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In the 1880s this came in the shape of the “Alexander Sarcophagus” found in Lebanon, now in the Archaeology Museums in Istanbul.Dating to the end of the fourth century BC, and almost certainly the marble coffin of a junior monarch installed by Alexander himself, it depicts scenes of battles and hunting from Alexander’s life—and it was made closer in date to his lifetime than any other detailed image of him that we now have.It is a more puzzling composition than it might seem.Alexander is charging in on horseback from the left, and has just impaled an unfortunate Persian on his long spear (the famous Macedonian sarissa); Darius meanwhile, facing across from the right, is just about to flee the scene, and indeed his charioteer has already wheeled the horses around, ready to gallop off. But our attention is focused not so much on Alexander but on Darius, who towers above the battle, his arm outstretched in the direction of Alexander.Borza shows in a judicious appendix to the new Landmark Arrian, an illustrated edition of The Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis, written around 140 AD) by Lucius Flavius Arrianus, Roman senator and historian of Greek extraction, born in what is now Turkey.But that did not prevent several hundred academics, mostly classicists, from writing a letter to President Obama in 2009, in which they declared that Alexander was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek” and asked him to intervene to “clean up” the FYROM’s historical errors. Only a few months ago, this controversy flared up once more when a huge kitschy thirty-ton statue, almost fifty feet tall, on top of a thirty-foot pedestal, was erected in the central square in Skopje.(All the surviving large-scale “portraits” of him were made after his death, often long after, even if they were based on contemporary works, now lost.)Still more impressive have been the discoveries since the 1970s at Vergina, near the royal palace of Macedon itself: in particular, the series of fourth-century-BC tombs, found largely undisturbed, and loaded with precious jewelry, gold and silver vessels, elaborate furniture, and wall paintings.Undermining any impression that the Macedonians were a “barbarian” people in the popular sense of that word, they are very likely the tombs of members of the Macedonian royal house: not Alexander himself, of course, but perhaps of his father Phillip II (assassinated in 336 BC) and various other relatives who met equally nasty ends in the power struggles after his death.
These debates have continued through the centuries. Recently there has been some highly charged political controversy focused on Alexander’s “Greekness.” Was he, as the government of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM) would have it, a Slav (and so an appropriate symbol of the Slavic FYROM, and a good name for Skopje airport)?Predictably, Livy concluded that the Roman Empire would have proved as invincible against Alexander as it had against its other enemies.True, Alexander was a great general, but Rome at that period had many great generals and they were made of sterner stuff than the Persian king, with his “women and eunuchs in tow,” who was by any reckoning “an easy prey.”Besides, from early on, Alexander showed signs of fatal weaknesses: witness the vanity, the obeisance he demanded from his followers, the vicious cruelty (he had a record of murdering erstwhile friends around his dinner table), and the infamous drinking.The story was that a petty pirate had been captured and brought before Alexander.What drove him, Alexander asked, to terrorize the seas with his pirate ship?