Some Thoughts on W W Tarn’s “Narrative”

In the four years I have been reading about Alexander the Great the name of W W Tarn has often been mentioned, usually as an apologist for Alexander; a modern-day Aristobulos. Today, I visited the library and started reading Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn’s words for the first time. The book in my hands was vol. 1 of his two part book on Alexander – Narrative.
The Narrative is a short book (148 pages) and so races through Alexander’s life. Having started on page 1 I ended the day on page 85 with the Macedonian army about to invade India.
The reason I have been inspired to put finger to keyboard is because of a couple of things that Tarn says that sounded very familiar. Here is the first. According to Tarn, Persepolis marked the beginning of ‘Alexander’s tragedy’. It was,

… the tragedy of an increasing loneliness, of a growing impatience with those who could not understand, of a failure which nevertheless bore greater fruit than most men’s successes.
(Tarn, p. 55)

Sound familiar? Compare it with this:

… His tragedy was one of increasing loneliness and impatience with those who could not understand. And if his desire to reconcile Greek and barbarian ended in failure… What failure! His failure towered over other men’s successes

Here is Tarn again, talking about the Macedonian army as it reached the Jhelum river.

The army had become a moving state, a reflection of the Empire…
(Tarn, p. 84)

And now this,

In the spring, Alexander marched an army of 150,000 across the passes of the Hindu Kush into the unknown. In his dream, it was the promised route to the end of the world. We were now a mobile empire stretching back thousands of miles to Greece.

The second quotations are from Oliver Stone’s Alexander film (2004) – both form part of the elder Ptolemy’s narration. It looks to me like Mr Stone and his co-writers had Tarn by their side when they wrote the script for the film!
I don’t agree with everything that Tarn says. For example, he finds no fault with the trial and execution of Philotas but says that Parmenion’s death was ‘plain murder’. In my opinion, the issue of Philotas’ guilt is the difficult matter and the necessity to kill Parmenion the straight forward and justifiable one.
Taking Philotas first; Tarn cites Ptolemy who, according to Arrian, says that

… the persons who had reported [the conspiracy against Alexander] came forward, with various irrefutable proofs of [Philotas’] guilt… of which the most damning was that he admitted knowledge of a plot against Alexander but had said nothing about it, in spite of the fact that he was in the habit of visiting Alexander’s tent twice a day.
(Arrian, p. 191)

Philotas may have been given a fair trial ‘according to [the Macedonian army’s] lights’ (p. 63) but being executed simply because he hadn’t reported the plot seems awfully rum to me. You could say, ‘well, it was a plot; he was at the very least hopelessly naive for not reporting it’ but I can’t accept that someone of Philotas’ experience would make such a basic error. If he didn’t report, I think it would have been because he genuinely didn’t feel it needed to be reported.
As for Parmenion, Tarn himself admits that there was no chance that the general could be made to retire. ‘There were only two known alternatives: he must rebel or die’ (p. 64). It seems to me that if the Macedonian army acted properly in condemning Philotas, then Alexander acted correctly in assassinating Parmenion. He would have known what Parmenion’s two choices were and took the only decision that someone in his position could reasonably take. Parmenion’s death may have come about due to an unjust execution but his death, while unfortunate, was wholly necessary and justified.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

The quotations from Oliver Stone’s Alexander come from the Alexander Revisited cut of the film

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on W W Tarn’s “Narrative”

  1. Great job in finding and sharing all these goodies along with your opinions. I’m recuperating from surgery. Your posts on your research and how they mesh or don’t with Stone’s Alexander are a high point in my quiet days.


  2. Penina,

    Thank you, that’s very kind. I hope you get well soon!



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