Dancing With The Lion – an interview with Jeanne Reames, Part One

Today, on the 2,375th anniversary of Alexander’s birth, I am delighted to welcome Jeanne Reames to The Second Achilles for the first of a two part ‘interview’ to discuss her part one of her new novel Dancing With The Lion: Becoming, in which she tells the story of how Alexander became the Great.

You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here.

To celebrate Dancing With The Lion: Becoming hitting the bookshelves, I caught up with Jeanne in the most twenty-first way possible, via e-mail, to discuss the novel and its characters.

What was your inspiration for writing Dancing with the Lion?
When I was in grad school for the first time at Emory, this guy, “Alexander the Great,” kept popping up in my Early Church history classes, yet I knew nothing about him. Deciding I might learn something, I trekked off to the library and grabbed two biographies off the shelf, somewhat at random. They happened to be Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (the original 1974 Thames-on-Hudson edition with images), and N.G.L. Hammond’s 1980 Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (his more measured bio). I couldn’t have picked more divergent visions of Alexander if I’d tried.

So I became fascinated by this young man who literally changed the face of his world, then died before 33, leaving behind such varying analyses from heroically positive to viciously negative. The novelist in me took note, as we love a complicated character. I kept reading, and fell in love with Macedonia itself, as well.

What was it like writing about Alexander himself? Did he come with a lot of baggage – given to you by other authors and historians – or does he travel lightly, so’s to speak?
Oh, he comes with a freight-load of baggage, which is why I chose to use his real (Greek) name—Alexandros—to cut off some of it. In addition, I wanted to write him from a Macedonian perspective, as best I could. He’s too often viewed through a Greek (and later Roman) lens.

Much of that owes to our surviving sources, none of which were written during his own lifetime; Diodorus (arguably the earliest we still have) dates to the first century BCE. That would be like trying to write on John F. Kennedy with nothing more recent than bios 200 years in the future. Lord knows what they’d actually understand about the 1960s.

Fortunately, modern archaeology is producing amazing new insights, especially about early Iron-age, Archaic, and Classical Macedonia, rewriting our understanding of the Argead Macedonian kingdom. Never mind the royal cemetery at Aigai, what’s coming out of Aiani (ancient Elimeia), Archontiko (Pella), and Methone is stunning. But unfortunately, most of these reports are in modern Greek. I’ve tried to include at least references to our new discoveries in the novel, although the bulk of the text was written well before 2000. Again, all this contributes to my goal to show a non-Athenocentric, Macedonian Alexander.

Mieza, where Aristotle taught Alexander, Hephaestion et al

Did Alexander surprise you by his actions in the course of writing this book or did you feel you always had him under control?
If your characters are real, they always have a life of their own. Non-writers can be baffled when novelists talk about characters as if they were real people with whom the author has regular conversations. But if the author can’t do that, her characters aren’t 3D.

That said, Alexander was a bit harder to write my way into than Hephaistion. Hephaistion winked into existence when I (re-)read Peter Green’s bio and hit the line that describes him as, “Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid” (p. 465, U. Cal ed., 1991 reprint). And in my head, this little Hephaistion sat up and said, “No, I wasn’t like that at all.” That gave me both a character and a dissertation, so I thank Peter for it.*

I’m sure some of my reaction was a gelling of what I’d read, leading me to a different opinion about Hephaistion. Yet from that moment, Hephaistion’s book character has been firmly formed and hasn’t changed much. Also, I’d like to note that I do see a distinction between my character and the historical person. If the former is certainly based on my research into the latter, I’m not confused about where the lines are.

The character who morphed the most during the writing was Myrtalē-Olympias. When I began, I had a fairly traditional, negative view. Then I read Beth Carney’s work, which fundamentally altered how I understood her and her motives, creating (I hope) a more nuanced character.

