Alexander the Great - Jacob Abbott

Alexander's End

After the events narrated in the last chapter, Alexander continued, for two or three years, his expeditions and conquests in Asia, and in the course of them he met with a great variety of adventures which can not be here particularly described. He penetrated into India as far as the banks of the Indus, and, not content with this, was preparing to cross the Indus and go on to the Ganges. His soldiers, however, resisted this design. They were alarmed at the stories which they heard of the Indian armies, with elephants bearing castles upon their backs, and soldiers armed with strange and unheard-of weapons. These rumors, and the natural desire of the soldiers not to go away any further from their native land, produced almost a mutiny in the army. At length, Alexander, learning how strong and how extensive the spirit of insubordination was becoming, summoned his officers to his own tent, and then ordering the whole army to gather around, he went out to meet them.

He made an address to them, in which he recounted all their past exploits, praised the courage and perseverance which they had shown thus far, and endeavored to animate them with a desire to proceed. They listened in silence, and no one attempted to reply. This solemn pause was followed by marks of great agitation throughout the assembly. The army loved their commander, notwithstanding his faults and failings. They were extremely unwilling to make any resistance to his authority; but they had lost that extreme and unbounded confidence in his energy and virtue which made them ready, in the former part of his career, to press forward into any difficulties and dangers whatever, where he led the way.

At last one of the army approached the king and addressed him somewhat as follows:

"We are not changed, sir, in our affection for you. We still have, and shall always retain, the same zeal and the same fidelity. We are ready to follow you at the hazard of our lives, and to march wherever you may lead us. Still we must ask you, most respectfully, to consider the circumstances in which we are placed. We have done all for you that it was possible for man to do. We have crossed seas and land. We have marched to the end of the world, and you are now meditating the conquest of another, by going in search of new Indias, unknown to the Indians themselves. Such a thought may be worthy of your courage and resolution, but it surpasses ours, and our strength still more. Look at these ghastly faces, and these bodies covered with wounds and scars. Remember how numerous we were when first we set out with you, and see how few of us remain. The few who have escaped so many toils and dangers have neither courage nor strength to follow you any further. They all long to revisit their country and their homes, and to enjoy, for the remainder of their lives, the fruits of all their toils. Forgive them these desires, so natural to man."

The expression of these sentiments confirmed and strengthened them in the minds of all the soldiers. Alexander was greatly troubled and distressed. A disaffection in a small part of an army may be put down by decisive measures; but when the determination to resist is universal, it is useless for any commander, however imperious and absolute in temper, to attempt to withstand it. Alexander, however, was extremely unwilling to yield. He remained two days shut up in his tent, the prey to disappointment and chagrin.

The result, however, was, that he abandoned plans of further conquest, and turned his steps again toward the west. He met with various adventures as he went on, and incurred many dangers, often in a rash and foolish manner, and for no good end. At one time, while attacking a small town, he seized a scaling ladder and mounted with the troops. In doing this, however, he put himself forward so rashly and inconsiderately that his ladder was broken, and while the rest retreated he was left alone upon the wall, whence he descended into the town, and was immediately surrounded by enemies. His friends raised their ladders again, and pressed on desperately to find and rescue him. Some gathered around him and defended him, while others contrived to open a small gate, by which the rest of the army gained admission. By this means Alexander was saved; though, when they brought him out of the city, there was an arrow three feet long, which could not be extracted, sticking into his side through his coat of mail.

The surgeons first very carefully out off the wooden shaft of the arrow, and then, enlarging the wound by incisions, they drew out the barbed point. The soldiers were indignant that Alexander should expose his person in such a fool hardy way, only to endanger himself, and to compel them to rush into danger to rescue him The wound very nearly proved fatal. The loss of blood was attended with extreme exhaustion; still, in the course of a few weeks he recovered.

