Both the Roman Empire and the Republic that preceded it are quintessential figures in any discussion of conquest. From its origins as a collection of villages on the banks of the Tiber to its fall at the end of the 5th-century (not counting the continued existence of the Eastern/Byzantine Empire until the 15th), Rome represented not a people so much as an idea.
It was the idea of Rome that sustained the nascent power and its eventual empire through so many crises. From the sack of Rome by Brennus of Gaul to the Vandal sack in 455, Roman notions of unity, superiority and liberty helped stave off inevitable destruction and kept the disparate (and distant) elements of the empire answerable to Roman authority.
In this way, the Roman Empire represents the ultimate fulfilment of Alexander’s dream: many people united under one supreme ruler. However, while Alexander campaigned in the east the focus of the Romans was very much in the west; and unlike Alexander, they did not insist on integration, although the process did occur after many generations of Roman rule across their vast territories and the extension of the Roman franchise to all citizens of the empire. Moreover, while the Republic operated under the stewardship of the Senate and the early empire under the rule of the Principate emperors, it was the Dominate emperors and the adoption of both wide-spread emperor-worship and Christianity (some might argue) that ultimately led both to the existence of an empire that Alexander would have recognised as modelled on his own and its downfall.
Thus, if we consider the Romans as a nation rather than any one individual, we see that they possess the necessary awareness of legacy to qualify them as a successor to Alexander. Also, although they were known for their stalwart refusal to compromise on certain issues, they were also extremely adaptable, and could display honest magnanimity when required.
As we have already established, their vision was sufficiently powerful to sustain one-thousand years (or more!) of uninterrupted existence. And in terms of leadership traits and military genius they qualify, as a collective, and especially when considering the era of the Republic as the defining epoch. Though they suffered greatly from poor leadership at times, they produced some of the greatest statesmen and generals the world has ever seen, exemplified by names like Fabius Maximus, Scipio Africanus, Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Caesar, Pompey, Augustus, and many others besides.
The question then is, if they fulfilled so many of the criteria necessary to be considered Alexander’s true heir, why can’t we consider them thus?
The answer is, we can. But…
This is where things get tricky. If it took the combined population of an entire city, and later, an entire empire to live up to the greatness of a single man, then do they really qualify?
Yes and no.
They do, because the idea of Rome can be considered the individual, defining trait of all those who contributed to the construction of Rome’s legacy. It is the idea of Rome that was equal to the greatness of Alexander, not the men who believed in it.
And they don’t, because really: only Caesar himself might have had the ability and resources to equal Alexander’s achievements, and he was assassinated before he could fulfil that ambition. Thus, we will always be left wondering…
Over the last two months we’ve examined numerous eras and civilisations of the ancient world and tried to determine who, if anybody, could live up to Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, the attempt has turned out to be a trick: there is no clear answer, and compelling arguments could be made for any of the contenders featured in this series.
Truthfully, I believe the Roman Republic/Empire are the only ones who could claim to be in the same league. As an individual, Pyrrhus of Epirus comes the closest.
But you might think differently, and I encourage you to argue the contrary. That is the great wonder of history: that so much can be encompassed by a few words, and none of it can – history lives as long as we continue to debate it, cherish it, love it.
So if this series has motivated you to consider something you hadn’t previously thought about, then I’ve done my job. And if you have a long held belief about this subject, then I encourage you to share it.
Go on, you know you want to…