Before & After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great

by Richard A. Billows (Overlook Duckworth, 2018)

Before & After Alexander is split into three main sections. In the first, Billows looks at Philip II’s kingship and shows how he took Macedon from being a backward country on the brink of destruction to being a regional superpower. In the second, he examines the career of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. And in the third, he discusses the Wars of the Successors and takes the story of Hellenism right up to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 1453 and beyond.

Three Pros:

  1. It makes a convincing case for seeing Philip II as the man who made Alexander the Great’s successful career possible. This is important as while Philip is by no means a forgotten figure he does tend to live in Alexander’s shadow. Without him, though – without his reorganisation of the Macedonian army and development of weaponry and tactics -, without his social and economic policies, which increased Macedonian manpower, Alexander would not have been able to challenge much less defeat the satrapal army at the Granicus let alone Darius III at Issus or Gaugamela.
  2. It does something new by taking the story of Hellenism all the way from Philip II to the Renaissance. Further to this, Billows does not limit himself to talking about Hellenism in the context of Christianity but also Islam.
  3. While Billows’s text does not flow quite as smoothly as some writers’, it is still very accessible. The book also comes with End Notes and a Glossary of Greek Terms as well as the more usual maps, genealogies and chronology.

Three Cons:

  1. The section on Alexander comes close to being a hatchet job. After reading it, I had no sense that Billows intended to engage with him. It was as if Alexander existed simply to be criticised and make Philip look good.
  2. Billow’s conclusion is very contentious.

… if not for Philip’s new Macedonia, if not for his unification of Greece, if not for his bold plan to invade and conquer the Persian Empire and spread Greeks, the Greek language, and Greek culture all around the eastern Mediterranean, it is very debatable whether Greek literature and ideas would or could hold the place in western and even Islamic culture that they do.
(Before & After Alexander, pp.301-2)

Philip certainly made Macedon anew. But, he didn’t unify Greece. He didn’t even control all of it; Sparta remained beyond him. True, he could have taken it if he wished, but he didn’t. And the rest of Greece, which he did control, never accepted him as its master. To the best of my knowledge, we do not know that Philip intended to conquer the Persian Empire much less spread Greeks, the Greek language or culture. Recently, I read that his usual modus operandi was to campaign for a season before returning home, then repeat the same process the following year – perhaps going a bit further territorially. Surely, this is what he would have done in Asia Minor.

I think the analysis offered in the chapters above shows clearly that Alexander is one of the most overrated figures in world history. The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip; and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and of turning those lands into viable empire with Greek cities and Greek culture.
(Before & After Alexander, p.302)

Obviously, I disagree that Billows’s analysis succeeds in showing that Alexander was ‘one of the most overrated figures in world history’. His analysis, such as it is, is too one sided and brief to be convincing. However, I do agree that Philip was a great man. For what he did for Macedon he deserves to be called Philip the Great.

Unfortunately, Billows’s book is dedicated to taking the credit away from Alexander for his successes and giving it to Philip for his. Indeed, Billows’s Alexander is not much more than an extension of Philip’s genius; he is not his own man. This is not an accurate way to describe either father or son. Philip II was an excellent general but his greatness comes from the way he rescued and then developed the Macedonian army and state. Alexander’s comes from his military genius. Philip II and Alexander III, therefore, are complimentary figures, not rivals; to see them as such blinds us to the skills and talents of the other.

How much credit can we give Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus? In truth, this is a question I need more time to think about. My first response to it, though, is this:

Antigonus spent most of his time fighting. He founded a few cities but I didn’t get the impression from Billows that he did much more of lasting value than that. I don’t know, therefore, how Billows can criticise Alexander for just fighting and yet be so favourable towards Antigonus. I’ll note here that Antigonus did not found the Antigonid empire in Macedon. The credit for that goes to his grandson Antigonus Gonatas (277 and 272 BC). I wonder if Billows is referring to him? If he is, I don’t know why he is referring to the Antigonus who governed the lands that ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in…’.

Billows says that Ptolemy and Seleucus deserve credit for turning their kingdoms into ‘viable empires’. Alexander’s empire was equally viable. Even though he died childless, Roxane was pregnant, and the empire would have survived had the generals remained loyal. For various reasons, however, they weren’t. It’s fall, therefore, is as much on them as it is on Alexander.

