Alexander is Great because he makes us Great...

Alexander the Great: Making Of A God

“I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be strong, and he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight.” - Bonnie Tyler.

From the outset, I felt the need to admit that I struggled with the new Netflix series on Alexander the Great. The inane introduction by the strange, neither Egyptian nor Hellenistic Alexandrian elderly lady, spruiking her tale perhaps a tad too enthusiastically, had me aching to inform her that in the filmic medium, one is better off showing rather than telling.

The confession I feel I must make is that in my first viewing, I only made it to the part, some ten minutes or so in, where Alexander is portrayed snogging Hephaestion in the river. I subsequently lost interest and began to re-read the Alexander Romance in translation from the Syriac instead.

The reason for this is simple. Unlike various Greek organisations of the world who have protested vehemently at the portrayal of Alexander as same-sex attracted, some of which have even intimated that they intend to issue legal proceedings, I harbour a complete disinterest in the Macedonian conqueror’s sexuality. Had Netflix shown the equally voracious Julius Caesar humping a concubine or a catamite on the shores of the Rubicon ten minutes into a documentary about his remarkable life, I would have had exactly the same reaction.

A legend in the Alexander romance claims that a certain “Candace of Meroë” (a queen of Sudan) fought Alexander the Great. The story is that when Alexander attempted to conquer her lands in 332 BC, she arranged her armies strategically to meet him and was present on a war elephant when he approached. Having assessed the strength of her armies, Alexander decided to withdraw from Nubia, heading to Egypt instead, but not before Alexander and Candace had a romantic encounter. Admittedly, had Netflix chosen to portray Alexander and Candace going at it atop elephants ten minutes into the documentary, this may have caused me to seek to watch further, only for scientific purposes, in order to appreciate the logistics.

Similarly, had Netflix chosen to lead with the story of Bagoas, a eunuch in the court of the Persian Empire and reputedly a lover of Alexander the Great, this would have arrested my attention. According to Plutarch, Bagoas won a dancing contest after the Macedonian crossing of the Gedrosian Desert. The Macedonian troops, with whom Bagoas was very popular, demanded that Alexander should kiss Bagoas, and he did so. The philosopher Dicaearchus, in his book “On the Sacrifice at Ilium,” maintains that Alexander the Great was so overcome with love for the eunuch Bagoas that, in full view of the entire theatre, he, bending over, caressed Bagoas fondly and when the audience clapped and shouted in applause, he, again bent over and kissed him deeply. The legal implications of dramatising this scene, of course, are legion.

Conversely, Netflix could have chosen to portray the scene in the Alexander Romance where Queen Thalestris of the Amazons brought three hundred women to Alexander the Great, hoping to breed a race of children as strong and intelligent as he. According to the legend, she stayed with Alexander for thirteen days and nights in the forlorn hope that the Macedonian king would be possessed of enough stamina to father a daughter by her. A feminist critique of the ultimate macho hero’s legacy being inverted so that he is merely treated as breeding stock would have been most welcome, but it was not to be.

Indeed, instead of the inexplicably bland lady introducing the series, Netflix could have cast Queen Christina of Sweden, who, being enamoured of the long-dead king, in her seventeenth-century “Diverse Reflections on the Life and Actions of Alexander the Great” proposed to “endeavour to place truth in a clear light, because the world [including Netflix] has not as yet done justice to his merit.”

Alternatively, Netflix could have commenced with a dramatisation of Alexander the Great handing his concubine Campaspe of Larissa to Apelles, the renowned painter. According to Pliny, “Seeing the beauty of the nude portrait, Alexander saw that the artist appreciated Campaspe (and loved her) more than he. And so Alexander kept the portrait but presented Campaspe to Apelles.” The episode could have thus concluded that this was an early example of φιλότιμο, passed on to his descendants, proving the nobility of our ancestral provenance.

Otherwise, seeing as the Persian manner of venerating their king known as προσκύνησις involved the gesture of blowing the king a kiss with the hand, Netflix could have shown how when Alexander conquered Persia, he demanded that his army also blow him kisses, causing much distress among the troops who had not yet complete their diversity training course, to the soundtrack of Iron Maidens’ “Alexander the Great,” featuring the lyrics:

“Hellenism he spread far and wide
The Macedonian learned mind
Their culture was a Western way of life
He paved the way for Christianity
Marching on, marching on.”