Alexander's habits of intoxication and vicious excess of all kinds were, in the mean time, continually increasing. He not only indulged in such excesses himself, but he encouraged them in others. He would offer prizes at his banquets to those who would drink the most. On one of these occasions, the man who conquered drank, it is said, eighteen or twenty pints of wine, after which he lingered in misery for three days, and then died; and more than forty others, present at the same entertainment, died in consequence of their excesses.

Alexander returned toward Babylon. His friend Hephæstion was with him, sharing with him every where in all the vicious indulgences to which he had become so prone. Alexander gradually separated himself more and more from his old Macedonian friends, and linked himself more and more closely with Persian associates. He married Statira, the oldest daughter of Darius, and gave the youngest daughter to Hephæstion. He encouraged similar marriages between Macedonian officers and Persian maidens, as far as he could. In a word, he seemed intent in merging, in every way, his original character and habits of action in the effeminacy, luxury, and vice of the Eastern world, which he had at first so looked down upon and despised.

Alexander's entrance into Babylon, on his return from his Indian campaigns, was a scene of great magnificence and splendor. Embassadors and princes had assembled there from almost all the nations of the earth to receive and welcome him, and the most ample preparations were made for processions, shows, parades, and spectacles to do him honor. The whole country was in a state of extreme excitement, and the most expensive preparations were made to give him a reception worthy of one who was the conqueror and monarch of the world, and the son of a god.

When Alexander approached the city, however, he was met by a deputation of Chaldean astrologers. The astrologers were a class of philosophers who pretended, in those days, to foretell human events by means of the motions of the stars. The motions of the stars were studied very closely in early times, and in those Eastern countries, by the shepherds, who had often to remain in the open air, through the summer nights, to watch their flocks. These shepherds observed that nearly all the stars were fixed  in relation to each other, that is, although they rose successively in the east, and, passing over, set in the west, they did not change in relation to each other. There were, however, a few that wandered about among the rest in an irregular and unaccountable manner. They called these stars the wanderers—that is, in their language, the planets—and they watched their mysterious movements with great interest and awe. They naturally imagined that these changes had some connection with human affairs, and they endeavored to prognosticate from them the events, whether prosperous or adverse, which were to befall mankind. Whenever a comet or an eclipse appeared, they thought it portended some terrible calamity. The study of the motions and appearances of the stars, with a view to foretell the course of human affairs, was the science of astrology.

The astrologers came, in a very solemn and imposing procession, to meet Alexander on his march. They informed him that they had found indubitable evidence in the stars that, if he came into Babylon, he would hazard his life. They accordingly begged him not to approach any nearer, but to choose some other city for his capital. Alexander was very much perplexed by this announcement. His mind, weakened by effeminacy and dissipation, was very susceptible to superstitious fears. It was not merely by the debilitating influence of vicious indulgence on the nervous constitution that this effect was produced. It was, in part, the moral influence of conscious guilt. Guilt makes men afraid. It not only increases the power of real dangers, but predisposes the mind to all sorts of imaginary fears.

Alexander was very much troubled at this announcement of the astrologers. He suspended his march, and began anxiously to consider what to do. At length the Greek philosophers came to him and reasoned with him on the subject, persuading him that the science of astrology was not worthy of any belief. The Greeks had no faith in astrology. They foretold future events by the flight of birds, or by the appearances presented in the dissection of beasts offered in sacrifice!

At length, however, Alexander's fears were so far allayed that he concluded to enter the city. He advanced, accordingly, with his whole army, and made his entry under circumstances of the greatest possible parade and splendor. As soon, however, as the excitement of the first few days had passed away, his mind relapsed again, and he became anxious, troubled, and unhappy.

Hephæstion, his great personal friend and companion, had died while he was on the march toward Babylon. He was brought to the grave by diseases produced by dissipation and vice. Alexander was very much moved by his death. It threw him at once into a fit of despondency and gloom. It was some time before he could at all overcome the melancholy reflections and forebodings which this event produced. He determined that, as soon as he arrived in Babylon, he would do all possible honor to Hephæstion's memory by a magnificent funeral.

