April 30, 2012

Alexander the Great, Mount Athos, and a Lofty Proposal

Both Plutarch and Strabo record an ambitious proposal made by Deinocrates (or Cheirocrates or Stasicrates), chief architect to the Macedonian king Alexander the Great and the builder of Alexandria. According to Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander, he says:

Once when they [Deinocrates and Alexander] had met before, he had told him, that of all the mountains he knew, that of Athos in Thrace was the most capable of being adapted to represent the shape and lineaments of a man; that if he pleased to command him, he would make it the noblest and most durable statue in the world, which in its left hand should hold a city of ten thousand inhabitants, and out of its right should pour a copious river into the sea. Though Alexander declined this proposal, yet now he spent a great deal of time with workmen to invent and contrive others even more extravagant and sumptuous.

In other words, if Alexander followed through with this plan, on Mount Athos there would have been something like a Greek Mount Rushmore likeness of Alexander, though grander.

It is likely that this rejection was based not so much on a sense of personal modesty (for which Alexander was not well known), as on a desire to avoid being remembered by history as a man quite so arrogant as Xerxes. Xerxes, the famed Persian king, had carved a canal through the beginning of the Athonite penninsula in 481 BC, joining the Ierissos (on the north) and Singitic (on the south) gulfs and providing safer passage than the journey around Athos' southern point (Cape Akrothoos). Some historians doubt that this canal was ever finished, some that it was ever begun. Yet present-day visitors to the Holy Mountain can still see remnants of this canal, long since filled in with sediment, but still clearly evident as a long, narrow, and obviously artificial valley in precisely the location attributed to Xerxes' project.