When you’re known to history as “the Great,” as Alexander III of Macedonia was, you’re bound to be scrutinized by generations to come. Aléxandros ho Mégas, as he is known in Greek, died on May 18, 323 BCE in Babylon. He was 32 years old, and had led armies from Greece to conquer an enormous swath of North Africa and Eurasia that stretched from Egypt through what is now Pakistan and India. That empire was the first attempt at the “universal state” envisioned by Alexander’s teacher Aristotle. (Ever since, ambitious mothers—his own had his competitors to the Macedonian throne executed—have used him as a goad: “Why can’t you get a job? Alexander had already conquered Egypt by the time he was your age….”)
But was Alexander also the first globalist? The political theorist Hugh Liebert thinks so, arguing that Alexander was in fact the founder of globalization by way of his “indeterminate identification,” a kind of pan-cultural global citizenship, the antithesis of nationalism. Not Macedonian, Greek, Egyptian, Persian, nor King of Asia (one of his titles), but all combined.
Globalization may be simply defined as the market-driven interdependence of the world which makes borders porous if not irrelevant. It is usually considered a contemporary phenomenon. But the word globalization is “as ubiquitous as it is imprecise,” says Liebert, who lays out several theories of the concept. His main point is that globalization is not an imperial project but rather “a process of expansion divorced from domination.”
The Alexander of globalization is thus “not a harsh tyrant eager to bring humanity to heel; rather he is a humanist willing to transcend his own boundaries of nation and cult, and eager to effect a similar transformation in the spirits of his subjects.” Liebert notes that others disagree strongly with this, for instance those who paint Alexander as “a Greek crusader eager to empower his civilization by Hellenizing the world—at spear point, if necessary.”
In fact there are, as in most cases, many more than two readings. Liebert’s reframing of this familiar figure is exemplar of the lessons that history, even ancient history, continues to offer.