The Truth About Alexander the Great

Of all the historical figures that Marcus Aurelius mentions or uses as an example, Alexander the Great is probably one of the most frequently cited. As on this date Alexander the Great died in the year 323 BC, it’s worth briefly thinking about what Marcus Aurelius thought of Alexander and why he used him as a foil so often.

First, it’s worth noting that compared to most people, Marcus and Alexander had much in common. Both were selected for and groomed to greatness. Both held essentially limitless and absolute power. Both controlled immense wealth. Both conquered many foreign threats and won great glories on the field of battle. And both of them, in their own lifetimes, were destined for everlasting fame.

Yet Marcus clearly rejected nearly everything Alexander stood for and used him as an example of who not to be. As he wrote in these insightful passages:

“Alexander and Caesar and Pompey. Compared with Diogenes, Heraclitus, Socrates? The philosophers knew the what, the why, the how. Their minds were their own. The others? Nothing but anxiety and enslavement.”
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”
“Hippocrates cured many illnesses—and then fell ill and died. The Chaldaeans predicted the deaths of many others; in due course their own hour arrived. Alexander, Pompey, Caesar—who utterly destroyed so many cities, cut down so many thousand foot and horse in battle—they too departed this life.”
“To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people different.”

Marcus held up Alexander and other figures for the same reason most people did and still do—because of their brilliant and daring conquests. But Marcus was doing it for a different reason: To remind himself just how ephemeral things were. He used Alexander as a reminder that death is the ultimate equalizer, and to show that drive, ambition, and the endless lust for fame were forms of slavery…slavery that again mattered very little in the long run.

That’s the truth about Alexander the Great that Marcus never wanted to forget and that we should not forget ourselves. Who we use as that foil in our own lives is up to us (though Alexander still works all these centuries later) but the lesson remains the same.

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