No identity or racial politics to be found here….

Finally, Netflix could have commenced with the scene where Alexander the Great besieged Massaga, a city belonging to the Assaceni people in India. Their king was slain, and Cleophis, the queen, consented to surrender to Alexander, with her troops joining his forces. As the Assaceni soldiers left the city, Alexander commanded for all of them to be massacred. Witnessing this brutality, the Assaceni women rushed out to confront Alexander's soldiers, prompting him to order their slaughter, too. This merciless act led to condemnation by ancient historians like Diodorus, Arrian, and Plutarch, for the concept of collateral damage had not been invented.

The truth is that I switched off because the clumsy love scene was boring, predictable, conventional and lame, designed to lazily titillate and provoke those easily titillated and provoked. The ensuing howls of outrage from sections of our tribe were far more diverting. Some of them launched into learned discourses, attempting to prove that Alexander the Great was not gay and that Netflix was part of a secret cabal constituted, probably with Rothschild or Masonic funding, to denigrate the Greek nation.

Others tried to show that there is no conclusive evidence to indicate the complete spectrum of Alexander’s sexual tastes, while others still, the fence-sitters, sought to make the point that one cannot define the sexuality of the past based on the values and mores of the present. Of course, given the ambiguous nature of the evidence relating to Alexander’s relationships, the creators of the series were definitely justified in asserting an interpretation of his sexuality, which is consonant with that held by many distinguished historians. But not in a river. Think of the leeches.

And why all this hullaballoo? Because, to many, Alexander the Great is a hero. To be a hero traditionally means combating adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage, or strength. To be a classical hero, one would have to undertake such activities for the sake of honour and glory. Seth Schein, in his “The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad,” for example, argues that classical heroes assert their greatness by “the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill.”

These days, however, physical prowess is not enough. Heroes are supposed to grant us wisdom; they augment and uplift us; they act as exemplars of our own moral code, and they confer legitimacy. This is the reason why we need our AFL footballers, lauded for their ability to catch and kick the treated skin of a dead animal, to be culturally sensitive, aware of diversity, and to espouse inclusivity. Ultimately, it is their superhuman physical prowess that also accounts for the fact that we are so willing to forgive, justify or tolerate up to a point their transgressions when they engage, for example, in drug use or abusive behaviour.

This is also the reason why incidents such as revolutionary hero Kolokotronis’ presiding over the slaughter of Jews and women and children after the siege of Tripolitsa and his 1822 despatch to Ignatios, the Metropolitan of Ungro-Wallachia, demanding money for the restoration of the fortress at Nafplion in the following terms: “You’re to send it to me without fill. If you don’t, I’ll be at war with you, war without mercy, war without end, and I’ll leave it to be carried on by my descendants,” are overlooked. Best to stick to a version of the benevolent, kind and visionary warlord instead, rather than accept that people’s characters are complex and often contradictory.

Alexander is Great because he makes us Great. As such, it is incumbent upon us to obscure those of his deeds, such as the slaughter of the Branchidae, the murder of Cleitus and the mad march across the Gedrosian desert that suggest a more nuanced view. If Alexander is Gay, then all of us are Gay, something that obviously sits uneasily with those for whom heterosexuality is a prerequisite of heroism, validation and Hellenism. This phenomenon is particularly acute in the Diaspora, where we inevitably seek recourse to historical figures that have traditionally been lauded by the cultures of our “host” countries in order to assert legitimacy within their national narrative, often forgetting or not realising that the aforementioned narrative has evolved beyond our point of reference, espousing or privileging completely different moral codes or modes of behaviour.

Whether one sees in Alexander a precocious youth, a military genius, a unifier or subjugator of Hellenism, a homosexual or a pansexual, a drunkard, a philosopher, a visionary, or all of the aforementioned, one thing is certain: more than a historical figure, he is a brand and an icon. And as far as icons go, you can’t go past the statue in the photograph accompanying this article of Alexander the Great on Danforth Avenue, Toronto in Canada, proudly holding aloft a Streets Golden Gaytime Cornetto.

Now that, dear reader, is heroism personified.

Dean Kalimniou is a lawyer, author and heavily involved in the Greek-Australian community.

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This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor

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