An engaging historical mystery

The Lost Book of Alexander the GreatAlexander died in June 323 B.C. At the time of his death, his wife Roxane was pregnant. Hoping that the child would be a boy, Alexander’s generals divided the late king’s empire between themselves to run until Alexander’s son (please Zeus) came of age.

As it turned out, Roxane did indeed give birth to a boy. Despite this, the generals divided once more between those who supported the newly named Alexander IV, and those who wanted to rule the territory as independent states. Perdiccas, Alexander’s deputy at the time of his death, led the loyalist faction. Ptolemy, governor of Egypt, was a splitter.

In 320 B.C., Perdiccas went to war against Ptolemy. He lost and was assassinated by his own men.

After arriving in Egypt, Ptolemy began writing his memoirs. Some scholars believe he wrote them soon after his arrival because he takes a couple of jabs at Perdiccas – what would have been the point of doing so years after his enemy had died? Others, however, believe that the memoirs belong to a much later date, one no earlier than 310/09, as Ptolemy corrects another historian who did not write his account until then.

I wonder if Ptolemy wrote and rewrote his book over the course of years thus giving it the appearance of belonging to distinct periods. Either way, his memoirs were eventually lost. Happily, this did not before before Arrian, in the second century A.D., used them as one of the major sources of his account of Alexander’s expedition.

Which brings us to The Lost Book of Alexander the Great by Andrew Young. It is a very brave attempt to find Ptolemy’s lost memoir in Arrian’s Anabasis. I say brave but maybe it is just foolhardy, for how does one find a lost text inside another?

Young is completely upfront about this problem. He isn’t scared to say maybe and perhaps. The book, therefore, is written honestly. But what use are too many of them to readers? For my part, I enjoyed The Lost Book because I enjoy reading about Alexander. I’d read his shopping list if it was available. Ptolemy is my favourite of his generals so that was a bonus.

I have to admit, though, I didn’t come away from The Lost Book thinking that it added much to my understanding of Alexander or Ptolemy. There are certainly no revelatory insights in it. The book joins dots where it can but is forced to imagine a fair number of others.

Despite this, I am not inclined to say that The Lost Book is a waste of time. In my opinion, it does have a value, and that is in the simple fact that it is bold enough to confront the question of whether it is possible to find Ptolemy in Arrian.

Maybe it would have been better for the question to be answered in an essay or monograph but that’s by-the-bye, the fact is that it is a reasonable question to ask and Andrew Young has had the guts to stick his neck above the parapet and give an answer. The question is a difficult one, actually, an impossible one, but it still deserves answering. I applaud Young for daring to do so and recommend the book to you.

7/10

Picture Credit
Front Cover of The Lost Book: Tower Books

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: | Leave a comment

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