Alexander the Great's Dodgy Dinner

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Let's try a little change of pace. Twenty-three centuries ago, a robust, very good-looking 32-year-old from northern Greece sat down for dinner, one that turned out to be his last supper, pun intended. The man was born a prince of royal blood, was an expert horseman and was twice married, although "les mauvaise langues" insisted he was bisexual. Oh yes, I almost forgot. The Greek prince had traveled throughout Asia and the Middle East, had conquered the known world, was in fact many times richer than anyone else in his world. He began his career as King of the Macedonians, became the master of all Greek states, pharaoh of Egypt and King of all Asia. His conquests covered a million square miles. During his boldest adventure, 50,000 Greeks followed a boy king on an expedition that spanned 10 years and a march of more than 11,000 miles.

His private tutor was Aristotle, not bad as far as teachers go. He believed himself to be descended from the gods, and lived his life rivaling Homer's heroes. Needless to say, his favorite Greek was Achilles, the semi-god and slayer of the noble Hector. Such was his passion for Achilles that?again according to "les mauvaise langues"?when his best friend (Hephaistion) died, he cut his long blond hair, just as Achilles had done on the news of the death of Patroclus.

I am referring, of course, to Alexander the Great, the master of a power whose extent and speed of acquisition stand unequaled before or since.

But back to the last supper. Alexander, like all good men, was a prodigious drinker. On that particular night he drank 12 pints of wine, half his usual because he was feeling unwell. A stiffness started in his feet and slowly spread up his body. He lost his power of speech and for several days he appeared to be dead, but his body did not decompose. One can imagine the rumors. Alexander was thought of as a god, and although gods weren't supposed to die, mortal men's bodies decompose; his had not. Now the experts tell us that it was an elementary case of Salmonella typhi, an intestinal bug that causes typhoid fever. We are also told that Alexander's bowel was perforated and the ascending paralysis made him seem dead while he was still alive.

Well, thank God for the posthumous diagnosis, because for all this time people believed Alexander to have succumbed to demon drink. Actually, it was a dodgy dinner, or so they now tell us.

All Greek children are taught mythology and history at a very early age. I was no exception. In fact I had a great advantage. My great uncle was chief justice of the Supreme Court, president of the Greek Academy and briefly prime minister. He had studied in Dresden and was considered the numero-uno historical brain in the land of the Hellenes. Every time he came to visit, and my mother was his favorite niece so he visited a lot, I got a lesson in history with the innermost secrets thrown in as a bonus. By the time I was 11 years of age and had come to this country and been sent to Lawrenceville (near Princeton), I was pretty good where the historical stuff was concerned.

It would take a rather thick book to list all of Alexander's achievements, so I will mention a few of his lesser-known. In Greece, fine horsemanship was the bond between high social equals. There is a marvelous passage in Plutarch, where Alcibiades, a patrician, passes his beloved teacher Socrates, on foot. Socrates is the most admired of men, but he is just above a plebeian. There is no question of Alcibiades offering him a ride, or, horror of horrors, exchanging places.

Many years later, Alexander saw his Iranian enemies fight, and above all, ride. Once he had wiped the floor with them, he incorporated them in his armies. This was a first. By marrying a Persian, Alexander became the first multiculturalist, although he never succumbed to the softened lifestyle of the Persian kings. His style of kingship was based on a personal excellence earned by achievement. Alexander told his troops at Susa that the king must always tell the truth. (I wonder what he would have thought of that slimeball Clinton.) And riding, archery and telling the truth were the three agreed pillars of a Persian education.

So Alexander decided on his master plan: the unification of the Asian and Mediterranean civilizations. He would try to achieve it by a gigantic migration of their peoples. Alas, or perhaps thank God, depending on one's point of view, it turned out to be his only failure, but only because of that dodgy dinner. Beyond the Euphrates, Alexander had met an Asia that was illiterate and hardly urbanized. One must wonder what Greek culture, which was the highest in the world, would have done in, say, Kandahar, once known as Alexandria, one of the many Alexandrias the world over.

One thing is for sure. Had Alexander survived that crummy dinner, the world today would be totally different. Greek would be the lingua franca, a fact that would have saved me lotsa problems at Lawrenceville. Even the towelheads might have turned out to be civilized.

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