Ancient Worlds (2010) s01e04 Episode Script

Return of the King

In our story of civilisation so far we've come across plenty of what they used to call the great men of history.
Mesopotamian priest kings, Egyptian pharaohs, Assyrian conquerors, Persian great kings, Greek warrior statesmen.
Commanding figures who seemed able to ride the wild horse of history without getting thrown.
Well, none of them came close to the horsemanship of this man .
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Alexander of Macedon, known simply as "the Great".
In the 4th century BC, from the small kingdom of Macedon on the fringes of the civilised world, this charismatic warrior king forged an empire that stretched all the way to India, in just 12 years.
But in the civilisation stakes, what did it amount to? It's difficult not to get dragged into the slipstream of this charismatic demi-god, as he fights his way across Asia into the realms of myth and legend.
But I'm going to resist, because the journey that Alexander made was as singular as the man himself, a restless personal quest to find some kind of limit to define him to himself.
Rich territory perhaps for the psychologist, but from an historical perspective, ephemeral, quixotic, and ultimately, futile.
The irony is that Alexander's "greatness" would only become apparent after his death, when his successors struggled to make something coherent from his chaotic legacy.
And in doing that, they would demonstrate that even the greatest of great men is less significant than the greatest idea .
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the idea of civilisation itself.
Our story begins with a civilisation in crisis.
The civilisation of the polis, as the Greek city states were known.
These small, fractious political units had tried to build strong, stable, self sufficient societies using a variety of political systems, from Athenian democracy to Spartan totalitarianism.
But they had all failed.
The polis had been the proving ground of many remarkable advances in literature, art, science and philosophy, but the goal of eunomia "good order" had eluded them, lost in an exhausting cycle of war between cities and civil war within them.
By the 4th century BC, it was apparent that, as so often in the past, the chaotic, dynamic energies unleashed by the big city could only be tamed and controlled by the autocratic rule of a big man.
It's easy to see civilisation as steady progress, but in fact it's full of dog legs, blind alleys and cul-de-sacs.
And often periods of retrenchment follow hard on from periods of brilliance and genius.
And that is exactly what happened to the Greeks after the halcyon days of the 5th century BC.
The Greeks, despite their genius, had proved themselves singularly ill-prepared to export the products of their greatness.
It would take a barbarian kingdom to the north on the very fringes of the Greek world to turn Greekness into a global brand.
That land was Macedon, on the northern borders of the Greek mainland.
This was a world of mountain kings who would not have been out of place in one of Homer's epic tales.
While the Greek city states to the south had argued for centuries over the relative merits of democracy, oligarchy and tyranny, the Macedonians had clung to the time honoured virtues of hunting .
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horse riding and fighting.
For them, politics was simply a question of loyally following the one who excelled at all three.
This was a culture of Big-Man-ism writ large.
It wasn't a civilization of politicians and orators, but of ruthless autocrats, tribal horse trading and ethnic loyalties.
Macedon was a country of powerful clans ruled over by a single monarch whose military prowess mattered above all else.
Macedon's dizzying ascent from the periphery of the Greek world to Greek superpower was the work of two men.
King Philip II and his son, Alexander, destined to become the most famous man in the ancient world.
His legend would be won at the point of a new weapon in the armoury of war.
In my left hand, I've got the Macedonian army's USP, the sarissa, a giant pike over five metres tall.
If you compare it here with a normal spear, which is just a bit taller than me, at two metres, you can see what a monster it was.
Previously, Hoplite warfare had been a lot about pushing and shoving and the real killing only started when people went to ground and their enemies could finish them off.
So the sarissa was a way of stopping people ending up in the killing ground.
With the Sarissa out in front of his phalanx, they could advance and it would be like the quills of a giant porcupine, and it was enough to keep the enemy at bay.
With his impregnable phalanxes, Philip expanded his northern kingdom into an empire which he then used to cajole and bully the reluctant city states of the south into an alliance against the Greeks' old enemy, the Persians.
The League of Corinth, as it was called, was a coalition of the unwilling, particularly in democratic Athens, which despised Philip's naked autocracy.
The orator Demosthenes, in a series of vicious speeches known as the Philippics, flung the worst insult he could find at this would-be leader of a crusade against the Persians.
This was no Greek at all but a barbarian from the north.
But in casting Philip as a northern barbarian, Demosthenes was missing the point, perhaps deliberately so.
Macedonia was part of Greece, true, not the Greece of Athens and Sparta but an older Greece that still existed on its northern fringes.
The Macedonians were more than familiar with Greekness and "the Greek thing".
Treasures from Philip's tomb show a level of craftsmanship, sophistication and wealth which was on a par with anything produced by the great workshops of Athens.
Self absorbed and blinkered as they were, the city states of Greece had no notion of how to take pan-Hellenism forward.
Philip, on the other hand, unfettered by the parochial and claustrophobic embrace of the polis, could see Greekness for exactly what it was, with its weaknesses and possibilities.
The weakness of the Greek thing had always been its inability to unite politically.
But its strength lay in its deep-rooted opposition to the Persian barbarians to the east.
If someone could only harness this hatred of the others, it might equal the sarissa in its impact on the battlefield.
Philip did not live to lead his fellow Greeks against the Persians.
He was assassinated at his daughter's wedding in the theatre next to the royal palace in 336 BC.
But, of course, Philip had a successor, his son, Alexander.
Just 20 when his father died, Alexander was even more of an expert on the strengths and weaknesses of Greekness.
His tutor had been Aristotle, the greatest political theorist in the Greek-speaking world.
Aristotle's enemies had sniped when he had moved north to set up a school, housed in an authentic philosopher's cave, to teach Alexander and his companions.
But Aristotle knew his politics, and he also knew where real power now lay.
Philip spared no expense in educating his son.
Aristotle, his tutor, was the undisputed intellectual star of his day.
His range was vast.
He taught Alexander and his companions philosophy, politics, history, science, natural science, medicine and astronomy, amongst other subjects.
What didn't come with it was any commitment to the political systems that had spawned these great advances, particularly democracy.
Alexander could talk the talk, walk the walk, but his was a very different Greek thing.
Just how different, the Greeks found out when the city of Thebes revolted in 335BC.
Alexander sacked the city, captured and enslaved 30,000 of its citizens and razed it to the ground.
Lesson number one in the Alexander school of Pan-Hellenism was don't mess with the Big Man.
Now that the Greeks were united under the pan-Hellenic banner, whether they liked it or not, Alexander could now turn his attention to Persia.
But his ambitions went far beyond just avenging the Persian wars.
He would embark on the most extraordinary round of conquests ever seen in the ancient world.
Within 10 years, his empire stretched all the way from Greece in the west to Afghanistan in the east.
This was conquest by blitzkrieg.
Aristotle may have dreamed that he was grooming an enlightened philosopher king but Alexander was soon revealed as a charismatic, volatile, romantic adventurer.
The most enduring legacy of Aristotle's teaching would be an annotated copy of Homer's Iliad.
For Alexander, this was his guide book, military manual and personal bible.
As he crossed the Dardanelles from Europe to Asia, he played the role of a Homeric hero, returning to Troy five centuries too late.
When Alexander first arrived in Asia, he was the first off the ship and then he thrust his spear into the Asian soil, just like the first Homeric hero who'd arrived for the Trojan Wars.
To live your life by the Iliad, a text which was already half a millennium old, would have struck most Greeks as being hopelessly anachronistic but anyway they considered Alexander to be a bit of a gauche buffoon, a boorish simpleton.
But for a man who was ruling a kingdom through military prowess and individual force of arms, the Iliad would have made perfect sense.
The historical re-enactment continued with a pilgrimage to Troy to honour the shades of Achilles.
Suitably inspired, Alexander's armies conquered their way, city by city, down the west coast of Asia Minor.
They were closing in all the time on their prey.
Darius, Great King of Persia.
In September 333 BC, Alexander caught up with Darius at Issus.
The Macedonian phalanx, with their bristling sarissas, forged their way through the centre of Darius's mighty army towards the Great King himself.
