Who is Alexander the Great? The Movie and the Truth
by Scott Holleran
Oliver Stone
December 10, 2004

Oliver Stone may be taking a bad rap for historical inaccuracies in his epic Alexander. Scholars suggest his presentation of Alexander the Great demonstrates a fairly solid grasp of what is known about the man who conquered the world.

The Movie: Ptolemy, pronounced "tahl-e-mee" (Anthony Hopkins) narrates Alexander's (Colin Farrell) story, dictating his memoirs to a scribe as he lounges in Alexandria, Egypt, decades after he fought alongside Alexander in his conquests.

The Truth: Ptolemy wasn't exactly the erudite old man reflecting upon Alexander's past as Mr. Hopkins' gentle portrayal suggests, but Stone has done his homework. Ptolemy fixated on Alexander as if he was Alexander's chosen successor (he wasn't; Alexander did not designate an heir). As Alexander's general, Ptolemy basically kidnapped Alexander's body after Alexander died and took the corpse to Egypt, where he wrote a history, which was subsequently lost.

The Hero and the Horse
The Movie: Alexander first seizes greatness when he mounts and rides the wild stallion that became his warhorse.

The Truth: Stone gets it right. Young Alexander saw that the horse was afraid of its shadow and he tamed it, mounted it and rode the stallion bareback to the astonishment of spectators.

Mother and Father
The Movie: Snakes surround Alexander's mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), devoted to Greek god Dionysus. There are also hints that Alexander was fathered by the gods, perhaps Zeus, not by Philip (Val Kilmer). The movie hints that Olympias may have killed Philip or had him killed.

The Truth: Jolie pretty much nails what's known about Olympias, who was the fourth of Philip's seven wives. Later, Alexander found it useful to suggest that Philip was not his father. It's believed Olympias probably did kill Philip or hire someone to kill him.

The Battle of Gaugamela
The Movie: In the midst of battle, Alexander fearlessly charges the ostentatious Persian king, who's sitting on his horse safe from harm, in what becomes a turning point. The Persian commander flees Alexander's man-to-man assault and his 250,000 troops are subsequently defeated by Alexander's 40,000-man army.

The Truth: Stone's depiction is fiction, though he captures Alexander's fighting spirit. There is a famous mosaic, usually taken to refer to the Battle of Issus in the year 333 (Gaugamela was in 331), depicting Alexander on horseback, charging someone who looks like the Persian king. A huge entourage and eastern opulence surround the king in the mosaic, as he faces the fiery-eyed Alexander.

Magnanimity in Victory
The Movie: Alexander is generally depicted as extremely magnanimous in victory, granting favors upon the defeated, especially in Babylon.

The Truth: While there's evidence that his Babylon generosity happened, Alexander could be fierce, too. After capturing the town of Gaza (in the area now known as the Gaza Strip), Alexander behaved ruthlessly, forcing Gaza's commander, an Arab eunuch, to be attached, alive, to a chariot and pulled round the city walls until he died.

Eastern Influences
The Movie: As Alexander heads deeper into the Far East, he becomes more enamored with eastern culture, with an emphasis on uniting East and West.

The Truth: Close to the mark. As Alexander marched further east, he was heavily influenced by Persian customs, arranging marriages between noble Persian women and his men. Alexander adopted Persian customs.

The Movie: Stone implies that Alexander had sex with men, including Hephaistion (Jared Leto) and an effeminate Persian male. Stone's only sex scene involves a woman, Roxane, the non-Greek Alexander took as his bride.

The Truth: Alexander's sexual history is unknown, and Stone is right in his response to critics that applying relatively new concepts—such as bisexuality—to ancient civilization is dropping the context of the times in which Alexander lived. Alexander was bent on empire and achievement, and he was not as interested in women. It's likely he lived as it is believed most Greeks did—with lovers of both sexes. Alexander did marry Roxane, a non-Greek, which was unusual and he probably had a love affair with Hephaistion. Before both Judaism and Christianity, Greeks held that same-sex acts were acceptable if conducted by unwritten cultural rules, and hedonism was neither widely practiced nor condoned. The Greek way of life elevated man to the status of god—they had a certain reverence for the male figure—and if Alexander slept with men, it's because he revered man as beautiful.

Sources: Paul Cartledge, Ph.D. and John Lewis, Ph.D.

12/10/04 - Alexander, Unconquered
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