A Tigerish Lust

A few days ago I was reading the introduction to The First Poets by Michael Schmidt when I came to the following quotation from Homer’s Contest by Friedrich Nietzsche,

“… the Greeks, the most humane men of ancient times, have a trait of cruelty, a tigerish lust to annihilate – a trait that is also very distinct in that grotesquely enlarged mirror image of the Hellenes, in Alexander the Great, but that really must strike fear into our hearts throughout their whole history and mythology, if we approach them with the flabby concept of modern “humanity”. When Alexander has the feet of Batis, the brave defender of Gaza, pierced, and ties him, alive, to his carriage, to drag him about while his soldiers mock, that is a revolting caricature of Achilles.
(p.xxxviii)

As this is a blog about Alexander the Great I am going to deliberately ignore what Nietzsche has to say about the Greeks in general.

So far as Alexander is concerned, the German philosopher is right in that he had a ‘trait of cruelty’. This should not surprise us as it is a trait nearly all of us share. What is extraordinary is that any of us, when we have the opportunity, do not give way to it.

I disagree with Nietzsche when he claims that Alexander had ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. Now, before I continue, I would like add this proviso: I haven’t read Homer’s Contest. It may be that Nietzsche develops his argument later on; I don’t know. This blog post, therefore, is simply an observation based on the above quotation.

So, to continue. Alexander did not have ‘a tigerish lust to annihilate’. His desire was to conquer. If it took fighting to to achieve that aim, then he would fight; if the aim could be achieved through diplomacy, then he would talk. If his enemy surrendered and he was able to accept their surrender, then that is what he would do. Alexander was not a simple destroyer. Yes, he destroyed, but he did not invade Thrace, Greece, the Persian Empire or India with that aim in mind. His purpose was to conquer and create – an empire.

Nietzche’s comment is the nineteenth century version of any made since 1945 that equates Alexander with Hitler. And both depend upon a deliberate suppression of contrary evidence for their validity. Michael Schmidt, in his introduction, joins in the game when he claims that ‘Alexander re-enacted, with deliberation and conceit, what Achilles after ten years’ deprivation and struggle, had done instinctively’ (ibid). This is not the whole truth.

According to Curtius (IV.6.7-29) the Siege of Gaza (which took two months) followed a fairly normal pattern: the Macedonians mined the city but for a time were forced to retreat due to the difficulty of protecting the soldiers engaged in the operation. This gave the Gazans the confidence to launch a sortie. In the end, Alexander won the siege by building a mound to create a path to the top of Gaza’s fortifications. This allowed the Macedonian siege towers to fire at those in the city. Meanwhile, Macedonian sappers succeeded in undermining Gaza’s walls. They fell, and Alexander’s men poured into the city, taking it after a fight.

So far, so ordinary. But two things happened to Alexander during the siege to give a fuller reason for his harsh treatment towards Batis. Firstly, he was injured twice. Once by an arrow to the shoulder. This injury was serious enough to make him faint and make Batis believe that his enemy had died. Then, by a rock to the leg. The injury does not appear to have broken it but it was enough to force Alexander to support himself on his spear during the fighting. Secondly, during a lull in the fighting, Alexander received a deserter who he allowed to join his own army. The deserter, however, was an assassin. Only Alexander’s quick reactions saved his life when the man, having paid homage to him, lunged at the king’s neck with his sword.

If Alexander really did execute Batis by dragging him around Gaza then this was a terribly cruel act. It was not, however, simply ‘a revolting caricature’ of what Achilles did, nor a ‘crude literary gesture’ (The First Poets p.xxxviii). If the event even happened (I believe not all scholars believe that it did?) it was an act informed by  the frustration, pain and betrayal that Alexander had faced during the siege rather than being simply a re-playing of Achilles’ action as recounted in The Iliad. Nietszche’s seeming failure to recognise this (allowing for the proviso mentioned above) devalues his comment.