He accordingly now sent orders to all the cities and kingdoms around, and collected a vast sum for this purpose. He had a part of the city wall pulled down to furnish a site for a monumental edifice. This edifice was constructed of an enormous size and most elaborate architecture. It was ornamented with long rows of prows of ships, taken by Alexander in his victories, and by statues, and columns, and sculptures, and gilded ornaments of every kind. There were images of sirens on the entablatures near the roof, which, by means of a mechanism concealed within, were made to sing dirges and mournful songs. The expense of this edifice, and of the games, shows, and spectacles connected with its consecration, is said by the historians of the day to have been a sum which, on calculation, is found equal to about ten millions of dollars.

There were, however, some limits still to Alexander's extravagance and folly. There was a mountain in Greece, Mount Athos, which a certain projector said could be carved and fashioned into the form of a man—probably in a recumbent posture. There was a city on one of the declivities of the mountain, and a small river, issuing from springs in the ground, came down on the other side. The artist who conceived of this prodigious piece of sculpture said that he would so shape the figure that the city should be in one of its hands, and the river should flow out from the other.

Region of Mt. Athos


Alexander listened to this proposal. The name Mount Athos recalled to his mind the attempt of Xerxes, a former Persian king, who had attempted to cut a road through the rocks upon a part of Mount Athos, in the invasion of Greece. He did not succeed, but left the unfinished work a lasting memorial both of the attempt and the failure. Alexander concluded at length that he would not attempt such a sculpture. "Mount Athos," said he, "is already the monument of one king's folly; I will not make it that of another."

As soon as the excitement connected with the funeral obsequies of Hephæstion were over, Alexander's mind relapsed again into a state of gloomy melancholy. This depression, caused, as it was, by previous dissipation and vice, seemed to admit of no remedy or relief but in new excesses. The traces, however, of his former energy so far remained that he began to form magnificent plans for the improvement of Babylon. He commenced the execution of some of these plans. His time was spent, in short, in strange alternations: resolution and energy in forming vast plans one day, and utter abandonment to all the excesses of dissipation and vice the next. It was a mournful spectacle to see his former greatness of soul still struggling on, though more and more faintly, as it became gradually overborne by the resistless inroads of intemperance and sin. The scene was at length suddenly terminated in the following manner:

On one occasion, after he had spent a whole night in drinking and carousing, the guests, when the usual time arrived for separating, proposed that, instead of this, they should begin anew, and commence a second banquet at the end of the first. Alexander, half intoxicated already, entered warmly into this proposal. They assembled, accordingly, in a very short time There were twenty present at this new feast. Alexander, to show how far he was from having exhausted his powers of drinking, began to pledge each one of the company individually. Then he drank to them all together. There was a very large cup, called the bowl of Hercules, which he now called for, and, after having filled it to the brim, he drank it off to the health of one of the company present, a Macedonian named Proteas. This feat being received by the company with great applause, he ordered the great bowl to be filled again, and drank it off as before.

The work was now done. His faculties and his strength soon failed him, and he sank down to the floor. They bore him away to his palace. A violent fever intervened, which the physicians did all in their power to allay. As soon as his reason returned a little, Alexander aroused himself from his lethargy, and tried to persuade himself that he should recover. He began to issue orders in regard to the army, and to his ships, as if such a turning of his mind to the thoughts of power and empire would help bring him back from the brink of the grave toward which he had been so obviously tending. He was determined, in fact, that he would not die.

He soon found, however, notwithstanding his efforts to be vigorous and resolute, that his strength was fast ebbing away. The vital powers had received a fatal wound, and he soon felt that they could sustain themselves but little longer. He came to the conclusion that he must die. He drew his signet ring off from his finger; it was a token that he felt that all was over. He handed the ring to one of his friends who stood by his bed-side. "When I am gone," said he, "take my body to the Temple of Jupiter Ammon, and inter it there."

