As we know from his surviving letters, he was conscious that he was treading in the footsteps of a famous predecessor: “For a few days,” he wrote to his friend Atticus, “we were encamped in exactly the same place that Alexander occupied when he was fighting Darius at Issus”—hastily conceding that Alexander was in fact “a rather better general that you or I.”Whatever the irony in Cicero’s remarks, almost any Roman, given the command of a brigade of troops and a glimpse of lands to the East, would soon dream of becoming Alexander the Great.In their fantasies at least, they stepped into the shoes of the young king of Macedon who, between 334 and 323 BC, had crossed into Asia, conquered the Persian Empire under Darius III, and taken his army as far as the Punjab, some three thousand miles from home—before dying, on the return journey, in the city of Babylon, at the age of thirty-two, whether (as the official version had it) from a deadly fever or (as others insinuated) from poisoning or some alcohol-related condition.
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Other Romans had a much better claim to be “new Alexanders” than the normally desk-bound Cicero; and they made even more of the connection, with less sense of irony.
Cicero’s contemporary Cnaeus Pompeius has been eclipsed in the modern imagination by his rival Julius Caesar, but as a young man he had achieved even more decisive victories over even more glamorous enemies than Caesar ever did.
Borza shows in a judicious appendix to the new Landmark Arrian, an illustrated edition of The Campaigns of Alexander (Anabasis, written around 140 AD) by Lucius Flavius Arrianus, Roman senator and historian of Greek extraction, born in what is now Turkey.
But that did not prevent several hundred academics, mostly classicists, from writing a letter to President Obama in 2009, in which they declared that Alexander was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek” and asked him to intervene to “clean up” the FYROM’s historical errors. Only a few months ago, this controversy flared up once more when a huge kitschy thirty-ton statue, almost fifty feet tall, on top of a thirty-foot pedestal, was erected in the central square in Skopje.
It is a more puzzling composition than it might seem.