Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Greatness (Cyrus the Neglected, part 2)

Becoming great at something is no easy task. Even those who are naturally gifted must put in untold hours of training before they can ascend to greatness.

There are plenty of great athletes, actors, performers, salespeople, scientists, public speakers, and writers out there, but I don't know anyone who deserves to be called the Great. Such a title demands accomplishments far beyond the normal scope of greatness, and rightfully so, Being known as the Great means you're not just great at one or two things: you're great at everything you do.

Historically speaking, this title has been handed out like Halloween candy. Seriously. Here's a list of all the historical figures to ever assume the title of "the Great." Ridiculous, right? I get the feeling that a lot of these guys probably just commanded their subjects to call them "the Great"  and promised to torture all who refused.

Not that it matters. When someone mentions "the Great," you don't automatically think "Akbar the Great" or "Herod the Great:" you think of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian Kid.

The Macedonian Kid, in all his glory
Which is a terrible shame. Alexander wasn't the Great. Self-absorbed, vain, paranoid, short-sighted, and narcissistic are just a few of the titles that would've suited him better. Alexander was a glory-hog with no regard for anything or anyone but himself and, more importantly, his legacy.

It just so happens that his accomplishments, however few they might have been, were impressive enough to overshadow his retched character and epic failures.

Alexander's deeds also overshadowed the myriad accomplishments of his idol and predecessor, Cyrus II of Persia, who trumped the Macedonian Kid in almost every regard.

So why don't you know anything about Cyrus?

Until very recently, the only thing I knew about him was that he lead the Persians in Sid Meyer's Civilization, one of my favorite video games. Of the Persian empire I knew only a little bit more: namely, that they were the bad guys in the movie 300, another personal favorite of mine.

Maybe it's a case of bad timing--Cyrus died some 200 years before Alexander was born--or due to a cultural divide--if you were born in Iran, for example, you would celebrate Cyrus Day every October 29th--but either way, Cyrus got a raw deal.

The Macedonian Kid might have conquered more than Cyrus and done it faster to boot, but that's about the only thing he's got over Cyrus. The people he conquered in record time rebelled against him incessantly and instead of sticking around to put things in order, Alexander just kept pressing forward, hungry for more glory.

Even his soldiers, sick and tired of dying in foreign lands for the sake of their leader's vanity, eventually turned on him. Most leaders would take this as a hint to turn around and go home, but not the Macedonian Kid. His general Coenus had to plead and beg before Alexander conceded and even then, as if to punish his soldiers for their revolt, he took them through the Gedrosian Desert, the most difficult and dangerous route home, where a large number of them died.

Talk about a great leader. Way to go, Alex.

Perhaps the best example of the Kid's disregard for others comes to us from his deathbed. While catching some much-needed R&R in Babylon, the 32-year old conqueror became ill (or was poisoned, more likely). 14 days later his four generals, concerned about his well-being, circled his bedside. When asked who out of the four generals should get the empire after he dies, Alexander is reported to have answered: "The strongest."

Way to pit your most brilliant generals against each other, Alex. Great parting words. Really brilliant.

A mere 2 years after his death, Alexander's empire was reduced to four separate kingdoms, one for each general.

I'd be willing to call Alexander a great strategist, a great commander even, but never the Great. How can anyone think he deserves such an accolade? All told, his empire lasted 8 years, and that's only if you start counting from his first conquest in 329BCE.

Compare this to the accomplishments of Cyrus, the only Great worthy of the title.

While Cyrus was alive, his empire encompassed everything between the Mediterranean Sea and Indus river. He had the Near East on lock-down. His titles included: the Great King, King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, and King of the Four Corners of the World.

I like the last one best.

Cyrus didn't just collect titles for show: he held onto them, ruling a vast empire composed of many nations which had only recently been considered empires in their own right. And whereas Alexander's subjects couldn't wait for him to move on to his next conquest so that they might rise up against him, Cyrus' subjects loved him. According to Xenophon,
those who were subject to him, he treated with esteem and regard, as if they were his own children, while his subjects themselves respected Cyrus as their "Father." What other man but Cyrus, after having overturned an empire, ever died with the title of "The Father" from the people whom he had brought under his power?
On the one hand you have the Macedonian Kid, whose empire endured less than a decade and was subject to numerous revolts and insurrections; and on the other we have Cyrus, who was unanimously beloved by his subjects and whose empire would outlive its founder by a couple of centuries.

I realize that I've spent more time talking about Alexander than I have about Cyrus (see, even here the Kid overshadows his peers!) but there's a good reason.

In order to understand the greatness of Cyrus we need a point of reference, someone who lived in the same era and whose accomplishments are comparable. Who better than the Macedonian Kid?
The two men have much in common but it is their differences that are most interesting. Both men forged mighty empires--the mightiest the world had ever seen--but Cyrus' lasted over two centuries while Alexander's lasted less than a decade. What gives?

In my opinion, the biggest difference between the two is motivation.

Alexander was driven by a hunger for glory. Like Achilles in Homer's Iliad, he sought to "do some great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.” We can see this drive in the way he swept across the known world without bothering to lay down the proper foundations of an empire. In Alexander's carelessness and singular desire to press onward, ever onward, we catch a glimpse of the selfish desires that governed him.

What desires governed Cyrus?

In order to answer this question, we will need to return to the Near East, circa 549 BCE where, having just conquered the Median Empire, Cyrus plots his next move.