The generals who were around him advanced to his bed-side, and one after another kissed his hand. Their old affection for him revived as they saw him about to take leave of them forever. They asked him to whom he wished to leave his empire. "To the most worthy," said he. He meant, doubtless, by this evasion, that he was too weak and exhausted to think of such affairs. He knew, probably, that it was useless for him to attempt to control the government of his empire after his death. He said, in fact, that he foresaw that the decision of such questions would give rise to some strange funeral games after his decease. Soon after this he died.

The palaces of Babylon were immediately filled with cries of mourning at the death of the prince, followed by bitter and interminable disputes about the succession. It had not been the aim of Alexander's life to establish firm and well-settled governments in the countries that he conquered, to encourage order, and peace, and industry among men, and to introduce system and regularity in human affairs, so as to leave the world in a better condition than he found it. In this respect his course of conduct presents a strong contrast with that of Washington. It was Washington's aim to mature and perfect organizations which would move on prosperously of themselves, without him; and he was continually withdrawing his hand from action and control in public affairs, taking a higher pleasure in the independent working of the institutions which he had formed and protected, than in exercising, himself, a high personal power. Alexander, on the other hand, was all his life intent solely on enlarging and strengthening his own personal power. He  was all in all. He wished to make himself so. He never thought of the welfare of the countries which he had subjected to his sway, or did any thing to guard against the anarchy and civil wars which he knew full well would break out at once over all his vast dominions, as soon as his power came to an end.

The result was as might have been foreseen. The whole vast field of his conquests became, for many long and weary years after Alexander's death, the prey to the most ferocious and protracted civil wars. Each general and governor seized the power which Alexander's death left in his hands, and endeavored to defend himself in the possession of it against the others. Thus the devastation and misery which the making of these conquests brought upon Europe and Asia were continued for many years during the slow and terrible process of their return to their original condition.

In the exigency of the moment, however, at Alexander's death, the generals who were in his court at the time assembled forthwith, and made an attempt to appoint some one to take the immediate command. They spent a week in stormy debates on this subject. Alexander had left no legitimate heir, and he had declined when on his death-bed, as we have already seen, to appoint a successor. Among his wives—if, indeed, they may be called wives—there was one named Roxana, who had a son not long after his death. This son was ultimately named his successor; but, in the mean time, a certain relative named Aridæus was chosen by the generals to assume the command. The selection of Aridæus was a sort of compromise. He had no talents or capacity whatever, and was chosen by the rest on that very account, each one thinking that if such an imbecile as Aridæus was nominally the king, he could himself manage to get possession of the real power. Aridæus accepted the appointment, but he was never able to make himself king in any thing but the name.

In the mean time, as the tidings of Alexander's death spread over the empire, it produced very various effects, according to the personal feelings in respect to Alexander entertained by the various personages and powers to which the intelligence came. Some, who had admired his greatness, and the splendor of his exploits, without having themselves experienced the bitter fruits of them, mourned and lamented his death. Others, whose fortunes had been ruined, and whose friends and relatives had been destroyed, in the course, or in the sequel of his victories, rejoiced that he who had been such a scourge and curse to others, had himself sunk, at last under the just judgment of Heaven.

We should have expected that Sysigambis, the bereaved and widowed mother of Darius, would have been among those who would have exulted most highly at the conqueror's death; but history tells us that, instead of this, she mourned over it with a protracted and inconsolable grief. Alexander had been, in fact, though the implacable enemy of her son, a faithful and generous friend to her. He had treated her, at all times, with the utmost respect and consideration, had supplied all her wants, and ministered, in every way, to her comfort and happiness. She had gradually learned to think of him and to love him as a son; he, in fact, always called her mother; and when she learned that he was gone, she felt as if her last earthly protector was gone. Her life had been one continued scene of affliction and sorrow, and this last blow brought her to her end. She pined away, perpetually restless and distressed. She lost all desire for food, and refused, like others who are suffering great mental anguish, to take the sustenance which her friends and attendants offered and urged upon her. At length she died. They said she starved herself to death; but it was, probably, grief and despair at being thus left, in her declining years, so hopelessly friendless and alone, and not hunger, that destroyed her.

