Netflix’s Alexander: The Making of a LARP

Note from the Editors: This essay is part II of “The Inverted Great Men“, a III-part series on recent Hollywood & mainstream media distortions of great historical figures. Read Part I on Napoleon, here, and Part II on Caesar, here.

Netflix’s “Alexander: The Making of a God”: A Review

Few insults are as common today as the accusation of LARPing (live-action role-playing). Because the archetypal LARPer is an out-of-shape adult dressing up in fantasy costumes and wielding toy weapons to attend dorky conventions, to be accused of LARPing is to be accused of being infantile and pathetic. Yet much of Western history has been built around something akin to LARPing. 

The American founders consciously styled themselves and their new Republic after the Roman Republic. European monarchies from Vienna to Moscow were still foregrounding Roman imperial motifs well into the 20th Century. Before Europeans started LARPing as Romans, Romans were LARPing as Greeks. Countless caudillos, strongmen, conquerors, and populist leaders, from Napoleon to Mussolini, have cast themselves as Caesar figures, and Caesar himself felt that he lived in the shadow of Alexander the Great. 

Alexander was the prototypical Western man of power. He himself, of course, idolized Achilles, and even promulgated the idea that he was descended from the mythic hero on his mother’s side. Embodying vitality, dynamism, physical bravery, and a sense of destiny, Alexander’s life (and his afterlife) blurs the boundary between history and myth. Like the heroes of Greek myths, he claimed descent from the gods and also engendered legends about his own life – like the legend that the Queen of the Amazons came to Alexander with 300 of her women warriors and urged him to breed a race of supermen with them. But while he conquered the world through his military genius and was undefeated in battle against powerful armies, the secret to his victories was not divine intervention, but tactical and technological advantages, innovative battlefield maneuvers, and calculated battlefield aggression. 

All of this could have supplied excellent narrative material for Netflix’s latest docudrama, Alexander: The Making of a God. Instead, the modern entertainment industry is hellbent on humiliating and “deconstructing” the great figures of Western history. So when I first heard that the same studio that produced the widely panned Afrocentric revisionist Cleopatra was making a show about Alexander the Great, a sense of dread set in. How long before Netflix would try to work in the assertion that Alexander the Great was a homosexual?

The answer was five minutes into the first episode. Predictably, via a bathing scene, the creators start the show guns blazing with a homoerotic Alexander. Another dreary discussion about whether the Greeks were “gay” is hardly what anyone wanted, but here we are.

Trying to portray Alexander the Great as a closeted homosexual is clearly a form of revisionism. All evidence to support this is at best inferential, like the fact that Alexander had a close relationship with his friend Hephaestion, and is said to have wept profusely at the latter’s death. Or that while Alexander did marry three times and produced heirs, he did not seem to have been especially interested in women. This fact is of interest to some ancient writers primarily because of the contrast with Alexander’s father, Philip, who had a notoriously animalistic libido. But there is no evidence to support the fact that Alexander was a homosexual in the sense meant by modern commentators.

Still, we ought not to engage in counter-revisionism. There were undeniably homoerotic aspects of Greek culture, such as an aesthetic veneration of athletic young men, or institutions promoting bonding between young men in the context of training and preparation for manhood. But the Greeks also engaged in a number of practices that would be bizarre and unsettling to many modern sensibilities, including infanticide through the exposure of unhealthy infants, blood sacrifices, reading the entrails of birds, and variegated forms of slavery and serfdom. Isn’t this a man whom the Left ought to abhor, and would presumably wish to categorize as a colonizer and a brutal conqueror? Why would the Left want to claim Alexander’s sexuality for modernity in the first place? 

The central point is that fixating on Alexander’s sexuality is a fast track to making him uninspiring, and thus avoid the discussion of his qualities, as well as the prodigious military system that made him the greatest conqueror of the ancient world. In this regard, Netflix’s portrayal of Alexander closely follows the recent Ridley Scott representation of Napoleon. Alexander, like Napoleon, was a highly charismatic man, but the Netflix version is a sullen and insecure figure dominated by female influences – in this case his mother Olympias, rather than Napoleon’s Josephine. The bare bones of the historical record are portrayed, with Alexander ascending the Macedonian throne after the assassination of his father, Philip, but the scene is smothered with a highly speculative interpretation which implies that Olympias masterminded the entire plot – a theory with little support among either ancient sources or modern scholarship.