The historical Hephaestion did not live to write his memoirs and appears only episodically in the works of the Alexander historians. This makes him a rather elusive personality. Was that a blessing or curse for you in writing about him?
I consider it a blessing, as it left me a lot of freedom. Yet I’ve spent so much time with this fellow, I do feel as if I have some sense of what the historical person must have been like.

With Hephaistion, we must avoid too simplistic a reading. It can be easy to slam him into certain pre-made categories. The first is a yes-man without genuine ambition or much of a mind of his own, just beauty and a steadfast loyalty to Alexander. A second is more sinister: an ambitious man of limited ability, using Alexander’s affection for him to climb the socio-political ladder at the Macedonian court, and targeting his enemies along the way. He may (or may not) have felt genuine affection for Alexander.

To me, the evidence from the ancient sources doesn’t support either of those. First, he actually was capable (both Sabine Müller and I have written academic material about this). Second, all his clashes are late in his career, once he’d risen to very high rank, and in at least the case of Krateros, he may have been the target rather than the targeted. Earlier, he had no obvious enemies (aside from, perhaps, Olympias). In the novel, in fact, I’ve made him a bit more testy than I think he actually was. If Curtius (who was no fan of Alexander) paints a mostly positive picture of Hephaistion, perhaps we should pay attention.

He appears to have been deeply—and genuinely—attached to Alexander, and Curtius observed that he was diplomatic enough to avoid pushing his place. Yet he may also not have cared for personal advancement to the same degree as his fellows. That said, we must be careful not to make him passive; the evidence suggests that if insulted, he’d strike back. Remember, a virtuous Greek didn’t turn the other cheek; one was expected to help friends and hurt enemies, not ignore them, an important difference between now and then. In fact, showing clemency could be a backhanded insult, one Julius Caesar later used to great political effect. One could show clemency only to one’s social inferiors, after all.

I’ve come to think of Hephaistion as a “gamma male”; in pop culture, there’s little agreement as to what these men are like, but originally the term was coined to define those who disengage from the whole alpha-beta dynamic. They neither attempt to lead (although may be capable of doing so), nor do they willingly follow, unless they agree on the direction. While it might seem that alpha and gamma males should naturally clash, gamma males may also be the only true friend a strong alpha can have (and trust).

I find three aspects of Hephaistion’s personality mostly consistent according to our sources: he was honest with Alexander but diplomatic about his status in public, he seems to have agreed with Alexander’s policies in general and supported them, and last—and most importantly—Alexander wasn’t the least threatened by him. Add to that a friendship that quite probably spanned two decades and it suggests he was more complex than some would allow.

In writing Hephaestion did you ever find yourself in dialogue with previous interpretations of him? For example, in authors such as Mary Renault and film makers like Oliver Stone?
Very little, actually. First, this novel is now 30 years from its inception, and Hephaistion was among the earliest solid characters I had. I wrote the first line in December of 1988. I hadn’t even read Renault yet, and all of that was long before Stone came on the scene. Not to mention Stone’s Hephaistion is really Renault’s Hephaistion.

So while some of my characters owe to the influence of others (say, Beth Carney’s impact on my view of Olympias), Hephaistion is solely mine, unless you count Curtius and the other original sources.

***

*(Important note: scholars can like each other very much while still disagreeing on evaluations of the evidence, and Peter gave me one of the best edit jobs I’ve ever had for “The Mourning of Alexander the Great” [Ed’s Note: Which you can read here] which I also think is probably the best article I’ve published to date. So be aware that our scholarly disagreements in no way reflect our personal opinions about our colleagues. Also, we may disagree vehemently with one point, but agree substantially on others.)

***

Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview in which, among other things, we discuss Alexander’s mother, Olympias and his sister, Cleopatra and I get some advice on how to write (historical) fiction.

***

For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.

Coming this October…

All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission

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Diodorus Returns

July is the month of new books. The first is a new translation – the first in fifty years – of Book 16-20 of Diodorus’ Library; the books that cover the life of Alexander and of the deeds of his Successors:

To read more about this significant work, visit the OUP’s website, here.

