Sunday, 27 February 2011

Absolute power (or 'come on lads, we've all had a few')

The following passage from Plutarch's life of Alexander illustrates Lord Acton's famous maxim very well: in a drunken rage, Alexander kills an old friend, who is attacking him for his high and mighty self-regard. Later he is consoled out of his grief and self-loathing by the flattery of Anaxarchus, telling him to see himself as a god amongst men, a law unto himself, not bound nor bridled by mortal morality.

Soon after this, happened the affair of Clitus; which, however simply related, is much more shocking even than the execution of Philotas. Yet, if we weigh the occasion and circumstances of the thing, we shall conclude it was a misfortune rather than a deliberate act, and that Alexander's unhappy passion and intoxication only furnished the evil genius of Clitus with the means of accomplishing his destruction. It happened in the following manner:

The king had some Grecian fruit brought him from on board a vessel, and as he greatly admired it's freshness and beauty, he desired that Clitus might see and partake of it. It happened, that Clitus was offering sacrifice that day; but he left it, in order to wait upon the king. Three of the sheep, on which the libation had been already poured, followed him. The king, informed of that accident, consulted his soothsayers, Aristander and Cleomantis the Spartan, upon it; and they both assured him, it was an extremely bad omen. He, therefore, ordered the victims to be immediately offered for the health of Clitus; the rather, because three days before he had had a strange and alarming dream, in which Clitus appeared in mourning, sitting by the dead sons of Parmenio. Before the sacrifice however was finished, Clitus went to sup with the king, who that day had been paying his homage to Castor and Pollux.

After they were warmed with drinking, somebody began to sing the verses, of one Pranichus (or, as others will have it, of Pierio) written in ridicule of the Macedonian officers, who had lately been beaten by the barbarians. The older part of the company were greatly offended at it, and condemned both the poet and the singer; but Alexander and those immediately about him listened with pleasure, and bade him go on. Clitus, who by this time had drank too much, and was naturally rough and froward, could not bear their behaviour. He said, " It was not well done to make a jest, and that among barbarians and enemies, of Macedonians who were "much better men than the laughers, though they "had met with a misfortune." Alexander replied, "That Clitus was pleading his own cause, when he "gave cowardice the soft name of ' misfortune.'" Upon which Clitus started up, and said, "Yet it "was this cowardice which saved you, son of Jupiter as you are, when you were turning your back to "the sword of Spithridates. It is by the blood of the Macedonians, and by these wounds, that you "are grown so lofty, as to disdain acknowledging Philip for your father, and to endeavour to pass "yourself off for the son of Jupiter Amnion."

Irritated at this insolence, Alexander replied, "It is thus, old villain, that thou talkest of me in all companies, and stirrest up the Macedonians to mutiny; but dost thou think long to enjoy it?" "And what do we enjoy now ?" said Clitus: " what reward have we for all our toils? Do we not envy those, who did not live to see Macedonians bleed under Median rods, or sue to Persians for access to their king?" While he went on in this rash manner, and the king retorted upon him with equal bitterness, the old men interposed, and endeavoured to allay the flame. In the mean time, Alexander turned to Xenodocus the Cardian and Artemius the Colophonian, and said; " Do not the Greeks appear to you, among the Macedonians, like demi-gods among so many wild beasts?" Clitus, far from giving up the dispute, called upon Alexander, To speak out what he had to say, or not to invite freemen to his table, who would declare their sentiments without reserve. But, perhaps (continued he), it were better to pass your life with "barbarians and slaves, who will worship your Persian girdle and your white robe without reluctance."

Alexander, no longer able to restrain his anger, threw an apple at his face, and then looked about for his sword. But Aristophanes, one of his bodyguards, had taken it away in time, and the company gathered about him, and entreated him to be quiet. Their remonstrances, however, were fruitless: He broke from them, and called out in the Macedonian language for his guards, which was the signal of a great tumult. At the same time he ordered the trumpeter to sound, and struck him with his fist, upon his discovering an unwillingness to obey. This man was afterward held in high esteem, because he prevented the whole army from being alarmed. As Clitus would not make the least- submission, his friends with much difficulty forced him out of the room: but he soon returned by another door, repeating in a bold and disrespectful tone those verses from the Andromache of Euripides:

Alas! what evil customs harass Greece!
[The trophies won hy thousands shall it please One man to claim &c.]

Upon this, Alexander snatched a spear from one of the guards, and meeting Clitus as he was drawing the door-curtain, ran him through the body. He fell immediately to the ground, and with a dismal groan expired.

Alexander's rage subsided in a moment: he came to himself, and seeing his friends standing around in silent astonishment, hastily drew the spear out of the dead body, and was applying it to his own throat, when his guards seized his hands, and carried him by force into his chamber. He passed that night, and the next day, in anguish inexpressible; and when he had wasted himself with tears and lamentations, he lay in speechless grief, uttering only now and then a groan. His friends, alarmed at this melancholy silence, forced themselves into the room, and attempted to console him. But he would listen to none of them except Aristander, who put him in mind of his dream and the ill omen of the sheep, and assured him that the whole was by the decree of fate. As he seemed a little comforted, Callisthenes the philosopher, Aristotle's near relation, and Anaxarchus the Abderite, were called in. Callisthenes began in a soft and tender manner, endeavouring to relieve him without probing the wound. But Anaxarchus, who had a particular walk in philosophy, and looked upon his fellow-labourers in science with contempt, cried out on entering the room; "Is this Alexander, upon whom the whole world fix their eyes? Can it be he, who lies extended on the ground crying like a slave, in fear of the law and of the tongues of men, to whom he should himself be a law and the measure of right and wrong? Why did he conquer, but to rule and to command, not servilely to submit to the vain opinions of others? Know you not (continued he) that Jupiter is represented with Themis and Justice by his side, to show that whatever is done by supreme power is right?" By this, and other discourses of the same kind, he alleviated the king's grief indeed, but rendered him withal more haughty and unjust. At the same time, he so deeply insinuated himself into his favour, that he could no longer bear the conversation of Callisthenes, who before was far from being agreeable on account of his austerity.

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