Shipping Cyrus (Amongst Others)

I visited my sister yesterday; she homeschools her children and is currently studying ancient Greek history with her eldest. More than that, they are currently studying Alexander the Great!

We had a good chat about who might have killed Philip II and why, what happened to Alexander’s empire after the wars of the successors and how Alexander himself might have fared in battle against other great generals, including Cyrus the Great.

Speaking of whom, he is the subject of an interesting new book from the Harvard University Press.

As soon as time and money allow, I will definitely be checking out this volume. Cyrus, of course, was one of Alexander’s heroes. Their lives intersected, in a manner of speaking, at several points during Alexander’s life.

For example, Alexander favoured the Ariaspians (aka Euergetae) for the help they gave Cyrus during his campaign against the Scythian people (Arrian III.27.4-5), and may have had Cyrus in mind when he tried to introduce proskynesis in Bactria (see Arr. IV.11.9); in addition, one of the reasons Alexander chose to cross the Gedrosian desert was to emulate and better Cyrus (and Semiramis) who had done so at the cost of their armies (Arr. VI.24.2-3). Finally, he made a point of visiting Cyrus’ tomb in Pasargadae, and was very distressed to find that it had been desecrated (Arr.VI.29.4-11).

When you consider that Alexander also looked up to Herakles and Achilles, he really was a one-man multiple fandom.

Back at my sister’s house, I was happy to see that her study book asks the student to consider why the sources give us certain information and what it might mean. I have to confess that when I first started reading the Alexander historians, I trusted them from start to finish, and it took me several years before I finally said to myself, ‘hold on, I can’t do that’.

This was a product, no doubt, of my own laziness of thought and the casual way I read the books back then. Never mind – what’s done is done; coming back to the present, you’ll notice that all the citations above are from Arrian. Very likely, then, he is referencing Ptolemy and/or Aristobulos. A good question to take away from this post, therefore, is why they – or Arrian’s sources in general – might have decided to highlight Alexander’s connection to Cyrus the Great.

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‘Having settled the affairs of Egypt…

… Alexander went off to the Temple of Ammon, where he wished to consult the oracle of the god… At one point, when their road could not be traced because of the sand dunes, the guide pointed out to the king that crows cawing on their right were calling their attention to the route which led to the temple. Alexander took this for an omen, and thinking that the god was pleased by his visit pushed on with speed.’
(Diodorus XVII.49)

I found this image on Pinterest this week and it immediately reminded me of the above passage from Diodorus. I initially thought the passage came from Arrian but he refers to Alexander being led by snakes (III.3.5).

Arrian specifically identifies Ptolemy as his source for this. If any animals ‘helped’ Alexander to find Siwah, it would be easy to understand why Ptolemy made them snakes. Creatures of evil in the Judeao-Christian tradition, they were symbols of royal authority in pharaonic Egypt.

Looking at the picture, I’m not at all sure that the photographer isn’t looking at a snowy landscape but if so, the snow is so smooth as to look – with a little imagination – like sand, especially with that yellow filter.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a credit for the photograph. It came, though, from a Tumblr blog called 7 Crows a Journey, which gives the source as a Tumblr blog called La Sombra.

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Some Weekend Reads

An article on the Ekathimerini website looks to the past in order to make sense of the present. If you would like to know about Alexander, fake news, and the end of ancient Athenian democracy then click here.

I have no comment to make about the current situation vis-a-vis North Macedonia, Greece, Russia et al but I will say that I did not like the description of Philip II as a ‘a Trump-level warlord’. Donald Trump is not a warlord, and you can be sure that if he was, he would not be one of the same level as Philip.

Philip II was as skilled a diplomat as he was a general. He deserves better than to be compared to Trump.

Also, I am still trying to work out how the writer can blame Alexander for an example of fake news that happened after he died and as a result of the actions of another person. Stratocles used Alexander to achieve his aim.

So Alexander is an eerie symbol in the name conflict. Hopefully, the Macedonian kings’ disdain for democracy will not prevail in the region.

As above, it’s Stratocles’ name that should appear here but it has to be said, Alexander did engage in fakery when it suited his interests – think of how he forged one of Darius’ letters to him.

***

Alexander and Hephaestion make a list of National Geographic‘s Top 10, Red-Hot (no less), Power Couples here. Our lack of knowledge regarding what we know of their relationship means that you can take Alexander’s and Hephaestion’s inclusion in this list as seriously or not according to your preference. That aside, the caption provided with the image of the two contains a couple of interesting statements:

  1. ‘Many historians believe the two were lovers but ended the amorous side of their relationship when it was time to marry and start a family.’ I have never read a historian who believed that this was the case. If it is true, though, why did no one tell Bagoas?
  2. Hephaestion and Alexander ‘were said to look so much alike, that some couldn’t tell them apart.’ Some needed to open their eyes – just like Sisygambis did when she mistook Hephaestion for Alexander because he was the taller of the two and better looking.