To stay with this quote, Billows states that, ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in’ the Persian empire; he did not turn ‘those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture.’

There is a sense in which this is correct. Alexander’s main purpose in life was to win glory; to prove himself better than those who came before him (for example, Achilles, Herakles, Cyrus the Great, Semiramis, his own father, etc). He was not primarily interested in establishing Greek cities and culture. He believed in both, however, and so they flourished under him.

We could, perhaps, argue that Alexander is to the Ptolamiac and Seleucid empires what Philip is to Macedon: the founder, the man who paved the way for those who came after him. On a personal note, it is a great shame that Alexander died so young, really only at the end of the first phase of his life’s work. I feel that had he lived longer, we might have seen him develop his kingship to the benefit of Hellenism.

Or maybe he would just have continued fighting. But if he had, he would not have simply marched and fought, marched and fought any more than he did during the first expedition. For while he did not stop nearly often, or long, enough to properly establish Hellenism, we do see him stopping to secure his territory and engaging with his subject people.

For example, in Asia Minor he visits Gordium to see the famous knot; in Egypt, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Siwah; he refuses to let his men loot and pillage many of the places they visit; in India, he goes on a second pilgrimage past Nysa to Mount Meros; in Pasargadae he goes to the tomb of Cyrus the Great to pay his respects.

Often, Alexander had a vested interest in doing some of these things; other times, there was no need. But when we take these actions, and put them together with the knowledge that Alexander also had an abiding interest in literature, and especially philosophy and medicine, we see that there was much more to him that just fighting and marching.

3. Before & After Alexander has a few annoying typos. They don’t detract from the reading but are a nuisance in a book that costs £20.

In conclusion: I would definitely recommend Before & After Alexander to anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of where Alexander came from and where the actions of he and his father ultimately took Hellenism. I can’t recommend the chapter on Alexander himself but it is still worth reading in order to gain an opposite view – which has, after all, been there since Cleitarchus put quill to papyrus – of the man who, for all his faults, is still important enough to have his name in the book’s title rather than his much vaunted father.

Credit Where It’s Due

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Reviewing the Reviewer

No end to Alexander’s talents

As this is my first post of 2019, may I wish you a belated happy New Year. I hope 2019 is a good one for you. It will be an interesting one for me: in two days, I leave my job without another to immediately go to. It will also be an interesting year for Great Britain as on 29th March this year she leaves the European Union. If you follow British politics you will know that the Brexit journey has not been – and continues not to be – a very smooth one. In fact, Brexit has caused such tumult that our national politics are currently about as stable as an ancient Macedonian party.

Recently, a new biography of Alexander came out. Titled Soldier, Priest & God it is an attempt by Professor F. S. Naiden of the University of North Carolina to put Alexander into his religious context. I have been interested in Alexander and his religion for a while now so was delighted to hear about this book. I now have a copy and hope to start reading it soon. In the meantime, what are reviewers saying about it?

I’d like to take a quick look at Benjamin Welton’s review in the New York Review of Books, here. The review does not have the most auspicious beginning. Welton states,

Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, took a backward Balkan nation and turned it into one of the first multiethnic empires of Western history.

This statement is not entirely correct. When Alexander came to the throne of Macedon in 338 BC, Macedon was not a ‘backward Balkan nation’ but a regional superpower. It was his father, Philip II, who came to the throne of a ‘backward’ country.

Welton states,

Some [historians] have suggested that Alexander may have even been divinely aided, with the Greeks arguing that his father was none other than Zeus.

I would be a little careful with the phrase ‘the Greeks’ here. It suggests that ‘the Greeks’ as a whole argued that Alexander’s father was Zeus, which wasn’t the case.

According to Welton, ‘Naiden notes’ that,

Some scholars (mostly British) have seen Alexander as a proto-Anglican who went through the motions of pagan rituals, but did not take them seriously.

In all the reading I have done on Alexander, I have never seen him compared to an Anglican. Neither have I read any of the sources and got the impression that he was anything other than a devout worshipper of the gods. I hope Naiden expands upon this idea. At this point, though, I’m not altogether impressed by the insinuation that Anglicans have an empty faith. Their communion is, perhaps, too broad, but not so much so that the faith on which it is based is no longer taken seriously.

His companions, who have mostly been remembered as officials, officers, and members of the traveling court of Macedon, were in fact members of an elite circle of priests—a coven, if you will.