In striking contrast to this mournful scene of sorrow in the palace of Sysigambis, there was an exhibition of the most wild and tumultuous joy in the streets, and in all the public places of resort in the city of Athens, when the tidings of the death of the great Macedonian king arrived there. The Athenian commonwealth, as well as all the other states of Southern Greece, had submitted very reluctantly to the Macedonian supremacy. They had resisted Philip, and they had resisted Alexander. Their opposition had been at last suppressed and silenced by Alexander's terrible vengeance upon Thebes, but it never was really subdued. Demosthenes, the orator, who had exerted so powerful an influence against the Macedonian kings, had been sent into banishment, and all outward expressions of discontent were restrained. The disontent and hostility existed still, however, as inveterate as ever, and was ready to break out anew, with redoubled violence, the moment that the terrible energy of Alexander himself was no longer to be feared.

When, therefore, the rumor arrived at Athens—for at first it was a mere rumor—that Alexander was dead in Babylon, the whole city was thrown into a state of the most tumultuous joy. The citizens assembled in the public places, and congratulated and harangued each other with expressions of the greatest exultation. They were for proclaiming their independence and declaring war against Macedon on the spot. Some of the older and more sagacious of their counselors were, however, more composed and calm. They recommended a little delay, in order to see whether the news was really true. Phocion, in particular, who was one of the prominent statesmen of the city, endeavored to quiet the excitement of the people. "Do not let us be so precipitate," said he. "There is time enough. If Alexander is really dead to-day, he will be dead to-morrow, and the next day, so that there will be time enough for us to act with deliberation and discretion."

Just and true as this view of the subject was, there was too much of rebuke and satire in it to have much influence with those to whom it was addressed. The people were resolved on war. They sent commissioners into all the states of the Peloponnesus to organize a league, offensive and defensive, against Macedon. They recalled Demosthenes from his banishment, and adopted all the necessary military measures for establishing and maintaining their freedom. The consequences of all this would doubtless have been very serious, if the rumor of Alexander's death had proved false; but, fortunately for Demosthenes and the Athenians, it was soon abundantly confirmed.

The return of Demosthenes to the city was like the triumphal entry of a conqueror. At the time of his recall he was at the island of Ægina, which is about forty miles southwest of Athens, in one of the gulfs of the Ægean Sea. They sent a public galley to receive him, and to bring him to the land. It was a galley of three banks of oars, and was fitted up in a style to do honor to a public guest. Athens is situated some distance back from the sea, and has a small port, called the Piræus, at the shore—a long, straight avenue leading from the port to the city. The galley by which Demosthenes was conveyed landed at the Piræus. All the civil and religious authorities of the city went down to the port, in a grand procession, to receive and welcome the exile on his arrival, and a large portion of the population followed in the train, to witness the spectacle, and to swell by their acclamations the general expression of joy.

In the mean time, the preparations for Alexander's funeral had been going on, upon a great scale of magnificence and splendor. It was two years before they were complete. The body had been given, first, to be embalmed, according to the Egyptian and Chaldean art, and then had been placed in a sort of sarcophagus, in which it was to be conveyed to its long home. Alexander, it will be remembered, had given directions that it should be taken to the temple of Jupiter Ammon, in the Egyptian oasis, where he had been pronounced the son of a god. It would seem incredible that such a mind as his could really admit such an absurd superstition as the story of his divine origin, and we must therefore suppose that he gave this direction in order that the place of his interment might confirm the idea of his superhuman nature in the general opinion of mankind. At all events, such were his orders, and the authorities who were left in power at Babylon after his death, prepared to execute them.