Categories: By the Bye | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Alexander: April / Spring Chronology

Alexander’s Chronology

337
Spring Alexander is recalled to Pella (Peter Green)
Spring Hellenic League is convened at Corinth (Peter Green)

336
Spring Parmenion takes the vanguard of the Macedonian army into Asia Minor (Livius)

335
Spring (Early) Alexander begins his Thracian/Illyrian campaign (Peter Green)
Spring Balkan Campaign; Alexander destroys Thebes; Greece [except Sparta] submits (Landmark Arrian)

334
Spring Alexander cross the Hellespont and lands in Asia Minor; he travels to Troy (Landmark Arrian)
(March-) April Alexander crosses the Hellespont and lands in Asia Minor (Peter Green)

333
Spring Alexander arrives in Gordion (Landmark Arrian)
Spring Memnon continues his naval campaign; Memnon dies; Alexander [undoes/] cuts the Gordion Knot; Alexander passes through the Cilician Gates having subdued Pisidia and Cappadocia (all the Landmark Arrian)
March – June Memnon’s naval offensive continues (Livius)
Spring (Early) Memnon dies (Peter Green)
April – July Alexander in Gordium (Livius)

332
January – July The Siege of Tyre continues (Michael Wood)
Spring The Persian fleet collapses (Livius)

331
Spring Alexander’s new administration takes over Egypt; Alexander crosses Assyria in his pursuit of Darius (Landmark Arrian)
Spring (Early) Alexander visits the Oracle of Ammon in Siwah (Peter Green)
7th April Foundation of Alexandria (Livius)
NB Peter Green gives the foundation of Alexandria as taking place on the 7th-8th April

330
Spring Alexander has the palace complex at Persepolis burned; Alexander continues his pursuit of Darius and finds him dead (Landmark Arrian)
Jan – May Alexander at Persepolis (Livius)

329
Spring Alexander pursues Bessus; Bessus is betrayed by his allies and given to Alexander; Alexander quells a native revolt (all Landmark Arrian)
April Alexander marches on Gandara (Livius)
April Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush (via Khawak Pass) for the first time (Michael Wood)
NB Peter Green gives the crossing of the Hindu Kush via ‘Khawak’ as taking place in March-April
April-May Alexander advances into Bactria; Bessus flees across the Oxus river (Peter Green)

328
Spring Alexander campaigns in Bactria and Sogdia; he captures the Sogdian Rock (Michael Wood)
Spring Scythian embassies and King Pharasmanes try to make an alliance with Alexander (Landmark Arrian)

327
Spring The Sogdian Rock is captured (Livius, Peter Green, Landmark Arrian)
Spring Alexander marries Roxane (Peter Green, Landmark Arrian, Michael Wood)
Spring Alexander recruits 30,000 Persian soldiers (Peter Green)
Spring Alexander takes Chorienes’ Rock (Landmark Arrian)
Spring Craterus destroys native resistance (Landmark Arrian)
Spring The Pages’ Conspiracy and Callisthenes’ death (Peter Green, Landmark Arrian)
Spring (Early) Alexander marries Roxane, the Pages’ Conspiracy and Callisthenes’ death (Michael Wood)
Spring (Late) Alexander crosses the Hindu Kush (via Bamian) for the second time (Michael Wood)

326
Spring Alexander takes the Aornos Rock; Macedonians cross the Indus on Hephaestion’s and Perdiccas’ bridge; Alexander in Nysa; Alexander receives Taxiles’ gifts; Alexander crosses the Indus; Alexander meets Taxiles; the Battle of the Hydaspes River; death of Bucephalus; foundation of Nicaea and Bucephala; Alexander campaigns against the Glauganikai (Glausae) (Landmark Arrian)
Spring (Early) Siege of the Aornos Rock, the Macedonian army reunites at the Indus River and crosses it on a pontoon, Alexander arrives in Taxila (Michael Wood)
April The Macedonian army reforms at the Indus River and proceeds to Taxila (Livius)

325
Spring The Brahmans are defeates, as are Musicanus and Sambus (Landmark Arrian)
April The Brahmans rebel (Livius)

324
Spring The 30,000 newly trained Persian soldiers arrive in the Macedonian camp (Peter Green)
Spring Mass Wedding in Susa (Peter Green)
Spring Alexander explores the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers; Purge of corrupt Satraps; Susa Weddings; Debt relief for Macedonian soldiers; Tension in Macedonian army over integration with Persians; Alexander explores the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Landmark Arrian)

