The Nature of Alexander

Paperback
$14.95 US
On sale Nov 12, 1979 | 288 Pages | 978-0-394-73825-3
This is the acclaimed biography of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, two best-selling novels about Alexander.
IMAGES     3

MACEDON     19

TROY     69

PERSIA     125

INDIA     189

THE MARCH TO BABYLON     203

POSTSCRIPT     268

ANCIENT SOURCES     269

INDEX     271
from IMAGES
 
On a hot June day in Babylon, in 323 BC, Alexander died. Wailing spread through the city; his body-squires wandered about in tears; the Persians shaved their heads in mourning; the temples quenched their fires. His generals plunged into a dazed and chaotic power struggle. In one of its episodes they fought about his bier, where he may have been alive in a terminal coma, for the freshness and lifelike colour of his corpse, left some time untended, were much wondered at. At length the embalmers came, approaching him with awe; and “after praying that it might be right and lawful for mortals to handle the body of a god” began their work.
 
Roxane’s child was still unborn. If he named his successor on his deathbed, no one admitted to having heard. There was no established heir whose own prestige would be invested in the splendour of his obsequies; for decades, Greece and Asia would be riddled with intrigue and shaken with tramp of armies, as his generals tore off their portions of his empire. Yet steadily for two years, as war elephants moved ponderously in the train of war leaders changing sides, gold and gems by the talents’ worth poured into the workshop where Greek master craftsmen were perfecting a funeral car worthy of its burden. It was accepted like a law of nature that the catafalque must be unsurpassed in memory, history or legend.
 
The coffin was of beaten told, the body within it embedded in precious spices. Over it was spread a pall of gold-embroidered purple on which was displayed Alexander’s panoply of arms. Upon all this was erected a golden temple. Gold Ionic columns, twined with acanthus, supported a vaulted roof of gold scales set with jewels, topped with a scintillating gold olive wreath which flashed in the sun like lightning. At each of its corners stood a golden Victory holding out a trophy. The gold cornice below it was embossed with ibex heads from which hung gold rings supporting a bright, multi-colored garland. Its ends were tasseled, and from the tassels hung large bells with clear and carrying voices.
 
Under the cornice hung a painted frieze. Its front panel showed Alexander in a state chariot, “a very splendid scepter in his hands,” attended by Macedonian and Persian bodyguards. Another had a procession of Indian war elephants; a third, cavalry in battle order; the last a fleet of ships. The open spaces between the columns were filled in with golden net, screening the draped sarcophagus from sun and rain, but not from the viewers’ eyes. It had an entrance, guarded by golden lions.
 
The axles of the gilded wheels ended in lion heads whose teeth held spears. Something had been devised to protect their burden from shock. The edifice was drawn by sixty-four mules, pulling on four yoke poles in teams of four; each mule had a gilded crown, a gold bell hanging at either cheek, and a collar set with gems.
 
Diodorus, who apparently took this description from an eyewitness’s, says it was more magnificent when seen than when described. Alexander himself had always buried his dead with splendour. Funerals in his day were more gifts of honor than displays of mourning.
 
“Because of its wide fame it drew together many spectators; for from every city it came to, the people came out to meet it, and followed beside it when it went away, never wearied of their pleasure in the sight.” Week after week, month after month, at the pace of its labouring mules, preceded by roadmakers and pausing while they smoothed its passage, fifteen, ten, five miles a day; stopping at towns where sacrifices were offered and epitaphions sung, the huge gold shrine, ringing and glittering, trundled across a thousand miles of Asia; the shock absorbers, whose construction has defeated scholars, protecting in death the body so careless of itself in life. North along the Euphrates, east to the Tigris; stopping at Opis, that crucial station on the Royal Road to the west; northward to skirt the Arabian Desert. “Ptolemy, moreover, doing homage to Alexander, went to meet it with an army as far as Syria.”
 
Ptolemy’s homage was a reverent hijack. Kings of Macedon had been buried by ancient custom at Aegae, its ancient hill-fort capital; there was a prophecy that when this failed the royal line would end. Ptolemy, a kinsman of the house, must have known it well. But he had shrewdly chosen his share of the fissured empire: Egypt, where the Macedonian conquest had been hailed as a liberation; where Alexander had honoured the shrines profaned by a Persian king, and received divinity; where Ptolemy himself had got rid of a bad governor and was very popular. To Egypt, he declared, Alexander had wished to return; where else but to his father Ammon?
 
Ptolemy was probably right. Since he crossed the Hellespont eastward at twenty-two, Alexander had shown no disposition to go home. He had planned to centre his empire on Babylon; he had turned himself from a young Macedonian conqueror into an impressive Persian Great King; he déraciné, and so without exception were the ambitious young officers who had followed him. Ptolemy’s loyalty had been proved in early years when, materially, he had had more to lose than gain by it. If now the prestige of entombing his friend was immense for Egypt, if it enabled Ptolemy to found a dynasty, he had fair cause to think that Alexander would be grateful. Had his body reached Macedon, sooner or later it would have been destroyed by the implacable Cassander. In Alexandria it would have centuries of veneration.
MARY RENAULT (1905–1983) was the author of more than a dozen novels. She was born in London, educated at Oxford, and trained as a nurse. After World War II she and her life partner, Julie Mullard, settled in South Africa and traveled widely in Africa and Greece. This was when she began writing her historical novels, including The King Must DieThe Last of the Wine, and The Persian Boy, and a biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander. View titles by Mary Renault

About

This is the acclaimed biography of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault, the author of Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, two best-selling novels about Alexander.