If Mr Welton doesn’t mind, I won’t. This gives what is to my mind a false picture of Alexander’s court. Its members may in their own lives have had a priestly function but as soon as you call the court a coven you introduce images and ideas that really have no place there.

I found Welton’s review via the Book Marks website, here. If you click on the link, you’ll find two other reviews mentioned; however, since you need to be subscribed to the relevant websites in order to read them, I will not say anything more about them here.

Credit Where It’s Due
The image above comes from Book Mark’s website.

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Two Women, One King and Belonging

A week ago, I went to see Disobedience at my local cinema. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka, a British born photographer working in New York who returns home following the death of her father, Rav Krushka.

The Rav* was an Orthodox Jew, much loved and very influential within his community. Ronit, however, is almost persona non grata. Several years earlier her father caught her in flagrante with another woman – her friend, Esti. As a result, Ronit left the community. When she returns, she is barely welcomed, though not spurned. Tolerated about sums it up.

One of the themes of the film is that of belonging. We could ask of Ronit, where does she belong? To whom? Why? But I think the questions apply more to Esti. For her, finding answers is of the uttermost importance: they will define her life, health and happiness. Esti is a lesbian. Her husband Dovid is a good man but she only married him because she had to. She is not happy – it’s why she contacted Ronit to let her know that her father had died (no one else in the community chose to do so). If she doesn’t find answers to the questions that are within her, the rest of her life will potentially be a long defeat to a way of living she does not believe in.

As soon as I started thinking about the idea of belonging, I started thinking about Alexander.

As an Argead prince, Alexander lived at the centre of Macedonian society. He did not, however, enjoy a stable life. He could have been killed in battle at the age of sixteen; his mother, Olympias, loved him, but had things turned out differently, he could have fallen victim to her schemes at any time up until becoming king – and after; he was a target for assassination from others as well; he was for a time forced into exile by his father. Alexander lived in a palace, but that palace was built on a cliff edge. He lived at the centre of Macedonian society, but it ran along a fault line that could have killed him in an instant.

Nothing changed when Alexander became king. For though he was now the most powerful man in Macedonian society, his power depended upon the support of the army. He was now under increased threat from assassination and death in combat. He had to be careful about how he treated people lest he alienate not just individuals but whole sections of his empire.

As Crown Prince no one except the king belonged to Macedon more deeply than Alexander. Thus, when Alexander succeeded to the throne, he – in his very person – became its centre.

However, thanks to the type of society that he belonged to, no one belonged to it less than him. Those under Alexander could afford to be fully themselves. He could not. He tried to be, but failed; he kept trying, and suffered two revolts by his army as a result.

Of course, Alexander didn’t help matters by encouraging people not to see him as one of them. I refer here to his ‘claim’ of divinity. But in a way, that was the most heroic thing he ever did. He could have not gone to Siwah. He could have used any number of other – far safer – methods to keep the support of those under him. Instead, he chose the most dangerous option of all. There is a certain heroism in that even if Alexander was acting cynically.

By and by, I think it is this same desire – to be (herself) rather than to simply belong – that causes Esti to pick up the telephone and call Ronit at the start of Disobedience. It would have been the easiest and safest decision not to call the only person she ever loved. After all, she enjoys teaching, has a good husband, and is a faithful Jew. But as it turns out, these are only roles; they are not her. What is she? As mentioned, she is a lesbian. To be herself, to know herself, she needs the freedom to explore what that means. At the end of the film, and to his immense credit, Dovid gives her that freedom.

In modern terms, Esti is a far nobler person than Alexander. Hers is a spirit of generosity; of giving: to Ronit in their first (and second) affair; to her community, and to her husband, despite the pain it causes her; to her unborn child: the ability to decide where they belong. By contrast, Alexander’s spirit was dominated by a selfish desire for glory. He wanted to be the noblest person alive, the strongest and greatest; true this led him to do good things as well as bad but to want glory for oneself is still essentially a selfish desire. God, however, had the last laugh. After Alexander died, his desire for glory led to a coming together of cultures and civilisations that might never have joined otherwise, causing them to bear new fruit. Think of Greek art in the Indian sub-continent and the spread of the Greek language and the way it helped disseminate Greek ideas (and, of course, Jewish/Christian ones).

