Alexander the great

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger


1Paradoxically, the conqueror whose vices and excessive ambition the 18th century denounced, once Louis XIV had ceased exploiting his image to his own advantage, creates a considerable place for himself in the work of Montesquieu. Indeed, Montesquieu sees in him the true conqueror, in other words one who opens a new world to human curiosity, unites peoples, administers the world in a way that favors general prosperity. Alexander thus becomes a surprising figure of modernity through his interest in commerce, and his understanding of the political, economic and moral problems entailed by conquest.

2His historical character first raises an historiographical problem, for Montesquieu has nothing but scorn for Alexander’s biographer and admirer Quintus Curtius Rufus: “We have no knowledge about the rhetor who, lacking either knowledge or judgment, has Alexander roam a world he does not know, covering it with little flowers, and writes in ignorance of every one of the sources on which he should have drawn” (“On ne sait guère quel est le rhéteur qui, sans savoir et sans jugement, promène Alexandre sur une terre qu’il ne connaît pas et qui le couvre de petites fleurs, et qui a écrit sans connaître une seule des sources où il devait puiser”, Pensées, no. 2178; see also Pensées, no. 774, and EL, X, 3). To him he distinctly prefers Arrian and other Greek informers, like Strabo.

3Several texts put forward an odious characterization of his insatiable craving for conquest, commonly called “heroism”, but which Montesquieu opposes to the conduct of the “moderate and just” prince (Pensées, nos. 1987 and 1988). Similarly, in Lysimaque (OC, t. IX), the executioner of Callisthenes, while showing he can be generous in the face of an astonishing act, appears a sort of epitome of a despicable king, drunk with his own victories. Yet he still has the merit of incarnating an ethic of glory which, in modern times, has disappeared behind base calculation and the spirit of commerce (Pensées, no. 1601). But in all these cases, Montesquieu seems to apply an image of Alexander that was fairly widely shared in the 18th century, and is to be found notably in Voltaire.

4But the central argument is in L’Esprit des lois: “How is it then that the Greeks were the first to engage in trade with the Indies by a southern route? Why had the Persians not done so earlier? What use did they make of the seas that were so close to them, seas that lapped the shores of their empire?” (“Comment donc les Grecs furent-ils les premiers qui firent par le midi le commerce des Indes ? Comment les Perses ne l’avaient-ils pas fait auparavant ? Que leur servaient des mers qui étaient si proches d’eux, des mers qui baignaient leur empire ?”, EL, XXI, 7 [8]). Alexander is the instigator of a veritable revolution in the manner of conceiving the world, which had remained unchanging under Persian domination. One might well think it required the intrusion of a Greek, one who came from a country where the temperate climate favored initiative and activity, to shake up the manners of thinking and living of an eastern people (EL, XIV, 4) – but this thought must be put in perspective, for Montesquieu is far from giving of Persia the negative impression generally held by his contemporaries (see in particular EL, XVIII, 7; Briant 2007). The main fact is the brevity of Alexander’s empire; but it does not work against him: conquest is first of all an opening, just as material as intellectual, a passage – that makes durable changes possible, even irreversible. It was he who allowed the “circulation” of peoples, indispensable to the world’s equilibrium. Thus we find Alexander again in Book XXI of L’Esprit des lois, where the apparent contradiction is neatly put: “[…] must one conquer a country in order to trade with it? […] Then he formed a plan to join the Indies to the West with maritime trade, as he had united them with the colonies he had established by land” (“[…] faut-il conquérir un pays pour y négocier ? […] Pour lors il forma le dessein d’unir les Indes avec l’Occident par un commerce maritime, comme il les avait unis par des colonies qu’il avait établies dans les terres”, XXI, 7 [8]). “[Trade] reigns today where only deserts, seas and stone were to be found; where it used to reign, there is nothing but deserts” (“[Le commerce] règne aujourd’hui où l’on ne voyait que des déserts, des mers et des rochers ; là où il régnait, il n’y a que des déserts”, EL, XXI, 5). So Alexander had indeed changed the face of the earth.

