Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Eastward March of Alexander and Octavian

When Alexander became the King of Macedonia in 336 BC, he had no doubt in which direction he had to march his military for gaining everlasting glory: East. He didn’t waste a moment in thinking of marching into Western Europe. East was where all the fabulous cities were located. East was where he would go. 

Tutored by Aristotle and other great teachers of Macedonia and Athens, Alexander knew about Herodotus’s glowing account of the wealth and splendor of Persia, and the grandeur of Egypt, which was conquered by the Persians in the 6th century BC. He knew about plays like The Bacchae (by Euripides), in which Dionysus says: “I have come to Greece from the fabulously wealthy East.” According to Dionysus, the lands of the East were dancing with the divine long before the Greeks. Alexander knew about the reports of the travelers, sailors, traders, and military adventurers on the treasures and culture of the East. “March eastwards” (because there was nothing worth conquering in the West) became the clarion call for his military. 

The “march eastwards” theme can be seen in the empire which inherited the legacy of Alexander and his great general Seleucus I Nicator: Rome. The Romans did not become an empire when they established their control on much of Europe (which the Romans regarded as the land of barbarians) but when they turned their focus on Eastern Mediterranean, and under Gaius Octavius (later named Caesar Augustus by the grateful Roman Senate) managed to conquer the great empire in the east, Egypt. 

Cleopatra made a major miscalculation when she got involved in a Roman civil war and decided to support the faction led by Mark Antony. When Antony’s forces were routed in the Battle of Actium in 30 BC, the shrewd and ruthless Octavian had the opportunity to bring his troops to Egypt. Despite the fall of Mark Antony, Cleopatra had enough military strength to cause serious damage to Octavian’s forces, but she played a series of bad political moves and was outfoxed by Octavian. She committed suicide and Octavian became the master of Egypt. He had arrived in Egypt as a Roman general; he left as a Roman Emperor. He had turned Rome into an Empire.

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