Analysis of the Historical Accuracy of Achievements of Alexander The Great in the Movie Alexander

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“How can a man become a God?” Alexander asked. “By doing something a man cannot do,” was the philosopher’s reply. This was the defining principle that governed the life of Alexander the Great. Alexander was one of the most successful military commanders in history. He was a figure of mythic proportions who conquered the massive Persian Empire and spread Greek culture throughout Asia, initiating the Hellenistic period that lasted almost three hundred years and whose legacy changed the world.

A charismatic leader who demanded loyalty from his troops, Alexander lead by example, displaying both brutality and magnanimity. Alexander identified with ancient Greek heroes Heracles and Achilles from whom it was said he was descended. Drawing from the military expertise of his father Philip II, the brilliant teachings of Aristotle and the inspiration from the heroic age of Greek history, Alexander embodied heroism: courage, strength, superstition and above all else, honour and dignity.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to the safe retention of historical records of Alexander’s life from antiquity. The Great fire at Alexandria in 48 BC destroyed much of the ancient world’s single greatest archive of knowledge: the Library of Alexandria. What we know today of Alexander’s life is based on sources hundreds of years later written by scholarly historians primarily from Roman culture who would have had access to secondary sources that themselves were lost eventually. Regardless, Alexander’s story is epic and has been studied and told numerous times since antiquity.

One of the several movies that attempted to document Alexander’s life and legacy is a version from 2004 called Alexander. The 2004 movie Alexander, directed by Oliver Stone is to a great extent, historically accurate in that it is representative of Alexander’s legacy, life, and his relationships.

The movie accurately depicts the military strategies, battles, cities and the route taken on Alexander’s ten-year campaign. In order to help chronicle Alexander’s legacy and to facilitate the narrative, Stone used Ptolemy to describe the events at the smaller battles of Alexander’s army in Asia and Egypt in order to focus on the great battle at Gaugamela that won the Persian Empire for Alexander. Ptolemy mentioned that the siege of Tyre and Gaza demonstrated the brutality and merciless assault Alexander was capable of when the residents fought back.

Arrian wrote that Alexander killed or enslaved every inhabitant in each city and dragged the governor of Gaza by his feet behind a chariot to his death as Achilles did to Hector at Troy. Oliver Stone staged a grand, elaborate and historically accurate battle at Gaugamela. In the movie, Alexander wore a helmet with plumes of white feathers on each side so he would be visible on the battlefield; “And Alexander being easily known by a large plume of white feathers on each side of his helmet” Cantor quotes Arrian’s description of Alexander’s behaviour on the battlefield, which is very well recreated and duplicated in the movie:

“When the armies were now closing in on each other, Alexander Rode the whole length of the line calling on his men to show courage. He addressed by name and with appropriate honors and titles not just the generals but squadron leaders, company commanders and any of the foreign mercenaries that had some reputation for their superior rank or their courage.”

The troop formation and movement were also accurately reproduced: In the Macedonian centre was the phalanx under the leadership of Craterus. Cantor states the phalanx soldiers were trained to work in tightly packed units of sixteen, marching ahead with the sarissa tilted forward, looking like an impenetrable wall of spear points. On the right wing stood the shield-bearer infantrymen under the command of Parmenion’s son Nicanor, the companion cavalry led by Nicanor’s brother Philotas and Alexander and the light cavalry. On the left wing, commanded by Parmenion, stood the Thessalian and Thracian horsemen. The fierce battle against King Porus in India was also detailed in the movie; terror, death and mutilation were evident accurately re-creating the blood bath against the battle elephants. “The Macedonian phalanx marched toward the elephants attacking the drivers and subjecting the elephants to volleys of weapons from all sides. The elephants panicked and as they twisted and turned, they trampled their own men as well of those of Alexander.”

Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander accurately depicts the actual route taken by Alexander’s army from Macedonia to Asia and Egypt into India and back to Babylon. All historical records documented from the primary and secondary sources of Callisthenes, Ptolemy, Nearchus, Aristobulus and Cleitarchus among others agree on the route taken by Alexander and his army. Additionally, the movie goes to great lengths to reproduce the famous cities in the Persian Empire. The Blue gate of Babylon was evident in the movie as Alexander famously entered through it as the conquering army. Freeman describes the ancient city of Babylon as it was written in the historical documents; “no entry was more spectacular than the fabulous Ishtar Gate, made up of hundreds of glazed blue tiles decorated with golden bulls and dragons. Babylon was laid out in a grid… thousands of houses inside the walls were three to four stories high” The massive city of Babylon was very well recreated in the movie, including the Hanging Gardens, the structured streets with thousands of houses and shops and the palace opulence.

