Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great
“Soldier, Priest, and God uses the latest archaeological findings from the Near East and India in order to reexamine what role religion played in Alexander’s massive conquest.”
Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, took a backward Balkan nation and turned it into one of the first multiethnic empires of Western history.
Most historians since the age of the Roman Empire have focused on Alexander’s brilliant battlefield strategies. Alexander, they write, was a master tactician who used his professional soldiers (both city-state militiamen from Macedonia and Greece and mercenaries from all over) to outmaneuver his Persian and Indian foes. Some have suggested that Alexander may have even been divinely aided, with the Greeks arguing that his father was none other than Zeus.
Historian F. S. Naiden does something a little radical in his newest book, Soldier, Priest, and God: He pays less attention to Alexander the military genius, and focuses more on Alexander the devout man of the age.
As he makes clear in his Introduction, Naiden notes that far too many scholars have given short shrift to religion in the ancient world. Some scholars (mostly British) have seen Alexander as a proto-Anglican who went through the motions of pagan rituals, but did not take them seriously. Others, like early American scribes, have portrayed Alexander as a relentless egomaniac who did not worship any other gods except for himself.
Soldier, Priest, and God uses the latest archaeological findings from the Near East and India in order to reexamine what role religion played in Alexander’s massive conquest. Unsurprisingly, Naiden argues that religion was vitally important to Alexander and his Macedonian army. When his men suffered hardships, disease, or setbacks on the battlefield, they blamed their commander for failing to follow the proper rituals to both the Olympian and local gods. When the Macedonians conquered the vast Persian Empire, Alexander’s policy was to not only intermarry his officer corps with local princesses, but to also instruct his men in the religion of Zoroastrianism.
Unlike military commanders today, Naiden offers convincing evidence that Alexander was as much of a chief priest as he was general. Soldier, Priest, and God notes that Alexander spent more time performing his ritual duties in Egypt, Assyria, and Persia then he did planning for his campaigns. His companions, who have mostly been remembered as officials, officers, and members of the traveling court of Macedon, were in fact members of an elite circle of priests—a coven, if you will.
Naiden’s book is eye-opening to say the least. His Alexander is a complicated man. Although guilty of monomania and certainly guilty of pushing his battered soldiers to their utmost limits, Alexander was nevertheless cognizant of his responsibilities as a priest and, eventually, deity.
This book offers a well-written account of Alexander’s brief reign as the greatest god in both Europe and Asia. Tragically, Alexander’s role as the great arbiter of Grecian culture to Asia became perverted by his successors, many of whom simply sought to be worshipped by their polyglot subjects. However, even men like Ptolemy of Egypt and Seleucus I Nicator of Syria took seriously the religions of their subjects.
Naiden’s book is a wonderful glimpse at a long lost world of conquerors, royal marriages, and festivals featuring slightly clothed dancers, bonfires, and libations. Soldier, Priest, and God makes clear all of the reasons why Alexander, who died in Babylon at the age of 32, is remembered in the traditions of Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Muslims.