The Dark Before the (False?) Dawn

I have just started reading John D. Grainger’s Alexander the Great Failure. Before I even open the book I have to say a word about the title. While it is certainly very dramatic, and will no doubt achieve its aim of getting people interested in what Grainger has to say, it also comes across as rather attention-seeking. That’s a shame as it makes one immediately wary of Grainger rather than open to whatever argument he puts forward.
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I’m going to read and blog the book one chapter at a time. This won’t be an in-depth response to Grainger, though, just some thoughts, questions and comments. Let me know if I appear wary rather than open! Although I am as much ‘for’ Alexander as Grainger appears to be against, I will try and read his book with an open mind.
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Alexander the Great Failure opens with a brief introduction. There, Grainger states that the ‘fundamental facts’ (Grainger, p.xvii) of Alexander’s life are (a) that he was Philip II’s son and (b) a Macedonian. To understand Alexander’s failure, therefore, these two facts ‘need to be considered in some detail’ (Ibid). I already have a problem here as I would add that Alexander’s self-identification with Achilles is also a fundamental fact, as well as his determination to live the life of a homeric hero.
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That aside, looking at Alexander with reference to his father and country makes perfect sense. No one is born in a vacuum. We are all influenced by our families and country. This would also imply, however, that Alexander’s failure was not – entirely – his own but shared with those who made him the man he was. I wonder if Grainger will make this point.
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Grainger begins Chapter 1 in 370 B.C. By-the-bye, the book ends in 272 B.C. – nearly ten years after the death of the last two diadochi, Lysimachus and Seleucus. This makes sense from the point of view that Alexander’s actions led directly to the diadoch wars. Although, did they not have free will? They did not need to fight.
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To go back to the introduction, Grainger confirms that his intention is to show how Alexander’s empire came into being, and how it failed. He accuses Alexander of being no less than ‘one of the world’s great failures’ (Grainger, p. xviii) and of bringing ‘that failure on himself’ (Ibid). But again, Alexander can hardly be held responsible for what the diadochi did. I wonder if Grainger will gloss over their contribution to the ‘misery and death’ that ensued after 323 B.C.?
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As well as blaming Alexander for the deaths of ‘countless thousands of people’ (Ibid), Grainger also blames him for his untimely death. In Grainger’s eyes, Alexander’s death was caused by his ‘arrogance’ (Ibid). At this point I can only assume that he means in the way Alexander exposed himself to injury during his campaigns or perhaps his alleged over-drinking? But did he? And one man’s recklessness could be another’s bravery.
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Grainger also states that Alexander failed because ‘he both refused to provide [an heir] and killed off any man who could be seen as one’ (Ibid). As for the former argument – Alexander IV, anyone? In regards the latter, that turned out not to be true, either.
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That’s the Introduction; let’s jump into Chapter 1. I am definitely grateful to Grainger for taking the time to explain the position of Macedon in the years leading up to Philip II’s accession. He really brings home what a weak country it was.
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To fully demonstrate this, he goes back to the first Macedonian king about whom we have any degree of knowledge – Alexander I (ruled 497 – 454 B.C.) who was forced to kowtow to Darius I during the Persian Wars. Afterwards, he did the same with the Greeks. Later on, Archelaos (413 – 399 B.C.) bowed to the power of the Spartans. His successor, Amyntas III (391 – 370 B.C.), was in turn was beaten about by the Chalcidian League,
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So far so humiliating. Macedon’s weakness in the face of her enemies abroad had several causes. For example, baronial rivalry; a fundamentally unstable royal succession policy (see below); the lack of bureaucratic infrastructure, and lack of national identity. Just like the Greeks thought of themselves as Athenians and Spartans rather than Greeks, it seems many Macedonian subjects – I’m really thinking here of those in Upper Macedon – held themselves to be members of their local community (tribe) rather than as Macedonians. Consequently, their natural inclination was to rebellion rather than conciliation.
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By the time Philip II ascended to the throne in 359 B.C. none of this had changed. The odds on him faring any better than his predecessors, therefore, were very long indeed. Chapter 2 will pick up his story.
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Before finishing, I’d like to go back to the issue of the royal succession, which, as Grainger notes was often a very bloody affair. One reason for this is because Macedon did not practice succession according to the principle of primogeniture. The eldest son (as in Alexander III’s case) might inherit the throne, but if he did he did not do so because of who he was.
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In principle, the king chose his successor and an Assembly ratified that choice. I guess that is why Alexander’s generals gathered round his bed in June 323 B.C. to ask him who would succeed him even though Roxane was pregnant – Did he say Craterus?. But this would imply that Grainger is making too much of Alexander’s ‘refusal’ to provide an heir, as what need would there be for him to do so when he could just designate one?
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I don’t know which side I am on. If Alexander didn’t really need to have an heir, there would have been no need for Parmenion and Antipater to have wasted time urging him to marry and father a son before leaving Macedon.
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Having said that, as is clear from Robin Lane Fox’s biography of the king that Alexander’s refusal even to marry let alone have a child may have been born of political insight: had Alexander married either Parmenion’s or Antipater’s daughters you can bet their fathers would have taken full advantage of their new closeness to the Macedonian throne. And in ancient Macedon, ‘[a]ssassination, murder and civil war’ (Grainger, p. 5) were not only part of the succession process.

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One thought on “The Dark Before the (False?) Dawn

  1. I agree with you that the prominence of the heroics is a gap in the analysis. As for the title, I am reminded of the late John Keegan who believed historians “are committed to controversy as a way of life.” The big question is whether the book adds any new, interesting analysis aside from calling Alexander a “failure” over and over, which isn’t so new.

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