Disobedience has a similarly unexpected ending. Orthodox Judaism does not come across very well in the film. While not treated as the bad guy, so’s to speak, it is still what exiled Ronit and wants to keep her and Esti apart. However, at the end of the film, when Dovid gives Esti her freedom (i.e. divorces her), he does so in the synagogue while continuing the homily that the Rav started before his death. Esti’s future ability to be herself, therefore, and her child’s ability to decide where it belongs, comes from within the faith rather than from outside it. Granted that the film is a work of fiction, but unless Dovid’s homily is completely heretical, it shows that even a religion so seemingly set in its ways can bear new fruit. God is certainly not daunted by difficult situations!

*After watching the film I looked up ‘Rav’ on the internet and found that it is a title, meaning teacher, rather than a name. We don’t learn the Rav’s first name during the course of the film


WordPress tells me that this post is my 500th for The Second Achilles. I’m very happy that I’ve been able to spend it writing about Alexander and a very thought provoking film

Categories: Alexander and..., Books, Love Stories | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Pilgrim Conqueror

Two weeks ago, I watched a film called The Way. In it, Martin Sheen plays a bereaved father who undertakes the Camino pilgrimage in memory his son, Daniel, who died while undertaking the same journey. Since then, pilgrimages have been much on my mind – even to the point when I’ve thought about doing the Camino myself. I’m a Catholic so the idea of a pilgrimage is a familiar one to me. I also have personal reasons for wanting to undertake the walk.

God and I certainly need to have a chat – about terrible jobs, His Church and a lot else besides. Let’s see what happens; in the mean time, The Way has also lead me to take a closer look at Alexander’s expedition to the east.

I am accustomed to seeing the expedition as a single event, one which involved a march from Macedon to India and back to Babylon, and which involved a war of conquest as well as other types of battles (for example, a war of liberation in Asia Minor) and missions (a quest for glory for Alexander). Maybe this is how you see the expedition as well.

However, after watching The Way it occurred to me that Alexander also undertook several pilgrimages during the course of his kingship. For example, in 336, after securing for himself the captainship of the pan-hellenic crusade against the Persian Empire, he went to Delphi to find out what the gods thought of his expedition (Plutarch Life of Alexander 14). One of his first actions in Asia Minor was to visit Troy to pay homage to Achilles (Arrian I.12.1); Diodorus XVII.17; Justin XI.5.10-12; Plutarch LoA 15). And in Egypt, he went out of his way to visit to the temple of Amon at Siwah (Arrian III.3.1-4.5; Curtius IV.7.5-32; Diodorus XVII.49-51; Justin XI.11.2-12; Plutarch LoA 26-27). In India, Alexander approached Nysa intending to lay siege to it. After the Nysaeans claimed Dionysus as their father, however, Alexander took what could be called a pilgrimage up a mountain associated with the god. I hesitate to call this a true pilgrimage, however; to be quite honest it could have just been an excuse for the Macedonians to go on a drunken bender (See Curtius VIII.10.1-18; Arrian’s account of Alexander’s visit is more dignified – Ar. V.1.1-2.7). Finally, on the way back to Babylon, Alexander paused to visit the tomb of Cyrus (Arrian VI.29.4-11; Curtius X.1.30-32).

People go on pilgrimage for many reasons. Sometimes it is religious, sometimes not. For the most part, the purpose of Alexander’s pilgrimages were military and religious. Delphi, Troy and Siwah all fall into the former category; Nysa and Cyrus’ tomb into the latter. And they were all very personal experiences for him – especially Siwah.

At the end of The Way, Martin Sheen’s character finds a measure of peace following his arrival in Santiago. Whatever the reason one undertakes a pilgrimage that ought to be the least that comes out of it. Unfortunately for Alexander, none of his pilgrimages lead him to becoming a more peaceful person. This is because they all served his purpose rather than helping to define it.

For example, he went to Delphi not to find out if he should undertake the expedition but to find out if the gods approved of it. I have no doubt that he would have still left for the east even if he had received a warning not to do so (look at how Alexander ignored Aristander’s warning at Gaza (Arrian II.26.4-27.1 and again in Sogdia [Arrian IV.4.3]). Perhaps, as might have happened at the Hyphasis river, another sacrifice would have been carried out, one which this time delivered the ‘correct’ result.

