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Happy Birthday, Alexander the not-so-Accursed

Updated: Aug 22, 2019

Last week was the anniversary of the birth of Alexander King of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great. Or, if you’re a medieval Persian historian, “Alexander the Accursed”.

Alexander of Macedon, Hellenistic, now in the British Museum

Alexander’s legacy has been remembered in much of Western and Central Asia as a catastrophe for Persian culture, in contrast with the awe and grandeur accorded him further West. If you are into conquering lots and lots of people and carting off loads of their stuff, Alexander is an idol. If you disapprove of torching Persepolis and upending centuries of careful governance… not so much.

Certainly he’s not the most obvious hero for a king best known for booting Western armies out of Asia. I’ve written in the past about how closely the Mithradatids hugged their Persian ancestry, and Mithradates VI was no exception. At first glance that doesn’t seem compatible with venerating the man who destroyed their ancestors’ Empire.

And yet…

Tetradrachm of Mithradates VI of Pontos, British Museum. Note the flowing locks, the diadem, the general air of fresh-faced, boyish violence. That nose, tho...

Mithradates VI of Pontos was not just a fan of Alexander the Great. He did everything he could to emulate him. On coins, in busts, on dedications and in edicts, Mithradates the Great of Pontos modelled his rule and self-image on Alexander to the point it nudges into pastiche. He, like Alexander, styled himself as “liberator of the Hellenes”, except this time it was the Roman Republic rather than the Achaemenid Empire from which the Hellenes were being liberated (whether they liked it or not). According to Justinian, he even claimed descent from Alexander.

There is no credible evidence beyond his own self-mythologising that Mithradates VI was a descendant of Alexander of Macedonia.

His family were, however, a very ancient and senior Persian noble dynasty from the upper echelons of Achaemenid society. It is likely that his ancestors married royal princesses, since that was a standard means for Achaemenid kings to show favour and keep the loyalty of their supporters in the nobility. The dynastic feuds and wife-swapping shenanigans of the Diadochi had involved the Mithradatids too, and in this sense they were part of that story at least, and a product of this collision of two ruling elites. They intermarried often with the Seleucids, and so they were at least partly of Greek ancestry.

Is that Alexander? No, it's a young Mithradates pretending to be Alexander. Found on Delos, now in the Louvre.

There’s likely a pragmatic, or maybe cynical, explanation for Mithradates VI’s Alexander obsession, and maybe a more genuine and heartfelt one.

Let’s start with the cynicism. Mithradates VI was a limitlessly ambitious ruler. We’ll never know how far he actually believed his own hype, but we have no reason to doubt how genuine his determination was to found one of the greatest empires the world would ever see. We’ll also never really have an answer to how far he was pushed into this by the equal and opposing ambition of the dying Roman Republic’s best (or worst) generals, but he certainly played a long, premeditated and canny game with them for someone who would have preferred to stay at home and write botany pamphlets.

But sheer ambition didn’t justify why he was a more legitimate ruler than anyone else of the people he conquered/ liberated/ brought within his orbit. This new empire, and would-be Shahanshah, needed a narrative.

On the domestic front, Pontos had always had Greek subjects, and with the conquest of the wealthy and ancient Greek colonies of Sinope, Trapezous and Amisos this Hellenic element increased. Greek was the language of diplomacy, art, science and politics in the Hellenistic world. While the Mithradatids kept a close eye their kinsmen and rivals to the East, their immediate political goals were in Asia Minor, within the sphere of Greek influence.

So to present himself as the true heir of Alexander was a shrewd propaganda move for Mithradates VI both at home and abroad. It provided a moral justification for his wars– that he was liberating the Hellenes just as Alexander had done all those years before – but it also provided a ready-made identity, a narrative just-so story about why his new empire did not just deserve to exist but that it was in fact an injustice that it didn’t already.

Nations, as the truism goes, are made, not born.

But… it’s easy to be cynical about this, particularly from our perch in history some two thousand years later. It’s tempting to see how the broad arc of history has tended and think that there’s something inherently inauthentic about a man, a royal dynasty, a nation that thought Alexander and Darius could exist in the same space. It’s inauthentic to us because in our world we are used to using these men as ciphers for civilisations that we are told have always been – must always be – at war. They are proxies for our modern selves, nationalist analogies.

This *is* Alexander, dressed as Herakles. 4th Century BCE. Met Museum.

For all that subsequent generations have tried to position Mithradates VI as a resistor of Western imperialism, or as a Persian folk-hero, or as an Asian bulwark against European predation, it bears repeating that he himself was proud of his Greek ancestry, Greek education and the legacy of Alexander the Great. If he opposed Roman rule in Asia, it was clearly not because he took issue with Western invaders on principle. His occupation (or liberation) of European Greece was always pitched as a reunification of something natural and integral, a sphere of influence that spanned modern identities and borders.

What Mithradates and his predecessors were trying to do was position themselves as someone who Alexander would have chosen as his heir, if he had the option. This included dropping heavy hints that the stars had quite literally aligned to arrange a sort of Second Coming, or that Alexander’s spirit had anointed them.

Some of these were straight from the Kim family playbook. Lightning striking the infant Mithradates, being born under a shooting star, taming horses thought impossible to ride: these all echo what is now known as the Alexander Romance, the corpus of increasingly bonkers folk tales about Alexander the Great’s life and adventures that arose after his death. Even the happy accident of their preferred dynastic name Mithradates (“Gift of Mithra”, the Persian divinity associated with the sun) echoed the legend of Alexander’s true father being the Egyptian sun-god Ammon-Ra.

The Pontian Kings weren’t entirely wrong to say that their style of rule and the kingdom they forged followed Alexander’s own wishes. The cities that he founded following his conquest of Persian territory were self-conscious attempts to create melting pots in which the conquerors and the conquered would synthesise into a new unified people. He adopted Persian customs and dress, he married Persian noblewomen to his generals and close companions, he allowed Persian noblemen and women into his close circle.

OMG they could be brothers! Mithradates this time, also dressed as Herakles. That nose, tho... Now in the Louvre.

But modern scholar Maria Brosius ultimately concludes that Alexander’s attempts to adopt Persian kingship and customs were never more than superficial. He didn’t understand the complex social and kinship structures that underpinned Persian governance. The same cannot be said for the Mithradatids. They were rulers who spoke the language of power equally well in Persian and Greek. They might have argued that only they had the tools to complete the work left undone by Alexander, to heal the wounds his invasion caused.

However much Alexander is a polarising figure to us, the people of Pontos were the product of the fusion of Persian and Greek culture, except this time the Persian rulers were the ones who absorbed Hellenism, not the other way around. They saw Alexander’s career as an origin story rather than as a straightforward tale of triumph over Eastern barbarians or of Western predation. Without Alexander, Pontos and all of its inhabitants quite literally wouldn’t have existed. Mithradates I Ctistes would not have founded his kingdom, and its languages, arts and religions would never have taken the inventive and beautiful forms they did. Which doesn’t exonerate Alexander exactly, but the Pontians had as much right to exist as anyone else.

From Sicily to Bactria, Mithradates the Great portrayed himself as the rightful leader of the Hellenes. While Alexander may not have been the founder of that greater Greek world, he certainly embodied it.

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