Gateway to the Classics: Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alexander the Great by  Jacob Abbott

Deterioration of Character

A LEXANDER was now twenty-six years of age. He had accomplished fully the great objects which had been the aim of his ambition. Darius was dead, and he was himself the undisputed master of all western Asia. His wealth was almost boundless. His power was supreme over what was, in his view, the whole known world. But, during the process of rising to this ascendency, his character was sadly changed. He lost the simplicity, the temperance, the moderation, and the sense of justice which characterized his early years. He adopted the dress and the luxurious manners of the Persians. He lived in the palaces of the Persian kings, imitating all their state and splendor. He became very fond of convivial entertainments and of wine, and often drank to excess. He provided himself a seraglio of three hundred and sixty young females, in whose company he spent his time, giving himself up to every form of effeminacy and dissipation. In a word, he was no longer the same man. The decision, the energy of character, the steady pursuit of great ends by prudence, forethought, patient effort, and self-denial, all disappeared; nothing now seemed to interest him but banquets, carousals, parties of pleasure, and whole days and nights spent in dissipation and vice.

This state of things was a great cause of mortification and chagrin to the officers of his army. Many of them were older than himself, and better able to resist these temptations to luxury, effeminacy, and vice. They therefore remained firm in their original simplicity and integrity, and after some respectful but ineffectual remonstrances, they stood aloof, alienated from their commander in heart, and condemning very strongly, among themselves, his wickedness and folly.

On the other hand, many of the younger  officers followed Alexander's example, and became as vain, as irregular, and as fond of vicious indulgence as he. But then, though they joined him in his pleasures, there was no strong bond of union between him and them. The tie which binds mere companions in pleasure together is always very slight and frail. Thus Alexander gradually lost the confidence and affection of his old friends, and gained no new ones. His officers either disapproved his conduct, and were distant and cold, or else joined him in his dissipation and vice, without feeling any real respect for his character, or being bound to him by any principle of fidelity.

Parmenio and his son Philotas were, respectively, striking examples of these two kinds of character. Parmenio was an old general, now considerably advanced in life. He had served, as has already been stated, under Philip, Alexander's father, and had acquired great experience and great fame before Alexander succeeded to the throne. During the whole of Alexander's career Parmenio had been his principal lieutenant general, and he had always placed his greatest reliance upon him in all trying emergencies. He was cool, calm, intrepid, sagacious. He held Alexander back from many rash enterprises, and was the efficient means of his accomplishing most of his plans. It is the custom among all nations to give kings the glory of all that is effected by their generals and officers; and the writers of those days would, of course, in narrating the exploits of the Macedonian army, exaggerate the share which Alexander had in their performances, and underrate those of Parmenio. But in modern times, many impartial readers, in reviewing calmly these events, think that there is reason to doubt whether Alexander, if he had set out on his great expedition without Parmenio, would have succeeded at all.

Philotas was the son of Parmenio, but he was of a very different character. The difference was one which is very often, in all ages of the world, to be observed between those who inherit  greatness and those who acquire it for themselves. We see the same analogy reigning at the present day, when the sons of the wealthy, who are born  to fortune, substitute pride, and arrogance, and vicious self-indulgence and waste for the modesty, and prudence, and virtue of their sires, by means of which the fortune was acquired. Philotas was proud, boastful, extravagant, and addicted, like Alexander his master, to every species of indulgence and dissipation. He was universally hated. His father, out of patience with his haughty airs, his boastings, and his pomp and parade, advised him, one day, to "make himself less." But Parmenio's prudent advice to his son was thrown away. Philotas spoke of himself as Alexander's great reliance. "What would Philip have been or have done," said he, "without my father Parmenio? and what would Alexander have been, or have done, without me?" These things were reported to Alexander, and thus the mind of each was filled with suspicion, fear, and hatred toward the other.

Courts and camps are always the scenes of conspiracy and treason, and Alexander was continually hearing of conspiracies and plots formed against him. The strong sentiment of love and devotion with which he inspired all around him at the commencement of his career, was now gone, and his generals and officers were continually planning schemes to depose him from the power which he seemed no longer to have the energy to wield; or, at least, Alexander was continually suspecting that such plans were formed, and he was kept in a continual state of uneasiness and anxiety in discovering and punishing them.

At last a conspiracy occurred in which Philotas was implicated. Alexander was informed one day that a plot had been formed to depose and destroy him; that Philotas had been made acquainted with it by a friend of Alexander's in order that he might make it known to the king; that he had neglected to do so, thus making it probable that he was himself in league with the conspirators. Alexander was informed that the leader and originator of this conspiracy was one of his generals named Dymnus.

He immediately sent an officer to Dymnus to summon him into his presence. Dymnus appeared to be struck with consternation at this summons. Instead of obeying it, he drew his sword, thrust it into his own heart, and fell dead upon the ground.

Alexander then sent for Philotas, and asked him if it was indeed true that he had been informed of this conspiracy, and had neglected to make it known.

