A Hero’s Hero – Alexander and Achilles

Alexander

Alexander conquered most of the known world of his time. His empire stretched from Macedonia to Persia to Egypt to the North-Western border of India. He was a legend even during his time. There was speculation about whether he was god or demon, because of the kind of superhuman feats he performed. He himself believed that he was the son of Zeus-Ammon, a thought that was probably reinforced and kindled by his courtiers. It probably started as a mere whim in the oasis of Siwah, however, it later took roots in the depths of his being, and his self-aggrandizement  blinded him to the reality that after all he was merely human. And it is this fact, that he was after all a mere human being that makes him stand out; that makes you take notice of his unbelievable achievements. Here was a man, who walked in flesh and blood, a man who went on to conquer the whole world before he was thirty-two.

Such has been the impact of Alexander’s influence on the world that his legend lives on. Even today, 2300 years after his death. He appears as a character in epics and fables across various cultures in Asia and North Africa, sometimes as a god, sometimes as a two-horned demon, and sometimes as a beast. In India, he is popularly referred to by the name ‘Sikandar’, and his name is synonymous with being the best, the ace, the invincible. There is a proverb in Hindi, which loosely translates to ‘The one who wins is called Alexander’. Whether you view him as a hero or a bloodthirsty villain, who brought death and destruction to wherever he went, you will find it difficult to argue against his magnetism. His magnetism is probably a result of his skills as a warrior, his leadership, his unbending will and determination, his unbridled curiosity, his passion to be the best, his passion to emulate his hero, Achilles!

Alexander was tutored by none other than Aristotle, the great Greek philosopher. Aristotle was persuaded by Alexander’s father, King Phillip, to leave Athens and come to Macedonia to tutor his son. Athens, at that time was the high ground of Greek culture and the Athenians took great pride in their urban way of life, their literature and poetry, their sophisticated taste, and above all, their democracy. They looked down upon the barbaric and upstart autocrat Phillip, from pastoral Macedonia, even though he had emerged as the ‘Hegemon’, sort of leader of leaders among Greek city states. The fact that Aristotle still chose to go to Macedonia, against possible public opinion to the contrary, in my view, points to the importance attached to money and status. Even in those days, even for a philosopher such as Aristotle! I might be wrong, but that’s just my hypothesis. Anyway, I digress! Let’s come back to Alexander and Achilles.

Achilles

Aristotle brought with him, Homer’s Iliad, and Alexander fell in love with it. The character that fascinated him and captured his imagination was Achilles, the great Greek warrior. When Achilles took part in a battle, victory was assured, and when he turned away, defeat was inevitable. Aristotle told Alexander to be like Achilles, the undaunted, the spectacular, the invincible. It is said that young Alexander was so fascinated with the Iliad that he carried it around with him wherever he went and even slept with the book under his pillow; a habit that he carried into his youth. He always looked for opportunities to emulate Achilles – in war, in love, in the call of duty, in everything.

In war, Alexander was death incarnate. Alexander’s name was enough to strike terror in the hearts of the enemy and I believe that the battles that he won towards the later part of his military career was largely due to this fear. Like Achilles, who was a guarantee for victory in any battle that he fought, Alexander led his troops from the front and set an example for his Companions and his army. Like Achilles, Alexander was fearless and went into any challenge with the belief that he could win. He suffered many near-fatal wounds in his 11 year-long military campaign. Like Achilles, Alexander had a quick and wild temper. He set fire to the town of Thebes, as a punishment for their revolt, much like Achilles and his army did to the Asian city of Troy. Alexander, in a fit of rage, once tied the body of an African who was fighting for the Persians, to his chariot and drove it around the castle that the African was protecting. Readers of Iliad will be able to draw a comparison with the way Achilles tied Hector’s body to his chariot and drove it around the city of Troy.

In large-heartedness, Alexander always looked to set an example to others. After defeating the Persian king Darius in the Battle of Issus, Alexander got hold of a lot of Darius’ wealth and his family including his mother, wife, and daughters. Alexander treated Darius’ family with respect, likening Darius’ mother to his own mother and gave orders to his army that the women were to be shown respect befitting their royal status. Like Achilles, who, protected Briseis during the battle of Troy.

In love and companionship Alexander could be blind, very much like Achilles, who loved his companion Patroclus more than his own life. Alexander knew of the deep bond between Achilles and Patroclus, and wanted to have a Patroclus of his own. He found Hephaestion at Aristotle’s academy, who he struck a deep friendship with. Alexander and Hephaestion were like soul mates and their relationship was always more important to Alexander than the relationship with his wives and mistresses. After Hephaestion’s death, Alexander went in deep mourning, to the extent that his army thought that he would die too. Very much like Achilles mourned the death of his beloved Patroclus at the hands of Hector. The relationships between Achilles and Patroclus and also Alexander and Hephaestion has been a source of a lot of debate in recent years. Were they friends or were they homosexual lovers? The problem with this debate is that we are viewing these relationships with the lens of our culture, however, in Ancient Greek culture there were no words to distinguish homosexual and heterosexual. Homoeroticism was quite common in ancient Greece, as common as heterosexual relationships.

Alexander, all his life, tried to emulate Achilles, in everything that he did. The historical existence of Achilles has not been proven yet and he remains a character in a play, however, Alexander was real. Alexander walked the earth in flesh and blood. Alexander was human. Yes, a complex human with the capacity to show extreme cruelty and extreme compassion, but he was still only a human. A human who chose to live like a hero.

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4 thoughts on “A Hero’s Hero – Alexander and Achilles

  1. Veni Vidi Vici – sounds simplistic, yet it guises the hard work and efforts which went into realizing the dream. That is my biggest learning from Sikandar Alexander – success is all about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

  2. Veni, Vidi, Vinci – Yes that’s what Julius Caesar said after a short war in Turkey. However, as you rightly said, the efforts that go into realizing the dream is somehwere hidden in all the glory. Alexander had a dream and he achieved it through single-minded dedication and humongous efforts. He nearly lost his life on more than a couple of occasions, but still pursued his vision, till he died. All of it, before his thirty-third birthday. I’m not saying what he did was right; war can never be right, but it is about the superhuman efforts that he put in to realize his vision. There is a lot to learn there.

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