What King Salman Is Thinking

As Saudi Arabia undergoes apparent political purges, take a look at this excellent primer on the mind of King Salman and his designated successor Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from noted expert on the Kingdom F. Gregory Gause III.

ON THIS DAY IN 1977 . . .

Antiquity may be over, but who said there still isn’t more of it to be found? On this day in history — November 8, 1977 — Manolis Andronicos made a field breaking discovery in his own native Greece (which in of itself was a good moment for the country, granted Greece’s long history of losing native artifacts to ambitious foreign archaeologists — damn the British Museum!). There is a scholarly debate surrounding what exactly Andronicos discovered after 40 years of dedicated excavating in Greece, but one point everybody agrees on is that he found fantastically preserved royal tombs belonging to ancient Macedonia.

But the chemical dating of one of the tombs placed its commissioning around 350 to 320 B.C; which Macedonian king would have been buried at that time? Not the most famous of all Macedonian kings, Alexander the Great, but don’t worry — we’ll take about him later. No, Andronicos found ivory heads on the floor of the tomb resembling that of Philip II, the conqueror of Greece, and his son, Alexander the Great, who would have still been alive apparently at the time of tomb’s creation. Scholars hail this is as the greatest archaeological discovery since World War II — although there is still no absolute proof that the tomb of Philip II was discovered, the public imagination certainly ran with the idea.


And we would lose out on one particularly excellent read if, all of a sudden, we stopped letting our imagination carry us back into the epic times of Alexander the Great. Enter Fire from Heaven, a historical novel written by Mary Renault, whose esteemed and lively portraits of ancient figures helped, if anything, stem the decline in appreciation for the likes of Plato, Theseus, Socrates and another legendary figure of antiquity: Alexander the Great. Contrary to what might perhaps be a more charitable view of how those mighty ancients lived in their own time that laid the groundwork for the Renaissance and any number of neo-classical movements in the West, Renault goes ahead and imbues the dirtiness and anxieties of modern storytelling into a story about the coming of age of Alexander.

How does, in short, the dawdling four year old we meet in Chapter One become the greatest military leader known to the world he conquered? As the opening line elegantly reads, “The child was wakened by the knotting of the snake’s coils about his waist.” Excellence takes root in the young Alexander with each new squeeze, and Renault doesn’t hold back. A drunken, abusive father, Philip II, who might not even be Alexander’s biological father? Awkward encounters in which Demosthenes attempts to molest Alexander as a boy? Confused conversations about sexuality between Alexander and his mother? What can a boy do conquer his way to the ends of the earth?


But if you want to spend a much shorter time watching the entire life of Alexander, first of all: don’t jump into Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander (allegedly inspired by Fire from Heaven) just yet. Do the subject matter justice an check out Robert Rossen’s 1956 historical drama, Alexander the Great, starring the legendary Shakespearean actor Richard Burton as the namesake protagonist. As a father, Philip II is still as difficult to deal with as ever, and we get some juicy scenes between Alexander and his tutors — surprise surprise, he tells Aristotle he rather live a short, glorious life like Achilles instead of a “long life of obscurity — but the real treat of the movie begins once Alexander assumes his throne. Whereas Renault’s work hits a climax with the assassination of Philip II, that is the moment where Rossen’s film is just beginning to hits its stride.

This is not a bildungsroman: after Alexander reaches the peak of his achievements, he’s dragged back down to Earth in a famously pathetic series of events. The man who Hellenized the East was, of course, not defeated by wounds on the battlefield or deception in the political arena — no, the Philosopher-King dies a sad, depressed man brought to heel by illness, arrogance, and his own wanton violence. “I am the son of God,” declares Alexander while he decadently celebrates his conquest of Babylon; his life came to a close resembling anything but.