Today, on the 2,375th anniversary of Alexander’s birth, I am delighted to welcome Jeanne Reames to The Second Achilles for the first of a two part ‘interview’ to discuss her part one of her new novel Dancing With The Lion: Becoming, in which she tells the story of how Alexander became the Great.
To celebrate Dancing With The Lion: Becoming hitting the bookshelves, I caught up with Jeanne in the most twenty-first way possible, via e-mail, to discuss the novel and its characters.
What was your inspiration for writing Dancing with the Lion?
When I was in grad school for the first time at Emory, this guy, “Alexander the Great,” kept popping up in my Early Church history classes, yet I knew nothing about him. Deciding I might learn something, I trekked off to the library and grabbed two biographies off the shelf, somewhat at random. They happened to be Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (the original 1974 Thames-on-Hudson edition with images), and N.G.L. Hammond’s 1980 Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (his more measured bio). I couldn’t have picked more divergent visions of Alexander if I’d tried.
So I became fascinated by this young man who literally changed the face of his world, then died before 33, leaving behind such varying analyses from heroically positive to viciously negative. The novelist in me took note, as we love a complicated character. I kept reading, and fell in love with Macedonia itself, as well.
What was it like writing about Alexander himself? Did he come with a lot of baggage – given to you by other authors and historians – or does he travel lightly, so’s to speak?
Oh, he comes with a freight-load of baggage, which is why I chose to use his real (Greek) name—Alexandros—to cut off some of it. In addition, I wanted to write him from a Macedonian perspective, as best I could. He’s too often viewed through a Greek (and later Roman) lens.
Much of that owes to our surviving sources, none of which were written during his own lifetime; Diodorus (arguably the earliest we still have) dates to the first century BCE. That would be like trying to write on John F. Kennedy with nothing more recent than bios 200 years in the future. Lord knows what they’d actually understand about the 1960s.
Fortunately, modern archaeology is producing amazing new insights, especially about early Iron-age, Archaic, and Classical Macedonia, rewriting our understanding of the Argead Macedonian kingdom. Never mind the royal cemetery at Aigai, what’s coming out of Aiani (ancient Elimeia), Archontiko (Pella), and Methone is stunning. But unfortunately, most of these reports are in modern Greek. I’ve tried to include at least references to our new discoveries in the novel, although the bulk of the text was written well before 2000. Again, all this contributes to my goal to show a non-Athenocentric, Macedonian Alexander.
Did Alexander surprise you by his actions in the course of writing this book or did you feel you always had him under control?
If your characters are real, they always have a life of their own. Non-writers can be baffled when novelists talk about characters as if they were real people with whom the author has regular conversations. But if the author can’t do that, her characters aren’t 3D.
That said, Alexander was a bit harder to write my way into than Hephaistion. Hephaistion winked into existence when I (re-)read Peter Green’s bio and hit the line that describes him as, “Tall, handsome, spoilt, spiteful, overbearing, and fundamentally stupid” (p. 465, U. Cal ed., 1991 reprint). And in my head, this little Hephaistion sat up and said, “No, I wasn’t like that at all.” That gave me both a character and a dissertation, so I thank Peter for it.*
I’m sure some of my reaction was a gelling of what I’d read, leading me to a different opinion about Hephaistion. Yet from that moment, Hephaistion’s book character has been firmly formed and hasn’t changed much. Also, I’d like to note that I do see a distinction between my character and the historical person. If the former is certainly based on my research into the latter, I’m not confused about where the lines are.
The character who morphed the most during the writing was Myrtalē-Olympias. When I began, I had a fairly traditional, negative view. Then I read Beth Carney’s work, which fundamentally altered how I understood her and her motives, creating (I hope) a more nuanced character.
The historical Hephaestion did not live to write his memoirs and appears only episodically in the works of the Alexander historians. This makes him a rather elusive personality. Was that a blessing or curse for you in writing about him?
I consider it a blessing, as it left me a lot of freedom. Yet I’ve spent so much time with this fellow, I do feel as if I have some sense of what the historical person must have been like.
With Hephaistion, we must avoid too simplistic a reading. It can be easy to slam him into certain pre-made categories. The first is a yes-man without genuine ambition or much of a mind of his own, just beauty and a steadfast loyalty to Alexander. A second is more sinister: an ambitious man of limited ability, using Alexander’s affection for him to climb the socio-political ladder at the Macedonian court, and targeting his enemies along the way. He may (or may not) have felt genuine affection for Alexander.
To me, the evidence from the ancient sources doesn’t support either of those. First, he actually was capable (both Sabine Müller and I have written academic material about this). Second, all his clashes are late in his career, once he’d risen to very high rank, and in at least the case of Krateros, he may have been the target rather than the targeted. Earlier, he had no obvious enemies (aside from, perhaps, Olympias). In the novel, in fact, I’ve made him a bit more testy than I think he actually was. If Curtius (who was no fan of Alexander) paints a mostly positive picture of Hephaistion, perhaps we should pay attention.
He appears to have been deeply—and genuinely—attached to Alexander, and Curtius observed that he was diplomatic enough to avoid pushing his place. Yet he may also not have cared for personal advancement to the same degree as his fellows. That said, we must be careful not to make him passive; the evidence suggests that if insulted, he’d strike back. Remember, a virtuous Greek didn’t turn the other cheek; one was expected to help friends and hurt enemies, not ignore them, an important difference between now and then. In fact, showing clemency could be a backhanded insult, one Julius Caesar later used to great political effect. One could show clemency only to one’s social inferiors, after all.
I’ve come to think of Hephaistion as a “gamma male”; in pop culture, there’s little agreement as to what these men are like, but originally the term was coined to define those who disengage from the whole alpha-beta dynamic. They neither attempt to lead (although may be capable of doing so), nor do they willingly follow, unless they agree on the direction. While it might seem that alpha and gamma males should naturally clash, gamma males may also be the only true friend a strong alpha can have (and trust).
I find three aspects of Hephaistion’s personality mostly consistent according to our sources: he was honest with Alexander but diplomatic about his status in public, he seems to have agreed with Alexander’s policies in general and supported them, and last—and most importantly—Alexander wasn’t the least threatened by him. Add to that a friendship that quite probably spanned two decades and it suggests he was more complex than some would allow.
In writing Hephaestion did you ever find yourself in dialogue with previous interpretations of him? For example, in authors such as Mary Renault and film makers like Oliver Stone?
Very little, actually. First, this novel is now 30 years from its inception, and Hephaistion was among the earliest solid characters I had. I wrote the first line in December of 1988. I hadn’t even read Renault yet, and all of that was long before Stone came on the scene. Not to mention Stone’s Hephaistion is really Renault’s Hephaistion.
So while some of my characters owe to the influence of others (say, Beth Carney’s impact on my view of Olympias), Hephaistion is solely mine, unless you count Curtius and the other original sources.
*(Important note: scholars can like each other very much while still disagreeing on evaluations of the evidence, and Peter gave me one of the best edit jobs I’ve ever had for “The Mourning of Alexander the Great” [Ed’s Note: Which you can read here] which I also think is probably the best article I’ve published to date. So be aware that our scholarly disagreements in no way reflect our personal opinions about our colleagues. Also, we may disagree vehemently with one point, but agree substantially on others.)
Check back tomorrow for Part Two of the interview in which, among other things, we discuss Alexander’s mother, Olympias and his sister, Cleopatra and I get some advice on how to write (historical) fiction.
For more information about Dancing With The Lion, visit Jeanne Reames’s website here.
All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission