If there was one foreign ruler who, through the sheer extent of his achievements, managed to capture the imagination of the doggedly militaristic Romans, it was the ancient world’s live fast, die young poster boy: Alexander the Great. Having conquered most of the known world and more—Greece, Egypt, Persia, Asia Minor and parts of India all the way up to Pakistan—before dropping dead in Babylon aged just 33, his exploits inspired Romans of all generations who saw themselves as Alexander’s heirs as the new masters of the world.
At least in this respect, the mad, bad, and dangerous to know Emperor Caligula was no different to any other Roman. In Alexander, Caligula saw a figure well worth emulating; a leader whose many military victories Caligula, as a young emperor at the head of the world’s most powerful empire, could one day hope to replicate. In reality, however, Caligula would replicate only Alexander’s vices—his violence, his alcoholism, and his megalomania. But Caligula wasn’t the first Roman leader to recognise Alexander’s great potential as a model for imitation. Generals of the Roman Republic also drew heavily on the Macedonian’s great legacy, beginning with Pompey “Magnus” and Julius Caesar.
As a young man, the Pompey was often compared to Alexander in terms of both his looks and his skill as a general. He didn’t mind the comparison. In fact he went well out of his way to promote it, allegedly wearing Alexander’s chlamys (a type of short tunic) during his military triumph over Mithridates in 61 BC. Alexander was apparently also on the mind of Pompey’s great rival, Julius Caesar. When reading about Alexander’s achievements it’s said that Caesar, burst into tears, lamenting the fact that at his age Alexander had conquered so many nations while he himself had achieved so little.
The emperors too drew on Alexander’s valuable currency as an example of valour and military virtue. The first emperor, Augustus, had a lot of respect for the great Macedonian. On his visit to Egypt in 31 BC after defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, he made a special trip to Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria where he reverentially laid flowers and a golden crown across the Macedonian king’s body. When asked whether he’d like to see the tombs of the Ptolemies, he sneered, replying:
“I’ve come to see a king, not a row of corpses.”
Upon his return to Rome, Augustus decorated the capital with paintings and statues of Alexander, including two paintings by the renowned Greek artist Apelles which he displayed in his forum. The message was clear. In making the association between himself and Alexander, Augustus was announcing himself as the new cosmocrat or world conqueror. But there was a crucial difference: Augustus would be better. For as the emperor himself once said, while Alexander had been so obsessed with conquering that he’d never bothered to consolidate his empire, he had no intention of making the same mistake.
The Roman who was most similar to Alexander the Great was not Augustus, however, but Caligula’s father, Germanicus. Germanicus traveled to Egypt in around 18 CE on a tour of the province, and at one point he gave a speech in Alexandria, some of the words of which have been preserved on a piece of papyrus. Amongst the usual rhetoric Germanicus talked in lofty terms about Alexander: “the hero and founder of Alexandria whose goals of conquest he also shared.” The comparison wasn’t lost on others.
The historian Tacitus, writing about the aftermath of Germanicus’s death by poisoning, said that there were some who compared the young Roman prince to Alexander the Great. Both had been very handsome and of noble descent, both had died in faraway lands, and both had possibly been poisoned by their countrymen. But Tacitus makes the point that Germanicus was the better man. Unlike Alexander, he didn’t need scores of wives, banquets or binges to keep himself happy. Roman simplicity was good enough for him.