Philotas replied that he had been told that such a plot was formed, but that he did not believe it; that such stories were continually invented by the malice of evil-disposed men, and that he had not considered the report which came to his ears as worthy of any attention. He was, however, now convinced, by the terror which Dymnus had manifested, and by his suicide, that all was true, and he asked Alexander's pardon for not having taken immediate measures for communicating promptly the information he had received.

Alexander gave him his hand, said that he was convinced that he was innocent, and had acted as he did from disbelief in the existence of the conspiracy, and not from any guilty participation in it. So Philotas went away to his tent.

Alexander, however, did not drop the subject here. He called a council of his ablest and best friends and advisers, consisting of the principal officers of his army, and laid the facts before them. They came to a different conclusion from his in respect to the guilt of Philotas. They believed him implicated in the crime, and demanded his trial. Trial in such a case, in those days, meant putting the accused to the torture, with a view of forcing him to confess his guilt.

Alexander yielded to this proposal. Perhaps he had secretly instigated it. The advisers of kings and conquerors, in such circumstances as this, generally have the sagacity to discover what advice will be agreeable. At all events, Alexander followed the advice of his counselors, and made arrangements for arresting Philotas on that very evening.

These circumstances occurred at a time when the army was preparing for a march, the various generals lodging in tents pitched for the purpose. Alexander placed extra guards in various parts of the encampment, as if to impress the whole army with a sense of the importance and solemnity of the occasion. He then sent officers to the tent of Philotas, late at night, to arrest him. The officers found their unhappy victim asleep. They awoke him, and made known their errand. Philotas arose, and obeyed the summons, dejected and distressed, aware, apparently, that his destruction was impending.

The next morning Alexander called together a large assembly, consisting of the principal and most important portions of the army, to the number of several thousands. They came together with an air of impressive solemnity, expecting, from the preliminary preparations, that business of very solemn moment was to come before them, though they knew not what it was.

These impressions of awe and solemnity were very much increased by the spectacle which first met the eyes of the assembly after they were convened. This spectacle was that of the dead body of Dymnus, bloody and ghastly, which Alexander ordered to be brought in and exposed to view. The death of Dymnus had been kept a secret, so that the appearance of his body was an unexpected as well as a shocking sight. When the first feeling of surprise and wonder had a little subsided, Alexander explained to the assembly the nature of the conspiracy, and the circumstances connected with the self-execution of one of the guilty participators in it. The spectacle of the body, and the statement of the king, produced a scene of great and universal excitement in the assembly, and this excitement was raised to the highest pitch by the announcement which Alexander now made, that he had reason to believe that Philotas and his father Parmenio, officers who had enjoyed his highest favor, and in whom he had placed the most unbounded confidence, were the authors and originators of the whole design.

He then ordered Philotas to be brought in. He came guarded as a criminal, with his hands tied behind him, and his head covered with a coarse cloth. He was in a state of great dejection and despondency. It is true that he was brought forward for trial, but he knew very well that trial meant torture, and that there was no hope for him as to the result. Alexander said that he would leave the accused to be dealt with by the assembly, and withdrew.

The authorities of the army, who now had the proud and domineering spirit which had so long excited their hatred and envy completely in their power, listened for a time to what Philotas had to say in his own justification. He showed that there was no evidence whatever against him, and appealed to their sense of justice not to condemn him on mere vague surmises. In reply, they decided to put him to the torture. There was no evidence, it was true, and they wished, accordingly, to supply its place by his own confession, extorted by pain. Of course, his most inveterate and implacable enemies were appointed to conduct the operation. They put Philotas upon the rack. The rack is an instrument of wheels and pulleys, into which the victim is placed, and his limbs and tendons are stretched by it in a manner which produces most excruciating pain.

Philotas bore the beginning of his torture with great resolution and fortitude. He made no complaint, he uttered no cry: this was the signal to his executioners to increase the tension and the agony. Of course, in such a trial as this, there was no question of guilt or innocence at issue. The only question was, which could stand out the longest, his enemies in witnessing horrible sufferings, or he himself in enduring them. In this contest the unhappy Philotas was vanquished at last. He begged them to release him from the rack, saying he would confess whatever they required, on condition of being allowed to die in peace.

They accordingly released him, and, in answer to their questions, he confessed that he himself and his father were involved in the plot. He said yes to various other inquiries relating to the circumstances of the conspiracy, and to the guilt of various individuals whom those that managed the torture had suspected, or who, at any rate, they wished to have condemned. The answers of Philotas to all these questions were written down, and he was himself sentenced to be stoned. The sentence was put in execution without any delay.

During all this time Parmenio was in Media, in command of a very important part of Alexander's army. It was decreed that he must die; but some careful management was necessary to secure his execution while he was at so great a distance, and at the head of so great a force. The affair had to be conducted with great secrecy as well as dispatch. The plan adopted was as follows:

There was a certain man, named Polydamas, who was regarded as Parmenio's particular friend. Polydamas was commissioned to go to Media and see the execution performed. He was selected, because it was supposed that if any enemy, or a stranger, had been sent, Parmenio would have received him with suspicion, or at least with caution, and kept himself on his guard. They gave Polydamas several letters to Parmenio, as if from his friends, and to one of them they attached the seal of his son Philotas, the more completely to deceive the unhappy father. Polydamas was eleven days on his journey into Media. He had letters to Cleander, the governor of the province of Media, which contained the king's warrant for Parmenio's execution. He arrived at the house of Cleander in the night. He delivered his letters, and they together concerted the plans for carrying the execution into effect.