One can’t blame Alexander for not finding peace in his pilgrimages. He did not live in a time of peace and in any case, this conception of a pilgrimage is probably a Christian one so it would be unfair to judge him by it. Despite that, I have enjoyed breaking down Alexander’s journey a little, seeing and appreciating that it was more than just a march from one end of the known earth to the other. If I do hit the road at Saint Jean Pied de Port, my own purpose notwithstanding, I shall smile at the opportunity to think about Alexander’s journey some more.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Fake Argument

In an article titled A Brief History of Fake News on the Asharq Al-awsat website here, Amir Taheri states the following,

A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.

In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.

That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.

I don’t know who Amir Taheri is but judging by the bio at the top of the article he is a very experienced writer and journalist. If so, he has let himself down here.

First of all, a quibble: Alexander died at ‘the ripe old age’ of 32. However, maybe I should let that go as Alexander less than two months before his thirty-third birthday. I will not do the same with his other comments.

Secondly, Alexander never made it to Russia (or, to be more precise, the country that is now Russia). You could say that insofar as he conquered territory in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he therefore conquered land from the Balkan peninsula to the former USSR but if that’s what Taheri meant he ought to have said it. It would have been best, though, if he had referred specifically to the countries above. That would have been most accurate.

Also, Alexander did not enter China. He didn’t even know it existed. If Taheri had bothered to look at a map of Alexander’s empire, he would have known this.

Thirdly, Alexander married three times, not four. A quick look at Wikipedia could have told Taheri this.

Fourthly, Alexander did not spend any time looking for the fountain of eternal youth. This tale comes from the Alexander Romance which is a fictionalised account of Alexander’s life. If one is going to claim that Alexander the Great is not a real person one might at least try to show that the supposed histories of his life are false rather than the fictions.

Fifthly, Alexander did not first appear ‘in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD’. Certainly, Arrian and Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the second century AD but before them came Curtius, probably in the first century AD, and Diodorus, in the first century BC. Alexander is also referred to – as Alexander the Great, by and by – by Plautus in his comedy Mostellaria, which was written in the late third century/early second century BC by the Roman playwright, Plautus. Taheri’s claim, therefore, that Alexander does not appear until 160 AD is rot.

Finally, Taheri bases his claim that Alexander is ‘fake news’ by pointing out that there are no ‘contemporaneous accounts of those marvelous [sic] deeds’. It is disingenuous to use the fact that we no longer have the contemporary accounts of Alexander’s life to suggest that he never really lived.

What Taheri ought to be doing is looking at the accounts that we do have – in conjunction with the other evidence – and deciding on the basis of what he sees there whether Alexander lived or not. As it is, he has taken the path of a troll who purposefully uses bad arguments in order to score a point. Badly done, as Mr Knightly, would say; all the more so as he suggests that this is what other historians (I should like to know who) believe rather than himself.

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One Story, Different Interpretations

I have recently finished two Alexander related books – The Nature of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault, and Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction by Hugh Bowden.

The Nature of Alexander of the Great took me several months to read; that, however, was due to my own tardiness rather than any failing with the book. The Nature is an easy-to-read run through of Alexander’s life with interesting insights sprinkled throughout. If anything makes the book stand out it is that Renault is very positive towards Alexander’s general, Hephaestion. Her comments are a very good alternative to the negative views of historians like Peter Green and Waldemar Heckel.


Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction is just that; it is a quick dive into the life of Alexander using not just the Alexander historians but other sources as well – coins, inscriptions, and so forth.

What I most liked about Hugh Bowden’s book is his reminder that the real Alexander is an enigma to us. We may think we know a lot about him but we have to remember that the sources we are using, whether they wrote in Greek or Latin, were Roman citizens, and were writing for a Roman audience. That shaped how they wrote about Alexander (Bear in mind as well that when Ptolemy et al wrote their histories or memoirs that also shaped what they said and how they said it).

Bowden is not afraid to challenge our preconceptions of Alexander and the events of his life. For example, he suggests that Alexander did not found Alexandria (except, perhaps, as a fort) and that there was no revolt at the Hyphasis river.

Whether or not one agrees with Bowden’s assertions or suggestions, Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction is very well worth having – if not quite for reference then definitely for dipping into from time to time and having a conversation with the author about what he is saying.

Both images are from Amazon (UK)

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The Odyssey Live

On Friday after work, I visited my favourite pub to jot down some notes for a story I’d like to write (nothing to do with Alexander, sadly) when a friend tweeted me a link to the Southbank Centre’s website; specifically, to the page dedicated to a play reading of The Odyssey by Homer, which was to take place on Sunday.