323
Spring The Cossaean campaign; Alexander returns to Babylon (Peter Green)
Spring Ill omens and portents for Alexander’s future; Spoils of war sent to Grece; Alexander prepares for Arabian expedition; Greek envoys call Alexander a god; Alexander orders great honours for Hephaestion; Alexander is struck down by a fever; Alexander dies (Landmark Arrian)
April Alexander arrives in Babylon (Livius, Michael Wood)

*Peter Green Alexander of Macedon 356 – 323 B.C. A Historical Biography (University of California Press 1991)
** The Landmark Arrian Ed. James Romm (Pantheon Books 2010)
***Michael Wood In the Footsteps Of Alexander the Great A Journey from Greece to India (BBC Books 2004)
Livius

Categories: Chronology of Alexander's Life | Leave a comment

Four Names, One Love

Yesterday was Mothering Sunday in the UK so let’s remember one of the most important mothers of antiquity. A descendent of Achilles, she was born Polyxena. Circa 357 BC she changed her name to Myrtale and then in 356 BC she took the name by which we know her: Olympias. In the same year, her son Alexander the Great was born. Following his death, she took the name Stratonice.

The historical record has not been kind to Olympias. Plutarch sums it up in his Life of Alexander (9) where he calls her ‘a woman of a jealous and vindictive temper’.

There is no doubt that Olympias was a tough lady but then, if she wanted to be a serious force in Macedonian politics and not just a pawn to be moved about by others, she needed to be.

On occasion, she may well have gone too far in her actions – we think of the murder of Cleopatra (and possibly her daughter) here (Plutarch 10) – but she lived for her son and must have loved him very, very deeply, indeed.

If we are unconvinced by this, it is only because that love was tainted by an inherently violent political system. In the unstable, Win or Die, world of Fourth Century BC Macedonian politics, however, Olympias had no choice but to fight for Alexander’s right to be king, and defend him once he became king. To step back from that would be to expose herself to attack.

If Olympias is anything, she is a tragic figure rather than an evil one. Most of all, though, she is proof of the intensity of a mother’s love.

  • This is a slightly revised version of a post I wrote for my Alexander Facebook page yesterday
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A Friend, A Father, and a Queen

Google Alerts was quiet this week so rather than do nothing with my Facebook Alexander page (something I do too often) I decided to post three pictures from Pinterest. They appeared on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and judging by the number of ‘Likes’ that they received, they were all quite popular. Here are the ‘final’ scores (i.e. the scores as of 11:43am today when I am writing these words):

Monday Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier – 65 Likes
Wednesday Alexander Threatened by his Father Donato Creti – 99 Likes
Friday Olympias, Queen of the Macedonians (Anon) – 35 Likes

The ‘final’ tally surprises me a little in that Alexander Threatened by his Father proved to be more popular than Alexander and Hephaestion. Hephaestion is a very popular figure with fans of Alexander so to see what is also a very touching scene between him and Alexander outstripped by the rather more violent and disturbing confrontation between Alexander and Philip II is unexpected. If you have a preference between the two why not leave a comment below to say why.

When I posted the pictures on Facebook, I did so without any text to explain them or the scenes that they are depicting. Rather than let them be, I shall do that now.
alexander-and-hephaestion
Alexander and Hephaestion by Louis Gauffier
This painting draws its inspiration from Chapter 39 of Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. In it Plutarch describes how Alexander’s mother, Olympias, often wrote to her son telling him to not reward his ‘friends and bodyguards’ so well as it made them ‘the equals of kings’.

Alexander kept [Olympias’] letters to himself, with one exception, Hephaestion was in the habit of reading the king’s letters with him, and on this occasion his eyes fell on a letter which had been opened. The king did not prevent him from reading it, but took the ring from his own finger and pressed the seal to his lips, so much as to tell him to keep silence.