***

Read a very short history of the Vergina Star at Neos Kosmos here.

***

Who is to blame for the conflict between North Macedonia (formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) and Greece? Philip II and Alexander III, apparently:

The ultimate source of the problem – or at least the justification for the problem from the Greek perspective – has to be laid at the feet of Philip II of Macedon and, even more squarely, at those of his son Alexander the Great. If father and son hadn’t literally put Macedon on the map, modern day Greeks wouldn’t have been able to claim copyright over the place name. (my emphasis)

If I read this correctly, the writer is saying that Macedon did not exist before Philip and Alexander’s time, that they created it. Well, he said with a sigh, it’s an argument. At first glance, it also looks like a lunatic assertion but let’s not assume that the writer has lost his senses. What is he really saying? For me, the rest of the article does not shed any further light on the matter so it’ll have to remain an open question for now. If you would like to read the full article (at the History News Network website) you can do so here.

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Greek Reporter‘s list of the Top 10 archaeological finds in Greece over the last decade puts the Amphipolis tomb at Number One. You can read the complete list here. One quibble: Alexander died in Babylon, not Baghdad; the two are separate places.

***

Hello to anyone visiting this blog from my Alexander Facebook page. If you have any comments regarding the North Macedonia links, please leave them here, not on Fb. Because the Greece-North Macedonia dispute can inflame tempers and lead to unpleasant ‘discussions’, I delete any comments relating to it there.

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Beauty Beyond Expression

Alexander: When will you finish Campaspe?
Apelles: Never finish: for always in absolute beauty there is somewhat above art.
Lyly’s Campaspe

One of the great (no pun intended) things about Alexander is that he is so much part of our cultural memory that one never knows where he might crop up next.

Case in point: I love fairy tales and over the last few weeks have been reading Phantastes by George MacDonald. If you like fantasy novels, especially those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, MacDonald this book is very well worth checking out. MacDonald was a huge influence on Tolkien and Lewis, and I am sure many others.

A couple of days ago, I came to Chapter 15. Each one begins with a quotation and the one you read above appeared here.

According to the legend – for Campaspe does not appear in any of the five major sources of Alexander’s life – Alexander hired Apelles to paint his mistress Campaspe. He did so, but she was so beautiful, Apelles fell in love with her. Seeing this, and realising that Apelles loved Campaspe more than he did, Alexander gave her to him.

For more information about Campaspe and her story, see Wikipedia here or Pothos here.

Apelles paints Campaspe (Giambattista Battista Tiepolo)

Credit Where It’s Due
Apelles painting Campaspe: J. Paul Getty Museum

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What Happened to Hephaestion’s Remains?

In my last post (here), I cited the fact that F. S. Naiden says that Hephaestion’s funeral took place in Ecbatana as an example of the avoidable errors that he makes. Naiden’s exact words are,

For the funeral, [Alexander] ordered an altar brought up from Babylon at a cost of 10,000 talents.

(F. S. Naiden Soldier, Priest, and God p.235)

To be fair to Naiden, he does give a source for this view. The relevant end note reads ‘The burial of Hephaestion: App. 1a #58’

I assume that he is referring to Appian; unfortunately, I can’t find the latter anywhere in the bibliography so am not completely sure. If you happen to know who ‘App’ is, and which work of theirs is being referred to, I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below, and I will be grateful.

In terms of the sources, Arrian and Diodorus seem very clear – Hephaestion’s body was taken to Babylon where a funeral pyre was built for him (Arr. VII.14.5; 14.8; Dio. XVII.110; 114). Plutarch is less clear. He states only that Alexander,

… planned to spend thousands upon thousands of talents on [Hephaestion’s] tomb and on an elaborate funeral.

(Plutarch Life of Alexander 72)


He doesn’t say where the funeral and tomb were supposed to be, however. Depending on how you read Justin, he can be taken to imply that Hephaestion was buried in Ecbatana or somewhere else. He writes,

Alexander spent a long time mourning [Hephaestion. He] built him a tomb at a cost of 12,000 talents…

(Justin XII.12.12-13)

without saying where this happened.

Unfortunately, the relevant section of Curtius has been lost so we don’t know what he said about Hephaestion’s death.