I have to admit, The Odyssey is not a poem I think much about. This is due mainly to the fact that Alexander, of course, was devoted to The Iliad. However, I liked the idea attending the play reading and so booked a ticket.

Along the way, I found that the reading would be using Emily Wilson’s new translation. Over the last few months it has gained a lot of attention due to the fact that she is the first woman to translate the poem. Can that really be true? Well, either way, and also significantly, her translation has been very well received.

On Sunday afternoon, I prepped for the event with a pub lunch and a glass of wine. At the centre, I saw a long queue leading towards a table at which Mary Beard happened to be sitting; I presume she was book signing. It would have been very rum if she was trying to enjoy quiet drink with friends.

The reading was really great fun. It was, of course, abridged but had been stitched together very well. The readers, all actors, were very good. One of them was Elliot Cowan, who played Ptolemy in Oliver Stone’s Alexander film. There was also Joseph Marcell who is famous for his role as the butler in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He has a very distinctive voice, which will always be good to listen to. Of the other readers, MyAnna Buring stole the show with her Helen of Troy/Sparta. She not only used her voice but body as well to bring out the comic in Helen’s dialogue. It was very impressive and funny.

I must mention Bellamy Young, an American actress, as well. When the actors weren’t standing up and reading, they sat down and remained pretty much glued to their scripts. Young, however, often took time to watch the speakers. Was she in awe of them? Learning from them? Just that much into the story? All of the above? Something else? I don’t know, but it added something to the performance. I’m not sure what, but it did.

As a measure of how much I enjoyed the play reading, by about two thirds of the way through I was wishing I could do a play reading of Alexander’s life using a script based on the five major sources of his life. Wouldn’t that be great? I think so, anyway!

Coming back to The Odyssey live, it felt like there were lots of young people at the event, particularly women, and although I can’t prove it, I am sure this is because of Emily Wilson. How wonderful to be able to open up an old text for a new generation and for people who might otherwise have been put off studying it.

As it happens, I bought Wilson’s translation a while ago. It has been sitting near my desk waiting its turn ever since. After yesterday, I am certainly encouraged to open it up and dive into it myself.

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The Carving of the World

The headline reads ‘Vandals paste ‘butcher’ sign on Alexander the Great statue’. You can read the full report here.

Was Alexander the Great a butcher? In answering this question we have to be careful that we don’t do so with a twenty-first century mindset.

The reason for this is simple. If we impose our morality on Alexander we learn nothing about him and only a little – that is not good – about ourselves. Alexander lived, after all, in the fourth century B.C. not the twenty-first A.D.

So what about in terms of fourth century B.C. morality? Was he a butcher? I don’t have a firm answer to this yet, but at the moment I am leaning towards yes. There was no international law that stated what was and wasn’t acceptable in combat back then but there were definitely times when Alexander and his men went too far (e.g. the destruction of Thebes and terrorising of the civilian population in India) in the prosecution of campaign war aims.

No one should be insulted by Alexander being called a butcher. He was a king and a general. That was always going to involve bloodshed. Always. And sometimes, he would go too far. If one wishes to know the real Alexander, one has to accept that this happened.

But also that more happened, or rather, didn’t happen because on other occasions Alexander reigned his men in; prevented blood from being spilt. For example, which was the last city to be sacked before Persepolis? Gaza. Between them, Alexander passed through Pelusium, Memphis, Babylon and Susa without allowing the cities or their citizens to be harmed. He could easily have put any or all of these cities to the sword. His men would have been delighted if he had.

And by-and-bye, though our focus is always naturally on Alexander the conqueror, it is also worthwhile remembering that his life involved more than fighting. We get a glimpse of it in the sources – for example, his love of medicine, of literature, and of philosophy. You may call Alexander a butcher if you like, and in a way, you would not be wrong, but if you do, or if you insist upon its primacy as a way of understanding him you run the very real risk of missing out on the other facets of his character instead revealing only your own prejudices.

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Doubting Mary

27th August 2018

In my last post, I mentioned an online article which cast doubt on the veracity of the figure of Herakles, Alexander’s son by Barsine. It was, I said, the first time I had seen doubt expressed regarding whether Herakles was a real person or not.

