Blesok no. 39, November-December, 2004

Alexander and the Death

Slobodan Micković

    Alexander died. Alexander is dead.
    He was ill the whole spring. He stayed long in the mountains, as if he was busy there, as if his stay there was most necessary. He postponed his arrival to Babylon as much as he could. He was ill, I know that, because I was by his side all the time, but he did not want it to be seen, to be found out. He was hiding his weakness, his falls that were more and more frequent. He was hiding them from me, and I think, from himself as well. He did not know how to be ill. A man who does not know how to be ill, does not know how to live either. His life was torn and devastated in the last months as well. He would start one thing and another. For several days he could only think of the construction of the new fleet, the new conquest towards the spacious Arabia, and then he would change his mind. He was only concerned about the taxes, and he would leave this always hard and laborious work as well, angry and dissatisfied with the smaller and smaller inflow of gold, money, precious stones to the royal treasury and he would start creating the new Macedonian-Persian phalange with this piled anger. Even this was not going on according to his plans and ideas because the Macedonians would not mix with Persians. The Persians, as they looked at everything from some heights, also entered the phalange as if they had to honor someone, which was imposed to them and therefore difficult. His anger was also stirred by their constant extortion of better places in the phalange, their sometimes covered, sometimes open blackmails that the Persian officers have more regiments, that they take the positions in the headquarter from which one can see more and do more in all army matters. The situation was the same in the supplies, money, weapons. When he would choke on the anger that these worries brought, he would start cracking on the rebellions in some satraps. The rebellions were most of the time invisible, but they existed as the rennet in the milk – it is little, it is invisible, but it works from within, spoils and changes. Then he would start eating himself up about the mint where the gold that entered did not produce  as much money as it weighed, or more silver would melt into the money. This spring Alexander was angry at everything around him, furious. But he was most furious at his illness. I don’t know if there was only one. I think that there were more and that they changed, impeccably as the guards in front of his tent. He had sent Philip, his physician to Babylon so that he would not see his illness. He would keep to himself, he only drank Thessalian wine, which he thought could heal him, together with the mountain freshness of Ecbatana. When we would meet, he looked though me like a window. The illnesses came out in Babylon, he was ill in public, weaker and weaker, more and more powerless and thinner.
    He died and now I am torn, uncomposed and scattered. For the first time in my life, when he was ill in Babylon, I started offering sacrifices, I started talking to astrologers, prophets, magicians. And never before this day, before the day of Alexander’s death, have I counted the money I had. This evening, I counted it. I have never given any money to a beggar, and today, when Alexander died, I gave it to all the beggars in front of the palace and the theatre. I have never written anything before. Tonight I started writing. Why? This morning, when he calmed down, he was younger in his death. He looked like that boy from Mieza and I thought of you, my teacher. I wanted you here. And I started talking to you in my head. Tonight I started writing to you.
    I am addressing you, my teacher, with some shame and intimidation. You know me. As you once said – I was from those third in line. One of those who distinguish the least, who stand in the back silent. And I started writing to you without knowing what. Sitting, with my elbows on the writing desk, I am thinking: what am I going to write? Why you? I will write of Alexander, about everything that happened to him. I am writing because it calms me down more than everything I have not done before. What I have done so far made my whole life miserable and empty. Now, writing fills me in and empties me at the same time, as the water that runs from a spring waterfall river to a mill’s pot – it is not empty and full, and the water keeps on running, free from the fall and the pot. That is how something inside me is filled and emptied with writing. Why am I addressing you of all people? First – I have nobody else. It seems that those third in line have no friend, they have no people of confidence, no close people, no acquaintances, no people that they met by chance, to whom they can say something that comes to their mouths from their very insides. Therefore, maybe we, as you say, the ones third in line, are quite and withdrawn. Alexander died. And you know that he was my everything, and now, that he is gone, I am torn from my own life, I have nothing to live for. And I also write to you because I know of your endless curiosity. Once, in Mieza, before the evening rest it seemed that you said something to yourself, as if whispering staring at him: “What would become of you?” I didn’t hear well – did you say of you or with you, or maybe – inside you? But I know that you looked at him with curious eyes, closed a bit in your thoughts, as if you had seen him for the first time and at the same time you were interpreting what would become of him. Maybe you had whispered that because I was nearby, or maybe it was just my imagination. Maybe I myself asked those questions looking at your eyes, your wise and concerned face. And maybe at that moment we thought the same, so it felt that you also whispered our thoughts? Alexander died and I am sitting and writing to you about him. I have some blurred and awful feeling that his life is only starting now, with his death. That it is now that will be seen openly what had become of him, in him and with him. You must have followed everything during these years that you have not seen Alexander. You have corresponded. But he never wrote the truth. He informed you of everything that he did, he sent you rare animals and plants, he described the places that he was passing through, but he never told you anything about himself. I know that for sure. And here, in the court, at the headquarters, among the distinguished Macedonians, it was always whispered that Callisthenes, your nephew, while he was alive, sent you secret letters. Maybe, I don’t know. But I know that Callisthenes did not know Alexander although he imagined that he was clear water for him. However, even under the clear water, there might be mud. And Callisthenes did not know this. He was blinded by the glitter of the kingdom, the glory of the victories. He was into all the court intrigues that he considered an unavoidable side of truth itself. But, he did not know Alexander and least of all did he know what Alexander was. It is because of this ignorance, or this wrong knowledge that is the reason why Callisthenes lost his head. He thought that he could do anything with Alexander. He did not know that he could do what Alexander would allow him, to the extent that he would. And I know that it is what Callisthenes could not find out that stirs your curiosity.