When I wrote my last post, I didn’t refer to the sources. I was convinced within myself that they all took Hephaestion’s body back to Babylon and so there was no need to double-check. Well, as you can see, I should have double-checked. If I take nothing else away from my last post, it is that there is always a need to double-check!

One last point. The Wikipedia entry for Hephaestion states that,

Following Hephaestion’s death his body was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon.

(Wikipedia)

It cites Worthington in support of its view, quoting him as follows,

Then Hephaestion was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon. There, an enormous funerary monument was to be built of brick and decorated with five friezes. It would stand over 200 feet high and cost 10,000 talents. Alexander himself would supervise its building when he got back to Babylon. In the aftermath of the king’s death, it was abandoned.

(Ian Worthington Alexander the Great: Man and God p.255)


A variation on a theme.

To recap: Naiden has an altar being brought from Babylon (and Hephaestion being ’embalmed, not cremated’ (p.235); Justin, that Alexander simply built a tomb for Hephaestion somewhere not recorded; Plutarch, that Alexander planned to spend an awful lot of money on Hephaestion’s funeral and tomb somewhere not recorded; Worthington, that Hephaestion was cremated in Ecbatana and his ashes taken to Babylon for burial.

It’s all a bit here, there, and everywhere! A question: are Naiden and Worthington using two different sources? They disagree on whether Hephaestion was embalmed or cremated but agree that his body was taken to Babylon for burial. I really need to find out who ‘App’ is. Until I can find out more, I think I will lean on Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account of what happened but I won’t say the Naiden made an avoidable error in this regard.

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Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great

by F. S. Naiden (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Soldier, Priest, and God is a twelve chapter biography of Alexander, which, as per the title, tells his story with special reference to Alexander’s expedition to the east, religious observance, and divinity.

Is the book worth your time?

Three Pros:

  1. The focus on Alexander’s religious observance (not religion; Naiden doesn’t go into a discussion of who the Olympian gods were, etc). I can’t think of any other biography that gives this absolutely essential part of Alexander’s identity any significant amount of attention. If you know of any that do, feel very free to let me know.
  2. Naiden includes tables recording all the ‘acts of sacrifice and related rituals in the Alexander historians and in Strabo’ (p.273) and ‘omens and oracles’ (p.280) in the former. If you are half-interested in the religious side of Alexander, Soldier, Priest, and God is probably worth buying just to have these tables to hand.
  3. Naiden’s text is accessible. He does not have the light touch of a popular historian (though see below) but tells Alexander’s story clearly enough. Further to this, the text is supplemented by several nice-to-look-at maps and illustrations.

Three Cons:

  1. Yes, Naiden’s text is accessible but it is also a little dull. I was never bored while reading Soldier, Priest, and God but neither was I excited by it. In cricketing terms, Naiden plays with a very straight bat. As a result, while I will certainly keep this book for reference purposes I doubt very much that I will ever think about reading it from start to finish again.
  2. The text contains the odd easily avoidable error. For example, Naiden states (on p.76) that Sisygambis mistook Leonnatus for Alexander rather than Hephaestion. On Hephaestion, his funeral took place in Babylon, not, as Naiden says (p.235), in Ecbatana*.
  3. Naiden anglicises Alexander’s name but does not always do the same for the Persians. As a result, you may – like me – find yourself pausing to try and remember or work out who Mazdai, Huxshathra, and Spitamanah are (in case you would like to know, they are Mazaeus, Oxyathres, and Spitamenes).

So, Soldier, Priest, and God may be a little dull in the telling but Naiden does make you think – whether with a raised eye brow or not. For example, he talks about Alexander’s Companions as a ‘cult’ (p.1), mentions that a ‘2008 republication of an inscription proves that Alexander was crowned pharaoh’ (p.5)(my emphasis), accuses Alexander of ‘immaturity’ (p.25) in ordering the assassination of Amyntas IV, and states that the box he put his annotated copy of The Iliad in was previously used to store ‘cream scented with palm wine’ (p.143). What is good, though, is that he provides a very full set of end notes, so if you see a statement that looks debatable or plain wrong, there is a good chance he has mentioned his source(s).

In my first post of this year, I reviewed a review of Soldier, Priest, and God. I found the review on the Book Marks website here. If you click on the link you’ll also see extracts from James Romm’s review at the (paywalled) Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, I would agree with Romm about Naiden’s lack of narrative skill – I think I would call it his lack of a story teller’s touch – but I have to say I didn’t get the impression that Naiden was ‘strangely snarky’ in describing ancient religious beliefs. I’m sorry I don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal to read more about what he says on that point.

