Projecting modern values back over two thousand years is the tricky bit

Pat MurphyGrowing up in my world, the two most famous non-religious figures from antiquity were Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Alexander (356 to 323 BC) was Macedonian and came first. Caesar (c.100 to 44 BC) was Roman and followed along.

Thanks in part to a battle-laden 1956 Hollywood epic, Alexander was the one who appealed to my schoolboy mind. Caesar, however, was a more pervasive presence. By virtue of being on the school curriculum – studying his famous commentaries for Latin and reading Shakespeare’s play for English Literature – Caesar intruded into everyday life in a way that Alexander never did.

In his book Heroes, the late journalist/historian Paul Johnson has an incisive chapter on the two men. Titled Earthshakers, it provides a pair of concise pen portraits in just over 20 pages.

Johnson sets out his stall in the second paragraph: “Each was brave, highly intelligent, almost horrifically self-assured, whose ambitions knew no bounds. Also selfish, cruel, without scruple and fundamentally unlovable. But they were admired, inevitably, more perhaps than any other two men of their kind.”

Heroes-book-cover Alexander and Julius Caesar
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Alexander and Caesar shared many characteristics. But there were also differences.


Born to rule, Alexander had what Johnson describes as “a sinister parentage.” The formidable Philip of Macedon was his father and the ambitious Olympia was his mother. It’s even been suggested that she had a hand in Philip’s murder, an assertion that Johnson rates as “doubtful.”

There was no stinting with Alexander’s education. His personal tutor was the philosopher-polymath Aristotle, and the latter’s fascination with maps imbued the pupil with a skill set that proved very valuable in subsequent campaigns. Aristotle also imparted a love of Homer, the Greek poet and presumed author of the Illiad and the Odyssey epics.

Caesar, in contrast, was more of a self-made man. His family was Roman nobility who’d fallen on hard times and he climbed the greasy pole by his own devices.


While both men were conquerors and empire-builders, Alexander did it pretty much from scratch. Greece came with his patrimony, but he went much, much further.

Crossing the Dardanelles into Asia in 334 BC, Alexander’s triumphal progress took him through what are now the states of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt and Libya before heading into Iraq for the decisive and victorious showdown with the Persian Empire. He even got as far as India until his increasingly weary army called it quits.

The scenario for Caesar’s ascent was more established, the Roman Empire having already been in business for several centuries. Still, he significantly expanded its scope, adding vast territories in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany. And an exploratory expedition to Britain whet the Roman appetite for a subsequent serious undertaking.

Although both empires were into more than plunder, Alexander’s related ambition was enormous. You might even say he was interested in creating a new blended civilization.

Johnson describes it as “acculturalization,” whereby Persians, Egyptians and so forth would learn Macedonian military virtues and be absorbed into the empire as serious stakeholders. And there’d also be cultural exchanges, including intermarriage; he himself married a Persian princess and occasionally adopted Persian dress. It was a multicultural vision that got few takers.

Perhaps war was the area where the two men were most alike and happiest. With energy and willpower in abundance, they were both superb at the planning and execution of all things military. Alexander had a particular understanding of the importance of speed and surprise. Johnson thinks of him as the inventor of blitzkrieg.

They also appreciated the importance of camaraderie and taking care of their men. Booty and risk would be shared. And leading from the front, they’d be visible participants on the battlefield – Alexander with his high-crested lion helmet and Caesar with his flamboyant red cloak. It all had the whiff of Henry V and Shakespeare’s “band of brothers.”

Heroes or Villains

Outstanding personal attributes notwithstanding, Johnson is mindful of the ethical considerations. To quote: “What are we, at the beginning of the 21st century, with all our moral sensibilities, and our painfully acquired knowledge of human evil, to make of these two alarming fellow men?”

Reflecting on Napoleon’s expressed regret that Caesar’s “sublime plans” for social improvement were cut off by assassination, Johnson proposes an alternative formulation.

“Napoleon killed five times as many as Caesar’s total, perhaps five million. Mao Tse-tung, another admirer of Caesar, killed 70 million. These things need to be weighed when we tell the stories of heroes.”

They certainly do. It’s projecting modern values back over two thousand years that’s the tricky bit.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.

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