    The news will probably reach you in Macedonia via the quick line. I don’t know if you are in Stagira or in Pella, or whether you have returned to Athens – much before you would receive my letter. But I also know what the news that you will receive first will be. Lagos, Seleucus and Perdicca composed it last night in the big hall of the palace. So you know that it is a purse work of Ptolemy Lagos. Seleucus and Perdicca mist have quietly looked at the flame of the scented lamps or their sandals, and Lagos, without paying attention to them, started: “The sun that shone on Macedonia, Hellas, Moesia and Byttinia, Phrygia, Cappadochia, and Sicily, Armenia and Syria, Assyria, Babylonia and Caramynia, Sogdiana, Phartia, Sardonya and Bactria has extinguished. Great Egypt as well (Lagos here underlined his future rule). Alexander, son of Philip (stressed as opposed to Olympias) went to gods, the bravest and most honest has gone…” and so forth. You know that these are but empty words that look like truth, that this is only some prologue of a play written by a beginner, and the real play that should follow is gone and it will never be written. It would have been written for sure if Alexander was only a philosopher, tyrant, hero, conqueror, treacheror or a sufferer. You know this funny habit of modern playwrights, that the characters only have one trait. But he was a bit of everything. Most of all he was probably a wonderer and a curious person. And you can not make a drama with such a character, but only a comedy. But Alexander is not a mock character, a character for jokes and scold. He does not deserve this. He was a man, it seems that this might be true, a man who is afraid and a man who is most feared of. But, no, I can not find any distinction that would explain him shortly. He was Alexander and one should write about him differently than everything that has been written so far. And here I address you also as an accomplice in Alexander’s fate. This is not an accusation, and I know that you will understand it in this way. Not, because Alexander was not only the work of Olympias, Philip and Leonides. She taught him how to compare himself with gods and his father and his uncle how to handle a two sided dagger, a bow and spear, with a sarisos. He is also your work. You were teaching him, directly, the skill of ruling. Maybe you will refuse this as too big a deed. But, it was your teaching of perfection of the rule of Athens that rejected him as everything that he was to learn. He had the undying feature to look something that should be changed in everything that exists. And he opposed you in this: he did not choose Athens as a determinant of his rule, but the unclear examples of the big eastern empires, those that he conquered and defeated. Darius and Porus. Can the thought of an empire be inspired by your study of harmony? Could Alexander’s mind transfer the dream of beauty so far to the endless thought of the huge empire where all countries and peoples will be in harmony? It often seemed to me that it was his final goal. But, as I see this endless move around the new palace and the new, big theatre in Babylon, built by Alexander, the thought about the relations between you and him comes to my mind. I am in the shade. Yes, I wrote it as it is – I am standing in the shade of the northern colonnade of the theatre, but now it feels that I have said the truth of myself, in short. I was always in the shade. In the big, heavy and darkening shade of Alexander. But, who wasn’t? Who came out in the sun next to him? And from here, from this shade, I see the everyday Babylon crowd roll, crawl, waves across the big square between the theatre and the palace. I notice that the soldiers are gone. In front of the marble stairs of the theatre, immediately to the left, I see a group of masters, stone carvers, column builders, capital carvers. I see the main master as well, a bony Syrian. They say that he built all the palaces, summer houses, decorative gates of all hard cities of the Great Emperor Darius. His group is made of a dozen of tough, tall men, both dark and pale. Large and experienced stone carvers from India, skillful in the deep cutting of soft stone, Athenians with lively eyes that never cut two capitals in the same way although they look the same. One of the new, newly rich dignitaries of Babylon is with them, a former permanent advisor to Darius. They speak lively and nobody listens to anybody. They wave their arms. Maybe they drank a bit more wide last night and they are still dizzy this morning. But here they go to the flat lands of the former temple of Marduc, to the future foundations of some new construction, one of those that should be built in this new Ecumenical centre. Alexander is dead, but it seems that Babylon will continue to be built. Pillars will be pulled from Marmaris again, which has become some sort of a custom when the palaces of the rich people are built. The old cedars will be cut again at the distant seaside of the Lebanon forests although there is a death threat and ban on the cutting for the new fleet only (three hundred new ships with thirty to sixty vesla!0 and for the dead catafalque of Hephaestion. But the rich dignitaries find the way to bribe, blackmail, and the longest and hardest beams, good for ship basis are built in their palaces, decorated with carving and inerasable dies from the east. And Alexander is dead, immobile and powerless to stop this. But could he stop these undignified sharks