Alexander The Great (Pothos) Essay, Research Paper
Throughout the ages, and with the most diverse emphases, the meteoric career of Alexander the Great, opened a new era in the history of the world, and by his life s work determined its development for many centuries. He is conspicuous among the great men of history because this work was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. It was as a great conqueror that he was remembered by many peoples. He subdued the East and penetrated into India, that land of wonders. The legend about him equally prevalent in East and West took him to the limits of the earth and some say even to the gates of Paradise. The permanent result of his life, however was not the empire which he won by hard conquest, but the development of Greek civilization into a civilization which was world-wide. It is in this way that his influence had affected the history of mankind even down to our time. Alexander marched out as the enthusiastic admirer of Greek culture who was to open up the East to its influence. Alexander probably never thought of not going forward, driven by an insatiable ambition or curiosity which the historian Arrian called pothos.
In putting down the revolt of the Thebans, Alexander showed his ingenuity as a leader. In the battle he had demonstrated those qualities which were to carry him on to the conquest of the East: ruthlessness and tact, passion and self-control, and above all, a consummated military sense for using combined arms under any conditions of territory and weather so as to win decisively, not only over the bodies of his enemies, but over their minds as well.
Alexander yearned for people to know his exploits long after he was gone. He was the first field-commander in antiquity to organize an official publicity and propaganda section. Achilles had Homer to immortalize him, and Achilles descendant was determined that his own achievements should not go unsung. Besides the day to day record of the expedition which Eumenes would keep, something a little more literary and important was called for. To supply it, Alexander appointed Aristotle s nephew Callisthenes as the expedition s official historian. His task was to chronicle the king s achievements in a way that would favorably impress Greek opinion. Though Alexander reserved the right to check Callisthenes final draft, and sometimes suggested a particular interpretation of events, it should not be assumed that he virtually dictated all his chronicler wrote. There would be no need to stop Callisthenes setting down the truth as he saw it: it was for his all too predictable intellectual opinions that the historian had been hired in the first place.
The story of the occasion when the conqueror expressed his longing most definitely, that is, the moment, when on the banks of the Hyphasis, he believed the Eastern Ocean and the boundaries of the earth to be within his reach. Alexander used a stronger term than usual; incentive desire and avidity take the place of longing and yearning. It is possible that Arrian or his original source would have sought after a stronger expression for the moment of unfulfilled longing and of tragic nostalgia.
The phrase is found also in descriptions of some other situations which are less high pitched. The wish to press forward, the desire to know unknown regions and thus to comprehend the Oecumene up to all its boundaries, determines Alexander to sail down the Euphrates and Tigris to their mouth and to explore the Caspian Sea and its presumable connection with the Okeanos. Nearchus alleges that Alexander had the pothos to sail the Ocean from India to the Persian Gulf.
The same idea of overcoming space and of exploring the unknown, drove him to conquer the citadel of Aornos as Heracles did, to go to Nysa and find memorials of Dionysus and above all to set out to the oracle of Ammon as Perseus and Heracles had done before him. This craving for the unknown was determined by another power; a mythical power which drove him to the stronghold of Gordium to see the famous chariot with its knot. Obscure faith and conscious will-power were acting together and influencing his pothos. This impulse made Alexander become, beyond his conquests and discoveries, son of the gods and king of the world.
The expedition to the temple of Ammon is a clear and obvious example. Many soldiers were against the tiring and lengthy march through the desert, but at that point the personal desire, the longing of the man who soon after was called Son of Ammon, would break forth with elemental power. Only a few months earlier Alexander, without any mention of his pothos, had opposed the counsel of Parmenion who wished him to accept the offer of Darius. Thus it is possible that Alexander s stay in Egypt, which was epochal for him in so many respects and above all the expedition to the oasis of Ammon gave him the phrase of pothos. After that he revealed his passionate and broad schemes in its emotional vagueness.
Each of these passages may have its origin in an authentic utterance of Alexander; and for the last one this is obvious. Curtius relates that Alexander was longing to see not only upper Egypt but also Ethiopia. However, he did not have time to see Ethiopia. The expedition to upper Egypt did not take place so therefore this quotation is not that reliable.
Thus desires so different in nature and value, in scope and range as the wish to found Alexandria and the wish to meet the Indian Gymnosophists may have taken hold of him with the same intensity in the same depth of his heart. This may be so, but not necessarily. It is possible that all, or almost all of the above mentioned record of the pothos-phrase really are the genuine words of Alexander; but unrefutable evidence can hardly be produced, and it may be possible that later authors may have repeated the well known phrase here and there. Arrian reported that during the last days of Alexander s illness his soldiers had forced their way to see Alexander. The sense of this sorrowful and affectionate longing and loyalty differs widely from that of the original phrase. It may seem probable that this pothos is far more adequate to common usage that the dynamic pothos of Alexander. This confirms the fact that no literary tradition, from Callisthenes and Ptolemy down to Arrian, coined the unique meaning, the sense common and peculiar to every occurrence of the phrase; it was the genuine word of the king himself, as it passed over into the reports of his fellow soldiers.
It was the extent of his conquests that gained Alexander the title of The Great and some have seen in him no more than a great conqueror a great robber who destroyed the Persian Empire without putting in its place. But this neglects the fact that his main desire was to spread the Greek culture to the East. He accomplished this mainly by establishing Greek poleis in the East. On his campaigns he surrounded himself with Greek poets, artists, philosophers and architects. The temples he created were all in the traditional Greek style.
The phrase of the pothos was Alexander s own and remained so. None of the satraps and generals who fought over his legacy could claim to be seized by longing as the great king had been. Demetrius Poliorcetes was the only one to bear albeit coerced and reduced traits of Alexander s longing. The deeds and misdeeds of the turbulent decades after Alexander s death were determined by ambition, jealousy, desire for power, political necessities; but pothos did not count in this chaotic and disrupted world. Thus the epoch in which the great Hellenistic powers were moulded, lacked the poetic glamour and the enormous vastness of Alexander s empire in its making. It was a hard age, governed by will-power and intellect and it could not be otherwise as it was to form separate states from the decaying empire of the world. The strength of pothos continued, not in these separate states but rather perhaps in the Greek mind, in the Greek men, who whatever their motive-adventurousness or desire for research or wealth or yet other impulses, went out into the world and gave it the Greek mould.
Green, Peter. Alexander The Great. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.
Ehrenberg, Victor. Alexander And The Greeks. London: Basil Blackwell, 1938.
Tarn, W.W. Alexander The Great. Boston: Beacon Press, 1956.
Welles, C. Bradford. Alexander And The Hellenistic World. Toronto: A. M. Hakkert Ltd., 1970.
The Pothos Of Alexander
BY: Marius Preda
Thursday, February, 20, 1997.
History 24.290A Professor T.R Robinson