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The Alexander Romance

Alexander the Great

by Robin Lane Fox
Dial Press, 568 pp., $15.00

The appearance of a new book of 550 pages on Alexander the Great needs justification. From antiquity to the present day, there have probably been more books written on Alexander than on any other man in history, and the present publication rate in English is about one a year, most of them satisfactory and some (most recently Peter Green’s) both scholarly and well written. The blurb tells us that Fox is a product of Eton and Oxford, in the old Imperial tradition, which certainly seems to qualify him for the job. He is only twenty-eight (the great Theodor Mommsen was thirty-seven when he wrote his History of Rome as a passionate reaction to events in Germany in 1848), and his work is described as “the fullest ever attempted.”

As far as bulk goes, this is certainly true, for the past generation at any rate. What its purpose is will puzzle the reader. Alexander the Great: A Biography, proclaims the jacket—no doubt at the author’s behest. “This is not a biography,” says the first page of the text. Is it a historical account, then? “I am bored by institutions and I do not believe in structures,” the author announces. The confession of faith is fully confirmed by the work. There is almost nothing about Alexander’s administration of his vast conquests, little about the staff work that kept the expedition moving and functioning in countries unknown and unmapped. This is certainly not a historical work.

Whatever he is up to, the author claims total originality, and superior penetration. He has read 1,472 books and articles, and found most of them useless. “The study of Alexander will only advance…when historians make up their own minds and cut free of how others have made up theirs.” (There is no qualification regarding the quality of the minds.) And it appears that “there are only two necessary books for Alexander scholarship.” In other words, 1,470 are unnecessary, and the fact that the author cites them in his notes—works in half a dozen languages on subjects ranging from Indian archaeology to the natural history of elephants—is only a needless parade of erudition.

It will be clear that this is a puzzling book. In the words of the familiar advertisement, the author is a man with a gimmick. The gimmick is, roughly: “I know it all, and it is all no good.” Explicit statements confirm this. No recent Alexander historian in English is ever cited except in obloquy. Milns is “absurd,” a view of Welles is “another of his blunders,” W. W. Tarn is “persistently mistaken both in method and evidence” in his volume of special studies, and “the work has been ignored throughout the writing of this book.”

When Alexander died in Babylon, of disease aggravated by heavy drinking, nearly 2,300 years ago, the industry of producing Alexander books had already been going on for some time. Sure of heroic achievements to come, he had taken a court historian along, a nephew of Aristotle, who was to serve as his minister for Greek propaganda and who duly presented him as a rival of the Homeric heroes and a son of Zeus. Inevitably, scribblers and poetasters joined the victorious expedition. The court historian, in due course, was executed on a trumped-up charge, when he objected to Alexander’s abandoning the pose of crusader for Hellas and playing the lawful successor to the Kings of Persia. But the writing continued. Then as now, a literate public was avid to hear about famous men, and writers were avid to tap the market. Alexander’s death gave further impetus to the trade. Dozens of men who had seen all or part of his expedition wrote accounts and memoirs.

Spontaneous legend arose wherever the army had been. In most places, Alexander had cut his narrow swath of destruction like a tornado, and was never seen again, while stories of distant marvels drifted back. When he overturned the God-given institution of the Persian Empire, which had provided the stable background for the East as Rome was later to do for its world, it was clear that he was more than mortal. Alexander himself was sure of it, and encouraged the belief. After his death, articulate Greeks began to collect the legend, and in Greek Egypt it ultimately became the Alexander Romance, the fiction best seller of all time, translated into a dozen languages at least, and favorite reading right through the Middle Ages and beyond. Penetrating into Jewish, Christian, and Muslim myth, it was carried by the Arab armies back to the centuries that had seen Alexander, and reinforced what was already there, until authentic local legend became inextricably intertwined with literary and even religious inspiration. The result is still alive all over the Muslim East.

History was not far behind. Unfortunately, though the Greeks invented historiography more or less as we know it, they had no recognized place for the historical novel (as distinct from mere romance). Looked down on by intellectuals as rhetorical history, it always contaminated the stream of history proper and tempted historians (all but the most austere) into improving the appeal of their works. An Alexandrian Greek, Clitarchus, a contemporary of Alexander (though he had not taken part in the expedition), collected written accounts, reminiscences and travelers’ tales—battles and banquets, marches and massacres, omens, intrigues and Amazons—into what must have been one of the most exciting, and was certainly one of the most popular, works of Greek prose literature. It became the standard “history” of Alexander, and nearly all the accounts that have come down to us from antiquity (none of them earlier than the first century BC) are largely based on it.