Fearing for his life, Darius fled the field.
Alexander had won his greatest victory to date, but his enemy had escaped.
Now the road to the south lay open, and at the end of it was the great prize of Egypt.
Militarily, Egypt was a walkover.
Occupied for 200 years by the Persians, it greeted Alexander as a liberator rather than a conqueror.
Alexander went to Memphis, the old capital of Egypt, where in order to curry favour with the all powerful priests, who effectively ran the country, he sacrificed to Apis, the Egyptian bull god.
It seems to have worked, because Alexander was subsequently crowned pharaoh of upper and lower Egypt.
In Macedon, Alexander, the son of the mortal Philip, had dreamt of being a hero, the offspring of a god, like Achilles.
Now, in Egypt, he was a living god.
It was in Egypt that the veneer of Alexander's Greekness began to wear thin and the personal obsessions of this complex personality began to show through.
His brush with the magic and mysticism of Egypt turned a military adventure into a pilgrimage.
Looking for verification of his divinity, he went in search of a remote oasis called Siwa, deep in the Sahara desert, hundreds of kilometres from the heartland of Egypt, where an ancient oracle was to be found.
The Siwa expedition was both mad and dangerous.
It was typical of Alexander's increasingly mercurial and autocratic behaviour.
What he said went and where he went, he expected others to follow.
But this time he nearly killed himself and his troops.
For days they marched into the unknown, enduring blistering heat and blinding sandstorms.
They became lost and were saved only when one of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy, claimed he had a vision of two talking snakes that finally guided them to the temple in Siwa, where Alexander would consult the Egyptian god Ammon.
This is the temple of Ammon, where Alexander supposedly asked the oracle three questions.
First of these questions was whether he had punished all of his father's murderers.
To which the reply was that Ammon was his father, not Philip.
And then, true to form, he asked whether he was going to rule over the whole world.
To which the answer was yes.
And lastly he asked, when he reached the outer ocean, the supposed edge of the earth, which gods he should worship, to which the obvious reply was Poseidon, the god of the sea.
So, although couched in terms of family duty and religious piety, Alexander's questions open up a fascinating window onto his towering ego and limitless ambition.
With the question of his divine parentage settled, Alexander could turn once again to more worldly matters, like finishing off the Persians.
Final victory came in 331 BC, at Gaugamela in modern day Iraq.
Darius fled the battlefield again, only to be murdered by one of his own men.
But victory revealed Alexander to be a destroyer of civilisation rather than a creator.
His contempt for the hard-won achievements of others can be seen in the brutal and unnecessary destruction of the magnificent Persian capital, Persepolis.
The burning of Persepolis proved to be the bonfire of the pan-Hellenic crusade.
The old enemy had been defeated, his capital city destroyed, Alexander's debt to his Greekness had been paid in full.
From now on he was in it strictly for himself, on a personal crusade for his own glory, his own legend.
Alexander was a true autocrat and systems and precedence would be discarded as he imposed ad hoc solutions to short-term problems before moving swiftly on.
But this was no way to create an enduring empire, let alone a lasting civilization.
For the next seven years, Alexander marched his armies through Persia into Bactria, modern day Afghanistan, and beyond to India.
The further he went, the deeper he travelled into the terra incognita of his own personality, adopting the elaborate dress, court etiquette and manners of the East in search of an identity that gave his achievements some meaning.
Anyone that disagreed with him, including some of his closest Macedonian companions, were killed.
Alexander's quest for personal fulfilment and world domination had to come to an end sometime, somewhere.
They did, on 10th June 323 BC, in Babylon.
He was 33 years old when he died, not a hero's death in battle, but probably of a mosquito bite.
A weather-watching Babylonian chronicler would mark the passing of the King with the following laconic comment.
"The King died.
Clouds.
" The Big Man was dead.
Now it was up to lesser men to try and make sense of his legacy.
To do that, they would have to attempt something more difficult than building a legend.
They would have to build a civilisation.
