Alexander III was the greatest conqueror of all time. It is interesting that it was the Romans, not the Greeks who gave him the appellative of the Great (Magnus-Magno), however; a bit of conflicting history going on there. Of course, Plutarch, whose biography is the most widely read, was from Greece, so one could still say that it was the Ancient Greeks who gave him the name. Either way, I was asked to look at a quote he was reported to have said by, of course, none other than Plutarch himself (Alexander 40.2-3)
Οὐκ ἴστε, εἶπεν, ὅτι τοῦ κρατεῖν πέρας ἡμῖν ἐστι τὸ μὴ ταὐτὰ ποιεῖν τοῖς κεκρατημένοις;
Don’t you know, he said, that for us it is the end-line of conquest not to do things like those who have been conquered?
No sabeis, dijo, que para nosotros es la mira de la conquista el no hacer lo mismo que han hecho los conquistados?
Woah, that Plutarch was a beast. Let’s just say that using a Genitive article before an Infinitive (‘of the conquering’) was just insane. However, what does Alexander tell us here? One may think that simplicity is self-explanatory, but I can tell you that translation is self-explanatory, while the original never is. First and foremost, Plutarch is using a question to which we already know the answer to. ‘Don’t you know’ is an interrogative construction that expects an answer in the opposite of the premise. Say for example, I ask my waiter: “Don’t you know I like medium-rare?” There is an implication there, that the waiter knows me. He knows that he knows me. Further, I expect for him to apologize. Obviously, he delivered something not medium-rare, thus I would expect that, knowing me, he would not have accepted the meat and helped me out by sending it back. The same is happening here. Whoever Alexander is speaking to is being chided. It turns out Alexander is justifying his go-getter nature – or Plutarch, if you choose to believe Alexander never said such a thing. Thus, the Fighter King is opening with a ‘you should know this’ statement.
Next, the result clause is obvious, ὅτι introduces it. The relative pronoun is strong, but the verbal noun is even more so. The Greek Genitive is as dangerous as the Latin Ablative. It does everything, it works everything, it is used for everything. For simplicity’s sake we will just say that it represents possession. Thus, ‘of those’ is the best translation here. A cool thing of the Greek infinitive is the capability to work as a Gerund, that is, repetitive action; in other words, a non-finite verb. The conquering or, with the possessive, ‘those who conquer,’ has the connotation of current action. Think of the phrase ‘those who cannot do, teach.’ The construction is very similar. The meaning is that those who have never and won’t ever be able to do that which they trained for, teach. Time is represented in the present, but it encompasses time. Alexander is telling us that those who cannot war, are conquered.
I love the use of πέρας here. Quite literally, πέρας is a dividing line. It is the limitation of a thing, where a thing ends. The translation I have will usually not be rendered because it is too word-heavy. But I like words, words are fun. Alexander is, here, drawing a line in the sand. There are the conquering, then there is a line, then there are the conquered. The end-line of conquest are the right actions which lead to conquering. By doing the wrong action, you are quite literally crossing the line from conqueror to conquered. I am reminded of “Forrest Gump.” Forrest says, quite a few times, “stupid is, stupid does.” Now, that is simplicity to the extreme, and also awesome. Forrest is saying that the end and object of cleverness is to avoid that which is considered stupid. Don’t cross the boundary, you are not stupid. Forrest’s actions in the film are grandiose, transcendent even. If Forrest has not committed an action (his very problem is his inability to take quick action) that can be classified as rash and stupid, he cannot therefore be stupid. “Stupid is, stupid does” is as delineating as the πέρας in this sentence.
Having said all that, we end with the other side of the line; where Alexander so obviously never ends because he does things differently. We often study Alexander III (the Great) as a magnificent tactician, but we ponder little on the tradition of no-nonsense combat he grew up on. Alexander was the son of a better tactician, Philip II, who learned from (possibly) the best tacticians in the Ancient World, Epaminondas and Pelopidas of Thebes. The Thebans destroyed the Spartan hegemony; they were the ones who first defeated Sparta in land, their natural element, after four hundred years of Laconian supremacy. In that sense, Alexander was an understudy. He learned to fight from the best. All that training, all of that understanding, he summarized in the end of the sentence: ‘don’t do what your enemies do when they fail.’ Battle wasn’t just a place to wage war for Alexander and his predecessors, it was a school. In combat, Alexander the Great learned to master his enemies by virtue of what he knew and what they taught him. If you want to win, he says, learn the craft, apply it in combat, learn from your enemies, and improve from what you are taught.
One last thing. Notice the reduplication in κεκρατημένοις, it represents Perfect time. The contrast between that verbal form and the one in the beginning is also striking, for κρατεῖν is in the Present – and a continuous present, because it matters now. So what do we learn from that? That to conquer, now in the present, one must not do what those who have been conquered in the past have done. If that is not a call to hit the books I don’t know what is, because you can only learn from that which has been done by reading about it, studying it. So learn from the mistakes of others, reader. Keep close to your enemies, for they will show you how to defeat them. Don’t give up if you lose a battle, learn from it, win the war. After all, don’t you know that’s how life is won? (wink, wink)