The Life of Alexander of Macedon by Pseudo-Callisthenes

I have just finished reading The Life of Alexander of Macedon by Pseudo-Callisthenes (tr. Elizabeth Hazelton Haight) and am glad to have done so.

I started off enjoying the book but after a while, its faults started to cloud over its merits until they finally broke and I was soaked by a rainstorm of rubbish.

My chief objection to Alexander is the way in which the anonymous author uses historical events to create his story. He processes the original event as a food company does its ingredients until what comes out at the other end bears too little resemblance to the original occurrence. Pausanias kills Philip to win Olympias. The fall of Tyre becomes dependent on a pun involving cheese. Porus becomes Alexander’s enemy before being killed (slyly, as well) in single combat.

As a result of this, Alexander comes across as no better than too many ‘historical’ Hollywood films or a peculiarly bad piece of fan fiction.

There is no order to the story. After a good beginning, in which the Egyptian king Nectanebos II seduces Olympias only to be killed by Alexander once he has grown up, the narrative becomes very episodic. That by itself is nothing bad, but when you see Alexander’s expedition going west (into Italy), before turning south (into Libya), then north (through Egypt) before turning for no good reason west again (back to Greece) you have to wonder whether the author knows about logic or simply doesn’t care. Logic is cast away in favour of the current scene.

Eventually, Alexander sets off to fight Darius. The two kings exchange a series of quarrelsome letters. There are so many scattered throughout the book that it becomes a semi-epistolary novel. And just as frustrating as the worst example of a epistolary novel that I ever read – Pamela.

Alexander fights Darius and, of course, eventually defeats him. He then heads east. I am then defeated by trying to keep up with the book’s time jumps. Years pass and you just don’t know it until the narrator tells you. Less telling and more showing, please (yes, I know I am 1700 years too late but if he doesn’t care about time, why should I)!

Just like the Alexander historians, Pseudo-Callisthenes focuses on the king. So narrow is his focus, though, that you would be forgiven for forgetting the names of the Macedonian generals. Hephaestion, for example, is only mentioned twice. Once near the start of the book when he accompanies Alexander to Pisa, of all places, to take part in some Games, and then in India where he is promptly eaten by a sea-monster!

To add insult to fatal injury, Pseudo-Callisthenes does not even allow him to be Alexander’s closest friend: that honour goes to a fictional (so far as I can tell) character named Pheidon, who also falls victim to the sea monster.

Ptolemy comes off better. He even gets some spoken lines and a starring role in an albeit absurd drama involving himself, Alexander and a queen named Candace.

At times the narrative seems to become very confused. As Alexander lies on his death-bed he appoints Ptolemy satrap of Egypt… and then Perdiccas as king of the same country. Is he dismembering his empire? Not quite because in between times he has appointed his brother, Arrhidaeos, as king of Macedon – and therefore (I presume) his direct heir; but only until Roxane’s child is born. If it is female, though, the Macedonians are given the authority to chose their king ‘in case they do not wish Arrhidaios’. How democratic!

This outburst of democracy does not last long; a few minutes later, Ptolemy is made to ask Alexander to whom he bequeaths his kingdom. In response, Alexander gives a version of his famous reply, ‘to the strongest’. Perhaps the author could not decide what kind of Alexander he wanted – democrat or king – so said to himself ‘why not have both?’.

The Life of Alexander is littered with nonsense. Whether it is Alexander’s conveniently timed return home from Pisa at the moment of Philip II’s death, or the king’s disguising himself to enter Darius’ presence (and being recognised almost as quickly as he does so), or the notion that Alexander’s army fought Porus’ for twenty-five days non-stop, open any given page of this novel (as I just did to get these three examples) and you will likely find something to shake your head at.

The only thing that saves this book from being thrown out of the window, apart from the fact that it belongs to the library and not me, is that I know nothing about Ancient Greek Romance tradition. I have approached the Life from a completely modern perspective. Thus, while I have no desire to ever read it again, I would certainly be interested to know why scholars think it was written in the seemingly lamentable way that it was. Perhaps I am missing its X Factor that will enable me to appreciate it as a master of its genre. At the moment, though, it just feels like a disaster.

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