How Historically Accurate is Alexander?
This article contains spoilers
Alexander is a 2004 historical drama about Alexander the Great, from his early childhood to his death at Babylon in 323 BCE. The film is narrated by Ptolemy I Soter, who was one of Alexander's generals and became the Ptolemaic dynasty founder that ruled in Egypt until the Roman conquest. The story depicts Alexander's complex personality, his ideas of uniting the eastern and western worlds, his unprecedented success in conquering the largest empire at the time, the Achaemenid Persians, and his expansion into India Central Asia.
The movie begins with Ptolemy I Soter narrating the key events of Alexander's life and events revolving around his invasion of the Achaemenid Empire (Persian Empire). Alexander was declared a god in Egypt and then fought the pivotal Battle of Gaugamela, where the Persian army was defeated and later fell. However, Alexander failed to kill or capture the Persian king, forcing him to march further east. The story then goes back to show the strained relationship between Alexander's mother (Olympias)and Philip II. Alexander takes solace in wrestling, horse riding, and becomes tutored by Aristotle.
After Alexander is declared king and unites the Greeks after his father's (Philip II) death, his campaign against the Persians commences. After his victory in Gaugamela, one key focus was on Alexander entering Babylon, one of the great cities of the Achaemenid (Persian) Empire. Alexander is depicted as being in awe of the great city and showed more interest in uniting the Persian world with the Greek world, making these worlds better than being alone, where he is the great king of this new united world. While his soldiers delight in his great victory, Alexander is shown as thinking more about the future and freeing those who were enslaved at the Persian court.
He permitted royal individuals, including Darius' daughter, to remain and be treated with respect. Meanwhile, while Alexander is staying in Babylon, his mother makes him aware of conspiracies against him but berates him for being too generous with his enemies. Alexander is shown as conflicted about his destiny. Hephaistion, one of Alexander's generals, is shown as his close companion, confidant, and lover.
Alexander then pushed on into Iran, and his troops eventually killed central Asia and India, where Alexander finally marries and Darius III. He chooses to marry Roxana, a marriage with a Persian-Bactrian princess intended to help unify the worlds that Alexander wanted to conquer. The Greek generals and soldiers are not wholly convinced in this marriage, as the Greeks saw the newly conquered barbarians and Alexander should marry a Greek or Macedonian. Alexander, though, seems to be happy with her, despite Hephaistion's possible jealousy.
Later, Alexander's close strategist, Parmenion, is assassinated as he was accused of treason against Alexander. Then, Cleitus, an officer serving Alexander, who was to be governor of Bactria, got involved in a drunken dispute with Alexander, where Cleitus insulted Alexander, leading to Alexander killing Cleitus. This event and the assassination of Parmenion showed the increased strain Alexander and his men were coming under as they had campaigned for so long away from Macedonia. Alexander offers generous rewards and pensions to his soldiers to keep their loyalty as he continues east.
Alexander then pushes his men where they fight the Battle of Hydaspes in Punjab, India. Alexander is shown as being gravely injured and the battle being particularly bloody, although Alexander and his troops won the battle. At this point, his army was exhausted, and many men perished as they marched back to Babylon. In Babylon, Alexander was shown as trying to forge a united Greek and eastern state that combined Persian and other eastern populations. However, within months after he arrives, his plans fall apart. First, his companion Hephaistion dies from Typhus, and a few months later, Alexander joins him in death. With Alexander's death, his generals began to fight each other and divide his empire that stretched from Greece to Egypt and western India.
Forty years later, Ptolemy, who now ruled Egypt, is shown as creating a biography about Alexander, where the movie suggests the generals poisoned Alexander and sickness did not kill him, as the generals feared Alexander might have wanted to launch new campaigns to the dismay of his soldiers.
Alexander: Alexander (Figure 1) is shown as a complex character who was driven by a vision of a different future than what his followers saw. While the Greeks and Macedonians focused on revenge and plunder, he wanted a world under one great king. His relationship with his father and mother shaped him and distanced him from them, where he took solace in wrestling and later his war campaigns. Historically, Alexander's great vision of uniting the Greek and Persian worlds was likely true, although the concept of a great, unifying king had already existed in Persian beliefs in governing.
Hephaistion: Was one of Alexander's generals who grew up with him and became his closest companion. Historically, he was known as a distinct general with great skills. Although Alexander and Hephaistion were close, no clear evidence indicates they were lovers. However, he was considered Alexander's alter ego, and Alexander portrayed him as a reflection of himself. When he died, Alexander did go into a rage and showed great sadness for his dead friend.
