Sunday, January 3, 2016

What If Alexander the Great Had Lived to Old Age?

Alexander the Great died in June of 323 BC in the city of Babylon, which he had decreed would be the capital of his new empire. Having become King of Macedonia upon the assassination of his father, Philip II, in 336 BC, Alexander had secured control of Greece before setting out on a campaign to conquer the Persians. By the time he died, Alexander had built an empire that stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River, spreading Hellenic culture across an unprecedentedly vast territory.

During his campaign of conquest, Alexander fought and won four pitched battles and countless smaller engagements, while successfully besieging innumerable fortresses and cities. He and his army overcame tremendous geographic and logistical difficulties. In addition to the armies of the Persian Empire, he fought against vast hordes of Greek mercenaries in Asia Minor, Bactrian horsemen in the mountains of Afghanistan, and legions of Hindu warriors led by powerful kings in the Indus Valley. Not only did he set himself up as King of Asia, but was proclaimed Pharaoh of Egypt and, for good measure, had the Greek city-states declare that he was the son of Zeus.

Alexander was the greatest conqueror the ancient world had ever known. What makes his achievement all the more astonishing is the fact that, at the time of his death, he was only thirty-two years old.

There are conflicting accounts as to the cause of Alexander's death. Some historians believe he simply succumbed to an ordinary disease that emerged from the swamps around Babylon, such as typhoid fever. Others have linked his death to his habitual overindulgence in alcohol. Still others maintain that Alexander was assassinated by means of poison, his murderer being one of his Macedonian subordinates. Blame has been laid specifically at the feet of Antipater, the general Alexander left in charge of Greece during the campaign against the Persians, who had been accused of malfeasance by Olympia, Alexander's mother. To forestall his own execution, so the thinking goes, Antipater arranged to have Alexander poisoned. It is certainly a possibility.

Whatever the cause of Alexander's death, his empire died with him. As he lay on his deathbed, Alexander was asked by his generals to name his successor. According to the historian Diodorus, his reply was, "To the strongest." His generals took him at his word and spent the next few decades battling one another in a series of brutal conflicts known as the Wars of Diaochi. When the dust settled, what had been Alexander's empire had been divided up into a series of successor states ruled by various Macedonian families. These mini-empires would later prove easy pickings for the Romans.

The fact that Alexander had achieved so much and died at such an early age begs the question: what if Alexander had not died in 323 BC? What if, instead, he had lived to a ripe old age? Might his empire have survived and perhaps event expanded?

According to the ancient historians, Alexander the Great was planning another series of conquests when he died. He had given orders from Phoenician shipwrights to begin construction on a massive armada or warships in the ports of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, clearly intended for service in the Persian Gulf. His initial goal was said to be the conquest of Arabia.

On the face of it, the idea of conquering Arabia seems rather odd. Arabia was sparsely populated and politically disorganized. Aside from being a juncture of the ancient spice trade, it seemingly had little to offer. One can scan through the names of previous conquerors going all the way back to Sargon the Great, two thousand years before Alexander, and not find a single one who paid the least bit of attention to Arabia. Much more likely, Alexander's intention was to secure the various island in the Persian Gulf in order to provide a safe sea route between the Tigris-Euphrates delta in Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley in what is today Pakistan, thereby created a good communication and transportation link with the eastern portion of his empire. What this says about Alexander's eventual intentions towards India is anyone's guess.

Once the Persian Gulf had been secured, Alexander's intention was apparently to extend his empire farther to the west. The historian Arrian tells us that, in the year before his death, Alexander received numerous embassies from Mediterranean countries, including Carthage and several in Italy, Sicily, and even as far as Spain. All brought gifts and some asked Alexander to adjudicate various disputes. One gets the impressions that these diplomatic missions were as much intelligence-gathering operations as anything else, sizing Alexander up to determine what sort of threat he posed.

It was a big threat, indeed. In addition to the fleet being fitted out for the conquest of Arabia, Alexander had given orders for a massive shipbuilding program throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The shipyards of Egypt and Phoenicia hummed with the steady labor of uncountable numbers of workers, who were charged with turning out no less than a thousand warships. Such an armada would have dwarfed even the vaunted navy of Carthage. Combined with the armies of Greek, Macedonian, and Persian soldiers at Alexander's command, it would have been by far the most formidable military force ever assembled up to that point.

