How 'Great' was Alexander the Great?


The Secondary Historiography

In the 1950s, Alexander was regarded as a wonderful man. The glorious Alexander of film-maker Robert Rossen was matched in the academic world by the perfect Alexander of classical scholar William Tarn: ‘Tarn beatified Alexander [and] made it popular to see only the good in his hero’, wrote Frank Holt.

By the 1970s, however, writers such as Ernst Badian and AB Bosworth were attacking this view, creating a new interpretation of ‘a reprehensible Alexander beset by paranoia, megalomania, alcoholism and violence’.

In 1999 Ian Worthington published a paper – How ‘Great’ was Alexander? – which claimed that Alexander alienated the Macedonians, took risks, triumphed more by luck than skill, and was egotistical, sacrilegious and spiteful.


The Primary Record

Classical authors approached Alexander in a very different way.

Arrian was a huge fan, as you can read in book 7.28-30 of your set texts:

He was a very handsome man, most capable of hard work, very keen in judgement; he was outstanding in bravery, and his love of honour and in his capacity for risk, and he was most attentive to religious matters. He showed great self-control over the pleasures of the body, and as for the pleasures of the mind, he was insatiable only for praise…. He was very experienced in organising, arming and equipping his troops, and he was outstanding in raising the spirits of his troops … a man without equal in all the world.



Plutarch, too was eulogistic:

Alexander was not easily to be diverted from anything he was bent upon. For fortune having hitherto seconded him in his designs, made him resolute and firm in his opinions, and the boldness of his temper raised a sort of passion in him for surmounting difficulties; as if it were not enough to be always victorious in the field, unless places and seasons and nature herself submitted to him.



Arrian and Plutarch took their accounts from Ptolemy and Aristobulus – the so-called ‘good’ sources. Diodorus and Curtius based their accounts more upon the history of Cleitarchus, and were openly critical of Alexander’s pride, tyranny and drunkenness.

Curtius, nevertheless, in a long passage in Book 10 – although he acknowledged Alexander’s faults ('putting himself on a par with the gods', 'reacting with excessive anger', 'assuming foreign dress and aping the customs of defeated races', and 'fondness for drink') – also listed his strengths: 'incredible mental energy', 'exemplary courage', 'generosity', 'clemency towards the defeated', 'disregard for death', 'a lust for glory and fame', 'devotion to his parents', 'kindness towards his friends, goodwill towards the men', 'powers of discernment' and 'ingenuity', and 'self-control'.


 Diodorus, too, was in thrall:

Alexander accomplished great things in a short space of time, and by his acumen and courage surpassed in the magnitude of his achievements all kings whose memory is recorded from the beginning of time. In twelve years he conquered no small part of Europe and practically all of Asia, and so acquired a fabulous reputation like that of the heroes and demigods of old. But there is really no need to anticipate in the introduction any of the accomplishments of this king; his deeds reported one by one will attest sufficiently the greatness of his glory.




The following websites will help you complete the task:

This document contains the relevant section of the set
OCR Textbook.

You MUST know about
Alexander's legacy, and you MUST include Arrian's assessment of Alexander.

You can read Ian Worthington's article here.

You do not need to watch Oliver Stone's dreadful 2005 movie Alexander the Great to try to reconstruct its garbled and anachronostic interpretation, but John Cherry's review here is good reading.



Draw a table with two columns, headed 'Positives' and 'Negatives', and then:

Go through the EVENTS of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative moments, categorising them as 'positive' or 'negative' depending on whether they support, or detract from, Alexander's claim to 'greatness'.
Make sure you include details and minor events, as well as just the 'big things'.


Go through the SOURCES of Alexander's life, selecting key illustrative passages, categorising them as 'positive' or 'negative' depending on whether they support, or detract from, Alexander's claim to 'greatness'.
Remember to evaluate their validity - a single reliable source about Alexander's greatness will outweigh a dozen passages illustrating weakness but which are all imaginary or full of errors.

In your opinion, how 'great' was Alexander?