The ‘decadent’ prince and the orientalist paradigm

Edward Said opened a new avenue for conversation once he published his scholarly book ‘Orientalism’. Albeit, east-west perceptions somewhat continue to linger, it did broaden the debate and introduce a new paradigm for how peoples would view other peoples.

Alexander acquired his title ‘the Great’ for he was the unquestionable figurehead of the Greek expansion. Perhaps the title was well deserved, it has certainly suffixed itself to his name for perpetuity. We know through Mary Renault’s books that he was born to an incredibly beautiful mother and a father who couldn’t handle it and whose demise passed down the crown of Greece to Alexander. We know through the historical laurels of his exploits of how he travelled far and wide; his romance with the Bactrian Rukhsana (Roxanne); his dubious enmity with the king of Punjab, Porus; his eventual discovery of the cult of Dionysus in Northern India; and his self-apotheosis which resulted in his tragic downfall. Here we get all the trappings of an enticing storyline of the classic hero: an unconventional upbringing, an early acceptance of the divine will, decline into misery and madness, and death on non-heroic terms. This has become a part of the curriculum of historical studies and for most people digested as fact. But considering how long ago Alexander lived and died, no smoking gun documents the truth of this larger-than-life personality besides mobile historians, inscriptions, and archaeological artifacts that prove he existed, but not the lineaments of his persona and charisma.

Historically, these mobile historians, many of whom even participated as soldiers and generals in the armies were the ones who embellished these ‘heroes’ with near godly traits and modeled them such that they could fit into the mold of the memorable saviors to be championed by generations to come. Xenophon, who is described as one of the two popular pupils of Socrates (the other more famous and reputed one being Plato) had roamed the world and wrote plenty in his time. One account of the trial and execution of Socrates we get from Xenophon which stands in sharp contrast with what Plato wrote of the trial in his Apology of Socrates. From an analytical standpoint the adjectives that the two men use for how the Oracle defines Socrates expound upon what the respective writer values more in an ideal man. Plato values the sophrosyne within man, the higher wisdom that can sieve out the immoral, whereas for Xenophon it is the honesty and the purity of Socrates conviction. It is because of these two accounts that modern scholarship has introduced the Socratic Problem wherein the audience believes that Socrates was nothing more than a projection through which Plato and Xenophon played out their political ideals without becoming embroiled in a cold war with Greek elites.

In a similar vein, I would like to use Xenophon as a lens for ‘meddling’ with historical ideals that have now shaped our minds into molding an east-west debate, the us v/s them that Edward Said so brilliantly explicated in Orientalism: he believed that as humans we tend to view the other world very differently from how we view home, projecting both a romanticized as well as demonized ideal onto the other party. Alexander…is great. We know that axiomatically today without reading into his history and his exploits, we understand the endearing quality of a man who singlehandedly strategized his military to enable his empire to spread far and wide, from across the Mediterranean, through Anatolia, into Iran and Central Asia, and encroaching the heartland of the Subcontinent. His travels are second only to the exploits of Bacchus in Dionysiaca, who along with his dithyrambic retinue of satyrs and silenoi mingled freely with the ‘swarthy’ Indians, and took for his home the mystical Mount Meros (Sumeru/Meru). Both Alexander and Dionysus become intertwined with the Hindu demi-god, Indra. In the thousands of years since Alexander’s passing, he acquired a semi-divine status of tremendous significance, which is why it is debatable whether he truly did apotheosize himself or whether his persona, like most great men, enabled the beginnings of a cult following that made him somewhat of a god.

Xenophon lived before Alexander and it is believed that Alexander may have read his works during his education. Modern scholarship puts forward the case that within the oeuvre of Xenophon’s works, Alexander most probably had perused his Cyropaedia: a fictionalized version of the education of Cyrus ii (Kuroush in Old Persian). Cyrus ii had lived long before Xenophon but the latter had been a part of the army of the Achaemenid prince Cyrus the Younger who endeavored to depose the then king, Artaxerxes, his own brother. Xenophon had been a part of Cyrus’ court and had been greatly inspired by him, therefore it is not too unbelievable that he would use his acquaintance as a tool to understand the lineaments of the former and greater Cyrus ii.

Cyrus ii himself has become a part of the heroic pantheon of foregone empires of opulent rulers. The Persian empire was the first empire in history. The Median king, Astyages had a prophetic dream that his daughter Mandane urinated a volume that flooded the Median empire. On consultation with the Magi he realized (albeit mistakenly) that the dream informed him that if Mandane were to wed a fellow Medean, her child would cause the destruction of Astyages’ empire. He therefore gave her hand in marriage to a Persian of noble worth but one he considered less threatening, Cambyses. Their child, the future King Cyrus was snatched from his crib by Astyages who handed over the infant to his advisor Harpagus with the order to kill the child. Harpagus handed over the infant to a farmer, Meherdaad (Latinized to Mithridates) whose infertile wife refused to dispose of the infant and decided to raise the boy as her own. Later with the workings of fate Cyrus eventually became king of Medea and eventually of the entire Persian empire. This fantastic tale has elements from the Moses story, from the feral upbringing of Romulus and Remus, and even from the myth of Sargon. The stretch of Cyrus ii’s empire and his friendships and tales are reminiscent of the Gilgamesh saga. From these opulent tales, the generations following Cyrus’ demise extracted the one adjective which suffixed his name, ‘the Great’. For the longest time, Cyrus was the Great. His greatness sufficed him to be mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Isaiah as the savior of the Jewish peoples from their Babylonian captivity, allowing them to return to their homeland. He rescued the Hebrews ‘by the rivers of Babylon’, he reinstated the worship of Marduk from where it had previously been removed by Nabonidus, and allowed religious freedom. Cyrus separated his empire into satrapies with minor rulers appointed to oversee each of them. He also sent small recon armies to aid these satraps. Eventually his conquest of Lydia is what would later instigate the famous Greco-Persian wars (the Battle of Salamis and the Battle of Thermopylae).

Although Xenophon has an admiration for the Persian conduct and military skills, not all traveling historians of Greek origin did. Herodotus who was writing at the cusp of the Greco-Persian wars used the term ‘barbarian’ and ‘Persians’ interchangeably. He vividly describes pederastic relationships dominant in Persia, the harem politics of the concubines, the eunuchs in the court, and the pomp and decadent splendor of the Persian rulers. Perpetuation of this eastern exoticism in literature resulted in an invisible cultural fissure across the globe and divided the peoples into the us and them. Greatness eventually became attached to the very European conqueror, Alexander, while marginalizing an entire geographic segment as an epitome of exuberance and decadent politics, of sensuous nights filled with mystical women and music, orgiastic courts, and therefore a degenerate lot within the common society. It is something that Lesley Hazleton discusses in her book ‘Jezebel: the untold story of Bible’s harlot queen’, that Jezebel’s adaptations in popular culture are still influenced by the ancient oriental depictions of her character. As a vile seductress akin to Salome whose only task was to reinstate the pagan worship. It is therefore not surprising that Cyrus with time lost the title of Great which shifted to Alexander, although Cyrus’ scholarship is once again reviving his lost glory.



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Komal Mahmood

Komal Mahmood

I’ve got plenty to say, but few words to say it...