It was a long journey. To convey a body by a regular funeral procession, formed as soon after the death as the arrangements could be made, from Babylon to the eastern frontiers of Egypt, a distance of a thousand miles, was perhaps as grand a plan of interment as was ever formed. It has something like a parallel in the removal of Napoleon's body from St. Helena to Paris, though this was not really an interment, but a transfer. Alexander's was a simple burial procession, going from the palace where he died to the proper cemetery—a march of a thousand miles, it is true, but all within his own dominions. The greatness of it resulted simply from the magnitude of the scale on which every thing pertaining to the mighty here was performed, for it was nothing but a simple passage from the dwelling to the burial-ground in his own estates, after all.

A very large and elaborately constructed carriage was built to convey the body. The accounts of the richness and splendor of this vehicle are almost incredible. The spokes and naves of the wheels were overlaid with gold, and the extremities of the axles, where they appeared outside at the centers of the wheels, were adorned with massive golden ornaments. The wheels and axle-trees were so large, and so far apart, that there was supported upon them a platform or floor for the carriage twelve feet wide and eighteen feet long. Upon this platform there was erected a magnificent pavilion, supported by Ionic columns, and profusely ornamented, both within and without, with purple and gold. The interior constituted an apartment, more or less open at the sides, and resplendent within with gems and precious stones. The space of twelve feet by eighteen forms a chamber of no inconsiderable size, and there was thus ample room for what was required within. There was a throne, raised some steps, and placed back upon the platform, profusely carved and gilded. It was empty; but crowns, representing the various nations over whom Alexander had reigned, were hung upon it. At the foot of the throne was the coffin, made, it is said, of solid gold, and containing, besides the body, a large quantity of the most costly spices and aromatic perfumes, which filled the air with their odor. The arms which Alexander wore were laid out in view, also, between the coffin and the throne.

On the four sides of the carriage were bass relievos, that is, sculptured figures raised from a surface, representing Alexander himself, with various military concomitants. There were Macedonian columns, and Persian squadrons, and elephants of India, and troops of horse, and various other emblems of the departed hero's greatness and power. Around the pavilion, too, there was a fringe or net-work of golden lace, to the pendents of which were attached bells, which tolled continually, with a mournful sound, as the carriage moved along. A long column of mules, sixty-four in number, arranged in sets of four, drew this ponderous car. These mules were all selected for their great size and strength, and were splendidly caparisoned. They had collars and harnesses mounted with gold, and enriched with precious stones.

Before the procession set out from Babylon an army of pioneers and workmen went forward to repair the roads, strengthen the bridges, and remove the obstacles along the whole line of route over which the train was to pass. At length, when all was ready, the solemn procession began to move, and passed out through the gates of Babylon. No pen can describe the enormous throngs of spectators that assembled to witness its departure, and that gathered along the route, as it passed slowly on from city to city, in its long and weary way.

Notwithstanding all this pomp and parade, however, the body never reached its intended destination. Ptolemy, the officer to whom Egypt fell in the division of Alexander's empire, came forth with a grand escort of troops to meet the funeral procession as it came into Egypt. He preferred, for some reason or other, that the body should be interred in the city of Alexandria. It was accordingly deposited there, and a great monument was erected over the spot. This monument is said to have remained standing for fifteen hundred years, but all vestiges of it have now disappeared. The city of Alexandria itself, however, is the conqueror's real monument; the greatest and best, perhaps, that any conqueror ever left behind him. It is a monument, too, that time will not destroy; its position and character, as Alexander foresaw, by bringing it a continued renovation, secure its perpetuity.

Alexander earned well the name and reputation of THE GREAT. He was truly great in all those powers and capacities which can elevate one man above his fellows. We can not help applauding the extraordinary energy of his genius, though we condemn the selfish and cruel ends to which his life was devoted. He was simply a robber, but yet a robber on so vast a scale, that mankind, in contemplating his career, have generally lost sight of the wickedness of his crimes in their admiration of the enormous magnitude of the scale on which they were perpetrated.