Only one of the surviving accounts, the latest, sought a different source. Arrian of Nicomedia, a literary man of philosophic inclinations and some experience in the public service of Rome in the second century AD, went back to two works which he thought superior. One was the history of the expedition written by King Ptolemy, founder of the great Macedonian dynasty in Egypt, who had risen to high office under Alexander and at one time claimed to be his favorite disciple and true successor. The work was written to support the claim. It is an “official” history, in which all operations are successful and the officer corps is a loyal band of brothers, except for a few traitors who get their just deserts. The gaps and deficiencies of this account are obvious, but it was at least well informed on some basic matters of fact.

So, in its own way, was that of the Greek Aristobulus, a scientist and engineer (it seems) who was never close to Alexander, but at the age of eight-four felt impelled to write an account of the lands he had seen, in which he took the opportunity of exculpating his King on various charges that had been raised against him. In Aristobulus, the Gordian knot was not brazenly cut, but duly unraveled; and the King did not like to drink (uniquely among Macedonian barons!), but attended banquets merely for social reasons. It is clear that this loyal soul was no useful supplement to the self-interest of Ptolemy.

These were the works that attracted Arrian, himself no historian (he was far more interested in literary style and in philosophic “lessons”) and, as a Stoic and an Imperial public servant, an admirer of the great King. As a result, modern scholars must choose between an unbiased tradition heavily contaminated with fiction and a less fanciful tradition as heavily contaminated with bias. And there is little to supplement the tradition. Archaeology, though it has illuminated the civilizations Alexander attacked and conquered (as Fox aims to bring out), has thrown little light on the man and the expedition as such. The ample coinage has only recently been properly sorted, in a series of learned articles accessible in a standard French periodical, which (for unfathomable reasons, unless it is his dislike for history) Fox admits he has not bothered to read.

In modern times, not much work was done on Alexander until the nineteenth century. Up to the eighteenth, he was not much admired by thinking men. Montaigne, inspired by the ancient legend of the meeting of Diogenes and Alexander (which Fox naively retails as fact), coined the famous aphorism that he could envisage Socrates in Alexander’s place, but not Alexander in Socrates’. The great Napoleon, of all men, when (as he put it) following in Alexander’s footsteps in Egypt, undoubtedly under the direct inspiration of Alexander’s expedition with its retinue of Greek scientists and explorers, said that he would have preferred to be following in Newton’s. (Perhaps he was thinking of the same anecdote.) George Grote, whose History of Greece was conceived early in the nineteenth century, saw Alexander merely as the man who ended Greek liberty, and has little to say about the expedition.

All this was changed by J.G. Droysen who, in 1833, published the first account of Alexander using the then newly developed techniques of historical research. He was inspired by a vision: as a Lutheran and a Hegelian, he saw God’s purpose in history, and Alexander’s semi-barbarian kingdom on the fringes of the fragmented Greek world was a model for the role that he hoped the semi-Livonian kingdom on the eastern marches of the fragmented German world was destined to play in uniting the nation and spreading its superior Kultur. This remained, on the whole, the German interpretation and, in the period of National Socialism, lent itself well to the adaptation that Alexander, as a Nordic leader, had defeated the Persian nobility (those true and original Aryans) because they had been contaminated by Semitic civilizations.

In English-speaking countries German scholarship was, on the whole, followed, both because of its superior academic standing and because its viewpoint, in a moderate form, seemed congenial in the era of the expansion of the British Empire and of the United States. Conquest and domination by superior cultures was an unquestioned moral postulate. A typically British adaptation, however, was only worked out in the declining days of the Empire, and appeared in its final form only as its nostalgic epitaph in 1948. This was the contribution of W. W. Tarn, an English gentleman and dilettante scholar who, though he knew little of Eastern countries and their languages, became the leading expert in the field by the brilliance of his style and the vividness of his historical imagination. His Alexander was a philosopher king: moderate and scholarly in his habits and interests, he sought conquest, strictly according to the code of Arnold of Rugby, only to bring nations together in harmony and brotherhood. Tarn’s Alexander was the Prussian Alexander translated into the King’s English.

He was also, of course, an embodiment of the author’s dreams and ideals. The nature of the evidence, and of the attested deeds, has always encouraged scholars to embody their dreams and nightmares in Alexander. Tarn’s interpretation appealed nostalgically to a certain social and political order. It also appealed to an amiable and ineradicable human trait: the unwillingness (as an Italian scholar has put it) to believe that so much suffering and disaster can have been inflicted without a moral justification. As a result, that strangest of all the Alexander portraits was taken up and spread by disciples all over the English-speaking world. The popular books were full of it, and many of us remember a time when it was impossible to get an article questioning that interpretation into a professional journal in this country. The protests of level-headed scholars on the Continent of Europe, and of the great E. Bickerman at Columbia, were unavailing.

Younger scholars who had lived through the years of Hitler and Stalin and had less sympathy for (even) benevolent imperialism were bound to revise the picture in the end. (My own major challenge came in 1958.) The structure was not hard to demolish, since Tarn’s interpretation of the sources was based on the avowed principle that only the “favorable” ones were to be trusted. To substitute a more valid picture was harder, owing to the nature of the sources. But recent books have built on the interpretation of particular incidents that could be disengaged by close analysis, and the present-day picture is at least a realistic and recognizable one. As I recently put it: we are emerging from the Alexander Romance.