We're told that immediately after his death, Alexander's successors met in the tent where the empty throne of their dead hero stood and debated what should be done next.
When they spoke it's said that they imitated his voice and even the way he held his head.
According to one account, they felt as if a god was leading them on.
Well, that was the official line anyway.
But the political reality was a good deal less starry eyed.
Alexander had left no immediate successor.
There was an unborn son to a Bactrian princess, and a half brother, Phillip, but the son was half barbarian and the brother half mad.
So anybody with sufficient military muscle at their disposal grabbed what they could, whilst piously declaring they were just holding it in trust until a rightful heir emerged.
Predictably, the son and the half brother were bumped off, and his true heirs could take the gloves off, in proper Macedonian style.
No-one had sufficient muscle to claim all of Alexander's lands.
CHEERING And when the dust finally settled, after much bloodletting, his empire had been carved up into four massive territories.
Greece and Macedon were taken by Cassander, a former cavalryman.
Asia Minor was ruled by Lysimachus, an ex bodyguard.
The East, or Asia, was run by Seleucus, an infantry commander.
And Ptolemy, a childhood friend of Alexander and his former food taster, got Egypt.
These were empire sized kingdoms, ruled by men who'd learned their art of kingship from Alexander and the Greek heroes of old.
But what they did Alexander never would or could.
They knuckled down to the prosaic business of administering their kingdoms .
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levying taxes, seeing off their rivals and establishing dynasties.
And what they achieved was far more concrete than any mere legend.
Alexander might have conquered the world but it was his successors who Hellenised it.
Spreading the fruits of Greek civilisation around the known world was no easy task.
It's in Alexandria in Egypt that you can best appreciate the range of problems faced by the successors.
The way in which they tackled them was not with the improvisational genius of a warrior king, but with patience and tried and tested tools taken from the toolbox of civilisation.
It started with getting basic infrastructure in place.
Alexander decided to found a new city here on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt.
He enthusiastically set about planning its wide boulevards, its library and which gods would have their temple where.
But other more practical considerations seemed to have slipped his mind.
Like what the citizens of his new foundation would drink.
These are the cisterns of Alexandria.
Fresh drinking water has always been a problem here.
The nearest source is the River Nile.
But Alexander wanted his city here, between a brackish lake and the salty sea, so there was nothing for it but to bring the River Nile to the city, a distance of some 30km.
It was Ptolemy who ordered a canal to be dug from the Nile to the gates of the new city from where the water was fed by a network of channels into vaulted underground cisterns to store the water.
But heavy investment in vital infrastructure was also visible above ground.
This is Fort Qaitbay, a medieval castle, which is Alexandria's great landmark today.
The fort is impressive, but it was built on the ruins of something far more iconic, the great lighthouse of Alexandria.
Considered by the ancients to be one of the Seven Wonders of their world.
The lighthouse was the great symbol of Alexandria around the world.
Towering 100 metres into the sky, and burning brightly for 17 centuries.
The Pharos started out as a response to another of Alexander's oversights.
He'd chosen to site his port city on a treacherous stretch of rocky coastline.
So Ptolemy, playing Mr Fix It as usual, ordered a lighthouse to be built to guide ships safely into Alexandria.
Sadly it was destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the 14th century AD, but it has not been lost forever.
Its ruins lie at the bottom of the sea alongside the fort.
Diving among the ruins of the Pharos give you a sense of its monumental scale and ambition.
It's a bit like swimming through an architectural salvage yard.
There are thousands of pieces of masonry scattered over the seabed.
They range from instantly recognisable icons of the old Egypt to massive slabs of granite, some weighing more than 150 tonnes.
These formed the imposing superstructure of the lighthouse.
The Pharos was pure propaganda, a statement of Ptolemy's power and prestige.
That was great.
Fantastic.
Broken columns, a huge platform, lots of sphinxes, decapitated sphinxes, amazing.
It's actually an incredible sight, a really incredible sight.
With its plumbing fixed and its port no longer a graveyard for shipping, Alexandria could at last become something more than a mere vanity project of an all conquering hero.
