I was going through some files a couple of weeks ago and found an essay I wrote for A-Level Classical Civilisations. I half-arsed the living crap out of this thing. It was about Alexander the Great and what factors I felt led to his success in expanding an empire. Honestly I think I wrote it the night before the deadline, using whatever resources I had immediately to hand as a sixteen year old in 2002. I am surprised I even bothered to hand it in, I am amazed I bothered to keep it and I am utterly speechless about the fact I got a really decent mark for it. In my first revision I found I had written in the corner “?Alexander drank himself to death”. Now I don’t remember reading that anywhere and it certainly seemed like new information to me, however it was written in the margin in my own handwriting. So I did some googling and then some reading, and had some conversations with friends who took their classics education far more seriously than I had. The outcome of all this work is – It is possible but extremely unlikely that Alexanders death had anything to do with alcohol. Which is extremely anticlimactic, however this was not reading done in vain my friends because Alex the Great did a lot of stuff whilst drunk that is going to keep me in writing material for months.
In 331 BCE Alexander on his unstoppable imperial march took the Persian Capital of Persepolis. Throughout history empire expansion has always been a messy business however for the most part the Macedonian expansion did a lot to preserve the culture and infrastructure of the captured towns. This is pretty sound practice, Alexander was very good at expanding the borders and had no intention of stopping. If he left a lot of pissed off dispossessed people behind him his army would have to deal with that rather than taking a stroll east with him. Alexander was also reported to be a great lover of art, science and culture so wasn’t massively into torching great works.
However after a long day forcing the occupation of a hostile city he decided to unwind in the local pub. Where he and his crew got to the task of drinking, hard. I suspect Alexander experienced a “hold my beer and watch this” moment because what is reported to have happened next was our boy Alex burning Persepolis to the ground whilst being egged on by an absolutely hammered prostitute.
Side Note: I can imagine the scene. Alexander, bronze skin and godlike physique flat in the dirt, his golden breastplate shimmering against the dull mud. He groans and slowly lifts a hand to his temple, he opens and closes his mouth a couple of times just to see if it still works. The intense smell of smoke, and the sound of crackling embers draws him closer to consciousness. With great effort and a further groan he forces one eye open. Seeing nothing but embers and ash, First confusion, and then panic. “What the fuck did I do last night?”.
As fun as the narrative in my head is, the sources recording the night drinking were written decades or centuries after the fall of Persepolis and reportedly based on contemporary sources “now lost to us” which I always find deeply suspicious, especially given the histories were later written by less than sympathetic Roman “historians”. What is more likely is that Alexander and his army after years of war, took the capital of their sworn adversary, the people who had fought and persecuted Macedon for generations. With all the adrenaline and testosterone of battle flying through their veins they experienced a sudden massive loss of discipline and a growing desire to put to fire the wrongs of the past.
Side Note: Who hasn’t from time to time considered venting some frustration or stress with a near apocalyptic case of arson? Also when my boss asks for a general status update at work I often reply “well nothings on fire”, the lack of fire is my bare minimum criteria for success in most situations (but not all).
This isn’t based on any records of the event however it is an extremely common theme throughout the history of our species. Rivalry, Warfare and Revenge are the core aspects of the human psyche that we don’t like to recognise very often. A millenia and a half later the same would be true of the great Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Europe. Whilst the spark was religious ideology, what drove the slaughter was rivalry, warfare and revenge.
Side Note: My favourite author, David Gemmell wrote a character in two books who obtained the epithet “The Damned” for leading a massacre following the fall of a city called Perapolis. I have had to restrain myself from writing posts exploring the characters and the world he created in his Drenai saga, however this was his most on-the-nose parallel with reality which warranted a mention.
I should stress that I have referred to the “Persian Empire” here purely because when I give it its proper name of The Achaemenid Empire people tend to glaze over when I am talking to them. Persia was only a small part of a massive empire but modern popular culture has made it wrongly synonymous with Achaemenid.
Most versions of these events appear to have been written by the Romans. Particularly the drunk prostitute egging an even more drunk Alexander on version. This was written by Quintus Curtius Rufus, who was VERY Roman. I still don’t have a clear idea of what the Romans had against their Hellenistic predecessors. If you read the more famous works of Virgil and Dante they are little mor than Anti-Greek propaganda. The most plausible explanation I have heard is they didn’t go in for the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” concept. They wanted people to think they were all there is and all there had ever been.