Saturday, 27 February 2010

Alexander the Great prepares to invade the Persian Empire

With his army and fleet gathered, Alexander was almost ready to leave for Asia. First, however, there was the giving of gifts and awards that was traditional for a Macedonian king about to set off to war.

Such occasions were usually lavish both in terms of the ceremonial and the gifts given. Alexander, however, was in a rather embarrassing situation. His father had left him debts of about 500 talents. In part those had been paid off by the sack of Thebes, but Alexander was spending around 3,000 talents a year on his army at a time when the Kingdom of Macedon produced only around half that in taxes. The gold mines of Thrace produced another 1,000 talents, while tribute from subject tribes and kingdoms produced a few hundred more. It can be seen that the finances of the Kingdom of Macedon were shaky to say the least. By the spring of 334bc Alexander’s known debts totalled about 200 talents.

It is difficult to be certain exactly how this translates into modern money. In terms of bullion, 200 talents of silver coin would today fetch around £600,000 or so. However, Alexander lived in a world that was basically agricultural and had an economy based on land, services and goods more than on money, which was then a fairly new invention. Certainly his contemporaries considered the debt to be enormous.

Alexander had just 70 talents in cash to take with him to pay the army, bribe Persian officials and pay expenses. This would not last him long on campaign. He could not, therefore, afford to hand out money to his commanders, nobles and officials. Instead he chose to hand out farms, estates and even entire villages from the royal estates. He went further, giving at least some of his nobles the tax revenues from ports and districts for the coming years. He was, in effect, pledging the future revenues of his kingdom. The scale of the gift giving may not have been unprecedented, but the types of gifts given were without parallel.

Perdiccas, one of Alexander’s inner circle of Macedonian noblemen, was taken aback by what he was seeing. “But your majesty,” he protested, “what are you leaving for yourself?”

Alexander replied simply “My hopes”.

“Very well then, “ said Perdiccas, “those who serve with you will share those too.” He returned the gifts that Alexander had given him, and a few others followed suit.

Even so, Alexander had by this ceremony passed the point of no return. If he did not conquer in Asia and obtain new territories, new tax incomes and much loot then he and the Kingdom of Macedon would be bankrupt. This dire financial situation soon became known outside of Macedon, and news of Alexander’s potential bankruptcy reached Asia Minor long before he did himself.

Some time in the first half of May, Alexander gave the order to set out.

This is an extract from Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews

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