Under Ptolemy and his successors, Alexandria would become one of the powerhouses of the Hellenizing project.
Alexander's conquests had carried the ideas and institutions of classical Greece away from the narrow confines of the city states and exposed them to the non-Greek world.
These ideas were now available as a range of commodities for Greeks to exploit and for non-Greeks to buy in to.
The Hellenistic kings were heirs to an incredibly rich and robust cultural tradition, honed by the cut and thrust of the agora, the marketplace for ideas in classical Greece.
Now these cultural products created there, such as crowd-pleasing plays, scientific ideas theory and philosophical debate, would be introduced to a wider world.
Today, most of ancient Alexandria has been built over but you don't have to dig too deep to find evidence of one of the great cultural success stories of the ancient world.
It was here that Ptolemy proved himself to be the canniest of all the successor kings.
CAR HORNS BLARE Ptolemy well understood the brutal realities of power politics, but he also knew how to deploy the more subtle weapons in the royal armoury - iconography, symbolism, propaganda.
It was said that Ptolemy had once been Alexander's food taster, the last line of defence against any would be poisoner.
And perhaps when you think that every meal might be your last you learn important lessons about the illusion of power and prestige and how to manipulate them.
In the wake of Ptolemy's takeover of Egypt, an estimated 150,000 Greeks moved to Alexandria to be close to this new source of power and patronage.
But if they thought they were coming to some kind of Athens on the Nile, they were wrong.
There would be no public debates about the finer points of politics in Ptolemy's Alexandria.
It was an autocracy, pure and simple.
Dissenters, democrats and trouble makers could expect to be stamped on.
Ptolemy himself was no homesick expat longing for the hills of Macedon.
He committed to Egypt for the long haul, declaring himself Pharaoh and founding a dynasty.
In the days of the British Raj they would have said, "The old boy's gone native.
" Though the native Egyptians were definitely second class citizens in Ptolemy's Egypt, he tried to build bridges by contributing another god to this god-drenched land.
Serapis was an Egyptian-Greek hybrid designed to appeal to Greek and Egyptian alike.
He had an impeccable Egyptian pedigree, with the bull god Apis and the god of the underworld, Osiris, in his family tree.
But the Greek side of his heritage was unmissable.
With his long flowing locks and human appearance, Serapis doesn't really look like an Egyptian god.
That's because he wasn't.
He was the creation of the Greek artists and intellectuals at Ptolemy's court.
In Alexandria, a magnificent temple was built in honour of this new god, the Serapeum.
It was a smart move, which helped transform Serapis into one of the most popular gods of the ancient world.
But it would be a temple of another kind that would seal Alexandria's reputation, a temple of learning.
The Great Library.
This rather spectacular underground gallery is thought to have been part of the sister library of Alexandria's Great Library, and it lies directly under the Serapeum.
These niches that you can see here are thought to have held the papyri scrolls, in other words the books.
This local branch library offers a tantalising glimpse of what the Great Library would have been like - a hot house of learning and ideas.
At its peak, it housed a quarter of a million volumes.
Its aim was to collect all of the books in the world, and any that were found on ships docking at Alexandria were confiscated until they'd been copied by the Library's legion of scribes.
The Great Library was destroyed in late antiquity and nobody knows where it stood.
But its legacy lives on.
In 2002, a state of the art new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, was opened in homage to the contribution that the city's ancient library made to the spread of civilisation.
The library proved the truth of the old adage - knowledge is power.
The library gave the Ptolemies huge prestige.
And Alexandria quickly became the intellectual epicentre of the Hellenistic world.
The cream of Greek academia was enticed here to study philosophy, literature, physics, mathematics, medicine and geography.
The library's alumni reads like a who's who of the great minds of the ancient world.
Archimedes of Eureka fame, who invented his screw water pump here.
Euclid, who laid down the rules of geometry, and Hero, the da Vinci of his day, whose best known work, the Pneumatica, was full of the most amazing inventions.
Now this was Hero's greatest invention.
It's a steam engine.
And I'm going to see whether I can get it to work.