Olympias: Alexander's mother was shown as a controlling personality who had a complicated relationship with her husband. She was a worshiper of Dionysus and was rumored to have slept with snakes as part of that cult. Her infatuation with snakes was displayed in the movie. She did conspire to kill Eurydice, the seventh wife of Phillip II, and her son so that her son Alexander would rule. She did regularly correspond with Alexander, as depicted in the film. After Alexander's death, she tried to establish Alexander's son on the throne. Eventually, she was killed in 317 BCE, along with Alexander's son, during Alexander's kingdom's struggles after his death.
Ptolemy I Soter: Ptolemy was a general in Alexander's army and played important roles in the campaigns in Central Asia and India. He later founded the Ptolemaic dynasty and was one of the generals that divided Alexander's empire after his death. The film displays Ptolemy recounting the life of Alexander, where this account was ultimately lost in the fire that destroyed Alexandria's Great Library centuries later.
Many historians have criticized the film for lack of clarity on many key issues in Alexander's life. For instance, key battles and sieges were ignored, and too much focus was given to Gaugamela. The Persians were depicted as mostly disorganized, but in reality, were a formidable, organized force that required Alexander's great skill to defeat them. Many of the characters, including Cleitus and Darius III, the Persian king, were shown as young, but in reality, were older men in their 40s and 50s.
Alexander is shown as wounded in the battle at Hydaspes, but in reality, he was wounded in another engagement in India. Many generalities are also given regarding Babylon, where imagery showed a combination of Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian themes in the mostly Babylonian city that was one of the capitals of the Achaemenid Empire. In fact, Babylon's imagery reminds one of the film Intolerance by D.W.Griffith, which was full of a variety of mixed legends. The Indian ruler Porus historically earned Alexander's respect and was given status as a king even after his defeat to Alexander. This is mostly ignored in the film. The Lighthouse of Alexandria is briefly shown in one season as Ptolemy is describing the story of Alexandria.
In reality, although he did commission its construction, it was not finished in his lifetime. At the time of the film's release, much was made about Alexander's sexual behavior. Although Alexander was rumored to have slept with men, with his companion Hephaestion as one possibility, there is no clear evidence if he slept with women and men. It is known Alexander did have several wives, but it may not have been uncommon, at least for royalty, also to have male lovers as well as wives. The most persuasive evidence he had a male lover is with Bagoas, a Persian eunuch in Darius' court who may have also been Darius' lover. Bagoas was described as having exceptional beauty from known accounts.
Despite some reasonably glaring inaccuracies, some often less known facts come through, including the diary that Ptolemy wrote that did likely exist and probably did burn in Alexandria centuries later when the famous Great Library burned. This gave the film some historical leeway and did suggest there probably is a lot about Alexander we have never learned.
The film Alexander never gained great popularity in the United States at the time of its release, relative to the major cast of well-known actors, but since has gained greater popularity. The film focuses on what it considers key events in Alexander's time and contributes many 20th and 21st centuries themes of individual freedom in depicting Alexander's ventures into Asia. Such coupling of these modern ideals is probably fanciful. Although to historians the film has a lot of key inaccuracies, the film does inform as well as entertain regarding some of the key events in Alexander's life, including his rise to power, his attempt to unify the Greek and Persian worlds, key battles, and his marriages to foreign wives.
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- For more on Alexander's early life, see: Freeman, P. (2011). Alexander the Great. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- For more on Alexander's battles against the Persians and time in Babylon see: Cheshire, K. A. (2009). Alexander the Great. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on Alexander's last years of campaigning and problems with his followers, see: Gabriel, R. A. (2015). The Madness of Alexander the Great: and the Myth of Military Genius. Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military.
- For more on Alexander's last months at Babylon, see: Romm, J. S. (2011). Ghost on the throne: the death of Alexander the Great and the war for crown and empire. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
- For more on Hephaistion, see: Heckel, W. (2016). Alexander’s marshals: a study of the Macedonian aristocracy and military leadership politics (Second edition). New York, NY: Routledge, pg. 93.
- For more on Alexander's mother, see: Messmore, P. (2001). Philip and Olympias: a novel of ancient Macedon. Bloomington, IN: 1st Books Library.
- For more on Ptolemy, see: Buraselis, K., Stefanou, M., & Thompson, D. J. (Eds.). (, 2013). The Ptolemies, the sea and the Nile: Studies in waterborne power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- For more on the period of Alexander and his successor generals, see: Waterfield, R. (2013). Dividing the spoils: the war for Alexander the Great’s empire. Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.