More A Catalyst Than A Creator

E.M.AnsonI didn’t mean to buy Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues by Edward M. Anson (Bloomsbury 2014).

I was in the bookshop to attend the launch of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton, and you know how it is. You attend a book launch and get your book signed. You should be happy with that, but are you? Are you really? No, book lovers can always do with one more book; even when they have no room for them.

By the time I left the bookshop, one book had become four. I read The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare first and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am biased because I have met Milton (he is a very friendly man!) but I can say with absolute honesty that he really knows how to tell a tale. And when the tale is as good as how Britain fought a ‘dirty war’ against the Nazis during the Second World War then you are in for a rollicking good ride. I thoroughly recommend The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare to you.Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

I do not know Edward M. Anson but I am going to be even more effusive in my praise of Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues. For two reasons,

1/ Anson cites his sources in his text. I love Peter Green’s and Robin Lane Fox’s biographies of Alexander. I think they’ll always be my modern ur-texts but I really appreciate having a book where the author goes to the effort of telling me there and then his source for the statement he has just made. Well, I’m being unfair to Green, Lane Fox and others like them: they are writing popular histories and including sources would break the story up so really Anson’s book is a compliment to theirs rather than being better.

2/ The whole of Themes and Issues is a conversation with the five major sources of Alexander’s life and – especially this – modern day historians. On one page we find Anson disagreeing with Ernst Badian over this, and then on the next agreeing over that. Reading this book was like being in a lecture theatre again, and it was very exciting.

In light of the above, I am really grateful to have found this book just three years after its publication as it means I now own an up-to-date scholarly work. At least, I hope so. That’s a problem with living outside academe and not being an independent scholar: with no access to the academy you are always likely to be ten steps behind whatever the professionals are saying. I don’t even know of any academically minded Alexander blogs.

Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues isn’t perfect. There are mistakes within the text and I didn’t find the book to be a visually easy read. Anson’s text is by no means impenetrably dense but is just heavy enough for me to wish that Bloomsbury had printed the book in a slightly larger format with the text more widely spaced.

Because Themes and Issues is a more academic work I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to read about Alexander for the first time. Green, Lane Fox and the other popular historians are the perfect place to start. But once you have polished them off, Edward M. Anson’s book absolutely deserves to be in your hands and on your shelf. It has sources and good insights; it doesn’t just talk about but discusses. It is a very rewarding read.


Picture Credits
Alexander The Great: Themes and Issues – Goodreads
The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – The Times

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: | 1 Comment

An engaging historical mystery

The Lost Book of Alexander the GreatAlexander died in June 323 B.C. At the time of his death, his wife Roxane was pregnant. Hoping that the child would be a boy, Alexander’s generals divided the late king’s empire between themselves to run until Alexander’s son (please Zeus) came of age.

As it turned out, Roxane did indeed give birth to a boy. Despite this, the generals divided once more between those who supported the newly named Alexander IV, and those who wanted to rule the territory as independent states. Perdiccas, Alexander’s deputy at the time of his death, led the loyalist faction. Ptolemy, governor of Egypt, was a splitter.

In 320 B.C., Perdiccas went to war against Ptolemy. He lost and was assassinated by his own men.

After arriving in Egypt, Ptolemy began writing his memoirs. Some scholars believe he wrote them soon after his arrival because he takes a couple of jabs at Perdiccas – what would have been the point of doing so years after his enemy had died? Others, however, believe that the memoirs belong to a much later date, one no earlier than 310/09, as Ptolemy corrects another historian who did not write his account until then.

I wonder if Ptolemy wrote and rewrote his book over the course of years thus giving it the appearance of belonging to distinct periods. Either way, his memoirs were eventually lost. Happily, this did not before before Arrian, in the second century A.D., used them as one of the major sources of his account of Alexander’s expedition.

Which brings us to The Lost Book of Alexander the Great by Andrew Young. It is a very brave attempt to find Ptolemy’s lost memoir in Arrian’s Anabasis. I say brave but maybe it is just foolhardy, for how does one find a lost text inside another?