I am all the more excited to read this book as the translator, Robin Waterfield, wrote one of my favourite Alexander books, Dividing the Spoils, which is his account (based largely on Diodorus) of what happened to Alexander’s empire after his death.

What’s the second? Check back on Friday to find out!

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Catching Up: 23rd June 2019

Reporting the arrival of a new book about Alexander will never not be exciting. Therefore, I am delighted to mention the lately published Alexander the Great from Britain to Southeast Asia by Su Fang Ng.

Unfortunately, this is an academic book, so while it is no doubt of the highest quality, it is also of the highest price – £90 (hardback).

I am very lucky in that I am a member of the London Library, which if I ask it would hopefully purchase a copy but otherwise, it’s a shame that Su Fang Ng’s knowledge will be pretty much limited to university students and teachers.

You can read more about the book at the Oxford University Press’s website here

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Popculture reports a rape allegation against President Donald Trump. Author E. Jean Carroll,

… recalled [Trump] talking “about himself like he’s Alexander the Great ready to loot Babylon” as they tried to decide the best gift for the woman Trump was shopping for.

Caitlynn Hitt, Popculture

Alexander visited Babylon twice – once in late 331 BC, following the Battle of Gaugamela, and then again in May-June 323. In 331, the Macedonian king gave his soldiers leave to enjoy themselves but not to loot the city. That would come when they arrived in Persepolis at the end of the January 330.

In 323, the army returned to Babylon in an orderly fashion (in contrast to its ‘march’ across Carmania) and kept its discipline until Alexander’s death on 10th/11th June. Without an established heir to take over command, order started to break down. But this did not lead the Macedonians to turn on the city, however, only each other. The situation was eventually rescued by the ruthless actions of Perdiccas.

***

The Conversation has a long and fascinating article on how ‘Neoliberalism has tricked us into believing a fairytale about where money comes from’. You can read it, here. The writer mentions Alexander several times, most notably when she says that he,

… is said to have used half a ton of silver a day to fund his largely mercenary army rather than a share of the spoils (the traditional payment). 

Mary Mellor, The Conversation

Alexander certainly used mercenaries but to the best of my knowledge they were never in a majority in his army. I don’t have any figures to hand but I am quite intrigued by the question of how many mercenaries he did use so will commit myself to seeing if I can find out this week.

In regards the use of spoils – of course, Alexander did use spoils to pay his men but certainly not as often as some other generals would have done.

***

An interesting article in The National Herald looking at the history of the antagonism between the West and Iran. The writer observes,

The Macedonian conqueror of Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and Punjab was called Alexander the Great not because of his military achievements, because he took the title of Great from Darius III the Great.

Aakar Patel, The National Herald

To the best of my knowledge, no one calls Darius III the Great. Given his record, why would they. The writer is surely thinking of Darius I. On that point, I have never seen anyone compare Alexander to Darius I. I can only wonder where he got the idea that Alexander’s sobriquet is lifted from Darius rather than his success in battle from.

The first known person to call Alexander the Great was a Roman playwright named Titus Maccius Plautus (254 – 184 BC) in a play named Mostellaria. From what I know of the play, Alexander is given the sobriquet on account of his deeds but I will try and find out more and report back.

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Catching Up: 29th May 2019

If you are a new visitor to The Second Achilles, welcome to the blog. I hope you enjoy what you read here. If you are an occasional or regular reader, welcome back!

In today’s post: a novel, a Commentary and Donations

Dancing With The Lion: Becoming and Rise
by Jeanne Reames

Reames is a scholar of Alexander and now a novelist. Volume I: Becoming is published on 1st July this year and Volume II: Rise on 21st October. Just in time for my birthday a few days later.

Jeanne Reames’ website can be found here, and her page dedicated to Dancing with the Lion, here. There’s a lot to read so definitely take a look. I particularly liked the Homeric quotation – ‘Always to excel and claim renown over others’ – and hearing it in ancient Greek. Alexander’s music play list, though, was a nice bonus, though will no doubt prove controversial!