With that said, like Romm I did come away from the book ‘as puzzled as ever about the young king who conquered the world.’ though I am not sure I can wholly blame Naiden for that. Yes, any book about Alexander should make us feel afterwards that we have learnt something about him but on the other hand, he will always be ‘other’ to us. The lack of his own words, evidence of his inner thoughts and emotions, and differences in the way we live and perceive things compared to his time have seen to that.

In conclusion: Soldier, Priest, and God has its flaws but there is enough in it to make it a book worth considering if you would like to know about about the religious Alexander the Great.

*I’m going to come back to this point in my next blog post.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Soldier, Priest, and God: me! I took that photo

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Some Weekend Reads

IFL Science reports on the find of 50 mummies on the west bank of the Nile. You can read the article here. They may come from the Ptolemaic era. Reading the article, I was taken by the fact that they were found thirty feet below ground. Does this mean Ptolemy I’s Alexandria is now that far below ground as well?

“In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world.” We don’t actually know for sure that he did but this article on the Bookriot website is a nice little run down of facts about the Great Library of Alexandria, which either he or Ptolemy I Soter – not Demetrius of Phaleron as the article states – founded.

A neat little biography of Alexander can be found here at the National Geographic website. It contains a couple of interesting statements that I wouldn’t mind exploring in the future – that Alexander was not ‘much of a diplomat’ and that the Macedonian army became ‘mutinous’ in India.

The Ten Best Generals of All Time – According to Ethan Arsht. You can read the short version at Business Insider‘s website here, or Mr Arsht’s article here. Warning: it involves maths! This warning is really for me as I am useless at numbers but I will try to read Mr. Arsht’s article even though – shock, horror – he does not put Alexander at No. 1.

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire by Paul J. Kosmin. This is a short review at the StrategyPage website of a book that will be of interest to anyone who is serious about the Seleucids.

Could you be the next Seleucus I Nikator? Antigonus Monophthalmus? Scipio Africanus? Gamasutra and the makers of the ‘grand strategy’ game Imperator: Rome look forward to its release in late April here.

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Some Weekend Reads

Happy February! If you would like to read about what Alexander got up to around this time of year, read this blog post.

CoinWeek has started a series based on coins of the Seleucid dynasty (c.305/304-64 BC). It’s well worth a read if you are interested in Hellenistic coinage or would like an overview of the Seleucid kings. The link will take you to part one in the series.

Who can be surprised at this? Inquisitor reports that a Graeco-Roman winery has been discovered on the banks of the Nile. It was probably founded by Ptolemy I for his Macedonian friends as they sailed up and down the river!

If you are looking for a short biography of Alexander, then Greek Reporter has your back. If you are already familiar with Alexander’s life, the article is still worth reading to see if the writer’s understanding of Alexander matches your own. For instance, do you think this statement correct: ‘What are now the modern-day countries of Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the entirety of the modern-day Arab world, became Greek in less than ten years’ time.’ (emphasis mine)?

This story has appeared all over the internet over the last few days: ‘Otago academic offers new explanation for Alexander the Great’s death‘. This headline comes from Voxy. It’s a creepy, painful and fascinating story. I’m very grateful to the person on my Alexander Facebook page who said that they had spoken to Dr. Hall who told them that she thought Alexander would have lost his higher functions by the time he was mummified; he wouldn’t have felt anything.

Are you in Liverpool (U.K.) at 6pm on 21st February this year? If you are, you could attend this adventurously titled lecture The Further Adventures of Alexander the Great – Boyfriend, Gay Warrior, Porn King. More details can be found on Liverpool University’s website here.

Your occasional reminder that (a) Afghanistan didn’t exist in Alexander the Great’s day and (b) he defeated its predecessor people – the Bactrians and Sogdians – during the course of his eastward march. His victory was not a lasting one but it was still a victory. Why am I mentioning this? Read this article at We Are The Mighty.

Finally, could the dispute between Greece and the Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) regarding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the latter finally be over? The BBC reports here that the Greek Parliament has approved FYROM’s name change to North Macedonia. I have to admit that I don’t understand how ‘North Macedonia’ can be a more satisfactory name than the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ so am very glad that this blog is focused on Alexander rather than modern Balkan politics.

BTW If you have come to this post from my Alexander Facebook page and would like to comment on the Greece/FYROM story, please do so on the blog; if you do so on the Fb page I will have to delete it. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from you, but the issue is so controversial that any mention of it will quickly lead to insults and barbs.

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

by Richard A. Billows (Overlook Duckworth, 2018)

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

Three Pros:

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

Three Cons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit Where It’s Due
Image: Amazon.com

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Reviewing the Reviewer

No end to Alexander’s talents

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

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

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

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

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

Welton states,

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

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

According to Welton, ‘Naiden notes’ that,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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