5Alexander appears finally as the antithesis of the Romans: “The Romans conquered everything in order to destroy everything: he wanted to conquer so as to preserve everything” (“Les Romains conquirent tout pour tout détruire: il voulut tout conquérir pour tout conserver”, EL, X, 14); “his only thought was to unite the two [Greek and Persian] nations” ((“il ne songea qu’à unir les deux nations”, ibid.), notably by suppressing any difference between conqueror and the vanquished, encouraging marriages between them, or founding Greek colonies in Persia that would “bind together […] all the parts of the new empire” (“ciment[er] […] toutes les parties du nouvel empire”). The same terms in Book XXI describe the conquests of Egypt and India and the discovery of the maritime routes in the southern seas; and Alexandria was to become “a key to open” Egypt (XXI, 7 [8]), even if his true purpose was to make Babylon the essential relay, and doubtless the point of convergence of the commercial routes. Montesquieu, who had read Huet’s Histoire du commerce (“History of Trade”; see his notes in Extraits et notes de lectures, OC, t. XVII, in preparation), indeed insists (precisely in opposition to Huet) on his conviction that the founding of Alexandria in no way predetermined his projects: “he did not have in mind a trade which only the discovery of the route to the Indes could suggest” (“il ne songeait point à un commerce dont la découverte de la mer des Indes pouvait seule lui faire naître la pensée”, EL, XXI, 7 [8]). Indeed, it was solely by discovering northern India that he became aware of that empire’s riches; then he turns aside from his path, which was taking him toward the East, to conquer the South, “full of great nations, cities, and rivers” (“plei[n] de grandes nations, de villes et de rivières”,  ibid.); “Then he formed a plan to join the Indies to the West with maritime trade, as he had united them with the colonies he had established by land” (“pour lors il forma le dessein d’unir les Indes avec l’Occident par un commerce maritime, comme il les avait unis par des colonies qu’il avait établies dans les terres”, ibid.; italics added).

6Alexander’s principle was therefore to favor trade: to him, power was indivisible from prosperity (EL, X, 13 [14]); despite the breaking apart of the empire, the same design would be followed by his successors, who in turn would try to determine the boundaries of the Caspian Sea (XXI, 7 [9]). At his death, minds were stunned with consternation (EL, X, 13 [14] and Pensées, no. 99): a unique instance in history of a perfectly controlled absolute power, and perhaps a unique instance in Montesquieu of true fascination, but founded on reason and justified by the often insightful reading of the Greek and Latin historians.

7To be sure, Montesquieu is not the first to have used Arrian rather than Quintus Curtius, nor the first of his time to have looked favorably on such conquests: Voltaire too discerned what was exceptional about these. Montesquieu also owes much to Huet, as we have said. But it is unquestionably to him that we owe the renewal of Alexander’s image; it is indeed with Montesquieu that the “Enlightenment Alexander” was born, and above all it is on bases thus laid down by L’Esprit des lois that the Alexander of the modern era was to be constructed (Briant, 2012).


Chantal Grell and Christian Michel, L’École des princes ou Alexandre disgrâcié, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1988.

Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, “Montesquieu et l’impérialisme grec: Alexandre ou l’art de la conquête”, in Montesquieu and the Spirit of Modernity, David. W. Carrithers and P. Coleman ed., Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2002:09, p. 49-60.

Pierre Briant, “Montesquieu, Mably et Alexandre le Grand : aux sources de l’histoire hellénistique”, Revue Montesquieu 8 (2005-2006), p. 151-185.

Pierre Briant, “Retour sur Alexandre et les katarraktes du Tigre: l’histoire d’un dossier (I)”, Studi Ellenistici 19 (2006), p. 9-75 (especially p. 26-32: “Les Katarraktes et la route de l’Inde dans L’Esprit des lois”).

Pierre Briant, “Montesquieu et ses sources: Alexandre, l’empire perse, les Guèbres et l’irrigation (L’Esprit des lois, X, 13-14 ; XVIII,7)”, Oxford : Voltaire Foundation, SVEC 2007:06, p. 243-262.

Pierre Briant, Alexandre des Lumières : fragments d’histoire européenne, Paris: Gallimard, 2012.