when he was alive? And when he would find out that something indecent and forbidden was taking place, against the main interests of the royal work that he determined, he would pour his rage on those who would reveal the truth to him and there were less and less news like this coming to him and he would sink deeper and deeper in the self-composed image that everything was happening according to his will, in accordance with his desires and ideas. Poor Alexander. He did not have the power of Philip, his real father, his creator, he did not have his raw wisdom to understand everything around him as it was. Philip knew how to turn what was going against him in his advantage, he knew how to bribe his opponents, how to attract them to himself with wild feasts, promises, to pretend that he was adapting to others’ will, to show that he was defeated even when he was winning. There was no shrewder soldier and ruler of Macedonia than Philip from Amynta onwards. And there was no luckier one than Alexander. Luck was always on his side, even when he was the slave to defeat, even when he himself thought that he was lost. Like at Granicus and Issus. That is why Alexander was consumed by his greatness and he knew how to impose his point of view of himself to everybody. His victories seemed easy because everybody, the Thebans and Athenians and Darius and Porus, as birds enchanted by the immobile looks of the predator, knew in advance in the coldness that fear put in their bows, that their defeat was inevitable. Because they had Alexander in front of them. But, for Alexander, the victories were not the final goal of each war, the most important thing that he wanted to achieve. He was the only one who won the battles, wares in which he won, the dead, the cripples, the blood, the suffering to turn into a value of divine importance. This was his gift, what nobody before him managed to achieve – not event the big Nabuchodonosor, nor Kyros, Xercus and Darius. A dangerous and damned talent. But you know, as I know, as all close people know, that Alexander was not of divine origin. Yes, he was from the tribe of crude Macedonians who are still barbarians for the Helens although they that their masters. But, the divine in Alexander was the ease with which he prepared for war and conquest, and with which he won. It was not an effort and hardship with him, but it all went easy as with an experienced, skillful and talented craftsman who did not feel his craft as a difficulty. It was like breathing for him, like sleeping, like drinking water, like it came itself, the wars and victories, they were coming as if he didn’t want them, as if he didn’t think of them, without caring. He was the war himself, he was the victory and there the fear and respect came for what he was doing and towards himself as a deity. Gods were involved here because he called them and they mixed up because he put them at peace and made the old Macedonian deities and Hellenic gods equal to the Egyptian ones probably the oldest and the most powerful, so he showed as their offspring, as the offspring of gods. You know that this is all but a deception of mind that has gotten into everybody and which Alexander encouraged because it gave him benefits and advantages. But I can not answer one question that must also tickle your curiosity: did Alexander believe himself in his divine origin? There was a time when I was sure that he believed, that he was blinded by this thought which separated him from all others, mortals, and put him above them. In those moments there was something divine, powerful, indescribable. He was closed within himself, his eyes were turned backwards, to his own soul. Then he was insensitive to the suffering around him, possessed by thoughts that suddenly led to strange, seemingly unreasonable decisions. Then he would decide to start some conquest, when some of the close satraps or courtiers would be killed, how the prayer would be said in the morning – with a sacrifice, humbleness, choir, or with a frowned face, silently, like hating those equal to himself. The hate to gods that Alexander could so visibly and carelessly show was taken by us all with fear and care, cursing within us his price and rage towards those who were only ones entitled to rage. Then he was divine. But at those moments, the evil rules his spirit, there were awful, unjust deeds prepared. I believe that in these ecstasies he was convinced that he was god, that he was given the right to rule the life and immortality, that he touched the place from which everything was open, without borders, without prohibitions. Then I felt, watching him up close, that he would touch the very essence of divinity, the true being of evil. But, yes, you also know that he could also be a man with many virtues, with many small, everyday weaknesses. Self-centered and sensitive as some of the muses and changeable and stubborn as a hetaera. Weird comparisons, you think? But at least I know that there was some persistent female caprice with him that he could not hide although he was ashamed of it. At those moments, when he would see on my face that I recognized that damned call of nature of his, hate would shine in his eyes. Hate to me, who knew his weakness. But this weak spot that he felt himself was the most innocent and most entertaining side of his character. Maybe it was only in the circle of your former students from Mieza that he became better, nicer and softer than at the moments of his funny caprices.

