I have now finished W W Tarn’s Narrative. Here are three things that made an impression upon me between pages 86 and 148. If you would like to read what I thought of the first half of the book and can’t see the relevant post below this one, just click here.
Alexander and Herodotus
Herodotus was no longer much read… there is no sign that Alexander knew him at all, not even his account of Scylax’s voyage.
(Tarn, p. 86)
I almost drew breath when I read this even though I have no idea whether it is accurate or not. My understanding is that Alexander was a well read man. Is this not true? Of course, we may well have been and still not known about Herodotus’ Histories if the latter had fallen into obscurity. Tarn’s book was published just after World War II ended and at least one part of it was written in the 20s so scholarship may have discovered that Herodotus was not a stranger to Alexander after all. I certainly hope so. The alternative does not seem at all fitting.
In the last post, I noted a couple of points where Oliver Stone used Tarn’s text in his film about Alexander. In the film, Stone has Bucephalus die during the Battle of the Hydaspes River. I had always thought this to be inaccurate and that Bucephalus died at some point earlier or later. Tarn surprised me, therefore, when I read,
Alexander after his victory [in the Battle of the Hydaspes] founded two cities, Alexandria Nicaea where his camp had stood, and Alexandria Bucephala on the battlefield, nicknamed from his horse which died there…
(Tarn, pp 96-7)
Ah. Maybe my memory was at fault, then. I jumped to Arrian to see what he said. Sure enough…
Porus’ son… wounded Alexander with his own hand and struck the blow which killed his beloved horse Bucephalus.
(Arrian, p. 274)
To be sure, Arrian is talking about the engagement that took place just before the battle started but it was a confrontation that was part of the whole so on that basis we can give Stone and Tarn a qualified pass. Except, Plutarch –
After [the battle at the Hydaspes River] Bucephalus… died, not immediately but some while later. Most historians report that he died of wounds received in the battle, for which he was being treated but according to Onesicritus it was from old age, for by this time he was thirty years old.
(Plutarch, para 61)
I don’t know much about Onesicritus but if his Wikipedia entry is accurate then he is not necessarily a writer to be trusted.
The last thing that made a big impression definitely did make me draw a breath, which is funny because its one of those things I kind of knew already. In short, it highlighted how interested Alexander was in exploring and learning about the world. My principle image of him is, of course, as the second Achilles – being all about the war and glory. Tarn makes it clear though, that Alexander was simply not about blood ‘n guts. Here is the relevant passage:
[Alexander] attacked the secret of the ocean. He sent Heracleides to explore the Hyrcanian sea, and ascertain whether Aristotle had been right in calling this great expanse of salt water a lake, or whether the old theory that it was a gulf of Ocean might not be true after all…
He himself turned his attention to the Persian Gulf. He took steps to ensure better communication between Babylonia and the sea by removing the Persian obstacles to free navigation of the Tigris and founding an Alexandria on the Gulf at the mouth of that river…
He also planned to colonise the eastern coast of the Gulf, along which Nearchus had sailed, and sent 500 talents to Sidon to be coined for the hire or purchase of sailors and colonists. This would help to establish the already explored sea-route between India and Babylon; but he meant to complete the sea-route from India to Egypt by exploring the section between Babylon and Egypt and circumnavigating Arabia, possibly as a preliminary to still more extensive maritime exploration in the future. He therefore planned an expedition along the Arabian coast…
(Tarn, p. 118)
I can’t tell you what about this passage opened my eyes because I don’t know, but reading it felt like a splash of cold water to the face. As I said above, I already knew that Alexander was a keen explorer and student but what this passage has succeeded in doing is bringing that truth home to me in a strong and direct way. I’m not going to rename this blog The Second Aristotle but sure I won’t forget it in a hurry.
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Plutarch The Age of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 2011)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)
Thank you so much for these posts on Tarn, they are quite an eye-opener! I’ve always avoided reading his ‘Narrative’ yet now I’m curious to!
I thoroughly recommend W W to you. I mentioned in the previous post that I thought of Tarn as an apologist for Alexander but he isn’t afraid to say Alexander got X wrong. His thoughts may in places be outdated but his voice is well worth hearing.