“Alexander Cuts the Gordian Knot” by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1767)

Alexander is presented as an unsure but spoiled young prince thrust into power through the machinations of his mother who adopts megalomaniacal tendencies as he enjoys military successes. Vacillating between insecure petulance and swelling delusions of grandeur, there is little “Great” about this Alexander. The legendary episodes of Alexander’s life, like cutting the Gordian Knot or visiting the Oracle of Siwa, are presented as cheap public relations stunts. The implication is that Alexander was a man who self-consciously wanted people to think that he was a great and heroic figure as a kind of stratagem: a horrible distortion of both Alexander himself and the Greek understanding of greatness.

The Greeks conceived excellence (Arete) as the result of perfecting and manifesting the innate powers of the individual. Excellence was understood as intrinsically linked to real qualities and achievements. Achilles, for instance, is the “best” of the Greeks (embodying Arete or excellence) because of his innate qualities – his skill, bravery, and vigor – not artificially manufactured PR stunts. Achilles is the greatest hero because that’s what he is, not because that’s what people say of him.

Here again Netflix inverts the Great Man. Alexander did not visit the Siwa oracle and cut the Gordian knot to persuade people that he was a conqueror with divine ancestry. These gestures emerged instead organically from his charismatic personality alongside his real, physical accomplishments of conquest. Alexander’s greatness was the reality of his valor, his excellence as a general, the power of the Macedonian army, and his vitality, not the ravings of oracles.

Alexander’s martial prowess was arguably unmatched in history. He rapidly destroyed the Achaemenid Persian Empire at a time when the Persian State was fundamentally stable and powerful, capable of marshaling enormous armies and mobilizing resources from the Black Sea in the North, to the Nile Delta in the West and the Indus Valley in the East, exclusively through military action. He passed every military test that a general could face: winning multiple field battles against much larger forces, executing complex engineering projects and sieges, and fighting with great personal bravery and skill. But the show’s creators make little effort to communicate the tactical meaning of Alexander’s battles or the enormity of his strategic achievement.

Alexander’s military career is what made him “the Great.” He was a fighting man, first and foremost, and his generalship is still studied today. Unfortunately, Netflix reduces his military arts to trite applause at his cavalry charges. There is no mention of Macedonia’s great technological advantage: their famous twenty-foot-long Sarissa pikes, which gave Alexander’s infantry enormous shock power that the Persians found difficult to cope with. Alexander’s signature engineering feat – the construction of a kilometer-long causeway to assault the island city of Tyre – is also unmentioned.

If there is one redeeming aspect of the Alexander docuseries, it is Alexander’s nemesis: the Persian King, Darius III. In a series that is largely drab, colorless, and uninspiring, Darius (perhaps unintentionally) steals the show. Physically adorned as the most overwrought stereotype of a Persian king that one can conceive, Darius stomps about in a cloud of extreme melodrama, complete with flowing black locks and heavy eyeliner which fights its own war against his incessant tears and wailing. In contrast with the self-important presentation of Alexander, Darius comes across as extremely funny and entirely over the top. One is left wishing that Netflix had simply made a Darius show, which would have at least been entertaining.

Historical inaccuracies are also obvious and constant in Alexander: The Making of a God, and occasionally humorous, like the Persian army wielding scimitars, or Alexander wearing the Pharaonic crown of Egypt as a helmet into battle. Still, Netflix’s real crime is the degradation of significant world historic figures into dysfunctional soap opera characters presented as avatars of overwrought deliberation, personal intrigue, and melodrama.

Reclaiming the real Alexander requires us to reclaim some semblance of Greek thought, and especially the Greek emphasis on action. Alexander built and leveled cities, wiped out empires, and destroyed the ancient political landscape with all the force and fury of an avalanche. He was motivated by an inner drive for conquest, greatness, and renown, because he, like his fictional ancestor Achilles, believed that the highest aim of man was undying fame. If this Alexander is alien to modern audiences, who would misunderstand this drive for glory and power as megalomania, perhaps the problem lies with us and not with him.

Sergei is a writer focusing on military history. He writes on and can be followed @witte_sergei.

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