    But here, it’s all finished. He is dead and now it all went in his immobile body. Now he lies there, in the lower hall of the big, new, his theatre. That is how it was made for him, this small room, surrounded by a colonnade of pillars, a corridor on one side, the main, ceremonial entrance for the emperor and the distinguished persons, and on the other side there were the stairs to the emperor’s loge. There, under the big table in the central part of the amphitheatre, under the emperor’s loge, was maybe the coldest spot of Babylon that I know. Now he lies on the upper white marble table where there was always fruit and wine, he lies on this table as a withered fruit, dried inside, shriveled and small. His small body is even smaller as with all dead people who had a long illness. Two Negroes from upper Egypt spread the cold air with light rice fans above the tortured body, they chase away the evil, green flies that attack the garbage and the dead. And here, now it will start there, the fate of his further existence will be resolved in the imperial palace. For a whole day, as I hear, they discuss only one issue – what will be done with the emperor’s body. I am going to the palace via the sunny square. On one side, behind me, there is the hidden room with the dead emperor, and in front of me, in the palace, the Macedonian group is gathered in the big throne hall for imperial receptions – Ptolemy Lagos, Perdicca, Nearch, Pseutos, Cassander, Melearchos, Seleucus. And I, who was always in the shade, have a strong wish to stay under the bright sun here, in the middle of the sunny square, in the middle of this broad space, surrounded by shady colonnades, in the middle of this flat heat filled in with the crowd, with the clamoring people. I have a wish to stay under the bright sun distant from both spots, from the theatre and the palace, towards which I feel shame, fear, repulsion and unease. From the dead emperor, shrank on the marble table in the shady hall, which is, even in the middle of the day, with the small light of the exit stairs towards the loge, constantly lit with bronze, decorative lights with scented oils, there is a smell of rotten fish coming here to me in the sun, the smell that precedes the death stink that no scented oils can cover. Here those shrewd and repulsive eyes from the imperial palace still sting me, the eyes that they all have, the eyes of the close warriors, army leaders, friends, comrades of the emperor, his fellow fighters and peers. At the end of Alexander’s illness, here in Babylon, these eyes were more and more filled with mistrust, doubt, hunger for power, uncertainty in which they all were facing the fast development of emperor’s illness that approached death. But, my teacher, this was not the time of some different, stronger hate among them. No, it was only a time of general fear. Everybody was afraid for themselves. And the fear from somebody also gives birth to hate to him. But you, my teacher, must have noticed these feelings of animosity among us when we divided from our childhood years, when you, called by Philip (Bilipo, as you called him in our old language) came to us to enlighten our spirit. I remember your smile when you followed our quarrels, angry suffocating among us. But I never participated in this although you also punished me by not going to a play in the theater celebrations in Pella or fox hunting. I was grateful that, although innocent, you were not separating me from the others in these punishments. And it was easier and nicer for me to stay in the peace of the Mieza gymnasium, then ride for hours to Pella for some provincial play or go, even in a soft, imperial carriage, to the thick forests above Aege, to hunt in which I never enjoyed. But, you knew the hate that does not appear often among young people, that, whether we did, the place of the first one was decided and we could only fight for his mercy, attention or trust. Yes, we knew, Bilipo had told you that we were all his equals and that it was how you were supposed to treat us and that Alexander was not given any advantages as Olympias asked for her son, and as the cruel Leonides gave him. And you too wanted us to be equal, but Alexander imposed himself as the first one, although many were before him in logic, philosophy and writing. As a matter of fact, Alexander defeated you, climbed above your knowledge, diminished it, devaluated it, humiliated you because he forced you see him with different understanding and attention than all of us, the others. You separated him or he separated himself, I don’t know. That is why I cross out the sentence that I have just written, in which I insulted you. I cross it out with a thick line on the papyrus, so that you can read it and understand it but that you know I gave it up that I had written it without thinking. And maybe you gave him more freedom because you knew that you were shaping a future ruler, emperor, leader. You guided him and educated him but you didn’t know what he became. That is why I am writing you all this. I don’t know how this will reach you. When and how I will send you what I have written. I see that the papyrus multiplies and rolls in a thicker and thicker traba, and I hear that the fast lines to Macedonia can only carry news that are approved of the diadochi collected in the imperial palace. But, I hope that, as you taught us, the voice of truth and the effort of the good deed will reach their target in time.

Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska

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