Young is completely upfront about this problem. He isn’t scared to say maybe and perhaps. The book, therefore, is written honestly. But what use are too many of them to readers? For my part, I enjoyed The Lost Book because I enjoy reading about Alexander. I’d read his shopping list if it was available. Ptolemy is my favourite of his generals so that was a bonus.

I have to admit, though, I didn’t come away from The Lost Book thinking that it added much to my understanding of Alexander or Ptolemy. There are certainly no revelatory insights in it. The book joins dots where it can but is forced to imagine a fair number of others.

Despite this, I am not inclined to say that The Lost Book is a waste of time. In my opinion, it does have a value, and that is in the simple fact that it is bold enough to confront the question of whether it is possible to find Ptolemy in Arrian.

Maybe it would have been better for the question to be answered in an essay or monograph but that’s by-the-bye, the fact is that it is a reasonable question to ask and Andrew Young has had the guts to stick his neck above the parapet and give an answer. The question is a difficult one, actually, an impossible one, but it still deserves answering. I applaud Young for daring to do so and recommend the book to you.


Picture Credit
Front Cover of The Lost Book: Tower Books

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The Air He Breathes Is The Complexity Of Life

The Mighty DeadThe Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson is an intense and enlightening read.

The book is also a deeply personal one as Nicholson grounds Homer’s story – which for him begins not in the eighth century B.C. when Homer is supposed to have lived, nor even in c.1250 when the events that inspired The Iliad are believed to have taken place, but centuries earlier – in the journey of his own life.

Thus, we find him ruminating on Homer while sailing in the Atlantic, and searching for the gates of Hades in southern Spain. This might have been just a nice literary conceit had Nicholson not included an account of how he was raped at Palmyra in Syria.

It is very brave of him to tell such a story and it elevates the personal aspect of this book from potentially being just a means to an end to being part of the end; Palmyra connects his life to that of the Trojans and Greeks whose story Homer told in a way that writing from a study or even boat never could.

Even at the best of times, The Mighty Dead is not an easy going read – there’s too much going on, both in the past and present – for that to be the case, but what it loses in casualness it makes up for in insight. I cannot stress that enough. Therefore, if you are interested in Homer or even just want to read a really well-written book, I recommend The Mighty Dead to you. I am sure you will not be disappointed.


Picture Credit
Front cover of The Mighty Dead: Waterstones

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The British Museum’s Alexander Bust: A Different Angle

In his Second Oration Concerning the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander the Great, Plutarch describes Alexander as having a ‘slightly bent’ neck (see here). What may have been a physical deformity became in Alexander’s own lifetime part of his iconography with his court artist Lysippus making no attempt to disguise it.

During the Hellenistic period, various kings imitated the crook, occasionally with a little too much effort, as Mithridates VI (135-63 BC) shows here.

Mithridates VI

There are numerous examples of Alexander with his neck ‘slightly bent’. Here is one:

Head of

One famous bust of Alexander, however, where he is not shown with a bent neck is the British Museum’s. This is how it is displayed to visitors:


As you can see, his head is quite straight. But notice that his neck on your left is angled outwards. A week or two ago I noticed this and it got me wondering – is the British Museum displaying the bust as it was originally intended to appear or have they ‘straightened’ it?

I don’t know the answer to this question. One thing I am certain of, though, is that if the bust was attached to a body and Alexander’s head was conceived of as being, and carved, straight then the body would have to be angled, as if in motion. I’m sure of this because I have tried to replicate the position of the bust in my bathroom mirror and it can only be done by sloping one shoulder and raising the other, as if running.

