Michael Wood on… Alexander the Great

"The Greeks' astounding tale still makes front-page news", according to Michael Wood.

This article was first published in the December 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

On our summer holidays in Greece at the end of August, I started getting excited messages from Greek friends about an amazing discovery at Amphipolis in the north of the country. A Macedonian tomb, the largest yet found: a mound 160m across surrounded by a circular wall, with a series of underground chambers, of which three so far have been entered. Inside are stone sphinxes and caryatids (sculpted female figures).

Stone fragments in the entrance may be part of the famous Lion of Amphipolis which today greets the visitor as you enter the town; very likely the lion once surmounted the burial mound. The date of this extraordinary monument is still uncertain, but the excavators think it is from the late fourth century BC – just after Alexander the Great’s death in Babylon.

The find is front-page news in Greece. The villagers (sensing its potential to draw tourists!) want the tomb to be that of Alexander himself. However, he was certainly buried in Alexandria. But could it still have been originally planned for him? All will be revealed, we hope, when the excavators open the tomb chamber; but the find has focused attention again on one of the great figures in history, and one who has long fascinated me.

Back in the early eighties I was lucky enough to experience the incredible thrill of climbing down by ladder through a hole in the roof of the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip, in the northern Greek town of Vergina with the excavator, Manolis Andronikos; the marble doors to the underworld still closed. In the late nineties I followed Alexander’s route from Greece to India on the ground, and will never forget the excitement of tracking him across the Hindu Kush to Alexandria the Farthermost (Khujand in Tajikistan), and through the forbidding Makran desert in southern Pakistan.

The Greek adventure in Asia is an astounding tale: people from a small land on the edge of civilisation who conquered half the known world. After Alexander, they went even further. The ‘King and Saviour’ Menander subdued the Ganges valley and became a Buddhist; his name is given on ancient maps to the Arakan mountains, which divide Bengal and Burma. It’s an incredible story of conquest, daring and cruelty, only matched in history perhaps by the conquistadors.

As for Alexander himself, the debate goes on. British imperialists idealised him as a unifier, yet he stands accused of war crimes. But as so often in history, war drove change. The expedition accelerated the dissemination of Greek culture across west Asia in a great cross-fertilisation. For a thousand years Greek was a lingua franca in a Hellenised near east. Even the Qur’an tells the tale of the ‘Two Horned One’ – thought to be Alexander – to whom Allah gave dominion over the Earth.

Going east, the theorem of Pythagoras reached China within decades of Alexander’s death, and the terracotta army and the first monumental bronzes of the Chin emperor are now thought to have been inspired by Hellenistic models, perhaps seen in central Asia.

So amazing vistas open up. The tale has been transformed out of all recognition these last few decades, through archaeology, cuneiform texts, the Vergina tombs and the Derveni papyrus with its insights into Greek mystical cults. And now, unexpectedly, is a spectacular new find from Macedonia itself.

So who lies in the tomb? One of Alexander’s successors? Or one of his family? Could it be a war memorial? (Is it a coincidence that it was at Amphipolis that Alexander’s army assembled before embarking on the war in Asia?) Or could it perhaps commemorate  Alexander’s general Laomedon, who went to India but may have ended his days in Amphipolis?

So many questions! In the meantime we all wait with great excitement. When I heard the news on holiday in Greece, my mind went back to the old folktale still told by fishermen on the little Cycladic island where we go each summer. In the midst of the storm a mermaid appears in the raging waters and calls out: ‘Where is Great Alexander?’ To save your life you must give the right answer, or she will drag you into the depths. The answer is this: ‘Great Alexander still lives and rules!’

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. His most recent TV series was King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons.

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