Now I must say I'm a bit nervous about doing this because I was so bad at science at school they didn't let me take my chemistry and physics O levels.
So that's all in.
Now screw the top in tightly.
Light the wick.
And now we wait.
Now I can hear the steam just beginning to come up.
And you can see now as the water evaporates and the steam is forced through the two holes on opposite sides of the metal ball they're forcing the metal ball to rotate.
Now for Hero this was just like a little toy.
But who knows, if he'd really understood what he had on his hands.
The industrial revolution could have happened here, in Alexandria, 2,000 years ago.
The Library also influenced the arts as well as science.
The Ptolemies were generous supporters of artists, and they used their freedom to treat the human form with daring realism.
They were helped by the scientific research into anatomy that took place at the library.
Some of the best known sculptures from the ancient world, including the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Dying Gaul, are all products of this cross fertilisation.
Marble's a fantastic medium for showing the human form, and here the sculptor is showing off his skill by having the hand clenching a ball so that the muscles and the veins are bulging and we can see the tautness of the tendons.
What this shows us is the extent to which in Alexandria artists were working closely with anatomists and there was a much better understanding of the human body and how it worked.
But the library wasn't just the meeting ground of art and science it was the place where East and West were reunited.
In the thousand years since the collapse of the great Bronze Age civilisations, the geographical gap between East and West had hardened into a cultural and racial one.
The ideology behind Alexander's pan-Hellenic crusade was fuelled by crude ethnic caricatures that contrasted virile, rational, freedom-loving Greeks with effeminate, superstitious, despotic Asians.
But by conquering the world, the Greeks had been exposed to the world, and couldn't help but be curious about it.
This is exemplified by one of the library's most important legacies .
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a map drawn by its chief librarian, Eratosthenes.
It's a map of the known world from about 220 BC.
And this is directly connected, this map, to Alexander's conquests, and here we can see there are places in Asia Minor, going into Persia and places in Arabia, and you go onto Bactria and we've even got India here as well.
And one of the things he managed to work out was that all seas were connected together, so theoretically, it would be possible to circumnavigate Africa, and also to sail from Spain in the West all the way to India.
You have to travel a long, long way from Greece to really appreciate the full irony of Alexander's story .
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the meagreness of his greatness compared to the greatness of his legacy.
I am in the Punjab, near Islamabad, in Pakistan.
And as you can probably tell, I'm a long way from Macedon.
But 2,300 years ago, Alexander the Great was here with his army, and he only turned back when his long-suffering troops mutinied.
Now, Alexander might have been defeated, but Hellenism wasn't.
And it triumphed here in some very surprising ways.
150 years after Alexander, a Hellenistic king called Demetrius invaded India from his kingdom in modern day Afghanistan.
Demetrius was tough and ambitious enough to create a substantial Indo-Greek kingdom that would hold sway in this region for the next two centuries.
Once the fighting was over, Demetrius, quite naturally, built himself a city - Sirkap.
It was classically Hellenistic - its streets laid out in a Greek style grid pattern, with 15 roads running into one central avenue.
There would have been an acropolis and temples, as well as a gymnasium, libraries and a marketplace, all the familiar components of the Greek city state.
But Sirkap was also the meeting ground of a vigorous Western Hellenistic civilisation and the civilisations of the Indian sub continent, ancient worlds in their own right, with their own rich and fascinating story of how to solve the conundrums of civilisation.
This is the shrine of the double-headed eagle, a wonderful hybrid of the Greek and the Indian.
With its Corinthian pilasters and Greek pediment, alongside an Indian torana, an ornamental gateway.
In Sirkap, Greek and Indian language and learning merged, and religious ideas, Greek, Zoroastrian, Hindu and Buddhist co existed.
King Demetrius himself was a follower of the Buddha, whose life and teachings were contemporaneous with the golden age of Classical Greece in the 5th century BC.
The Greeks here, who straddled both worlds, would play an important part in the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.
It was Greek artists who first gave the Buddha his human face.
And those techniques pioneered in the Great Library of Alexandria that gave these Buddhas their wonderfully naturalistic and fine features.