Alexander’s head, however, does not look like the head of a man in a hurry. I suspect, therefore, that whoever carved this bust meant for his head to be angled as a result of his crooked neck. During a quiet moment at my office the other day, I used the Photos App on my mobile ‘phone to see if I could recreate the crook. Here’s a second version that I did on my tablet for this post:


I apologise for the close-up nature of the photograph – I could not get the iPad to save it in any other way. That aside, what do you think of the picture? When I first saw it on my mobile ‘phone, I thought it made Alexander look much more tender, almost feminine, than when his head was straight (or, dare I say, erect). I have to admit, though, I really like the bust this way. It is still familiar yet in a way completely new. The leonine toughness of Alexander remains yet the tilt makes him so much softer. I must be honest – this version of the bust makes me love Alexander in a way that I didn’t before.

I could be completely wrong about whether the bust was meant to tilt or not but if it was why would the British Museum show it straight? I wonder if it was indeed because whoever decided on its position wanted to emphasise the tougher Alexander over the gentler one. What do you think? I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Photo Credits
Mithridates: Alchetron
Alexander (black and white): Emaze
British Museum Bust of Alexander: Wikipedia

Categories: Art | Tags: | 2 Comments

Why Did Spitamenes Fail To Defeat Alexander?

A few days ago I attended a talk by Dr. Neil Faulkner on the theme of Lawrence of Arabia’s War, which he gave in support of his new book on this subject.

Several times during the talk, Faulkner made points about T. E. Lawrence that immediately connected the latter to Alexander. For example, both had dominant mothers and both were inspired by heroic figures of the past (for Lawrence it was the Crusaders, for Alexander, Achilles).

To them I would add that both benefitted from deep friendships; that neither held the natives of the countries they were in with contempt, and both were not just fighters but explorers.

However, it was one other statement of Faulkner’s that really stuck out, and that is that one reason why the Arab Revolt succeeded when many insurgency movements of the past had failed, was because they had guns. Guns allowed them to do greater damage from a safer distance before escaping.

In the past, Faulkner said, if you wanted to kill someone, you had – generally speaking – to get up close to them so that you could jab them with your spear or slash with your sword.

Of course, one could use a javelin or sling but the former could only be thrown once and the latter had a slow rate of fire in comparison to a gun. Plus, the use of these weapons greatly increased your chance of being killed before being able to make your escape. And that was vital to the Arabs’ success. Not only because they lacked numbers but because they were in the fight as much for the loot as the promise of their own nation. Killing was no good if they died and could not take booty home with them.

When Faulkner started talking about the role of the gun, I immediately wondered if that was a reason why Spitamenes’ insurgency against Alexander failed. Thinking about it now, I would say it is one reason, but not the only one.

Spitamenes had another problem – he lacked the necessary tactics. When I read him in Arrian, he comes across as an insurgent trying to fight in a traditional manner. For example, he puts Maracanda under siege (IV.4), he captures a Macedonian fort (IV.16); he fights Andromachus’ and Caranus’ detachment in a set-piece battle (IV.5-6), takes on Craterus directly (IV.17), and fights another set-piece battle against Coenus (IV.18).

On all these occasions, he only comes off best when his opponents are either incompetent (the Macedonian detachment) or after using guile instead of brute force (the Macedonian fort). When he tries to fight in the traditional manner, he loses. And in the end, this cost him his life.

Spitamenes was not an incompetent commander – his decision not to fight a close-quarters battle against the Macedonian detachment but instead make use of his horses shows that, and he was adept at melting into the countryside when required to; however, his tactical ability had not caught up with the exigencies of his insurgent operation. And for me, this is the key thing; had Spitamenes superior weaponry he would still have needed to improve his strategy in order to use it effectively. If he didn’t, all the guns in the world wouldn’t make a difference. For Alexander would have had them and he certainly knew how to adapt.


Categories: Arrian | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Pebbled Propaganda in Pella?

This post is me unpacking my thoughts regarding the Pella Lion Hunt mosaic. Please forgive its length and, probably obvious, conclusion. The identity of the people in the mosaic is not something I had seriously considered before so was starting first base here
I have just started reading By the Spear, Ian Worthington’s account of the lives and deeds of Philip II and his son Alexander.

