Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is no longer allowable to speak of Alexander, except in order to say something new of him, or to destroy the fables, historical, physical, and moral, which have disfigured the history of the only great man to be found among the conquerors of Asia.

After reflecting a little on the life of Alexander, who, amid the intoxications of pleasure and conquest, built more towns than all the other conquerors of Asia destroyed — after calling to mind that, young as he was, he turned the commerce of the world into a new channel, it appears very strange that Boileau should have spoken of him as a robber and a madman. Alexander, having been elected at Corinth captain-general of Greece, and commissioned as such to avenge the invasions of the Persians, did no more than his duty in destroying their empire; and, having always united the greatest magnanimity with the greatest courage — having respected the wife and daughters of Darius when in his power, he did not in any way deserve either to be confined as a madman or hanged as a robber.

Rollin asserts that Alexander took the famous city of Tyre only to oblige the Jews, who hated the Tyrians; it is, however, quite as likely that Alexander had other reasons; for a naval commander would not leave Tyre mistress of the sea, when he was going to attack Egypt. Alexander’s friendship and respect for Jerusalem were undoubtedly great; but it should hardly be said that the Jews set a rare example of fidelity — an example worthy of the only people who, at that time, had the knowledge of the true God, in refusing to furnish Alexander with provisions because they had sworn fidelity to Darius. It is well known that the Jews took every opportunity of revolting against their sovereigns; for a Jew was not to serve a profane king. If they imprudently refused contributions to the conqueror, it was not with a view to prove themselves the faithful slaves of Darius, since their law expressly ordered them to hold all idolatrous nations in abhorrence; their books are full of execrations pronounced against them, and of reiterated attempts to throw off their yoke. If, therefore, they at first refused the contributions, it was because their rivals, the Samaritans, had paid them without hesitation, and they believed that Darius, though vanquished, was still powerful enough to support Jerusalem against Samaria.

It is wholly false that the Jews were then the only people who had the knowledge of the true God, as Rollin tells us. The Samaritans worshipped the same God, though in another temple; they had the same Pentateuch as the Jews, and they had it in Tyrian characters, which the Jews had lost. The schism between Samaria and Jerusalem was, on a small scale, what the schism between the Greek and Latin churches is on a large one. The hatred was equal on both sides, having the same foundation — religion.

Alexander, having possessed himself of Tyre by means of that famous causeway which is still the admiration of all generals, went to punish Jerusalem, which lay not far out of his way. The Jews, headed by their high priest, came and humbled themselves before him, offering him money — for angry conquerors are not to be appeased without money. Alexander was appeased, and they remained subject to Alexander and to his successors. Such is the true, as well as the only probable, history of the affair.

Rollin repeats a story told about four hundred years after Alexander’s expedition, by that romancing, exaggerating historian, Flavius Josephus, who may be pardoned for having taken every opportunity of setting off his wretched country to the best advantage. Rollin repeats, after Josephus, that Jaddus, the high-priest, having prostrated himself before Alexander, the prince, seeing the name of Jehovah engraved on a plate of gold attached to Jaddus’ cap, and understanding Hebrew perfectly, fell prostrate in his turn, and paid homage to Jaddus. This excess of civility having astonished Parmenio, Alexander told him that he had known Jaddus a long time; that he had appeared to him, in the same habit and the same cap, ten years before, when he was meditating the conquest of Asia (a conquest which he had not then even thought of); that this same Jaddus had exhorted him to cross the Hellespont, assuring him that God would march at the head of the Greeks, and that the God of the Jews would give him the victory over the Persians. This old woman’s tale makes but a sorry figure in the history of such a man as Alexander.

An ancient history well digested was an undertaking calculated to be of great service to youth; it is to be wished that it had not been in some degree marred by the adoption of some absurdities. The story of Jaddus would be entitled to our respect — it would be beyond the reach of animadversion — were even any shadow of it to be found in the sacred writings; but as they do not make the slightest mention of it, we are quite at liberty to see that it is ridiculous.

There can be no doubt that Alexander subdued that part of India which lies on this side the Ganges and was tributary to the Persians. Mr. Holwell, who lived for thirty years among the Brahmins of Benares and the neighboring countries, and who learned not only their modern language but also their ancient sacred tongue, assures us that their annals attest the invasion by Alexander, whom they call Mahadukoit Kounha — great robber, great murderer. These peaceful people could not call him otherwise; indeed, it is hardly to be supposed that they gave any other name to the kings of Persia. The same annals say that Alexander entered by the province now called Candahar, and it is probable that there were always some fortresses on that frontier.