What we see in Plutarch and Gauffier’s painting is an intensely personal and political moment. It is personal for the obvious reason that Hephaestion is reading a letter written by Alexander’s mother and is political because of Olympias’ role as Queen Mother. It is intense because if Hephaestion had had a mind to he could easily have used the knowledge gained from reading Alexander’s letters against the king. Alexander would have known this. The fact that he still let Hephaestion read the letters, therefore, is indicative of the trust he had in him. Having said that, Alexander still makes Hephaestion kiss his ring. There was no need for him to do this but as close a friend as Hephaestion was, Alexander was still his king as well as friend, and it seems never forgot this.
alexander-threatened-by-his-father
We stay with Plutarch for Alexander Threatened by his Father by Donato Creti. In 337 BC, Philip married his seventh and last wife, Cleopatra. At the post-wedding party…

Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but unfortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong. Alexander jeered at him and cried out, ‘Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia, and who cannot even cross from one couch to another without losing his balance.’ 

This incident takes place in Chapter 9. As for the painting, I really like Alexander’s red cloak. No doubt it represents the danger of the moment. But for Philip falling over, it might have represented blood shed as well. Speaking of blood shed, I wonder if that is Attalus lying on the floor in the foreground of the painting. If it is, his red cloak could represent the injury he sustained from Alexander’s cup striking him. In regards the event that the painting portrays, it was probably the most dangerous moment of Alexander’s youth. It tells us a lot about Alexander’s pride and fear and how quickly Macedonian parties could turn nasty.

olympiasOf course, this carved image of Olympias does not depict any scene from her known life. I am do not know much about sculptural conventions so I will quote the following from the Galerie Sismann website from where I took the picture,

This portrait of this woman outstands for its strong graphic character, the sophistication of the tinae and the ribbons in her hair, and the sensuality of the naked breasts.

To read the full text, click here. I have long thought that Olympias is a woman in need of rehabilitation as the image that the sources present of her is of a wholly ruthless, vindictive and wicked person. Well, she was certainly a fighter. In order to survive, she had to be. Evil, though? In his time, Alexander behaved worse than she ever did yet we still hold him in high regard. Why? Why not her? That’s a question for another day; going back to this sculpture, I appreciate it because in the dignity, sensuality and regal bearing that it gives Olympias, it cuts her a break far more than the sources (especially Plutarch who, in Chapter 9 of his Life of Alexander blames her for inciting her son against his father and therefore causing indirectly the near-fatal confrontation at the wedding party) ever do. Going back to the point about sensuality, I do like the way that Olympias’ left breast breaks through the frame barrier. It gives the image an extra dynamism.

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The Will to Create Kingdoms

lost_testamentTwo new books about and relating to Alexander have lately been published.

In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great is written by David Grant. According to The Daily Mail, Grant,

… claims to have unearthed the Macedonian king’s dying wishes in an ancient text that has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for centuries. The long-dismissed last will divulges Alexander’s plans for the future of the Greek-Persian empire he ruled. It also reveals his burial wishes and discloses the beneficiaries to his vast fortune and power.

You can read the full report here.

The ancient text referred to here is, of all things, the Alexander Romance. At first glance, the Lost Testament sounds like one of these extremely speculative works by by a historian on the fringe of respectability in their field. You know the kind: a big idea extracted from hardly an iota of evidence and then expanded with more creativity than a writer of fiction usually brings to bear on his work. However, it would not do to dismiss Mr. Grant’s work; at least, not without reading it first. Every man deserves a hearing. If we aren’t prepared to give it to them, we are better keeping our mouths shut lest we make fools of ourselves.

Therefore, don’t expect me to mention the book on this blog as I don’t intend to read In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great just yet. Amazon is currently selling the hardback version for £25.97 (rather surprisingly, the paperback version is priced at £29.95). Even the iBook version costs £19.99. I understand that even e-texts take a lot of work to be made ready for sale but such a high price for a book that maybe awful as well as brilliant is for me unrealistic. If the hardback receives excellent reviews from scholars in the field of Alexander studies, I would change my mind; otherwise, I shall wait for the paperback and – depending on reviews – take a punt then.