At the start of the book, Worthington talks about how Macedonian boys were taught to hunt from an early age. It was a way of teaching them how to fight against men when they grew up.

Hunting, however, was more than just a utilitarian exercise.

… it allowed time for the king and his nobles to interact socially, which affected their relations politically. These hunts were clearly dangerous, as a mosaic depicting a lion hunt from Pella attests.

The mosaic that Worthington is referring to here is, of course, the one you can see at the top of this post. He goes on,

Although the figures on the mosaic have been disputed, most likely we have Alexander to the animal’s left, trapped by its paw, and Craterus (who became one of Alexander’s generals) to its right, coming to his rescue… Both are wearing next to no protective clothing and are armed only with short swords – they thus had to get up close and personal with their deadly prey and rely on split-second instincts.

When I read the above passage, I was very taken by Worthington’s statement that Alexander was trapped by the lion. I had never noticed that detail before. And certainly, if you look at his expression, he does seem very alarmed. So, thank you to Ian Worthington for showing me something new in an image I thought had nothing new to say.


It was very unwise of me to think that the Pella Lion Hunt Mosaic had nothing new to say when it is such a mysterious image. Worthington identifies the man on the left with Alexander, and the man on the right with Craterus. The mosaic, however, makes no such identification on either account.

The man on the left wears a kausia (‘wide-brimmed felt hat’ as Worthington calls it) but while this was worn by Macedonian kings, it was not worn exclusively by them. In fact, up until Alexander became influenced by Persian customs and dress, his royal predecessors seem to have gone out of their way to be as much like their men as possible, including in what they wore.

Perhaps there is something in the cloak, spear or scabbard that the man on the left is holding that suggests Alexander, but if there is, I’m afraid I can’t see it. The same applies to the man on the right in respect of Craterus.

The Lion Hunt Mosaic was found in a Pella residence known as The House of Dionysos, named after another mosaic found there (see below). The house was a big one. It obviously belonged to an extremely wealthy individual. This video shows what kind of a place it was.

If you watch the video, you’ll see that it places the Lion Hunt Mosaic in the very centre of the building. Whoever lived here, the mosaic meant a lot to them, and they would have wanted as many people as possible to see the work.

So who did live in this residence? Well, I’m afraid I don’t know. But whether it was a royal property or belonged to a nobleman, here are some thoughts I have regarding the Lion Hunt Mosaic.

Firstly, whoever the two figures are, I think that the one on the right stands for the owner of the house, or at least the one who paid for the mosaic and probably had a residence there. He is the one coming to the rescue of the other man, after all; it would make sense for him to place himself in the starring role, so’s to speak.

Secondly, I have seen the creation of the mosaic dated to between 325-300 B.C. If the two men are not Alexander and whoever but are simply two hunters, whether real of fictional, then there is nothing more to say about it; it simply records a hunting trip of some description and was made in the late fourth century B.C.

If, however, the man on the left is Alexander then the identity of the man on the right becomes very intriguing.

Imagine walking into the House of Dionysos. Come, the owner says, Come and look at my new mosaic. You walk into the central room and there you see that he has had a mosaic installed in which ‘he’ is rescuing King Alexander. It is between 325 and 300 B.C. You know about the king’s amazing exploits in the east. If this man had no connection to Alexander then this mosaic would surely come across as a bit presumptuous. Actually, the mere fact that the man placed himself in a mosaic with Alexander would be laughable. And the fact that he showed himself rescuing the king would be ridiculous.

So, if the man on the left is Alexander, I think the man who paid for the mosaic knew him, and probably fought alongside him; not just as a junior officer much less a rank and file soldier but as a general, and maybe even directly helped the king if not saved his life on one or more occasions. This would have definitely entitled the man to put himself next to Alexander on the mosaic, and even to come to his rescue.

