Alexander Before Greatness

Madhav Mehrotra

King Philip II regarded his wife Myrtale and the infant in her arms, born just moments before, and still crying. Myrtale rocked him gently, laughing with delight. ‘My lord,’ whispered one of the ministers at his shoulder. ‘The populace has gathered outside the royal palace. They eagerly await news.’

Philip nodded and set off towards his balcony, accompanied by his most trusted bodyguards. He viewed the thousands who had gathered, cleared his throat and spoke. ‘Citizens of Macedonia!’ he announced. ‘On this day, the sixth of Loïos, the Gods of Olympus have seen fit to bless me with a male heir.’ The crowd erupted in cheers, finally bringing a smile to the face of the king. ‘I have decided, my people, to name him Alexander.’

Many Years Later...

I never liked my name. Why did dear old dad have to come up with something like that for me? The name means “to defend”, which I hate. If Philip had had his way, those words would have been everything: my destiny, my reason for existence, my very place in the world…all defined by those two words. He would have liked nothing more than for me to sit beside his throne, taking up arms to protect him. He clearly didn’t think much of me and he didn’t bother hiding it. Everything I ever accomplished, he belittled – in front of everyone. The old man knew that there was a chance that I’d one day succeed him as king, and that made him paranoid. In short, my father hated me in the present for something I might do in the future: take his place as king.

Mommy dearest, on the other hand, thought the world of me... or so she would have me believe. She always told me that one day I would succeed my father to become the king of Macedonia. She’d smile when she said that, but there was a subtle undercurrent to those words, a warning of sorts. If I didn’t become king, there would be Hades to pay. She was always downplaying my father’s military achievements and she was consumed by jealousy when she looked at his other wives. She secretly despised him, and was using every resource at her disposal to bring about his downfall. I just happened to be one of these resources, a mere tool, a puppet, a means to an end – to my own mother.

Yes, Alexander the Great didn’t have a great childhood - my mother’s pawn, a symbol of my father’s hatred and paranoia. No wonder I was unsure of my destiny. It was a tradition in those days for the Oracle to announce the fate of princes, but even they went along with what my father said. How then could I trust anything anyone told me, when even my parents saw me as a pawn or a usurper? How would I ever know my true place in the world if everything I ever heard was lies?

My father was away on military campaigns for long periods of my childhood. Despite everything, I always respected him for what he accomplished on the battlefield. I could tell he had the obedience of his troops…but never their loyalty. No, he was a tyrant who ruled solely through fear and subjugation. Every time my father summoned the army, they would tremble. No one dared to argue or even question him for fear of the consequences, which was always death, whether agonizingly slow or lightning fast.

Still, my father respected bravery, especially if the person manifesting it had strength or intellect to back it up. Once, a trader from the kingdom of Thessaly came seeking an audience with my father, which was granted. We met him in a valley famous for its echoes.

‘Your Highness, may I present to you the greatest horse in all of Thessaly,’ said the trader proudly. He tried to stroke the horse, but it shied away, making angry whinnying sounds. ‘I will sell this fine stallion to you for thirteen pieces of gold, should you or one of your men be able to tame it.’

Philip nodded. ‘Very well, trader. I accept your terms.’ He turned to one his generals. ‘Attalus, I command you to tame that horse.’ He stepped forward, and bowed. ‘Of course, my lord. I live to obey.’ Attalus was one of the finest generals in the whole kingdom, named after the Titan who held up the sky on his shoulders. He was believed to be the strongest man in the whole kingdom.

Attalus tried to grab the horse by its mane, but it simply stepped out of the way. He tried again and again and again, but always with the same result. Eventually, the horse kicked the general in the chest with its hind legs – hard. Attalus flew in the air and landed with a crash. He did not get up.

I burst out laughing, but stopped when I realized I was the only one. My father turned to me, wrath plain to see on his face. ‘Does that bring you joy, Alexander? Do you think it funny?’

I bowed my head. ‘No, father.’ It was unfortunate that at that very moment, my laughter echoed throughout the valley. For a moment I felt ashamed, but then I shook my head. No. Why should I be? Attalus had gone about the task like a fool, and had gotten what he deserved.
‘Father,’ I said, ‘let me tame the horse.’
Philip’s face twisted into a cruel sneer. ‘You?’
I swallowed my anger. ‘Please, let me try.’

A cold smile lighted Philip’s face. ‘As you wish, my son.’ My father was never one to miss an opportunity to show me up.

I approached the horse hesitantly. It was a huge creature with a coat as black as the river Styx, with a star on its forehead the stunning white of Olympus. It seemed agitated. I observed it carefully, trying to fathom the reason for its distress. I realized that it seemed most skittish when its back was to the sun. Suddenly the reason became clear to me.

I went close to the horse, and gently stroked its head, speaking softly in soothing tones. It became calm enough to allow me to turn it, slowly, so that it was facing the sun. That was when it relaxed completely, and allowed me to climb it.

There was stunned silence. I looked at my father, who was opening his mouth as if to say something, probably curses, but the dealer spoke first. ‘That was wonderful! How did you do it, young prince?’

I smiled. ‘It was easy. The horse is afraid of his shadow. So I made his shadow disappear.’