***

A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander, Vol I
A. B. Bosworth

I took my copy of the OUP 2013 translation of Arrian with me to Spain to read while on the Camino. Unfortunately, I had to get rid of it after just a few days as part of a drive to reduce the weight of my backpack. And as I spent so much money on the Camino I can’t yet afford to buy another copy. As it is such an important book to me, I went to my library yesterday and took out their copy.

While there, I came across a copy of A. B. Bosworth’s Historical Commentary Vol I (covering books I-III). I took it out straight away. Now, obviously I am going to read it, but I’m not sure how. I think I might just dip in and out of it; if I have time, I’ll make a note of any comments that stand out and mention them here.

***

Donations
I have added a Donate to the Blog page at the top of the blog. As soon as I can work out how to do it, I’ll add a Paypal button to the sidebar as well. In doing so, I feel all the awkwardness associated with talking about money so please feel free to ignore this and get on with doing what I would most like you to do – enjoy reading the blog. The reason for the donate option is practical – the blog and life in general costs money. There are a million good causes in the world that all deserve money more than me so I don’t know if the Donate option will be used but after eight years of writing The Second Achilles, nine of updating the Facebook page and ten writing the Twitter Macedonians I hope I have proved myself to be serious about him.

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Alexander in Iran

It isn’t only death and taxes that are certain. So are politicians who try to claim that a defeat is actually a victory.

Enter the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif. A few days ago, in response to threats made by Donald Trump against the very existence of his country, Zarif tweeted,

“Goaded by #B_Team, @realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone. #EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won’t “end Iran”. #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect-it works!”

Full reports: Sky News

Zarif implies that Alexander tried to destroy Iran and the Iranian people only to be repulsed by the latter who ‘have stood tall for millennia’.

To paraphrase Donald Trump, this is fake history.

Firstly, because when he fought the Persian – Archaemenid – Empire (the then predecessor to Iran), Alexander did indeed destroy it. Forever.

Secondly, while it’s true that Alexander did not destroy the Iranian/Persian people, this was not because he tried and failed to do so. He simply never wanted to do so in the first place, either in part or whole. Alexander had a very positive attitude towards the Persian people – too positive for many people in his army. He appointed Persians to important positions, adopted Persian customs and dress, brought Persians into his army, and supported people like Peucestas who was enthusiastically pro-Persian in his role as satrap.

It cannot be stressed enough: Alexander’s quarrel was with Darius III not the Persian people as a whole. By suggesting otherwise, Zarif shows that he knows as much about his country’s history as Donald Trump does about diplomacy.

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Water and the King

On 9th April this year I started the Alexander in Asia Minor series on this blog. You can read the opening post here.

The series ended on 13th May. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

As I mentioned in my post of the 9th, I republished the series (which first appeared on my Alexander Facebook page) to keep the blog active while I walked the Camino in northern Spain.

I am delighted to let you know that I reached Santiago de Compostela on Friday (17th May). Lots happened along the Way but the one thing I would like to mention here is water.

We all know how precious good, clean drinking water is but how often are we consciously grateful for it? Prior to walking the Camino, I can’t say I was at all.

That very quickly changed. On the first day, I walked the Valcarlos route through the valleys at the foot of the Pyrenees. My backpack was too heavy and that, combined with the constant climbs and descents meant that I quickly drank both bottles of water that I was carrying with me.

In my reading before beginning the Camino I had gained the impression that water taps were available for use along the route but on the Valcarlos this turned out not to be the case. It was ironic it as it rained on and off throughout the day. There were streams and rivers, too, but were they drinkable?

In truth, I didn’t help myself. For instance, I walked on at the village of Valcarlos instead of retracing my steps to buy more water.

In the end, I became very thirsty and tired and was rescued, firstly, by a fellow pilgrim who let me have a swig of his water and then a little later by an American woman who gave me one if her water bottles.