Alexander afterwards descended the river Zombodipo, which the Greeks called Sind. In the history of Alexander there is not a single Indian name to be found. The Greeks never called an Asiatic town or province by their own name. They dealt in the same manner with the Egyptians. They would have thought it a dishonor to the Greek tongue had they introduced into it a pronunciation which they thought barbarous; if, for instance, they had not called the city of Moph Memphis.

Mr. Holwell says that the Indians never knew either Porus or Taxiles; indeed these are not Indian words. Nevertheless, if we may believe our missionaries, there are still some Indian lords who pretend to have descended from Porus. Perhaps the missionaries have flattered them with this origin until they have adopted it. There is, at least, no country in Europe in which servility has not invented and vanity received genealogies yet more chimerical.

If Flavius Josephus has related a ridiculous fable about Alexander and a Jewish pontiff, Plutarch, who wrote long after Josephus, in his turn seems not to have been sparing in fables concerning this hero. He has even outdone Quintus Curtius. Both assert that Alexander, when marching towards India, wished to have himself adored, not only by the Persians but also by the Greeks. The question is, what did Alexander, the Persians, the Greeks, Quintus Curtius, and Plutarch understand by adoring? We must never lose sight of the great rule — Define your terms.

If by adoring he meant invoking a man as a divinity — offering to him incense and sacrifices — raising to him altars and temples, it is clear that Alexander required nothing of all this. If, being the conqueror and master of the Persians, he chose that they should salute him after the Persian manner, prostrating themselves on certain occasions, treating him, in short, like what he was, a sovereign of Persia, there is nothing in this but what is very reasonable and very common. The members of the French parliament, in their beds of justice, address the king kneeling; the third estate addresses the states-general kneeling, a cup of wine is presented kneeling, to the king of England; several European sovereigns are served kneeling at their consecration. The great mogul, the emperor of China, and the emperor of Japan are always addressed kneeling. The Chinese colaos of an inferior order bend the knee before the colaos of a superior order. We adore the pope, and kiss the toe of his right foot. None of these ceremonies have ever been regarded as adoration in the strict sense of the word, or as a worship like that due to the Divinity.

Thus, all that has been said of the pretended adoration exacted by Alexander is founded on ambiguity.

Octavius, surnamed Augustus, really caused himself to be adored in the strictest sense of the word. Temples and altars were raised to him. There were priests of Augustus. Horace positively tells him:

“Jurandisque tuum par nomen ponimus aras.”

Here was truly a sacrilegious adoration; yet we are not told that it excited discontent.

The contradictions in the character of Alexander would be more difficult to reconcile did we not know that men, especially men called heroes, are often very inconsistent with themselves, and that the life or death of the best citizens, or the fate of a province, has more than once depended on the good or bad digestion of a well or ill advised sovereign.

But how are we to reconcile improbable facts related in a contradictory manner? Some say that Callisthenes was crucified by order of Alexander for not having acknowledged him to be the son of Jupiter. But the cross was not a mode of execution among the Greeks. Others say that he died long afterwards, of too great corpulency. Athenæus assures us that he was carried, like a bird, in an iron cage until he was devoured by vermin. Among all these different stories distinguish the true one if you can. Some adventures are supposed by Quintus Curtius to have happened in one town, and by Plutarch in another, the two places being five hundred leagues apart. Alexander, armed and alone, leaped from the top of a wall into a town he was besieging; according to Plutarch near the mouth of the Indus. When he arrived on the Malabar coast, or near the Ganges — no matter which, it is only nine hundred miles from the one to the other — he gave orders to seize ten of the Indian philosophers, called by the Greeks gymnosophists, who went about as naked as apes; to those he proposed ridiculous questions, promising them very seriously that he who gave the worst answers should be hanged the first, and the rest in due order. This reminds us of Nebuchadonosor, who would absolutely put his magi to death if they did not divine one of his dreams which he had forgotten; and of the Caliph of the “Thousand and One Nights,” who was to strangle his wife as soon as she had finished her story. But it is Plutarch who relates this nonsense; therefore it must be respected, for he was a Greek.

This latter story is entitled to the same credit as that of the poisoning of Alexander by Aristotle; for Plutarch tells us that somebody had heard one Agnotemis say, that he had heard Antigonus say, that Aristotle sent a bottle of water from Nonacris, a town in Arcadia, which water was so extremely cold that they who drank it instantly died; that Antipater sent this water in a horn; that it arrived at Babylon quite fresh; that Alexander drank of it; and that, at the end of six days, he died of a continued fever.

Plutarch has, it is true, some doubts respecting this anecdote. All that we can be quite certain of is that Alexander, at the age of twenty-four, had conquered Persia by three battles; that his genius was as great as his valor; that he changed the face of Asia, Greece, and Egypt, and gave a new direction to the commerce of the world; and that Boileau should have been more sparing of his ridicule, since it is not very likely that Boileau would have done more in as short a time.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01