The dealer clapped his hands together in delight. ‘Marvellous!’ he cried. ‘Now you may name it.’

I thought for a while, and finally I said,. ‘I christen thee Bucephalus,’ my hand hovering over his head. ‘Thou shalt serve me well in both travel and battle.’

My father gazed at me, shook his head and walked away. His attendants followed suit. No one remembered to take the unconscious Attalus.

I was angry with my father for not even acknowledging my accomplishment in taming Bucephalus. It wasn’t a mean feat; even General Attalus couldn’t do it. That’s when I finally turned my eye to the throne; not as my mother’s pawn but of my own free will. Perhaps my father also recognized the danger – that’s when he decided to send me away for my education. I was to be mentored by an old man – maybe you’ve heard of him? Aristotle. He was a good teacher with a learned mind and calm personality. His other students were those who would eventually become my most trusted generals, advisors and scholars. Among them was Ptolemy and my best friend and second-in-command, Hephaestion.

Aristotle was a middle-aged man, with wild, unruly grey hair curling above his head and framing his face. He had a small beard which he would often stroke, and an intense light in his eyes which made him seem mad. He taught us a variety of disciplines: poetry, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, and eristics–the practice of arguing a point from either side. My personal favourite though was medicine, and it wasn’t just a theoretical interest. I am proud to say that I went on to save many lives on the battlefield because of what I learned. I also enjoyed Greek poetry, particularly what was written by Homer about Achilles, the greatest warrior of all time. He was the one I sought to emulate in all my deeds.

Aristotle also taught me about kingdoms outside Greece; Arabia, India and Persia, to name a few. To my teacher, they were peopled by barbarians who should be treated as such. But the most important lesson given to me by Aristotle was the one of honour. Each death on the battlefield was a noble one, and was to be honoured, be it friend or foe, barbarian or Greek. This taught me restraint, made me calmer, more in control of my emotions.

I spent three years with Aristotle, until I was summoned back by Father to rule in his absence while he mounted a foreign military campaign. This didn’t mean that he trusted me; he made it clear that it was because he had no other options.
‘Boy,’ he said, ‘Pathetic as you are, you will have to do.’ Yes, my father was really beginning to like me.

I grinned. ‘Oh, it won’t be so bad, father. Better me than that big oaf Attalus.’ It was unfortunate that Attalus happened to enter the room at that very moment. He stared for a moment, then roared and charged. My father, in all his fatherly love, did nothing. I used a trick Aristotle taught me: side step and stick out the leg. Attalus fell down flat, head first, knocked out yet again.

‘He really should wear a helmet,’ I said.

My father’s campaign was going poorly. There was unrest which culminated in a rebellion in the town of Maedi. Hephaestion and I went there and subdued it almost instantly. I renamed the town Alexandropolis, partly to honour myself but more to annoy my father. I knew I could have the throne, and I wanted him to know it as well. Together, we crushed the invasions carried out by Thebes and Athens, but with some effective public speaking on my part and spies planted by Hephaestion, we got the populace to believe it was I who was really responsible for the victory.

My father, never behind in political games, divorced my mother on the grounds of suspected adultery. He did nothing to stop the rumours which were circulating: that I was an illegitimate child. In fact, he even encouraged them. To add salt to the wound, he also decided to marry the niece of my old enemy, General Attalus.
I asked Hephaestion to gather all our supporters and have them hidden undercover during their party. Since my father was not a popular king, Many men offered me their swords and their lives. On the day of the wedding, Attalus was particularly happy. After all, he had secured an even more powerful position for himself in Macedonia. Apart from Philip, everyone on his side was drunk. I had given clear instructions to my people to stay sober . Attalus stood up to make a speech: ‘Ladies and gentleman! I am pleased that my niece is marrying our great king Philip. May the gods bless us with a legitimate heir.’ Here he looked pointedly at me.

I stood up angrily. ‘Are you calling me a bastard?’

He said nothing, just laughed drunkenly with all his friends. In all the hilarity, they failed to notice my hand, raised towards Attalus. Not one moved to stop Hephaestion as he slid behind him like a phantom and slit his throat with the ferocity of a lion, crying ‘For Alexander!’ At that, Philip drew his sword. ‘What is the meaning of this, boy?’ he spat.

‘This, Father, is me seizing the throne,’ I returned.

His face contorted into the familiar sneer.‘You? Become king?’ He chuckled. ‘Know your place, boy.’

Perhaps it was that word. Perhaps it was the way he said it. But before I knew it, I was hacking and slashing with my own sword. When I regained my senses, my father was lying on the floor, the light fading from his eyes.

‘I know my destiny Father, and it is one of true greatness,’ I whispered. ‘It is that of Conqueror. Every empire, every kingdom, every territory, every place – it will all be mine.’

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Madhav Mehrotra finds reality quite dull. He loves losing himself in the world of comics, video games, books and movies. He also plays cricket and likes to weigh in on the never ending Marvel vs DC debate.

You can share this on Facebook and Twitter. Join the conversation on our Facebook page and Twitter handle!

Previous post: The Masks of Majuli  |  Next post: Stars