeks. Ironically the film synopsis indicates a distinction between Macedonians and Greeks. It reads: “Alexander led his virtually invincible Greek and Macedonian troops.”
The Alexander Mosaic
At the end King Darius is shown fleeing the battle and deserting his troops when approached by Alexander, although historians have pointed out from contemporary Babylonian records that Darius was trying to rally his army but was abandoned in real life. In the midst of battle, Alexander courageously charges the Persian king, who’s sitting on his safe on his horse. Stone captures Alexander’s fighting spirit but that is about all. The famous “Alexander Mosaic” (100BC) which is now in the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, depicts Alexander on horseback, charging as an entourage of soldiers surrounds the Persian king in the same battle of where Alexander’s 40,000 man army defeated Darius’s 250,000 troops.
Cleitus the Black
In the battle of Granicus 334BC Cleitus the Black, an old friend and soldier saved Alexander when he was personally under attack by severing Spithridates’s (Persian commander) arm before he could bring his weapon down on Alexander. In the film, this event falsely happened at the Battle of Gaugamela. Stone acknowledges this, and points out that it was purposely placed there since only the Battle of Gaugamela was shown in the film. Additionally this plays a role later in the film where Alexander kills Cleitus. In 328BC a dispute arose at a banquet between and Cleitus and a drunken Alexander when Cleitus began to glorify Phillip II’s (Alexander’s father) achievements and supress Alexanders. As a result Alexander gets hold of a javelin and throws it at Cleitus, killing him. Filled will remorse, Alexander refuses all food and wine for 3 days.
Oracle of Delphi
Pythia, the oracle of Delphi supposedly delivered advice from the Greek god Apollo and her predications were considered infallible, however she only gave prophecies on the 7th day of each month. Alexander consulted Pythia in 336BC on a day which she refused to prophesize; a furious Alexander dragged the oracle out of her chamber. Impressed by his persistence, Pythia finally replied “let go of me, you are invincible”.
Oracle of Ammon
Located in Libya, the oracle of Ammon was one of most prominent and reputed ancient oracles. In 331BC, 5 years after visiting Delphi, Alexander allegedly proposed 2 questions to the priests of Ammon. He asked if any of his father’s assassins still live unpunished and if he will conquer the entire world. The oracle supposedly answered affirmative to both questions according to Plutarch. Other sources say that he asked if he was really the son of Zeus. However Professor Ulrich Wilcken (German historian) concludes the statement that Zeus was Alexander’s father was given in a greeting from the priests of the temple, not a response to his questions. “O pai Dios” (oh, child of Zeus!). The film fails to portray Alexander visiting either of these oracles that ultimately built his military confidence.
In the summer of 324BC Hephaestion, Alexander’s best friend since childhood and rumored lover fell ill for 7 days and died before Alexander had reached him. He is said to have hugged his corpse for a day and a half weeping continuously and imitating Achilles (at the death of his comrade Patroclus) by cutting of his hair over the corpse as a symbol of mourning. Accusing Hephaestions doctor for providing inadequate medical care Alexander commanded he be ‘impaled on a stake’ according to Plutarch. In the film however Alexander is by Hephaestion when he dies but the doctor is still put to death. Stone implies that Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion was much more than a friendship sparking controversy about the film’s portrayal of ancient Greek sexuality. Greek lawyers originally threatened to sue Oliver Stone for what they said was an incorrect representation of history.
The lawyer leading the campaign, Yannis Varnakos said that “We are not saying that we are against bisexuals or homosexuals, but we are saying that the production company should make it clear to the audience that this film is pure fiction and not a true depiction of the life of Alexander”. However the film shows a disclaimer at the end of the credits (when most of the audience would have left) suggesting that the film is “inspired by certain historical events,” implying that some of the events have been altered. Keep in mind there is a difference between historical inaccuracies based careless research and those which are the outcome of the director’s conscious choice to alter the past in order to support his creative vision. The lawyers declared that they would not take legal action after a screening where Stone removed 8 minutes from the film, softening his representation of homosexuality. However Alexander’s sexual history still remains unknown.
The Battle of Hydaspes
At the river Hyphasis, before Alexander reached India, Alexander’s troops refused to go any further. A Greek nobleman named Koinos spoke to Alexander in hopes to return home. Stone says that in the film the troops were intentionally defended by a war veteran named Krateros, as he was one of Alexander’s trusted friends. The final battle showed in the film, the Battle of Hydaspes was heavily dramatized by Stone and altered from history. However Alexander’s clothes and armor were very high in quality, as the research was done by a team of historians at Oxford University. In the film Alexander was brutally injured by an arrow during the battle, however this didn’t happen until during a siege later that same year. Furthermore, the battle of Hydaspes was not fought in a sunlight forest like the film shows, but on muddy plains during the night.
May 29th 323BC Alexander hosted a banquet for his admiral, Nearchus, with whom he was planning a voyage to Arabia. After drinking a large beaker of wine Alexander had to be carried to bed and awoke the next day with a fever. His condition grew worse and his friends pressed the question “to whom do you leave your empire?” Alexander barely being able to speak mutters “To the strongest”. However surely a man strong enough to be Alexander’s heir did not exist, as in Alexander’s short career he had conquered some 2 million square miles of land. Alexander died in Babylon on June 10th, 323 BC from an unknown cause of death. Artwork by German painter Karl Theodor von Piloty (1 October 1826 – 21 July 1886)
Alexander significantly changed the world in several ways. He showed the Greeks a new ways of fighting using tactics that aided his undefeated streak in battle (especially when he was outnumbered). He adopted Persian and Indian cultures and taught his empire to change their view of the world. He united the West and the East together so that people of many descents were speaking a common language, using common currency to trade goods and sharing knowledge such as medicine, math and science.
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Steven Pressfield – The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great (2004)
Paul Anthony Cartledge – Alexander the Great (2004)
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Michael Alvear – Alexander the Great: The Man Who Brought the World to Its Knees (2004)