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The movie Alexander accurately explores the personal life of Alexander; his childhood influences and the events that had the most impact on his character. Cantor explains that Alexander’s fascination with the heroic age conditioned his behaviour along certain lines – heroism, courage, strength and superstition. Stone’s Alexander displayed daring, courage and strength when he charged the Persian lines to get close to Darius, causing the Persian King to turn and run in fear, winning the battle at Gaugamela. Moreover, in the movie, Alexander made a point of keeping a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow, a habit confirmed by Freeman who stated that Alexander saw it as a Handbook of war. One of the most important of Alexander’s leadership traits was his ability to inspire his troops; a skill he displayed in the movie in each battle. Yenne corroborates this sentiment, saying Alexander “made the campaign personal, stressing and appealing to the motives and aspirations of each group under his command, whether that be a desire for revenge, for glory, or for proving that they were the best of the best.”

A large part of Alexander’s education and philosophy of life came from Aristotle, his teacher. The movie capably illustrates a strong bond between Aristotle and young Alexander over their three years together. Freeman concurs by stating that Alexander’s youth was filled with battle plans and lessons from Greek men like Aristotle. In the movie, it was inferred that Alexander took several male lovers including Hephaistion and an effeminate Persian eunuch Bagoas. As Freeman points out, “Like many Greeks and Macedonians, Alexander preferred the company of men for his sexual affairs but this did not mean he could not feel passion for women as well. The King like most people in the ancient world did not subscribe to later Christian codes of conduct in sexual matters and was free to pursue both genders.” Alexander was an enigmatic figure and his motives for conquering the known world are complex. The historical records are mixed and subjective to the writer. For instance Ptolemy stated in his movie narration that Alexander wanted to unite the Eastern and Western worlds, to spread Hellenism and “the world was better after Alexander conquered it”.

The second-century AD Roman historian Arrian describes Alexander as “zealous for honor” and “insatiable of glory alone.” Plutarch, a Greek writing early in the second-century AD comments that Alexander did not desire wealth and luxury but “virtue and fame.” It was also evident in the movie that Alexander had a strong desire to surpass his father’s legacy, to which he was constantly being assessed against, and to be compared to his heroes Heracles and Achilles. For example, when Alexander killed Cleitus in a drunken rage, Arrian reported that it was due to a heated discussion about comparing Alexander to Heracles who had attained divine status and Alexander had not. Anson also states Alexander felt compelled to achieve more and this drove him to the far reaches of Asia and into India in search of glory and fame to rival his father.

Alexander’s life was influenced by his relationship with his family and friends. The movie clearly adhered to historical records and demonstrated the contentious relationship with both his father and his mother. Plutarch mentions that upon hearing of his father’s victories, Alexander would not rejoice, but instead tell his companions that there would be no opportunities left for him to perform great and illustrious actions to make a name for himself. At the wedding between Alexander’s father Phillip and his new bride Cleopatra, Alexander became angry when Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus said that the gods would give them a lawful successor to the Kingdom.

Alexander was so irritated that he threw a Cup at the head of Attalus and said “you villain, what am I then, a bastard?” Worthington also illustrates the contentious father and son relationship when he says “Alexander’s admiration of his father changed to resentment especially in the last 2 years of his father’s reign. Alexander was eager for glory himself.” In the movie, Alexander’s mother was shown to be controlling, overbearing and extremely protective, exhibiting a closer than normal relationship. Olympias raised Alexander to be proud, claiming that he was the son of Zeus. Plutarch stated that Olympias was a woman of jealous and implacable temper, meddlesome, arrogant and a strong influence on Alexander to be a great leader.

Alexander’s friends were the young nobles of the court who were also tutored by Aristotle and who shared his vision and supported him in his quest to conquer the Persian Empire and beyond. The movie provided a good portrayal of the circle of friends around Alexander who would eventually become his trusted generals. Freeman describes some of the trusted companions, including Ptolemy, Cassander and Nearchus, but “Hephaestion of Pella would become his closest friend.” Alexander eventually took 3 wives to merge east and west and fuse the cultures to create a new Middle Eastern empire. In Alexander, Roxane was his first wife, daughter of a Bactrian nobleman and very beautiful. Freeman states “Roxane was very beautiful, and Alexander fell in love with her” His marriage to Roxane made Hephaestion jealous and Alexander’s love for Hephaestion made Roxane jealous. In the movie, Alexander told Hephaestion “you are a reflection of me”.

It is evident throughout the film Alexander that a wide array of primary and secondary source material was consulted to ensure accuracy, and to a great extent represent Alexander the Great’s legacy and personal life. The battle scenes in particular were well researched and meticulously filmed to demonstrate the nuances of Alexander’s unique and highly successful formations, movements and strategy.

The film accurately portrayed the weapons, armour and equipment donned by the cavalry and foot soldiers of Alexander’s multi-faceted army. Furthermore, the skillful maneuvering of the phalanx demonstrated a practiced elegance as well as substantiating the historical records that claim it to be almost undefeatable.

Additionally, the use of flashback scenes to reveal important childhood events facilitated our understanding of Alexander’s philosophy and his personal relationships as documented in the records of antiquity. Similarly, Stone’s decision to use Ptolemy as a narrator and guide gave us insight into Alexander’s motives and critical adherence to an important primary source of material while acknowledging the inherent subjective bias.

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