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.

Credits
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.

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A Grave Matter

diary

As I write this post, we are just ninety minutes away from the start of the World Cup final. Sadly, football will not be coming home for England as the national team were knocked out on Wednesday by Croatia. It’s hard to be too upset by this as football hasn’t come home for an awfully long time.

On Twitter a few days ago, I considered (as one does) who else never went home. The best answer, of course, is Alexander. After leaving Macedon in 336 B.C. he never looked back. It looks like he didn’t even want to return home in death, either. Michael Wood states that Alexander wished ‘to be buried with his ‘father’ in Siwa’ (In the Footsteps of Alexander, p.217). Of course, his body never made it there; after hijacking the cortege, which under Perdiccas’ instructions was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy took the coffin, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria a few years later, once the city had been built.

***

On the subject of coffins, there has been a great deal of interest in a large black coffin that has been discovered in Alexandria, Egypt. You can read about it here. The coffin dates to the Ptolemaic period so naturally there has been speculation that the body inside is Alexander’s.

Well, the size of the coffin certainly indicates that it belonged to someone of great wealth, and therefore importance, and it has been found in Alexandria – Alexander’s last known resting place – so… However, the Macedonian king was not the only important person to be buried there. Maybe the coffin belongs to one of the Ptolemys. I would be very happy for it to be Ptolemy I’s. We just don’t know who was laid to rest inside it and will have to be patient and wait for the Egyptian archaeologists to open it. Let’s hope they find enough evidence inside to solve the mystery.

***

A link to Alexander: Gay or Straight? appeared on my Twitter timeline earlier today. It is a 2011 blog post on the Forbes website. The post is quite short but still worth your time as it features Paul Cartledge and James Romm – two classicists who know all about Alexander. James Romm is particularly worth paying attention to as he co-edited the lovely Landmark Arrian book. On a personal note, I like Paul Cartledge, too, as he signed a book for me after a talk once and was very friendly.

Anyway, back to Alexander: the title of the blog post is, of course, unhelpful as it imposes a modern understanding of sexuality on someone who lived in the fourth century B.C. The highlight of the post for me was learning that some scholars doubted the existence of Alexander’s eunuch, Bagoas.

***

I have finally started reading Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander. I’m commenting on it as I read over at the Facebook Alexander the Great Reading Group. I may post them on this blog after I have finished the book but for now, you can read them, here.

***

One last point – I first found out about the Alexander: Gay or Straight blog post when someone I follow retweeted the original post containing the link. The retweeter was none other than @Olympias_Epirus. Alexander was very fortunate to live in an age where he never had to come out as gay, straight, bisexual, etc. Instead, however, Olympias or Philip II worried about their son’s apparent lack of interest in sex. Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae X.435) states that Olympias hired a courtesan to sleep with him; ‘they feared he might prove to be a womanish man’, which perhaps means a eunuch? Unfortunately for Olympias it would be a little longer before Alexander set her mind at rest.

***

It is now 3:37pm. Kick-off is in 23 minutes. Time to get ready for the game!

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20th June 2018

This afternoon, I had lunch and a beer in the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in Bloomsbury. While I was eating I looked up and happened to see a framed picture of The London Illustrated News with a coin bearing Alexander’s image on it. What an unusual sight! And a very pleasant surprise. Here it is:

Apologies for the interruption of myself in the glass. You can tell the head is Alexander’s on account of its leonine hair but most especially the ram’s horns, which indicate Alexander’s connection (i.e. sonship) to the Egyptian god, Ammon.


The picture was a surprise for me but not the pub. On the way to the toilet I saw a portrait of some eighteenth century soldiers sighting… with light sabres. The owner clearly has a taste for mixing the old and new.

***

This week, the World Cup continues apace in Russia. Obviously being English, I am supporting England; however, as I drew France in our office sweepstakes, the mercenary in me would like them to win so that I would be quids in. Are there any teams from Alexander’s world taking part? As a matter of fact, yes, there are, though only two: Egypt and Iran.

Unfortunately, Egypt have lost their first two games and so will make no further progress in the tournament. I saw some of their game against Russia last night and was entertained by the pharaonic head dress that some of the fans were wearing. It’s nice that they remember the past even if it is only for entertainment value. Who knows, though, perhaps they discussed the pharaonic dynasties afterwards?

As I write this blog post, Iran – Persia – is playing Spain and acquitting herself very well. The first half is coming to an end and the score is still 0-0.

Of the other countries playing, only Saudi Arabia comes close to having an Alexander connection: at the time of his death in June 323, of course, he was about to invade it. During the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander did actually launch a few sorties into Arabia.

***

I am currently reading Ghost on the Throne by James Romm – his account of The Wars of the Successors. I have been reading this book on and off for months. I don’t know why it has taken me so long as it is a good book. Mea culpa: laziness on my part along with a great ability to be distracted by other books is most likely to blame. Anyway, I am coming towards the end now and overall my impression of the book is a very positive one – except, that is, for one thing: Romm’s tiresome habit of calling Antipater ‘old man Antipater’. Thank goodness we have passed 319 BC and Antipater has died but up till that point it was rather annoying me. Antipater was more than just his age; I don’t know why Romm had to alert us to it in a not very complimentary way very other time he mentioned him.

Categories: Alexander Scholars, By the Bye | Tags: , | 1 Comment

The Haunted Empire

Several months ago, I bought a copy of Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. The sub-title to the book explains what it is about: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire.

To date, the only other book dedicated to the wars of the Successors that I have read has been Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils. As I write these words I am 170 pages into the 322 page long book, and I have to say I am not enjoying it as much as I did Dividing the Spoils. Not because I think Romm is a bad historian but because Waterfield is simply a better write. He has the rare gift of making his text flow easily off the page.

Having said that, Ghost on the Throne is a well written book; it is also very well laid out. Romm not only sub-divides his chapters but gives the latter their own titles so that you know exactly where and when you are in the story.

As for me, I have seen the death of Leonnatus in the Lamian War, and the death of Alexander’s half-sister, Cynnane, as she travelled east to marry her daughter, Adea, to Philip III. Coming up is Ptolemy’s theft of Alexander’s body and the death of the most popular living Macedonian at this time, Craterus.

***

Out of what I have read so far, two facts mentioned by Romm have really jumped out at me. I think I knew them already but for whatever reason they have made a strong impression on me now.

The first is that only Macedonian kings could marry more than one woman at a time. This was a big shame for Perdiccas – if noblemen could have practiced polygamy, he could have married Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter, and Cleopatra, Alexander’s only full-sister, and put himself in an all but unassailable position if he wished – as he surely did – to make a bid for the Macedonian throne. As it was, he had to pick one with the inevitable result that he would insult the parent of the other.

The second is how – between the cavalry and infantry – utterly divided the Macedonian army was. Even though I know very well what happened after Alexander died – how the infantry demanded that Arrhidaeos be made king while the cavalry decided on Roxane’s as yet unborn child, and the way in which the infantry more or less ran the cavalry out of town before a reconciliation was reached – reading about it again is still astonishing.

The fault line between infantry and cavalry seems to have been absolute. No cavalry or infantrymen joined the other side. How could they have been so opposed to each other? Had the rebellions at the Hyphasis river or at Opis divided them? Or would they have still turned on each other if Alexander had died without ever going to Asia? Whatever the answer, the fact that he managed to hold the two sides together and make sure a brilliant fighting force out of them speaks many volumes for his charisma and intelligence.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Ghost on the Throne: Goodreads

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