David Grant’s website: The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great
Lost Testament front cover: Amazon

The second book is From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom pyrrhus_to_cyprusby Billy Cotsis. According to Neos Kosmos, for which Mr. Cotsis writes,

Billy Cotsis explores 36 Hellenic kingdoms, territories, empires and a fiefdom to demonstrate the extent of the Greek world. From Pyrrhus to Cyprus covers the period following the end of the Alexandrian empire to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Added to the mix are a number of independent Greek entities which existed during and post Ottoman times. The book has a twist and a connector in that it is told by a fictional Thucydides, who has managed to survive for an eternity thanks to a spell cast by Apollo. This is Cotsis’ tribute to the brilliance of Thucydides as the first-ever historian who truly presented primary facts with minimal bias.

To read the full post, click here.

I like the idea of Thucydides narrating the story. It’s a nice touch. I like even more that in the article from which I have just quoted, Mr. Cotsis places the Ptolemaic dynasty above its Seleukid counterpart in his Top Ten Greek kingdoms and, of course, puts Alexander’s empire first. For this reason, I will not be boorish and remind you that Alexander’s empire was not a Greek empire but a(n ancient) Macedonian one.

Mr. Cotsis’s book is on sale at Amazon for £7.23, which makes taking a punt on it extremely tempting.

Billy Cotsis’s website: Hellenic Travels to the Past
Front Cover of From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Amazon

Categories: Books | Tags: , | 2 Comments

A Reflection

Earlier this month I read a comment on Twitter by someone who, if memory serves, expressed a need for medievalists to stop white supremacists from using the Middle Ages to justify their ideological views.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember who made the comment but this article in The Economist explains the issue fairly succinctly.

One thing I do remember is that afterwards, I thought to myself how fortunate it is that Alexander had not been dragged into this contemporary ideological battle. He would seem to be the perfect candidate, after all, given that his expedition – his crusade, you might say – was carried out against the decedent people of the East.

But then, three days ago, I read an article regarding a meeting between members of the Greek government and Orthodox Church and a representative of Donald Trump during which, the Greek defence minister, Panos Kammenos, gave to Trump’s man ‘a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great’ (see my post here).

Mr Kammenos’ gift is as historically authentic as a quack medicine is useful. This is of little comfort, however, as extremists are rarely known for their commitment to the truth. What to do? Hope that no extremist read about the meeting and move on? Or how about this; take the opportunity to ask myself more deeply, ever more deeply, who was Alexander? Who was he, and what did he stand for?

This question can be asked both negatively and positively. For example, Alexander was not a racial supremacist. Aristotle may have taught him that Greeks were superior to non-Greeks but while Alexander did not intend to create a ‘unity of Mankind’ he did want non-Greeks to be part of his empire and not just subject to it. Alexander was not a Warrior of the West fighting the good fight against the Evil East. Officially, the expedition started out as a War of Revenge. This immediately alloys its moral value but even if we accepted it as something virtuous, the expedition became over time a personal affair as Alexander conquered not to avenge wrongs but to prove himself greater than his Heroic ancestors. As for the idea of the East being evil, let us not talk of the way the Greeks treated each other.

The question of Alexander’s identity is of such importance that it transcends what will in the fullness of time prove to be transitory political concerns. It is of especial importance to anyone who, like me, is an Alexander supporter. Because if we don’t ask the question we risk dwelling only on those parts of his life that are agreeable to us and glossing over, or just plain ignoring, those parts that are less so. And if we do this, we are not much better, in terms of our thinking, than political extremists. They sin by commission, we do so by omission.

So, while I still regret that Alexander’s name was used by the Greek delegation to curry President Trump’s favour (though I can well understand why they did it), now that it has been, it has afforded me an excellent opportunity to think more deeply about him and maybe to share any insights I come up with here with who knows what result. Positive, I hope!

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

Of Swords and Ghosts

Last Thursday, on the eve of Donald Trump’s inauguration as President of the U.S.A., members of the Greek Orthodox Church in America and the Greek government met Mr. Trump’s Chief-of-Staff, Reince Priebus. You can read Greek Reporter USA‘s account of the meeting here.

(Presumably) after the speeches were over the Greek Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, gave ‘Priebus a copy of the sword of Alexander the Great as a gift to President Trump.’