Ian Worthington identifies the man on the right with Craterus. As he says, though, the identification is disputed. I have also seen Hephaestion mentioned as the right hand figure. A couple of other names occur to me – Black Cleitus and Peucestas.

Black Cleitus and Peucestas were both high up in Alexander’s army and both saved his life (Cleitus at the Granicus in 334 and Peucestas at the Mallian town in 325). Cleitus died in 328. There is no reason he could not have ordered the making of the mosaic before then but I would question whether he would have wanted to, given how estranged he had become from Alexander due to the latter’s orientising ways. As for Peucestas, I think his focus was on the future, not the past. He could have ordered the mosaic to be made after 325 but I suspect he was too busy getting used to his Persian trousers.

In truth, there are probably any number of people who could have ordered the mosaic but let’s go back to Craterus and Hephaestion. Hephaestion was Alexander’s best friend and fought alongside him. He was a nobleman, to boot. He surely had the money and motive to have the mosaic made. But did he have the ego to show himself saving Alexander’s life? We know from Diodorus (XVIII.114) that Hephaestion was perfectly comfortable in his friendship with Alexander. I don’t think he would have felt the need to show how important he was to the king, even to the point of saving his life.

Craterus, however, is another matter. He loved Alexander more than any other man. But, as Alexander himself pointed out (D. XVIII.114; Plutarch Life of Alexander 46), Craterus loved Alexander the king whereas Hephaestion loved Alexander the man. This could only have angered and distressed Craterus as he would have known that to love the man rather than the office placed Hephaestion closer to Alexander’s heart than himself – a very painful position for a lover of any kind to be in. No wonder he and Hephaestion feuded. Therefore, I think Craterus commissioned the mosaic not just to show how close he was to Alexander but as a slight against Hephaestion and act of self-affirmation: I was important to Alexander, I WAS (and more than him, too)*.

Another reason I am going with Craterus as the man on the right is that according to Robin Waterfield in Dividing the Spoils,

Craterus marked the end of the Lamian War with a large monument at Delphi, sculpted by the best artists of the day, that showed him saving Alexander’s life during a hunt…

He did it at Delphi, I think he did it at Pella, too. It would not surprise me to learn one day that the building we call the House of Dionysos was Craterus’ family residence.


Dionysos riding on a panther; the mosaic from which the House of Dionysos takes its name (Source: Theoi via Pinterest)

* On this point, Hephaestion may have been comfortable in his friendship with Alexander but he could be a very proud man, and there is space within this to see him ordering the mosaic’s creation for similar reasons to Craterus. When I think about that, though, I go back to his letter to Olympias and it seems to me that however proud he was, he was not self-doubting

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

Getting the Rub of the Green

For the last three or so years I have concentrated on reading the five ancient Roman/Greek accounts of Alexander’s life.

Having now read Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin and Plutarch all the way through and more than once I now feel ready to engage with the modern historians once more.

Unfortunately, I do not at the moment have half as much time as I should like to do this. Never mind, I told myself, I’ll limit myself to reading previously unread historians all the way through. I’d like to say hello to old friends, though, so I will just read a chapter of their books in order to re-acquaint myself with the author again.  It’s not perfect but is better than nothing.


In that spirit, I opened up Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. A Historical Biography. It was one of the first books about Alexander that I read and second only to Robin Lane Fox’s in how much I enjoyed it.

This time round I read the chapter titled The Captain-General and I am delighted to say that I enjoyed it just as much as I did in memory. What I appreciated most was the way Green combined his historical account of Alexander’s life with his own comments and analysis. The two seemed to me to be in perfect balance and harmony. Perhaps as a result of this, or just on account of Green’s superior penmanship, the chapter flowed really well and before I knew it I had reached the end.

I didn’t think the chapter was perfect. Green makes unsupported statements*. It is only recently that I have begun to realise that scholars do this, and in my opinion – even if you are writing for a general audience – this is a bad habit. Why do they do it?