After having taken all the precautions necessary, Polydamas went, with many attendants accompanying him, to the quarters of Parmenio. The old general, for he was at this time eighty years of age, was walking in his grounds. Polydamas being admitted, ran up to accost him, with great appearance of cordiality and friendship. He delivered to him his letters, and Parmenio read them. He seemed much pleased with their contents, especially with the one which had been written in the name of his son. He had no means of detecting the imposture, for it was very customary in those days for letters to be written by secretaries, and to be authenticated solely by the seal.

Parmenio was much pleased to get good tidings from Alexander, and from his son, and began conversing upon the contents of the letters, when Polydamas, watching his opportunity, drew forth a dagger which he had concealed upon his person, and plunged it into Parmenio's side. He drew it forth immediately and struck it at his throat. The attendants rushed on at this signal, and thrust their swords again and again into the fallen body until it ceased to breathe.

The death of Parmenio and of his son in this violent manner, when, too, there was so little evidence of their guilt, made a very general and a very unfavorable impression in respect to Alexander; and not long afterward another case occurred, in some respects still more painful, as it evinced still more strikingly that the mind of Alexander, which had been in his earlier days filled with such noble and lofty sentiments of justice and generosity, was gradually getting to be under the supreme dominion of selfish and ungovernable passions: it was the case of Clitus.

Clitus was a very celebrated general of Alexander's army, and a great favorite with the king. He had, in fact, on one occasion saved Alexander's life. It was at the battle of the Granicus. Alexander had exposed himself in the thickest of the combat, and was surrounded by enemies. The sword of one of them was actually raised over his head, and would have fallen and killed him on the spot, if Clitus had not rushed forward and cut the man down just at the instant when he was about striking the blow. Such acts of fidelity and courage as this had given Alexander great confidence in Clitus. It happened, shortly after the death of Parmenio, that the governor of one of the most important provinces of the empire resigned his post. Alexander appointed Clitus to fill the vacancy.

The evening before his departure to take charge of his government, Alexander invited him to a banquet, made, partly at least, in honor of his elevation. Clitus and the other guests assembled. They drank wine, as usual, with great freedom. Alexander became excited, and began to speak, as he was now often accustomed to do, boastingly of his own exploits, and to disparage those of his father Philip in comparison.

Men half intoxicated are very prone to quarrel, and not the less so for being excellent friends when sober. Clitus had served under Philip. He was now an old man, and, like other old men, was very tenacious of the glory that belonged to the exploits of his youth. He was very restless and uneasy at hearing Alexander claim for himself the merit of his father Philip's victory at Chæronea, and began to murmur something to those who sat next to him about kings claiming and getting a great deal of glory which did not belong to them.

Alexander asked what it was that Clitus said. No one replied. Clitus, however, went on talking, speaking more and more audibly as he became gradually more and more excited. He praised the character of Philip, and applauded his military exploits, saying that they were far superior to any of the enterprises of their  day. The different parties at the table took up the subject, and began to dispute, the old men taking the part of Philip and former days, and the younger defending Alexander. Clitus became more and more excited. He praised Parmenio, who had been Philip's greatest general, and began to impugn the justice of his late condemnation and death.

Alexander retorted, and Clitus, rising from his seat, and losing now all self-command, reproached him with severe and bitter words. "Here is the hand," said he, extending his arm, "that saved your life at the battle of the Granicus, and the fate of Parmenio shows what sort of gratitude and what rewards faithful servants are to expect at your hands." Alexander, burning with rage, commanded Clitus to leave the table. Clitus obeyed, saying, as he moved away, "He is right not to bear freeborn men at his table who can only tell him the truth. He is right. It is fitting for him to pass his life among barbarians and slaves, who will be proud to pay their adoration to his Persian girdle and his splendid robe."

Alexander seized a javelin to hurl at Clitus's head. The guests rose in confusion, and with many outcries pressed around him. Some seized Alexander's arm, some began to hurry Clitus out of the room, and some were engaged in loudly criminating and threatening each other. They got Clitus out of the apartment, but as soon as he was in the hall he broke away from them, returned by another door, and began to renew his insults to Alexander. The king hurled his javelin and struck Clitus down, saying, at the same time, "Go, then, and join Philip and Parmenio." The company rushed to the rescue of the unhappy man, but it was too late. He died almost immediately.

Alexander, as soon as he came to himself, was overwhelmed with remorse and despair. He mourned bitterly, for many days, the death of his long-tried and faithful friend, and execrated the intoxication and passion, on his part, which had caused it. He could not, however, restore Clitus to life, nor remove from his own character the indelible stains which such deeds necessarily fixed upon it.

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