Too much emphasis is placed on Alexander the Great himself and the short-lived empire he created; while both have captured the imagination of rulers and scholars since Alexander died, not as much attention is given to the way Alexander and his empire failed. Namely, that he anecdotally did not name a successor (saying only that his empire would go to “the strongest”), and the way that this led to conflict and the fragmentation of his empire. I would also contend that his military exploits, though impressive, are not nearly as important as the way that he blended the different cultures that he ruled and, in the longue durée, the way his generals ruled the fragments of his former empire. Alexander, therefore, is a catalyst; while in the so-called “Great Man” school of history, he himself was very important, when one looks at other schools of history, it is what resulted from Alexander’s conquests—namely, the Hellenistic blending of cultures, the social status of the conquerors vs. the conquered, the way that the squabbles between his former generals for pieces of his empire shaped the Near East and Mediterranean for centuries to come, and the way that power structures in the Near East, ultimately, did not change that much with the advent of Alexander and his generals — that are the most important legacy of Alexander the Great.
History, through the ages, has always loved the myth of the Great Man – a visionary who, through his (and it was generally his, up until very recently) charisma, power, and all-around greatness, changed the course of history through one single action or event. We all know of these “Great Men” – men such as George Washington, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Caesar, and others. It has only been recently, with the Annales school of history being the first to challenge this narrative, that the Great Man theory has been questioned. According to Fernand Braudel, the scholar who coined the term longue durée,
Whether one is writing about 1558 or the year of Our Lord 1958, if one wants to understand the world, one has to determine the hierarchy of forces, currents, and individual movements, and then put them together to form an overall constellation. Throughout, one must distinguish between long-term movements and momentary pressures, finding the immediate sources of the latter and the long-term thrust of the former…. Each “current reality” is the conjoining of movements with different origins and rhythms. The time of today is composed simultaneously of the time of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, and of bygone days (Braudel and Wallerstein, 2009, 182).
At this point in time, 1958, a new form of history was rapidly emerging, born from the marriage of history and other social sciences. Braudel’s article, “History and the Social Sciences: The Longue Dureé”, was meant as a call to examine more than simply the great battles and military leaders of the past, and instead look at such things as population growth and migration, economics, anthropology, and other social sciences to demonstrate not just what they could do for the historian, but what the application of history in other social-scientific fields could do for history.
When applying the concept of the longue durée to Alexander the Great and his empire, we notice three things: One, that the style of ruling, with Alexander adopting some Persian customs, among other things, was roughly consistent with how the Near East was ruled by the Persians and other empires for centuries before. Two, that while the style of rule remained consistent for the Middle and Near East, different customs from all over the empire blended together into what is called a “Hellenistic” culture. And three, that while Alexander accomplished what had before then been unheard-of military feats, his empire did not change the geographical borders of the Middle and Near East as much as other empires did. While he conquered these areas, it was only for around a decade. It was his generals who ended up taking over and creating empires such as the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires that caused more middle and long-term change. Alexander, in other words, through his own personal being, only really set the stage for others to create more lasting change; in the longue durée, Alexander’s real importance was not in his military accomplishments, but in what they meant and ushered in.
According to Cline and Graham, Alexander shifted Greek power structures from the P of the IEMP model to the I, ideological (Cline and Graham, 2011, 148). I heartily disagree with this notion; as this notion only works if one defines ideology narrowly to mean divine kingship. The ideology of the Greeks previous to Alexander was centered around the polis, and the power instilled in polis itself as a political and ideological entity of belonging is, in my opinion, a demonstration of ideological power; in this view, then, Alexander did not so much change the focus of the IEMP model in Greece from political power to ideological power but instead shifted the ideological power of the polis to the idea of a hero-king. When looking at this from the perspective of the longue duree, it is clear that Alexander did have a lasting impact, as the Greeks, while granted “freedom” in every fragment of Alexander’s former empire, were ruled by a long and stable dynasty in Greece itself rather than from the polis as it had been prior (Cline and Graham, 2011, 151).
In short, when looking at Alexander the Great’s lasting influence, it is clear that in the longue durée, his personal influence and accomplishments mean less than what these accomplishments – at the time, conquering what was seen as the world’s largest empire and creating a new largest empire – ushered in in terms of the migrations of peoples, the social elements between the conquerors and the conquered, and the new centers of power that resulted from his empire.