But what is positive about this chapter far outweighs the negative. For example, another good thing about it is its judicious use of graphics; here a map of Alexander’s route through Asia Minor, there a map of the Persian satrapies – and in the middle a table showing the make-up of the Macedonian army when it left Macedon.

I would like to end by praising Green’s analysis. Useful, valuable, and interesting. Here are some of the things that I highlighted as I read,

  • Parmenion and Antipater may not have been acting in an entirely disinterested fashion when they told Alexander he should marry and father an heir before beginning his expedition. Both had unmarried daughters
  • 12,000 of Alexander’s men remained behind to defend Macedon against her enemies after he left for Asia Minor. This tells you a great deal about how reconciled Greece was to Macedonian control
  • The ‘scientific knowledge’ that Alexander brought back with him after his return to Babylon formed the basis of the West’s understanding of the East for centuries afterwards

I came away from Alexander of Macedon feeling enriched by it. I had learnt new knowledge, or relearnt old, dared to disagree and been encouraged by Green’s professionalism to continue my own study. I really can’t ask much more from a book than that.

So, if you are looking for a book about Alexander to read, I strongly recommend this one. Peter Green has been there and is a great teacher to listen to and debate with, to ponder and use as a springboard to further study.

* For example, ‘Alexander himself often derived malicious amusement from playing [his court writers] off against each other’. Really? This is a juicy bit of gossip – and not information I recall seeing anywhere else – it must be worth an explanation, or at least a footnote. Sadly, neither is forthcoming
Categories: Alexander Scholars | Tags: | 6 Comments

He fervently prayed

Iliad Diary
Day 3

Book I Lines 33-44

In the last post we saw how Agamemnon incurred Apollo’s wrath by refusing to return Chryseis to her father, a priest of the god.

Agamemnon angrily ordered Chryses out of his presence and so today, we meet the latter wandering helplessly ‘along the shore / of the loud-roaring sea’ (L.34-5).

I have just started reading The Mighty Dead by Adam Nicholson, which is sub-titled Why Homer Matters. In it, he notes Homer’s reference to the pontos atrygetos, the unharvestable sea.

The second I saw that phrase I knew exactly what Homer meant: death; the sea is a place of death. In an agrarian culture, something that was unharvestable could be absolutely nothing else.

With this in mind, Homer’s positioning of Chryses next to the sea as he silently – perhaps numbly – contemplates the enslavement of his daughter becomes overwhelmingly sad*. She is now effectively dead to him.

But Chryses isn’t finished, yet. After reaching a self distance from Agamemnon, or – I imagine – the Achaeans as a whole – he stops and prays to Apollo that he might ‘take vengeance upon the Danaans for my tears’ (l.44).

Chryses’ prayer to Apollo has a formulaic feel to it. He starts by praising the ‘all-glorious ruler’ before addressing him by a couple of his titles— this stopped me in my tracks, for one of them was ‘Mouse-god’. Mouse god?! Where does this title come from? Is it one of Apollo’s oldest, dating to a time when he had not yet risen to his full dignity? At first sight it seems a name that is more suited to a Disney film than The Iliad.

Having praised Apollo and addressed him in a fitting manner, Chryses invites the god to consider his loyal service. Thus, if I have ever pleased you – please destroy the Achaeans**. It is a brutal prayer but we are visitors to a brutal world.

The Alexander Connection
Alexander prayed often, but never – as far as I can recall – in the way that Chryses does here. He didn’t really need to.

In the next post, we’ll see how Apollo attacked the Achaeans for nine days with his deadly arrows. ‘[T]his plague is killing our men’ (l.62). Alexander was on the road for thirteen years and I can’t think of one outbreak of disease within his camp that threatened it in the way that Apollo’s is about to threaten the Achaeans.

Perhaps Alexander was lucky – it wouldn’t be the first time – but it does seem rather remarkable that it never, ever became an issue for him.