Her kindness reminds me of the famous story about Alexander and water. Depending on which source you read, the incident either happened in the Bactrian (Curtius) or Gedrosian (Arrian) desert.

Curtius relates that as it crossed the Bactrian desert the Macedonian army fell prey to extreme thirst. During the journey, Alexander met two officers who were carrying water to their sons. One of the men offered Alexander a share of his water but when the king found out who it was for, he handed the water back, both for the sake of the man’s son and because he could not bring himself to drink alone.

According to Arrian, Alexander was given the water after it was found during the Gedrosian crossing. He rejected it out of hand in solidarity with his men. Tom Lovell captures the moment beautifully in his painting, below.

I was one person so was able to accept the water given to me. Alexander stood at the head of many who could not drink and so didn’t. For all his faults, even in the most trying circumstances, he remained faithful to one of his finest attributes as a king and general; namely, that he never made his men go through anything that he wouldn’t. If they could not drink, neither would he. As for me, I hope I never forget how grateful I was on 11th April to be given that most precious resource of all.

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32. The Battle of Issus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… about one hundred thousand [Persian soldiers] were killed (including more than ten thousand cavalry), such large numbers that Ptolemy the son of Lagus, who was with Alexander at the time, says that when the party in pursuit of Darius met a ravine in their path they could cross it over the bodies of the dead.’
(Arrian II.11.8)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Following his victory at Issus, Alexander left Asia Minor once and for all and entered Phoenicia. I end my series of posts on Alexander in Asia Minor with an image of his route through the region, the famous Naples mosaic, a painting of Sisygambis’ equally famous mistake, and a bust of Ptolemy – one of Arrian’s main sources for his account of Alexander’s expedition. I hope you have enjoyed reading these posts!

Alexander’s Route Through Asia Minor
The famous Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii (now in Naples). In it, we see Darius fleeing, possibly at the Battle of Issus
Sisigambis pays homage to Alexander after mistaking Hephaestion for the king
Ptolemy I Soter

Credit Where It’s Due
Map of Alexander’s route through Asia Minor: University of N. Carolina
The Alexander Mosaic: Livius
Sisigambis mistakes Hephaestion for Alexander: Wikipedia
Ptolemy I Soter: New World Encyclopaedia

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31. The Syrian Gates

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… at nightfall [Alexander] took his whole army and marched to secure the [Syrian] Gates once more. By about midnight he had re-established control of the pass, and for what remained of the night he rested his army on the rocky outcrop above it, with guard-posts at the critical points.’
(Arrian II.8.1-2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

The Syrian Gates

Credit Where It’s Due
The Syrian Gates: Flikr

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30. Myriandrus

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘… and camped by the city of Myriandrus: during the night a fierce storm blew up, with rain and a violent wind, which kept him confined to camp.’
(Arrian II.6.2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

With Myriandrus we actually leave Asia Minor and enter Phoenicia. As you can see from the map, Alexander had to march north towards the border of the two regions after realising that Darius was actually behind him.

Map showing the location of Myriandrus (or Alexandretta). Further to yesterday’s post, note the very southern location of the Syrian Gates. I wonder if the whole passage from the Gates to the Pinarus river are regarded as the Syrian Gates? More investigation required

Credit Where It’s Due
Map showing the location of Myriandrus: Wikimedia Commons

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29. The Assyrian Gates

Crossing Asia Minor with Alexander

‘[Alexander] led his army out on the march against Darius and the Persians. On the second day he passed through the [Assyrian] Gates…’
(Arrian II.6.2)

Text used: Arrian ‘Alexander the Great‘ OUP 2013 (translated by Martin Hammond)

Where are the Assyrian Gates? I’ve not been able to work it out. I think they are just west of the Beilan Pass. This pass, however, is supposed to be the Syrian Gates. In this image, however, the Syrian Gates are further north. Headache!

Credit Where It’s Due
Map showing the road to the Battle of Issus: Wikimedia Commons

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