Alexander, before the legend

MU professor studies the real history of the powerful king, sans mythical
additions and movie treatments
Sunday, January 9, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:45 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

When MU history professor Ian Worthington went to see the movie “Alexander,” he hoped director Oliver Stone would give him a glimpse of the man behind the legend. Instead, in Worthington’s view, Stone’s film puts grand ideas ahead of an in-depth character study and fails to convey the qualities that made Alexander a charismatic commander and statesman.

Although the film accurately portrays Alexander’s drinking and bisexuality, Worthington says, it doesn’t capture the forceful personality Alexander must have had to accomplish what he did.

“We never see what makes Alexander tick,” he says.

Worthington is author of the book “Alexander the Great: Man and God,” which explores the “historical Alexander,” or the person behind the legend. Alexander became king of Macedonia when he was 20. From 336 to 323 B.C., he defeated the Persian Empire and created an empire that stretched from Greece to India. He has been called an imperialist, a hero and a genius.

In his book, Worthington investigates whether Alexander deserves to be called “great,” or whether “Alexander the Accursed,” as he is known in some places today, might be a more accurate title.

“There’s no one Alexander; he’s what you make him. He’s the second most famous figure from antiquity after Jesus Christ,” Worthington says.

Written accounts of Alexander’s reign are mostly from between the first century B.C. and the second century. Sources from the time of his reign have not survived in entirety. Scholars have tried to reconstruct the Alexander’s history by piecing together accounts from various time periods.

Scholars often focus on Alexander’s youth, his advancement of Greek culture and his military success, Worthington says. The complexities of his personality, including his drinking, paranoia, murderous tendencies and his belief he was a god, are studied less often. Worthington looks at both sides to understand the whole “package” of Alexander. He surveys Alexander the man, the leader , the diplomat and the patriot, someone who had a duty to the dynasty and his people.

“The idea of ‘Alexander the Great’ really comes from his military successes,’’ Worthington says. “It’s an epithet that was probably coined by the Romans because Roman military writers really measured greatness by military successes. What I do is to try to divorce the military side from Alexander the king. He wasn’t just a general. That was only part of his job; he was a king.”

While scholars have tried to construct a historical Alexander, popular culture has constructed a body of myths and legends about the hero. Worthington says Stone’s movie is a contribution to legends such as the “Alexander Romances,” a collection of stories rewritten over the centuries in Eastern and Western cultures. In some “Romance” accounts, Alexander has different-colored eyes and encounters talking trees and a tribe of headless men. In others, his legend is manipulated to fit a particular time and place in history.

“After his death, he became this romantic figure, and in the centuries that followed, especially the Middle Ages, when it was the age of chivalry and knights of the round table, he became not just the great military leader, he became the great king,” Worthington says. “And so everything he did became part of his greatness.”

Indeed, Worthington and Stone find contemporary significance in Alexander’s story. Comparing the war in Iraq to Alexander’s battles, Worthington says part of Alexander’s peace plan was to maintain indigenous rule of conquered territories and allow his subjects to have their systems of governing. He says that although Alexander preferred constant warfare to uniting territories, he always had an exit plan.

Stone’s military adviser for the movie has compared Alexander’s men to the soldiers in Iraq. Worthington said he thinks that comparison is problematic, though.

“Alexander’s men signed up to do a job, but every so often he sent some of them home,” he says. “And they followed him, and eventually they mutinied on him; I haven’t heard of any mutinies yet. And they got all these big cash bonuses. So I think there was a different attitude.”

Worthington said he believes the hype surrounding the movie’s release last month is linked to our culture’s fascination with the ancient world and Western traditions.

“It’s not just Greekness, it’s an interest in antiquity in general,” Worthington says. “It’s really the ancestor of everything we’ve got.”

Worthing cited the influence of ancient literature and comedy, as well as democracy and law.

Worthington says he doesn’t regret Hollywood’s appropriation and embellishment of antiquity. People don’t flock to films such as “Troy,” “Gladiator” or the coming “Hannibal” for a history lesson, he says, but for the brawny actors and the historical drama. The spectacle of an epic movie might be the only way to hook some people to the real story.

“My take on it really, and this is what Gene Simmons used to say in Kiss, is that any publicity is good publicity, even if it’s bad,” Worthington says.

He wonders whether people will soon trade the battles of history for the battles of special effects and whether the past can continue to satiate moviegoers’ hunger for action.

“Once you’ve seen the battles in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ everything pales in comparison,” Worthington says.

But whether a film is about real or imagined history, scripts and actors must make viewers believe in the people and events at its center. The biggest problem with Stone’s movie, Worthington says, is not that it isn’t historically accurate, but that the subject is not believable.

“If there ever is another Alexander movie,” Worthington says, “I think you really do need to get an actor with natural blond hair.”

Worthington’s book “Alexander the Great: Man and God” is available in paperback at 9th Street Bookstore and Barnes & Noble.

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