Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Alexander the Great – What if he had lived?

One of the most fascinating stories from antiquity is the life of Alexander the Great, the man who conquered the world by age thirty. Alexander has to be considered one of greatest military commanders of all time and one of the most important personalities of the ancient world.

Unfortunately, the story of his life ends abruptly. He became ill in early June of 323 B.C. and died on either the tenth or eleventh of that month at age thirty-two. The cause of Alexander’s death has been debated throughout the centuries, even up to the present day. Was he poisoned, or was it an infection that killed him? The truth eludes us but the fact that Alexander was ill for ten days suggests that disease rather than poison was the culprit.

What would Alexander have accomplished if he had not died so young? We can only guess, but it makes an interesting topic for discussion nonetheless.

To try and imagine Alexander’s world after 323 B.C, I’m going to employ Arnold Toynbee, a well-known scholar of antiquity, to help us. Toynbee, known mostly for his Study of History, wrote many fine books about the ancient world including a favorite of mine called Some Problems in Greek History.

There is a chapter in the latter entitled “If Alexander the Great had lived on”, where Toynbee speculates about Alexander’s efforts and successes during the period after 323 B.C. It’s a long chapter, spanning some forty-five pages, and I will not attempt to re-tell his whole story, but I found the section on Alexander’s relationship with Rome particularly interesting.

At the time of Alexander’s death in 323 B.C, Rome was in the middle of the Second War with the Samnites, which would end in 304 B.C. Rome, in those early days, did not have control of central and southern Italy, much less the whole peninsula. There were strong neighbors allied against her and her future depended on guile and perseverance.

So we begin Toynbee’s narrative…

In the winter of 318/317 B.C. Samnium was threatening the whole Italian peninsula and since their failure at Caudine Forks in 320 B.C, the Romans sought a different strategy to use against their principle adversary. They reasoned that a move across the Apennines to the Adriatic and then south would allow them to seek allies along the way and outflank the Samnites. Rome succeeded in making allies of Frentani, Teanum Apulum, and Canusium by 318 and was gaining strength when Ptolemy, representing Alexander, landed in Tarentum. The Tarentine government was anxious to avenge the death of the king of Epirus and looked to Alexander as the agent of that purpose. Ptolemy toured the states of Peucetia and Apulia and offered their leaders an alliance with Alexander against Samnium as a preview to Alexander’s arrival the next season when he would crush the Samnites. Ptolemy also visited Teanum Apulum and Canusium urging them to think twice about an alliance with Rome, a minor power, when they could be allied with Macedon. Both cities abandoned their treaties with Rome in favor of the Greeks.

With his diplomatic mission completed in southeastern Italy, Ptolemy moved on to Rome with two advantages over the Romans: he was representing the conqueror of the world and Rome was still weak from her loss at the Caudine Forks. Ptolemy planned to offer an alliance that would offer Rome protection, but would the Romans see it as disguised servitude? Ptolemy offered a treaty similar to that of Porus, Alexander’s Indian ally -- an equal partnership – and the terms allowed Rome to retain all of its current territories. Alexander would not challenge the new Roman alliance with Frentani or another recent alliance with Neapolis, although he frowned on the latter as Roman hegemony against a Greek city. Once Samnium was overthrown, Rome could claim some of the resulting spoils including the Caudine Canton. Rome could also seek alliances with central Italian cantons, but in no case was she allowed to compel them to accept alliances with her. Alexander would also give Rome access to the Po valley with her rich agricultural potential.

Ptolemy now moved on to the more delicate part of the negotiations, namely what Rome must agree to in return for the benefits Alexander would provide them. Alexander wished to set limits to Rome’s territorial expansion. The Italian land east of the Apennines, including the major portion of Samnium, and all of Magna Graecia would be off limits. These territories would be organized into a territory of Tarentum. To mark the bounds of the new territory, Alexander would be planting Greek colonies at Maluentium, Luceria, and near Mount Vultur.

As to the Etruscan territories, Alexander would make treaties with them identical to those that had been negotiated with Rome.

And regarding Umbria and the northern territories of Italy, Alexander sought agreement with Rome on four points: first that the parties should agree as to the independence of the northern territories, second either party could sign treaties with any of the states in the north, third that any alliance made by either would count as one with both parties, and fourth the northern territories would not be asked to go to war with Samnium. That way they could protect the north from the Gauls should they choose to come down.

Ptolemy told the Romans they must except his proposal as is with no negotiation. If they refused or allied themselves with the Samnites, they would not be able to stop Alexander from continuing with his plans. Rome accepted Alexander’s offer without hesitation.

The next year Alexander landed at Tarentum, assembled his army and crushed the Samnites. He now controlled one half of the Italian Peninsula and could use it as a stepping stone to conquer Sicily and then Carthage.

This story did not happen, of course, but it could have. Toynbee teases us with a historical phantasy. One can imagine that Rome would eventually rise to the power she became once Alexander was out of the picture, after all the Italians were native to the peninsula and the Greeks were outsiders. The cultural bond between Italians would have eventually won the day.


Anonymous said...

Alexander the Great achieved a lot in his 12 year reign. Unfortunately he died young. If he was alive he would have tried to conquer more and history would have been different.

Specialized Exotic Breeders said...

Certainly, as Toynbee states in his historical phantasy, Alexander would have continue with his conquering venture. As we all know, he was a determined and ambitious person, but most of all, he was also enrolled in a vicious circle created by the positive outcomes of his military campaign, which enriched his believes of being unstoppable and also fed his growing ambition. In contrast to his army soldiers, even though that it is true that he endured the same torments as they did, naturally they lagged of vision and ruling class self-commitments that could push them further. Hence, they all wanted to turn back to Macedon.
Given this, Alexander would have had to go back for a certain period of time to Pella, Macedon, in order to restructure what would have been a second expedition; but to resolve other political issues that where originating behind his back.
It is always very difficult to handle an exponential expansion of any nature, not impossible, difficult soever. Thus that rhythm of expanding his domains would have caught him eventually if he hadn’t restructured.

Mike Anderson said...


I appreciate your well thought out comment. You are certainly correct about expansion momentum having its limits as we have seen this hundreds of times in history. Alexander can reasonably be compared to the entrepreneur who could build but not run. But what a builder!

Specialized Exotic Breeders said...


Just found your blog and started following. I am happy to be able to participate!

Thank you

Fernando Berdegué