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Alexander: How Great?

Even more significant is the character and the cultural background of the surviving ancient accounts of Alexander’s life. It is repeatedly said that these accounts were all written much later than the events they described. True; but more to the point is the fact that they were all written under the Roman Empire against the background of Roman imperialism. Diodorus Siculus, whose account is the earliest to survive, was writing in the late first century BC. Arrian, now the most favored source, was born in the 80s AD in the city of Nicomedia (in modern Turkey), and undertook a Roman political career, becoming consul in the 120s, and later serving as governor of Cappadocia. Of course these Roman authors did not create the story of Alexander; and of course they depended on the writings of Alexander’s contemporaries, however good, or bad, they may have been. But they are bound to have seen this story through a Roman filter, to have interpreted and adjusted what they read in the light of the versions of conquest and imperial expansion that were characteristic of their own political age.

Rereading Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, I was repeatedly struck by its Roman resonances. Occasionally Arrian himself draws an explicit comparison between Roman and Macedonian systems. But more often the implied comparisons do not need spelling out. The anxieties about Alexander’s claim to be a god (or at least son of a god) show obvious similarities with Roman anxieties about the divine or semidivine status of their own emperors. The stresses placed on Alexander’s use of foreign troops and the ethnic mix of his court recall many aspects of Roman imperial practice (such as the use of provincial auxiliaries in the Roman army or the incorporation of members of the conquered elites—such as Arrian himself—into the imperial administration).

Perhaps the most striking overlap comes, as Caroline Vout noted in Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome (2007), with the reaction of Alexander to the death of his friend Hephaestion. “Some say,” writes Arrian, “that for most of that day…Alexander mourned and wept and refused to leave until his Companions carried him off by force.” Soon after he established a cult to Hephaestion as a “hero.” This is almost exactly what the Roman emperor Hadrian (under whom Arrian served) is said to have done at the death of his own favorite, Antinous. Maybe Hadrian was aping Alexander. Much more likely Arrian was modeling his own picture of Alexander on the behavior of the emperor under whom he served. Not a mention of any of this in The Landmark Arrian.

I suspect that the change Davidson wanted in “Alexanderland” will come only when we are prepared to realize that it is as much a Roman country as a Greek one. Maybe at the same time, we will at last be able to think of the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii as a proud Roman creation, rather than (as the caption in The Landmark Arrian has it) “copied from a Greek painting done within a few decades of the battle, perhaps based on eyewitness accounts.”

Letters

The Dragging of Hector November 24, 2011

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