Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The History of Civilization

Chapter Twenty-One: Alexander's Conquest of Persia

This is my second chapter on Alexander the Great. If you'd like to read the previous chapter first, click here.

In the spring of 331 BC Alexander visited the oracle of Amon-Ra, Egyptian god of the Sun. He wanted the god to help him defeat his Persian enemies, and the pilgrimage appears to have been a success.
He met the army of Darius at Guagamela, and was briefly dismayed at their multitude. He spent the night reconnoitering the ground and offering sacrifices to the gods. His victory was decisive.

The disorderly Persian army was no match for the Greeks. Alexander made straight for the figure of Darius in his chariot who was closely guarded by horsemen. The Persian king lost his nerve and fled the battlefield, leaving his army without a leader. He was soon murdered by his own people as a coward and a traitor.

Babylon surrendered after the Battle of Guagamela, as did the ancient city of Susa with its enormous treasure vaults. Hardly stopping to rest, Alexander marched his army over mountains in the dead of winter to seize Persepolis, the Persian capital.

He arrived so quickly that he was in Darius' palace before the Persians could conceal the royal treasury. Here he lost his good judgement. After plundering the city's wealth, Alexander burned Persepolis to the ground in a drunken rage. This completed the destruction of the Persian Empire.

Still ambitious, he attempted the subjugation of tribes on the eastern borders of Persia. He achieved some victories in modern Iran and Afghanistan, but here his behavior became more erratic. He began massacring villages, torturing enemies to death, and demanding that defeated subjects worship him as a god. At every new town Alexander was becoming less Greek and more like a barbarian king.

His army crossed the Himalayas into India in 327 BC. His generals advised against it, and the army went unwillingly. Crossing the Indus River, he defeated the Punjab king Porus; and wanted to press on to the Ganges, but his soldiers refused. They had been in Asia for over nine years, and wanted to return to their homes. The army was also desperately low on supplies and had lost men to starvation, disease, and exposure. Sadly, Alexander turned to go back. They followed the Indus to its mouth, and sailed the Indian Ocean into the Persian Gulf, arriving back at Babylon in 323 BC.

In June of that year, Alexander developed a fever and died. When his advisors asked who would inherit his empire he answered, "to the strongest". He was only thirty-three years old. The effects of his death were immediate: revolts broke out everywhere, and fifty years of civil war followed as various successors fought one another for dominance.

The same tragic year brought the death of Aristotle. It was the end of an era: the total collapse of Greek democracy. The city-state had been incapable of solving the problems of government, and had discovered no way of reconciling local autonomy with national stability and power. Class warfare had become bitter beyond control, and had turned the free market into legalized looting. The Assembly, once a noble body, had degenerated into an unruly mob rejecting all restraint, voting itself every favor and taxing the other classes to the point of crushing industry and initiative.

It was a sad end for what was in many ways an admirable civilization. Greece's decline cleared the way for the rise of Rome, and its legacy of philosophy would inspire and influence civilization through modern times.

To be continued...

For my previous posts on the history of civilization, click here.

Naturally, there are a lot of great books about Alexander. He's one of the most famous people of all time. My personal favorite is In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia, by Michael Wood.

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