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Alexander: How Great?

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DEA/W. Buss/De Agostini/Getty Images
The Palace of Darius at Persepolis, capital of the Persian Empire, in modern-day Iran. Persepolis was captured and burned by Alexander in 330 BC.

These critiques are dismissed as anachronistic value judgments by Freeman and by Pierre Briant, in his Alexander the Great and His Empire (a revised and updated English version of a book that first appeared in French in 1974): Bosworth’s is “a sweeping judgement in harmony with our current values but not with those of Alexander’s time” observes Briant; my own quip is “much too simplistic,” notes Freeman. “He was a man of his own violent times, no better or worse in his actions than Caesar or Hannibal.” It is, of course, a general rule that historians accuse each other of making anachronistic value judgments only when they do not share the judgment concerned. But in this case, as we have seen, it is hardly anachronistic at all. Already in the time of Caesar, some Romans could paint Alexander as no better than a pirate on a grand scale.

Closely related to the basic issue of how far we can admire Alexander’s career is the question of what he was attempting to do. If we feel uneasy about his methods, then what about his aims? Here again we find wildly diverging views. The old idea, fitting neatly with some of the slogans of British nineteenth-century imperialism, was that Alexander had a “civilizing mission,” a high-minded project to bring the lofty ideals of Hellenic culture to the benighted East. In fact, this was not so far from the underlying theme of Oliver Stone’s disastrous 2004 movie Alexander (for which Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox was historical consultant and, notoriously, an “extra” in the cavalry charge); Stone’s Alexander was a dreamy, sexually troubled visionary—but a visionary nonetheless.

Others too have seen all kinds of psychological underpinnings, from a compulsive and unsatisfiable “yearning” (what Arrian in his Campaigns of Alexander called in Greek pothos, “compulsion” or “desire”) to a rather more literary sense of identification with the heroes of Homer’s Iliad. Alexander is said to have seen himself as the new Achilles and, along with his friend Hephaestion as the new Patroclus, to have been replaying the Trojan War (on one occasion cruelly reworking the scene in the Iliad in which Achilles drags the body of the dead Hector from his chariot around the walls of Troy—though in Alexander’s case the victim was, for a little while at least, still alive).

A rather more down-to-earth view would see him starting out as simply a follower of his father, who at the time of his assassination had already launched a limited series of military operations in Asia Minor; success went to Alexander’s head and he simply didn’t know where to stop. Or, to follow Ian Worthington’s theory in Philip II of Macedon, after modest beginnings, Alexander was driven to continue in his campaign of conquest right up to the Punjab specifically to outdo his father in every possible way (more psychology here: Worthington writes that Alexander suffered from a “paranoia that grew from his feelings of marginalisation in the later years of Philip’s reign”).

Modern historians of Alexander find plenty to disagree about; but their arguments appear more intense than they really are, because—underneath all the superficial divergence and the conflicting value judgments—they are mostly trying to answer the same traditional range of questions, on the basis of the same approach to the same evidence. This point was powerfully made a decade ago in the London Review of Books by James Davidson, reviewing a collection of essays on Alexander edited by Bosworth and E.J. Baynham. It is a review that has become famous among ancient historians for calling attention to the very sorry state of the professional “Alexander industry.” While most fields of classical studies, Davidson noted, had engaged with the new theoretical developments of the second half of the twentieth century, from narratology to gender studies, “in Alexanderland scholarship remains largely untouched by the influences which have transformed history and classics since 1945.”*

Specialists in this tiny period of ancient history (the campaigns lasted just over ten years) were still committed to reconstructing “what really happened,” on the basis of the vivid but deeply unreliable literary sources that have survived (Arrian’s seven books are usually considered the “best” evidence, but there is plenty of material also in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, to name just two). This project, Davidson argued, was even more flawed than other attempts to reconstruct “how it really was” in the ancient world, because of the particular nature of the surviving evidence. All the narrative accounts of Alexander’s conquests that we have were written hundreds of years after his death, and the historian’s project has usually been to identify the passages within them that might derive from some reliable, but lost, contemporary account—whether the Journals of Alexander’s secretary, which were supposed to have given an account of his final “illness,” or the history of the period written by Ptolemy, the man who was responsible for hijacking Alexander’s corpse and installing it in the capital of his own realm, Alexandria.

The problem is, Davidson insisted, that—even if we could hope to identify which surviving sections came from which lost source—we cannot assume (as classicists like to do) that what is lost was necessarily reliable. Some of the writing was almost certainly forgery (the Journals are a good candidate for being at least a pastiche); some of it, so far as we can tell from critics in the ancient world itself, was simply very bad history. (“The lost histories…weren’t mislaid,” as Davidson rightly points out, “they were consigned to oblivion.”) The result is that the historical edifice we know as “Alexander’s career” is extremely flimsy and modern scholars have been attempting to squeeze it for answers to questions that it could never deliver—not only what motivated him, but did he really love his wife Roxane, or believe that he was the son of the god Amun? This is not a game of history, but of smoke and mirrors.