A few days later, and perhaps rather inevitably, I came across another writer expressing the same doubt. That writer was none other than Mary Renault in The Nature of Alexander. Speaking about the capture of the non-royal women at Damascus*, she says,

These ladies, not being royal game, were not so strictly preserved. One has a role in Alexander’s legend, another in his history. Only Plutarch says that he took for himself Barsine, Memnon’s widow and Artabazus’ daughter; for the staggering reason that Parmenion – of all people! – told him she would be good for him. The dubiety of the story lies not only in this, but in the powerful motive for inventing it. No record at all exists of such a woman accompanying his march; nor of any claim by her, or her powerful kin, that she had borne him offspring. Yet twelve years after his death a boy was produced, seventeen years old, born therefore five years after Damascus, her alleged son ‘brought up in Pergamon’; a claimant and short-lived pawn in the succession war, chosen probably for a physical resemblance to Alexander. That he actually did marry another Barsine [Stateira II] must have helped both to launch and preserve the story but no source reports any notice whatever taken by him of a child who, Roxane’s being posthumous, would have been during his lifetime his only son, a near royal mother. In a man who named cities after his horse and dog, this strains credulity.
(Mary Renault “The Nature of Alexander” pp.100-1)

It would take a blog post or two to do justice to Renault’s statement. For now, I would like to just mention a few thoughts that I have about it.

  1. Is it really so hard to imagine Alexander taking advice from Parmenion? I know he gets short shrift in some of the texts but even if that is because he made some wrong or bad calls, Alexander never stopped trusting him. When he left him at Ecbatana, he put into Parmenion’s hands, an awful lot of money and troops. It would have been truly ‘staggering’ for him to do that if he did not have complete confidence in the general.
  2. Herakles wasn’t produced out-of-the-blue twelve years after Alexander’s death. Nearchus suggested him for the vacant crown at the first Babylonian conference (Curtius X.6.10-12). I presume Renault would say this was a fiction created in 311 –
  3. – But if so, wouldn’t Cassander have known it? Wasn’t he in Babylon when Alexander died, after all? Even if he wasn’t, he could simply have asked someone – Ptolemy, for example – who was there, if Nearchus had mentioned Herakles and then acted accordingly. Well, maybe he didn’t have time. The whole matter is still very fishy, though.

* Following the Battle of Issus in 333 BC


Speaking of The Nature of Alexander, I am still reading the book. This morning, I started the Persia chapter and left a comment about it on the Alexander Reading Group Facebook page. To read it, or any of the other comments in the Reading Group, click here.


Curtius (VII.6.12) states that Alexander asked a friend of his named Derdas to cross the Tanais* river to undertake a diplomatic mission and engage in a little intelligence gathering. He asked him ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition also to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’.

I’ve always been intrigued by this passage. As you no doubt know, the Bosphorus is the strait** that splits Istanbul into a European and Asian city. Did Alexander really think that he had travelled so far round the world that he was but days or mere weeks away from Asia Minor? It sounds like it, though the idea is hard to credit.

Speaking of ’round’, did Alexander know that the world was a sphere? You would be forgiven for saying ‘no’ on the grounds that there was so much that the ancients did not know about the world. However, if you did, you’d be wrong. According to the British Library’s blog, here, Plato and Aristotle – Alexander’s teacher, of course, – taught unambiguously that the world was round. What no one knew, though, was how people on the other side of the world didn’t fall off it. Gravity remained unknown.

*aka Jaxartes, modern day Syr-darya
** As well as the ‘small indentation at’ the base of a woman’s throat. First prize to anyone who can guess which book and film this comes from. It’s been mentioned on this blog before!

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2,374 Years Strong

diary – birthday edition

We don’t know which day exactly Alexander was born on but it usually taken to be 20th/21st July (though I have also seen 26th mentioned). With that in mind, I took the day off work yesterday to commemorate it by visiting a Greek restaurant in Primrose Hill called Lemonia. It is a lovely place and well worth a visit if you are in the neighbourhood. I ate zatziki for starters, keftedes for mains and finished off with a Greek coffee. Sadly for my future as a food blogger and instagrammer I didn’t take any photographs of either the food or drink – I washed the food down with half a bottle of Restina Kourtaki. Oh, and I bought a bottle of Greek Macedonian red wine. When I open that I will certainly take a photograph and upload it here.