Unfortunately, the Greek Reporter report does not contain any further information about the sword than the quotation above. Its video footage of the event does not show it, either. Not that this really matters. Alexander did not have a special sword. Not in the same way, for example, he had a special shield – that of Achilles – or horse, in Bucephalus. The the sword Mr. Kammenos gave Mr. Priebus was probably just a generic sword of the Fourth Century B.C., one labelled as Alexander’s no doubt to appeal to Mr. Trump’s ego.

On that point, it would be very tempting to bemoan the fact that Alexander the Great is being used to foster relations between Greece and one of the most controversial Presidents of America in its entire history, a man whose character would seem to make him wholly unsuited to holding that great office. Well, what’s done is done, but I wonder who is being used here. Is it Alexander? Or is it the Greeks and President Trump? The sword, whose ever it is, symbolises Alexander far more than it does modern Greece or America. Its presentation, therefore, surely represents yet another – running right back to the Successors, via Rome, into the Middle Ages and up to the present – attempt to bring Alexander back to life. He remains dead, of course, but the ghost also remains on his throne.

What ties white supremacism, Alexander and Donald Trump? That will be the topic of my next post.

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander | Tags: | 4 Comments

Of Lions and Men

It occurred to me the other day that images of Alexander most often show him in the guise of Heracles. Think of all those coins, for example, where he is wearing the same lion-cap that the mythical hero wore. Why is this, I wondered, when he drew his real inspiration from Achilles?

alexander_coin
The answer to this is perfectly obvious, which is probably why I missed it: Heracles was Alexander’s paternal ancestor, the god from whom the Argead dynasty claimed descent. Alexander may have liked Achilles more but for propaganda purposes he had to focus on Heracles. I am very grateful to my friend Jen for helping me see this.

This morning, another question occurred to me – did Alexander really wear a lion shaped helmet? One, that is, like Colin Farrell wears in Oliver Stone’s Alexander,

alexander_lion_helmet
Well, he is certainly portrayed wearing one on the Alexander sarcophagus,

alexander_sarcophagus
In his biography of Alexander, Robin Lane Fox notes the sarcophagus image and says ‘no doubt Alexander wore it in real life’. This wording suggests to me that we don’t know for sure that he did but (at least in RLF’s opinion) it is very likely.

One final question: What exactly is Alexander’s relationship to Achilles? I don’t mean in terms of his family, but rather, did he really see himself as a second or new Achilles or is that the invention of the ancient historians? Well, I don’t know for sure – none of us do – but as I write these words I feel that even if details were made up later on, if Olympias – Alexander’s mother and descendent of Achilles – had any influence on her son, she would have imbued him with a knowledge of, love for, and desire to emulate/beat the great hero of the Trojan War.

Credits
Jen’s Alexander blog
Silver tetradrachm: VRoma
Colin Farrell as Alexander: Aceshowbiz
Alexander Sarcophagus: SUNY Oneonta

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

Through A Glass Darkly

“Part of understanding Alexander’s success in conquering such a vast empire is to realize that Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory; all else was secondary. To put it simply Alexander was about conquest for conquest’s sake. He was not out to change the world, he was out to conquer it.”
Edward M. Anson Alexander the Great Themes and Issues

This is a great quote, though for me it identifies the beginning of what Alexander was about rather than the end.

The reason I say this is because I don’t believe that Alexander was simply ‘about conquest for conquest’s sake’. Anson seems to imply that this was so in his statement that ‘Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory’ only to conclude that Alexander ‘was not out to change the world’ only ‘to conquer it’.

To be fair to Anson, I think his last statement is true, although only to a point. While Alexander was certainly ‘out to conquer [the world]’, he was only not interested in changing it in terms of ushering in a new political or social order. That’s because he was very interested in changing himself and how the people of the world saw him.

Thus, rather than be known as Alexander son of Philip, he wanted to be Alexander whose deeds were greater than those of Herakles, Dionysos and Achilles, and by this excellence he wanted his enemies to be terrified of him, and his friends/allies to admire and adore him.

This is not the end of the matter. Anson’s Alexander is a rather pitiless conqueror. My Alexander, a vainglorious man. Neither portrayal is supported by the texts. Alexander was always happy to fight when necessary but also to use diplomacy if so required. He was capable of treating his enemies with exceptional kindness and was equally generous towards his friends. As for being vainglorious – how could he be truly so when he was empathic enough to identify himself with another man? And how could a vainglorious king ever be loved in the way that Alexander was by his men? Or excite the kind devotion that Sisygambis showed towards him.