If Alexander had lived long enough to set out on a new campaign of conquest, this time to the west, what route might he have taken? Might he have marched straight overland across North Africa from Egypt to Carthage, supplying his vast army by ship? If so, Carthage might have been captured in an epic siege after a brave but hopeless resistance more than a hundred and fifty years before it happened historically. In this case, the men storming over the Carthaginian walls would not have been Romans, but a conglomerate army of Greeks, Macedonians, and Persians.

Alternatively, Alexander might have crossed into southern Italy from Greece, as Pyrrhus of Epirus did in 280 BC, just over forty years after Alexander's death. Might Alexander have conquered the Greek city-states of southern Italy? Could this have brought him into conflict with the emerging power of the Roman Republic? Considering the vast forces at his command, it seems likely that Alexander could have made himself master of Italy. On the other hand, many people in the ancient world underestimated the Romans and later learned to regret it.

Assuming Alexander had lived long enough to campaign in North Africa, Sicily, and/or Italy, the eastern portions of his realm would have faced a terrible threat in the subsequent years. Around 320 BC, the great King Chandragupta came to power in India, establishing the Maurya Empire. Under his rule and that of his successors, the Maurya Empire would bring almost the entire Indian subcontinent under its control and continue to rule for over a century. Although not well known in the West, Chandragupta's achievements were no less impressive than those of Alexander himself.

Historically, Chandragupta conquered the Macedonian mini-empires that remained in the Indus Valley after Alexander's death. Conceivably, his efforts to consolidate control of India might have brought Chandragupta into conflict with Alexander himself if the latter had remained alive. We can only imagine what might have happened had these two men, both of whom rank among the world's greatest conquerors, met in battle at the command of two enormous armies. It surely would have gone down in history as one of the greatest battles in history.

Most speculation about what might have happened had Alexander lived a longer life focuses on what other lands he might have brought under his control. However, we should consider the possibility that his empire might have fallen apart anyway even if he had not died in 323 BC.

Although Alexander had brought Macedonia to unprecedented, indeed unimaginable, heights of power, it is clear that both his Macedonia generals and the Macedonian rank-and-file were largely disillusioned with Alexander by the time they returned to Babylon from their years of conquest. The great king's efforts to integrate Macedonian and Persian society by giving important positions to Persians and by encouraging Macedonian officers to take Persian wives was deeply resented by his longtime comrades-in-arms. All they wanted to do was return home and enjoy the fruits of their victories. Had Alexander called on them to embark upon another series of wars, would the have followed him?

Had he lived a longer life, Alexander might have led forth new armies and navies on another round of conquest, this time to the west rather than the east. Carthage, Sicily, and perhaps Italy could have fallen under his sway. But it's equally likely, if not more so, that Alexander would have died in the course of these campaigns or been done in by some Macedonian noble whom he had offended or who simply wanted to go home. Throughout his life, Alexander was severely wounded on a number of occasions and also seems to have been targeted by more than a few assassination plots. If he escaped death in 323 BC, he might still have died shortly afterwards.

In the end, the hopes for a long-lasting Alexandrian Empire would rest on whether Alexander the Great could create a stable dynasty. When Alexander died, his wife Roxana was pregnant with a child that proved to be a boy. He became a pawn of the Macedonian generals in the Wars of the Diadochi and was assassinated when he was thirteen-years-old. But if Alexander had lived, his son would have been raised with all the protection, education, and regal attention a prospective imperial successor could expect.

If Alexander the Great had not died in Babylon in 323 BC and had lived long enough to ensure a stable transition of power to his son, there is at least a chance that a long-lasting Alexandrian Empire could have been established. Perhaps the Mediterranean and the Middle East would have been fused together into a single cultural entity, rather in the same manner that Qin Shi Huang unified China in the 3rd Century BC. Needless to say, the subsequent history of the world would have been radically different than it turned out to be.

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