While I waited for the courses to arrive, I read the opening chapters of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, our only (substantial) account of Alexander’s birth. The account is infused with legend as well as bald facts; one might also say it is laced with propaganda as well – particularly regarding Alexander’s divinity. Most interestingly, it also contains what is probably the only example of Olympias being humble. Plutarch records two traditions regarding her; in the first, she tells Alexander ‘the secret of his conception’ and urges him ‘to show himself worthy of his divine parentage’. In the other, Plutarch says that ‘that she repudiated this story and used to say, ‘Will Alexander never stop making Hera jealous of me.’

Who were the authors who maintained this latter tradition, and why did they do so? After Olympias died, in 316 BC, there was no motivation for anyone to defend her from whatever charge her erstwhile enemies cared to bring.


The mystery of the large, black coffin found in Alexandria has been solved – for now. It was opened and found to contain three skeletons and sewage water. Yuk. Read more here. Of course, we are disappointed that it didn’t contain Alexander’s body. On the other hand, though, isn’t it nice that the mystery over where his final resting place is, still remains?


Hornet, the gay news site, has a curate’s egg of an article on Alexander, here.

… letters of the time described Alexander yielding to Hephaestion’s thighs.

Robin Lane Fox mentions this anecdote and states that it comes from ‘the Cynic philosophers… long after [Alexander’s] death’.

“One soul abiding in two bodies” is how their tutor, Aristotle, described the two men.

Aristotle was respond to the question of ‘what is a friend’; he wasn’t referring to Alexander and Hephaestion (Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers Book V.20 here)

“The friend I valued as my own life,” Alexander wrote of his partner.

I don’t think Alexander did say this – did he?

Scholars have suggested that he became careless with his health after losing his lover.

I think it would be fair to say that Alexander was always careless of his health! In respect of the statement, I don’t think he was. I don’t recall anything in the sources to indicate it.

… eventually [Alexander and Barsine] are said to have had a son named Heracles. Questions linger about the veracity of that particular account — it’s possible that Heracles was procured in an attempt to usurp the throne after Alexander’s death. Though there were some who supported Heracles’ claim to Alexander’s lineage, he vanished not long after his supposed father died.

This is the first time I have heard anyone doubt that Heracles lived. He is well attested in the sources – Curtius, Diodorus and Justin all mention him. Also, Heracles didn’t ‘vanish not long after his supposed father died’ – he lived until 310/09 BC when Polyperchon tried to use him to reclaim Macedon from Cassander only to be executed after Cassander made Polyperchon an offer suitable to his irrelevant status in the Wars of the Successors.

She was carrying a son at the time, whom she named Alexander IV; but doubt was cast over the identity of the father.

Again, this is the first time I have heard anyone doubt Alexander’s paternity of Alexander IV.

In general, Alexander’s focus was on uniting Persian and Greek culture, and so he arranged marriages that spanned the two groups. He went so far as to organize a mass wedding that lasted five days and included 90 couplings, usually tying highly regarded Macedonian women to Greek soldiers whom Alexander trusted.

If Alexander was intent on uniting ‘Persian and Greek culture’ I don’t know why he would hold a mass wedding involving Macedonian women to Greek soldiers. Of course, he didn’t; the reference here is to the mass weddings at Susa in which Macedonians were married to Persians – see Arrian VII.4-8).

So the article is a bit hit and miss. I did like the closing passage, though:

… it is impossible not to wonder what passions existed two and a half millennia ago, and how recognizable those feelings would be to us today.


Judging by the way people write about Alexander and Hephaestion today, their feelings are very recognisable today! As it happens, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to consider my own. I was asked who my heroes were. Alexander was suggested but then someone said that perhaps he was someone I was just fascinated by rather than considered heroic.

I wouldn’t consider Alexander heroic in the modern sense – he was no Superman, selflessly acting for the good of others; he was, though, heroic in the ancient Greek manner: devoted to winning glory for himself, proving himself better than anyone else.

Alexander certainly fascinates me but for me it goes much deeper than that, and for that reason, I try to think about him as critically as I can so that I don’t descend into fanboyism – excusing or ignoring the bad things he did and complexities of his life just because he looked good and (probably) slept with Hephaestion. I can’t say how good I am at that, probably not as much as I want to be, but for me it is important to try. It has the added benefit as well of enabling me to learn more about the Alexander who lived rather than the one I hold in my heart.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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