Lots of questions. And, if truth be told, there is probably an answer for each and every one of them. It’s inevitable. Why? Because Alexander’s inner life, the only place where the truth about a man can ever be found, is hidden from us. We complain about the sources for Alexander’s life being written hundreds of years after the event but the truth is even if we had Ptolemy’s, Aristobulos’, Cleitarchus’ and Callisthenes’ books, they would still be the work of other people – however loyal they may have been – and therefore liable to being imperfect portraits of his character.

Our only real opportunity to understand Alexander would have been if he had published his autobiography. But even if he had, given the human capacity for (self-)deceit and manipulation – something Alexander was adept at – we could not guarantee a fully truthful work. Maybe it would have contained less truth than Ptolemy’s or any others.

It is for this reason that I regard Anson’s statement as a beginning rather than an end. The ‘end’, that is, the truth about us is simply too hidden to ever be found, or rather, fully revealed. In this life we may only look through the glass darkly.

But, at least we can look, and how boring life would be if we saw all, and understood all straight away! Maybe our bane is after all a boon.

* This is a slightly edited version of three posts from my Facebook Alexander the Great page, published between 27th-29 Dec. 2016

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

The Battle of Bosworth

I have known for a while that my Alexander reading is skewed in favour of the primary sources. Over the past few years I have read, re-read and re-re-read them in order to get a good understanding of what they had to say about the Macedonian king.

However, the ultimately deficient nature of this approach came into sharp focus recently when I was asked if I could recommend any texts to read about Alexander. All I could think of was Peter Green, Robin Lane-Fox and Michael Wood – historians who I read prior to focussing on Arrian et al in 2013. And to be honest, I think I first read them at the start of my interest in Alexander, c.2007. Way too long ago*.

As a result of this, I decided to try and make 2017 the year in which I would make a concerted effort to read more secondary accounts of Alexander’s life. My second decision was to start that process now, or rather, last week, rather than wait until 1st January. Impatient as ever.

I have a lot of buying to do (my Amazon trolley is starting to heave) but for once I thought I would be sensible and start with a book that was already on my desk waiting patiently to be read – A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire The Reign of Alexander the Great.

Before I continue I should say that as I write these words I have read the first, biographical, half of the book. The second is made up of Thematic Essays, which I will leave for another day. I will explain the reason for this below.

bosworth_conques_and_empireBosworth’s name frequently pops up in my Alexander reading. In my mind – and I am sure in reality, too – he is up there with Tarn and Badian as one of the major scholars of the conqueror. Reading his book, therefore, has been a privilege.

I can’t say, however, that it has been particularly enjoyable. On the one hand, Conquest and Empire contains some good insights. On the other, it is written in a very sober to the point of dull fashion. It is not a book to read if you want to get excited about Alexander.

Part of the reason for this is that Bosworth is a sceptic when it comes to Alexander’s greatness. Actually, that’s fine; in fact, it is more than fine, it is important – we need scholars who recognise the truth that not everything Alexander did was wonderful, and that he did not always behave in a ‘great’ fashion; what made the book a bit of a chore to read was Bosworth’s style of writing. Not everyone can write with the infectious enthusiasm of Michael Wood but it’s a shame when they write in such a staid fashion that you feel your enthusiasm being sucked out rather than renewed.

For this reason, I am going to skip Bosworth’s Thematic Essays for now. I’ll come back to them after I have read one or two more books. That will give me time to forget how Bosworth wrote and remember the value of what he wrote. Speaking of which, my favourite chapter of the book is definitely the epilogue where he briefly discusses what happened in the years following Alexander’s death. The insights there helped to make up for what I didn’t like about the rest of the book.

***

Would I Recommend This Book?
Yes, definitely – but not to someone who had never read about Alexander before. Conquest and Empire is for someone who has already got excited about Alexander’s achievements but now needs to come back down to earth by understanding their cost.

* Of course, I have read other books in the meantime, but not enough

Credit
Conquest and Empire front cover: From Amazon

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