Table of Contents

IMAGES     3

MACEDON     19

TROY     69

PERSIA     125

INDIA     189

THE MARCH TO BABYLON     203

POSTSCRIPT     268

ANCIENT SOURCES     269

INDEX     271

Excerpt

from IMAGES
 
On a hot June day in Babylon, in 323 BC, Alexander died. Wailing spread through the city; his body-squires wandered about in tears; the Persians shaved their heads in mourning; the temples quenched their fires. His generals plunged into a dazed and chaotic power struggle. In one of its episodes they fought about his bier, where he may have been alive in a terminal coma, for the freshness and lifelike colour of his corpse, left some time untended, were much wondered at. At length the embalmers came, approaching him with awe; and “after praying that it might be right and lawful for mortals to handle the body of a god” began their work.
 
Roxane’s child was still unborn. If he named his successor on his deathbed, no one admitted to having heard. There was no established heir whose own prestige would be invested in the splendour of his obsequies; for decades, Greece and Asia would be riddled with intrigue and shaken with tramp of armies, as his generals tore off their portions of his empire. Yet steadily for two years, as war elephants moved ponderously in the train of war leaders changing sides, gold and gems by the talents’ worth poured into the workshop where Greek master craftsmen were perfecting a funeral car worthy of its burden. It was accepted like a law of nature that the catafalque must be unsurpassed in memory, history or legend.
 
The coffin was of beaten told, the body within it embedded in precious spices. Over it was spread a pall of gold-embroidered purple on which was displayed Alexander’s panoply of arms. Upon all this was erected a golden temple. Gold Ionic columns, twined with acanthus, supported a vaulted roof of gold scales set with jewels, topped with a scintillating gold olive wreath which flashed in the sun like lightning. At each of its corners stood a golden Victory holding out a trophy. The gold cornice below it was embossed with ibex heads from which hung gold rings supporting a bright, multi-colored garland. Its ends were tasseled, and from the tassels hung large bells with clear and carrying voices.
 
Under the cornice hung a painted frieze. Its front panel showed Alexander in a state chariot, “a very splendid scepter in his hands,” attended by Macedonian and Persian bodyguards. Another had a procession of Indian war elephants; a third, cavalry in battle order; the last a fleet of ships. The open spaces between the columns were filled in with golden net, screening the draped sarcophagus from sun and rain, but not from the viewers’ eyes. It had an entrance, guarded by golden lions.
 
The axles of the gilded wheels ended in lion heads whose teeth held spears. Something had been devised to protect their burden from shock. The edifice was drawn by sixty-four mules, pulling on four yoke poles in teams of four; each mule had a gilded crown, a gold bell hanging at either cheek, and a collar set with gems.
 
Diodorus, who apparently took this description from an eyewitness’s, says it was more magnificent when seen than when described. Alexander himself had always buried his dead with splendour. Funerals in his day were more gifts of honor than displays of mourning.
 
“Because of its wide fame it drew together many spectators; for from every city it came to, the people came out to meet it, and followed beside it when it went away, never wearied of their pleasure in the sight.” Week after week, month after month, at the pace of its labouring mules, preceded by roadmakers and pausing while they smoothed its passage, fifteen, ten, five miles a day; stopping at towns where sacrifices were offered and epitaphions sung, the huge gold shrine, ringing and glittering, trundled across a thousand miles of Asia; the shock absorbers, whose construction has defeated scholars, protecting in death the body so careless of itself in life. North along the Euphrates, east to the Tigris; stopping at Opis, that crucial station on the Royal Road to the west; northward to skirt the Arabian Desert. “Ptolemy, moreover, doing homage to Alexander, went to meet it with an army as far as Syria.”
 
Ptolemy’s homage was a reverent hijack. Kings of Macedon had been buried by ancient custom at Aegae, its ancient hill-fort capital; there was a prophecy that when this failed the royal line would end. Ptolemy, a kinsman of the house, must have known it well. But he had shrewdly chosen his share of the fissured empire: Egypt, where the Macedonian conquest had been hailed as a liberation; where Alexander had honoured the shrines profaned by a Persian king, and received divinity; where Ptolemy himself had got rid of a bad governor and was very popular. To Egypt, he declared, Alexander had wished to return; where else but to his father Ammon?
 
Ptolemy was probably right. Since he crossed the Hellespont eastward at twenty-two, Alexander had shown no disposition to go home. He had planned to centre his empire on Babylon; he had turned himself from a young Macedonian conqueror into an impressive Persian Great King; he déraciné, and so without exception were the ambitious young officers who had followed him. Ptolemy’s loyalty had been proved in early years when, materially, he had had more to lose than gain by it. If now the prestige of entombing his friend was immense for Egypt, if it enabled Ptolemy to found a dynasty, he had fair cause to think that Alexander would be grateful. Had his body reached Macedon, sooner or later it would have been destroyed by the implacable Cassander. In Alexandria it would have centuries of veneration.

Author

MARY RENAULT (1905–1983) was the author of more than a dozen novels. She was born in London, educated at Oxford, and trained as a nurse. After World War II she and her life partner, Julie Mullard, settled in South Africa and traveled widely in Africa and Greece. This was when she began writing her historical novels, including The King Must DieThe Last of the Wine, and The Persian Boy, and a biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander. View titles by Mary Renault