UCL European Institute


Alexander and the History of European expansion: The Views of the Enlightenment

16 March 2017

Drawing on a lecture delivered at UCL on 1 March 2017, Pierre Briant discusses how Enlightenment histories of Alexander the Great can help us to understand the nature, and legacy, of European expansion. Translated by Phiroze Vasunia.


Known and admired in the Alexander-Romance, a famous Greek text translated into Latin and then into every European language, the legendary and idealized figure of Alexander would undergo a profound transformation over the course of the long 18th century. The men of the Enlightenment, in France, Scotland, and England, but also in Germany, showed a considerable interest in Alexander and his historical achievement, and they devoted important works and essays to these questions.  This new conception imposed itself in close alignment with the political and cultural challenges arising from European expansion overseas and particularly in India.  Although the text remained unpublished for half a century (it was not published until 1716), the report submitted by Pierre-Daniel Huet to Colbert in the autumn of 1667 gives an account of the relationship between research into antiquity and contemporary political imperatives.  In his response to a request from a minister anxious to know the solutions that the (Greek and Roman) ancients had given to maritime commerce and in particular to commerce with India (Colbert was planning to establish the French East India Company), Huet gave him the text of a report on the Histoire sommaire du commerce et de la navigation des Anciens, in which Alexander played a decisive role: ‘This made a great revolution in the affairs of Commerce . . . [opening] a new epoch of Commerce’ (1716, chapter XVII).  The English translation (1717) was dedicated by the translator ‘to the Honourable Chairman of the East-India Company’ as well as to the Deputy-Chairman and ‘to the other Directors’.  The dedication made it perfectly clear that European expansion in India was following in the tracks of Alexander’s conquests, regarded as a precedent and a model.  Huet’s book was a success in Europe and was translated into English (1717), Dutch (1722), Italian (1737), German (1763, 1775), and Spanish (1793).

Huet was also read and used by the French historian-philosophers Voltaire and Montesquieu, who were both at the origin of the creation of the new image of Alexander.  Between 1736 and 1776, Voltaire repeatedly proclaimed his admiration for Alexander, who ‘gave laws in the midst of war, formed colonies, established commerce, founded Alexandria and Iskanderun, which are today the centre of trade in the Orient . . . He built more towns than all the other conquerors of Asia destroyed . . . He changed the face of commerce in Asia, Europe, and Africa, of which Alexandria became the universal warehouse’.  But it is especially Montesquieu who is responsible for the diffusion of this completely new image; in books X and XXI of the Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws, 1748; 1757), he devoted long passages to the Macedonian conqueror and made him a conqueror moved by reason and not by his passions.  He admires the policy adopted by Alexander toward his ancient enemies but also toward the elites of the countries he conquered.  Unlike the Romans, ‘who conquered all to destruct all, he wanted to preserve all, and in every country he entered, his first ideas, his first designs, were always to do something to increase its prosperity and power’.  In the course of book XXI, which constitutes a veritable history of commerce, Montesquieu recalls Huet’s expressions: ‘Four events occurred under Alexander that produced a great revolution in commerce: the capture of Tyre, the conquest of Egypt, that of the Indies, and the discovery of the sea to the south of that country . . . One cannot doubt that his design was to engage in commerce with the Indies through Babylon and the Persian Gulf’.

This new figure of Alexander was given a favourable welcome in Scotland and England.  In Edinburgh, William Robertson (1721-1793) hailed the geographical discoveries attributed to Alexander and, in his Historical Disquisition (1791), spoke of his admiration for the promoter of harmony among peoples: he even made the Macedonian conqueror into a precedent and an example which he urged his compatriots to imitate in India.  John Gillies (1746-1836), his successor as the Historiographer Royal of Scotland, follows the same view in his History of Ancient Greece (1786) and History of the World (1807).  An avowed admirer of Voltaire and Montesquieu, he praises the work ‘of this extraordinary man, whose genius might have changed and improved the state of the Ancient world’.  He attributes to Alexander grandiose plans for the economic and cultural development of the peoples and countries that had remained in a backward state under the yoke of the despotic regime of the Great Kings of Persia.  Following Montesquieu and Robertson, he particularly insists on the establishment of sea routes between India and Babylonia, and beyond, towards Europe.  In 1797, the publication of the Voyage of Nearchus by William Vincent illustrates an identical conception, based on still closer links between the work of Alexander and the East India Company.  Vincent even makes the navigation of Nearchus in the Persian Gulf ‘the primary cause, however remote, of the British establishment in India’.

Although traditionally hostile to what they saw as a bloody adventure, German historians gradually converted to this dominant image.  This is particularly evident in the case of Arnold Heeren (1760-1842), one of the great masters of the School of Göttingen.  A specialist in the history of commerce in antiquity, he, too, attributed a decisive role to Alexander, who was said to have completely changed the face of world commerce.

The example of Heeren shows that the appearance and diffusion of this new image of Alexander fit perfectly well with the self-image of Europe in relation to ‘despotic Asia’.  In concluding a chapter on the state of the Persian Empire at the arrival of Alexander, Heeren observes that the victories of the Macedonian prefigure the future victory of Europe over the Ottoman Empire.  It is as early as 1767 that Gatterer, another German historian who was very hostile to Alexander, had explained the meaning to be given to the Macedonian conquest: ‘The seat of world domination passed for the first time into Europe.’  In his course at the University of Bonn in 1829-1830, another German historian, B. G. Niebuhr, hardened the formula: ‘He was the first who led the Europeans to victory in the Orient.  The role of Asia has come to an end; it was destined to be reduced to servitude.’  It is in this sense that the conquest of Alexander assumed such importance in the European imagination.  He was the first European leader to cross the boundary with Asia and to make the Orient dependent on Europe.  He was, therefore, an unsurpassable model for Europeans drawn to the conquest of the Orient, especially since, far from being a simple conqueror, he was a civilizer, bringing the benefits of European civilization to the Orient.

Let us say, lastly, that even today a number of books, images, and films continue to offer representations of Alexander in the terms of apparently indestructible Orientalist clichés.


Briant, Pierre, ‘Alexander the Great and the Enlightenment: William Robertson (1721-1793), the Empire and the road to India’, Cromohs 10 (2005): 1-9.

Briant, Pierre, The First European. A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire. Translated by N. Elliott (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

Briant, Pierre, Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs (Paris: Gallimard, 2016).

Image of Alexander (C) Flickr user 'Art of Nature' (Creative Commons Licence)