There are several problems for an historian attempting to gain an understanding of the motives of Alexander the Great. Firstly, lack of available primary source material is extremely limiting. Most of our main available sources for Alexander are written centuries after his death, and though several of them may well have relied quite heavily on eye-witness accounts, we have very little of this evidence left to be able to substantially verify the accuracy of their dealings with the source material. Also, Alexander’s motives may well have shifted throughout the course of his campaign; Alexander may have begun his campaign out of necessity (economic and military necessity), but his continued expansion and later Orientalism may indicate that his motives shifted dramatically as his invasion wore on. Furthermore, it is common for historians to have a particular interpretation of Alexander’s personality, and this will have a significant influence on the interpretation of his motives, as it encourages us to unconsciously some pieces of evidence as more significant or relevant than others, or to disregard other logical arguments that contradict our own perspective.
Along with limited source material, we have the problem of the influence of popular legend on later historians’ accounts. Alexander was well aware of the propagandistic power of mythology, and he often utilized it as a means to justify his rule and even his invasion of Persia. There are several examples of Alexander’s actions on campaign in Persia that suggest he sought to constantly remind his subjects of his divine heritage and his greatness. For example, Alexander positioned his invasion of the Persian Empire as another Trojan war by visiting Troy and sacrificing to the gods. The Trojan War had gained mythological status in Greek society, and Alexander’s associating his invasion with the Trojan war had clear propagandistic benefits. However, he may also have been motivated by a personal belief in the similarities between the two situations, and a desire to ensure that he had the support of the gods on his side. The incident may have had personal, rather than political significance for him (and it is reputed that he kept a copy of the Iliad with him constantly).
Considering that one of the gods he sacrificed to at Troy was Poseidon, who was the god of the seas (and who in mythology decided whether to allow men to cross oceans safely often on a whim or based on whether or not he liked them, as was the case with Odysseus), perhaps Alexander simply thought it necessary to sacrifice to him before he and his army crossed the sea into Asia. Based on the evidence on Alexander that we do have, I think the incident was probably entirely motivated by Alexander’s awareness of the power of myth in gaining popular support. However, as stated before, there are other possible motives for this one action, and it is impossible to ever know for sure.
Alexander’s later siege of the Rock of Aornos in 327 is another example of Alexander’s probable use of mythology for propagandistic gain. The Rock of Aornis was not a necessary strategic position, and in laying siege to it Alexander placed the lives of his men in what seemed like unnecessary danger. Strategically, it seemed a poor decision, but when we consider the mythological basis for this siege, his motivations seem to become clearer. In mythology, Heracles was unsuccessful in his attempt to capture the Rock of Aornos. Alexander’s proving he could do so had significant symbolic power, and supported Alexander’s claim to divine roots while also providing fodder for propaganda campaigns that claimed Alexander was himself divine. However, there are other interpretations of this action as well, and some historians believe that Alexander was simply motivated by a thirst for glory, or that he had lost his ability to reason by this point in the campaign. I am fairly firm in my interpretation of these incidents, but the fact remains that there are multiple interpretations of Alexander’s motives throughout his campaign.
This use of mythology for propaganda resulted in the widespread arguments for Alexander’s divinity or simply his ‘greatness’ throughout the empire. This affected individual’s interpretations of Alexander’s actions, with some writers being motivated by their belief in Alexander’s greatness, and others being motivated by their belief in his political manipulation of his subjects; a significant problem for the historian is that so much of our extant sources are almost entirely commentary, and commentary can be highly subjective. Without more source material to compare our written histories of Alexander the Great, it becomes more and more difficult to accurately determine his motives.
The diversity of differing interpretations on the same evidence – many of which are equally compelling – reveals that we simply do not have enough substantial evidence to be able to say with certainty what Alexander’s motives were throughout his campaign. However, what does seem clear is that he began his campaign at least in part motivated by economic necessity (his coffers were near empty, he was in debt, and the fastest way of filling his coffers was with military victories that would provide both tribute and booty) and the need to quell thoughts of rebellion in Greece (mobilising his army, which included a significant number of Greeks, would be likely to prevent an uprising at least for a while – as the Greeks would be less inclined to revolt while thousands of their compatriots were in Persia with Alexander – and the military victories he would have in the meantime would serve to inspire fear and awe in his Greek and Macedonian subjects to further protect against uprisings. Apart from these original motives, however, it becomes difficult to determine without a shadow of doubt what Alexander’s motivations were. From the evidence available to me, I believe his motivations were always at least in part based on the need to protect the stability of his empire, but that by the time of the Opis mutiny, he had lost touch with his Macedonian subjects enough to not anticipate their reaction to his attempted introduction of Persian customs. Or, perhaps he truly had become overly interested in Persian customs and wanted to introduce them for glory’s sake, rather than as a means to facilitate unity and social and political stability. On this point, I am as yet undecided.
Our primary contributor is Elissa, who is a qualified high school teacher and Irlen Screener.