* Later on in the poem we will see Achilles take a similar journey after the all too real death of his beloved friend, Patroclus
**Danaans is term synonymous with Achaeans. Later on, we’ll also find Homer referring to the Achaeans as Argives

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A Deadly Plague

Iliad Diary
Day 2

In my first post you may have noticed that I included an asterisk at the end of the fourth paragraph… and then forgot to add the footnote!

What I said, was ‘With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.’

And what I meant to add at the end of the post was ‘* I know that Homer, whom some say did not exist at all, is not the creator of The Iliad but the person who is believed to have written the poem, previously transmitted orally, down. I could have paid lip service to this by writing ‘the poet’ or indeed ‘the poets’ but as Homer is the conventionally accepted author of the written Iliad, I will stick with him.’

Alright, with that done, I would like to thank S. Abel-Smith and Silasaila for their comments after the first post. Both pointed out that the goddess to which Homer is referring in line 1 is the Muse. Which one? Perhaps Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.


Book 1 Lines 8-32
To the poem. And it is Apollo, a priest named Chryses and Agamemnon who take centre stage for these 24 lines.

In the first line of The Iliad, Homer asks the Muse to sing through him of the ‘rage of Achilles’ but it is Agamemnon and Apollo who are the first two to people get angry*.

The reason for Apollo’s anger is Agamemnon, and the fact that he has taken Chryses’ daughter, Chryseis, captive. We are not immediately told Chryseis’ age, but though Chryses refers to her as his ‘dear child’, I assume that she is a woman as Agamemnon has taken her to be his concubine. As he tells Chryses,

‘She will grow old in Argos… working the loom and coming to bed when I call her.’

If only Agamemnon knew that he would not enjoy too many visits to his bed when he did finally get home…

… but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Why is Apollo offended by Agamemnon’s actions? Well, as you might suspect, Chryses is not any old Tom, Dick or Achilles. He is one of Apollo’s priests, and Apollo looks after his own.

Thus, when Agamemnon refuses Chryses’ plea to release his daughter, Apollo, in his anger unleashes ‘a deadly plague to the [Achaean] camp’ (L.10).

Agamemnon has acted most unwisely. Chryses even came ‘with a splendid ransom’ (L.12), and was supported in his plea by the Achaean rank and file. But not only did Agamemnon refuse to hand Chryseis over, he threatened to kill Chryses should the priest ever return again. This is a level of disrespect that no Greek god could ever ignore and down come Apollo’s arrows.

Apollo’s response to Agamemnon’s hubris epitomises for me the relationship between the Greeks and their gods: You worship me, and I’ll look out for you.

If Agamemnon is hubristic, Chryses is plain pitiful. We aren’t told this, but I assume that the latter is a Trojan. If so, despite this, when making his plea to Agamemnon, the priest says,

may the gods allow you to plunder Priam’s great city,
then grant you a safe homecoming. But hear my plea.

Priam’s great city – Troy – will have been his life; his wealth, sacrifices, honour – all would have come from there. Now, he is forced to betray it.

Well, yes, he has, but only for love of his daughter. Chryses may be pitiful, therefore, but also noble and brave.

The Alexander Connection
Three aspects of this chapter put me in mind of aspects of Alexander’s life:

  1. Agamemnon’s preparedness to disrespect a priest
  2. Agamemnon’s intention to use Chryseis as a concubine
  3. The ‘disloyalty’ of the Achaean rank and file towards the will of the king

Unlike Agamemnon, Alexander was generally very respectful of religions. We often see him sacrificing to the gods. With that said, his attitude wasn’t of perfect submission to their will, as we see when he ignored the bad omens and crossed the Jaxartes river to fight the Scythians (Arrian IV.4). He was also capable of fighting foreign priests – as he did when he took on the Brahmins (Ar. VI.8, 17). In the last few days on Twitter I have also been reading about how Alexander put the Zoroastrians to the sword. I mention that advisedly as Alexander’s anti-Zoroastianism comes to us from (Zoroastrian) texts relating to Alexander  written a long time after the event – though they may bear witness to an authentic oral tradition.

Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis puts Alexander’s treatment of women in mind. Plutarch (Life of Alexander 21), for example, tells us of the effort Alexander went to in order to take care of the Persian Royal Family. Alexander himself kept no concubine**. To the best of my knowledge, he ignored Darius’ harem after winning the Persian empire and may very well have married Roxane as much for for love as the political benefit that their union would bring (see Arrian IV.19-20).

Finally, the ease with which the Achaean soldiers turned against Agamemnon stands in very stark contrast with the fierce loyalty of the Macedonian army to Alexander. Of course, they revolted twice; once at the Hyphasis river and then at Opis. At the Hyphasis they were simply and very deeply worn out. At Opis they thought Alexander had lost faith in them. They revolted, therefore, for two profound reasons, not over whether Alexander should keep or send a woman away.

* Perhaps I should say ‘the first man and god’
** Bagoas the eunuch is as close as Alexander ever came to keeping a concubine, and I think Alexander loved him (see Athenaeus Deipnosophists XIII.80 here), even if not on the same level as Roxane or Hephaestion

Texts Used
I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013). The Arrian quotations come from my copy of the Penguin Classics (1971) edition

Categories: Homer | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Bitter Words

I last read The Iliad in its entirety 21 years ago. Given my interest in Alexander the Great I should have read the epic that so inspired him much, much more recently than that. Well, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. I’ve started reading it now and as often as I do so will write an update on this blog on how I am getting on.

Iliad Diary
Day 1

Firstly, an apology. An apology for all the references that I will miss while reading the poem. I am an amateur when it comes to the fourth century B.C. and am rather less than that when it comes to the thirteen. To make up for this, I will, as I read The Iliad be doing some background reading as well. Where I can incorporate what I learn into these posts, I will certainly do so.

Secondly, a word about how I will structure these posts. To keep the word count down, and encourage myself to be more concise I will be taking the poem one scene at a time. Having said that, I don’t want to be in the position of blogging about one line so this will change if the scenes are very short.

With that said, let’s jump into the poem. Book I Lines 1-7. I have chosen these because they comprise Homer’s introduction to his work*.

The rage of Achilles – sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief

Two things jump out at me in these two lines: the fact that Homer is asking the goddess to sing the poem through him and the fact that Achilles’ anger hurts his own side, not the Trojans.

A question: which goddess is Homer referring to? Is it Artemis, the goddess of war? Or perhaps Hera, who loved Achilles (I.201)?

Whichever goddess it is, the first line of the poem tells us something very interesting about how poets of archaic Greece saw themselves. Not just reciters of great lays but channels of the gods, themselves.

Now, I am sure Homer was a very humble man, but the idea of poets seeing themselves as the gods’ interlocutors must have given at least a few of them big heads.

This reminds me of Callisthenes’ alleged big headedness. Arrian tells us (IV.10) of a story that Aristotle’s nephew claimed,

without the history he was writing, Alexander and his work would be forgotten

And that Callisthenes claimed,

if Alexander was destined to have a share of divinity, it would not be owing to Olympias’ absurd stories about his birth, but to the account of him which he would himself publish in his history.

At this point, I should say that if at any point I can relate anything I read in The Iliad to Alexander’s life, then I will endeavour to do so. I beg your patience if the connexions I draw are just too tenuous!

Going back to the poem, the poet implies that Achilles’ anger was ‘the will of Zeus’. The king of Olympus, therefore, permitted many of his people – Greeks – to die because of Achilles. This is a very pressing reminder that though Hera loved Thetis’ son, the gods could not always be relied upon to have their subjects backs at any given time.

A question: Was this because the Olympians only ever acted according to self-interest or were they at the mercy of fate, or the Fates?


I almost forgot to tell you: I am reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in e-book form (Phoenix 2013).

The Arrian I quoted from is the beat up Penguin Classics (1971) edition that I wouldn’t lose for the world.

Categories: Books, Homer | 4 Comments

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