*

Fox’s background is remarkably similar to Tarn’s. In fact, however, Fox accepts the realistic interpretation and repeatedly warns against Ptolemy’s obvious bias. He accepts much of the toughness and the cruelty of Alexander, and all the sex the sources can produce. But his admiration for his imperial hero is patent and, like Tarn, he picks his statements among the sources, as he picks his beliefs regarding the authenticity of a given letter or anecdote, entirely according to his emotional prejudices.

He is quite unhampered by training in the use of sources: it is not for nothing that he acknowledges his gratitude to his college for “complete freedom from duties” both as an undergraduate and as a Fellow. Nor does he suffer from embarrassment over self-contradiction. The obvious and known fact that Greek exiles tended to become mercenaries is accepted near the beginning of the book and denied at the end, where it would interfere with Fox’s interpretation of the moment. “He did not invade for a cause or an idea, but no successful invader ever has, and the slogans are only ambition’s cloak before the simpleminded” (page 331). Yet (page 94) “it is wrong to dismiss the theme of the crusade [against Persia] as mere publicity, cynically adopted and always disbelieved.”

Fox’s views of historical causation show kinship with Herodotus. Only personal motives are admitted. Opposition to Alexander, in every single case, is based on slights or insults, real or imagined. When the royal pages conspire to kill him (as a tyrant, we are told in the sources), for Fox they do so because their fathers must have been demoted. “Young boys of fifteen” (he even knows their age) “care more for themselves and their fathers’ status than for the principles of Greek political thought.” Sheltered at Eton and Oxford, Fox has never seen boys of fifteen throwing hand grenades from very political motives.

The naïveté of one who has led a sheltered life and dreamed boyishly of romance and adventure is the characteristic that gives this book its distinction. It is as an explorer that Fox most admires Alexander—and, he assures us, no one who does not know the thrill of the explorer can understand the hero. This should certainly disqualify Fox. One of his few instances of attention to practical matters is the delightful theory that Alexander planned to have four months’ supplies for a large army carried on transport animals through a desert. A characteristic conflation of two anecdotal sources produces the statement that Philip II forced his army “to march for thirty miles at a time in high summer with thirty days’ supplies [!] on their backs.” Clearly, Fox’s career has not included any backpacking, not to mention marching, deserts, or pack animals.

His sublime ignorance of really basic facts will be obvious even to the casual reader. How seriously can one take pretentious disquisitions on military history by a man who made the statements just quoted? By a man who thinks that the famous Greek citizen soldiers, the hoplites, were “landed aristocrats” (page 72)—and that they carried their shields on their right arms (page 73)? How can one believe topographical disquisitions by one who has Alexander marching north for eleven days, with “a force picked for its mobility…at furious speed from Hamadan” (after arriving there “eager to gather supplies and continue northward”), to end up south of Tehran? Especially when the author modestly admits in his preface that “Iranian problems…have…become a primary enticement.”

For that matter, how can one believe anything at all from a writer who, on successive pages, makes the platform at Persepolis fifty and sixty feet high? This instructive error illustrates not only the pervasive lack of care in this book, but (what is obvious elsewhere) that Fox’s imagination is purely literary and the purple patches of his descriptions are exercises in rhetoric. Even his discourses on gardening (e.g., on the species of dogwood of which spears were made) reek of the handbook.

*

Sweet is war to those who have no experience of it,” says the Greek poet. A generation of Englishmen to whom war means nothing can write about Alexander’s expedition as a glorious adventure. That one man’s heroic ambitions caused the death of (at a low estimate) a million human beings, and the sale into slavery of who knows how many more; that famous cities (Thebes, Miletus, Tyre, Persepolis) were plundered and destroyed to keep his soldiers happy; and that the only profit that most of the survivors got out of it all was a change of masters and, after Alexander’s death, a period of wars that continued to devastate most of Greece and the Near East for over a generation—all this is of no concern on the playing fields of Eton and under the dreaming spires of Oxford. One might be writing fiction, not human history.

The author’s lack of competence to perform the task he has set himself is patent, despite the blasé claims of erudition in languages with which he is demonstrably less than familiar. This book is a wearisome compilation of received views on many things, broken only by capricious eccentricity. The thoughts, even the phrases, of the scholars casually insulted in the notes can be recognized throughout by anyone familiar with the literature. For the general reader there is no point in wading through the bookish rhetoric and the verbose sententiousness when he can get better information in shorter time from what might be the sources of most of this: one or two handbooks of Near Eastern history plus one of the many sound and readable recent books on Alexander. The only real interest in this book is in the light it casts on the author’s personality and (like so many books on ancient history) on the values of the environment and the society in which it was written.

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