Briant, in an appendix on the state of scholarship on Alexander, generously acknowledges that some of Davidson’s points “have hit home.” But if so, these books show only a faint trace of it. Freeman’s Alexander the Great is a workmanlike biography of the traditional type, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes a bit too breezy (“Events in the field were looking up for the Macedonians”). It is full of remarks on feelings, emotions, and character that are guesswork at best (“Alexander could not believe his luck”; “One might wonder why he suddenly decided to marry a Bactrian woman at this point in his life. The answer is probably a mixture of politics and passion”). And it reminds us, with its impenetrable battle strategies and complex cast of characters (there are too many people with the same name), just how messy and difficult the Alexander story is, even in its simplified semifictional version.

The other three modern accounts each try to take a sideways look at the career of Alexander. Worthington focuses on Philip II, attempting to see how far the achievement of Alexander was already presaged by that of his father. It is a learned account, but (perhaps inevitably) rather too full of armchair generalship to make an easy read. Like most historians, Worthington stands in awe of Philip’s invention of the sarissa, his devastating new piece of military hardware; but it was only an extra-long spear, so it is hard to see why Philip’s enemies didn’t just copy it. And you would never guess from his detailed description, complete with map, of Philip’s battle tactics in 338 BC against a Greek coalition at Chaeronea (“Phase II: Philip retreats, his centre and left advancing; Athenians, Centre and Boeotians advance to left front,” etc.) that this was all based on a few confusing and not wholly compatible lines in a handful of much later sources.

James Romm, in Ghost on the Throne, moves in the other chronological direction, to examine the aftermath of the death of Alexander, and the conflicts between his various generals that led to the carve-up of the Greek world and the creation of the different Hellenistic dynasties (the Ptolemies, Antigonids, Seleucids, etc.), which in turn fell to the Romans. Romm is certainly right to see this period as more crucial, in geopolitical effects, than the conquests of Alexander. But despite some nice turns of phrase, he struggles to make the story particularly engaging—with its complex power-brokering among the rival generals, the series of dynastic murders in the family of Alexander, and the fickle maneuvering among the unappealing leaders of Athens’s expiring democracy, who were looking for a chance to reclaim some influence.

Potentially the most significant book is Briant’s Alexander the Great, because Briant is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. The promise of this book is that we might be able to see Alexander differently if we included the Persian evidence. Insights there are, but less significant ones than you would hope. There are two main problems. First, Briant writes from the professorial pulpit, slightly hectoring in tone about what historians should or should not do, and telegraphic in style (there are only 144 small pages of large print, so it is “a short introduction” as the subtitle says); and he makes few concessions to anyone who, for example, may not already know the duties of a “satrap.” On several occasions he refers to documents that are supposed to be particularly “important” or “useful,” but he rarely explains to the outsider what the documents are and what impact exactly their content has on the history of the period.

I was baffled by the “extremely important” Aramaic documents from Bactria, for instance, and how exactly the “18 wooden sticks recording debts, all from year 3 of Darius” throw light on the transition from Achaemenid to Macedonian rule. But second, and more disappointing, when Briant does spell out more clearly the contribution of the Persian documents to our understanding, it often turns out to be surprisingly little. There are, as he concedes, no “continuous accounts” from Persian writers; but even the cuneiform tablets deliver less than he promises. He refers, for example, to a “well-known Babylonian tablet” that “gives us a detailed image” of the period in 331 BC between the Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela) and Alexander’s entry into Babylon. Detailed image? So far as I can see, it is an astronomical diary that refers in passing to “panic breaking out in the camp of Darius” and to “the severe defeat of the Persian troops” and the “king’s troops deserting,” followed by the entry into Babylon of “the king of the world.” A precious glimpse into a Persian point of view maybe, but hardly enough to rewrite history.

So what should we do with the Alexander story? Davidson argued that the “blindspot” among modern historians of Alexander was “love,” and he urged that we turn our attention to the homoeroticism of the Macedonian court and its cult of the body. I would suggest a more prosaic blindspot: namely, Rome. Roman writers did not merely debate the character of Alexander, they did not merely take him as model, they more or less invented the “Alexander” that we now know—as Diana Spencer came close to arguing in her excellent book The Roman Alexander (2002). In fact, the first attested use of the title “Alexander the Great” is in a Roman comedy by Plautus, in the early second century BC, about 150 years after Alexander’s death. I very much doubt that Plautus himself dreamed up the term, but it may well have been a Roman coinage; there is certainly nothing whatever to suggest that Alexander’s contemporaries or immediate successors in Greece ever called him “Alexander ho Megas.” In a sense, “Alexander the Great” is as much a Roman creation as “Pompey the Great” was.

  1. *

    James Davidson, “Bonkers about Boys,” London Review of Books, November 1, 2001. 

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