And it would remain the dominant artistic canon in central Asia for nearly a millennium.
The Indo-Greeks also produced some of the most exquisite gold jewellery of the ancient world, which is reminiscent of the treasures found in Macedon.
Greek and Buddhist ideas and philosophy came together too.
In the most important Greco-Buddhist work, the Milinda Panha, an Indo-Greek king asks questions to a Buddhist monk.
The moral message is Buddhist, and it was written in Sanskrit, but the style echoes the great Athenian philosopher Socrates.
We tend to think of multiculturalism as being an aspiration which is the exclusive preserve of liberal democracies, and even then, with a great deal of soul searching and breast beating.
Well, what happened here in Sirkap reminds us that the story of alien cultures coming together and finding common ground is much older than that.
And that's the promise of civilisation.
So, thank you, Alexander the Great, for inadvertently making that promise become real, here in ancient Pakistan.
The Hellenistic kings had forged one the world's first truly global cultures, and they had taken it to the very edges of their world, where it had flourished.
And yet, for them, Alexander would always define what it meant to be "Great".
Their gymnasia, their libraries, their theatres, all that they had built would be overshadowed by his example, a constant temptation to the not so greats to follow in his fatal footsteps.
Not everybody understood that the "Big Man"-ism of Alexander was no way to build up a lasting legacy, let alone a kingdom.
There were still plenty of adventurers, warlords and Alexander wannabes out there, and the most intriguing of this cast of characters was this man, Pyrrhus.
Pyrrhus was a Hellenistic king of Epirus, a small mountain kingdom, roughly where Albania is now, in the first quarter of the third century BC.
He was a brilliant general.
And just as Alexander had modelled himself on Achilles, Pyrrhus modelled himself on Alexander.
In 280 BC, Pyrrhus finally got his chance to lay his claim to be the new Alexander.
The Greek cities of southern Italy were being menaced by a new emerging power, Rome, who seemed to be hell bent on taking over the whole of the peninsula.
In their desperation, they now turned to Pyrrhus.
It was a smart signing.
Pyrrhus landed in Italy .
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and crushed the Romans in a series of battles, using elephants for the first time in Western Europe.
Pyrrhus was soon within striking distance of Rome itself, but after a famous victory over the Roman legions at Ausculum, his losses were so great that he is said to have passed the comment, "Another victory like this, and we've had it".
He followed up his Pyrrhic victory by taking on the other great power in the western Mediterranean - the Carthaginians.
Like an old warhorse, he had responded to the appeal of the Greek cities in Sicily, and soon captured the seemingly impregnable Carthaginian stronghold of Eryx, leading from the front in a daring assault.
But the question for the all-conquering hero is always the same - what to conquer next? The problem with the Alexander technique was that there were only two possible outcomes - one was a premature death, like Alexander, which at least preserved your heroic status, and the other was inevitable defeat.
Because unless you were Alexander, there was always somebody tougher round the corner.
Fate decreed that Pyrrhus' death would come at the age of 46, and like Alexander's, it would be touched with banality.
Ejected from Sicily by ungrateful allies, he returned to take on the stubborn Romans, but with little success.
Later, in Greece, during a siege, an old woman stunned him with a roof tile, and an enemy soldier chopped off his head.
Pyrrhus' career, which promised so much but actually delivered so little, showed that it took more than charisma, courage, tactical genius, limitless ambition and a copy of the Iliad to conquer the world.
And if you wanted to do something more difficult, and build a civilisation rather than just a legend, it needed patience, guile and a political and economic system that was hard-nosed, clear-eyed and ruthless.
A Big Idea, in other words, which would beat a Big Man every time.
Even Pyrrhus understood that the days when the Greeks had been the movers and the shakers of the ancient Mediterranean were now well and truly over.
As he left Sicily for the last time, he predicted that the island would now become the wrestling ground of the Romans and the Carthaginians.
Pyrrhus might have been yesterday's man, but he clearly understood the future.
That future can be summarised in a word.
Rome - the Greatest Idea in the story of civilisation.