Author Archives: M J Mann

What Happened to Hephaestion’s Remains?

In my last post (here), I cited the fact that F. S. Naiden says that Hephaestion’s funeral took place in Ecbatana as an example of the avoidable errors that he makes. Naiden’s exact words are,

For the funeral, [Alexander] ordered an altar brought up from Babylon at a cost of 10,000 talents.

(F. S. Naiden Soldier, Priest, and God p.235)

To be fair to Naiden, he does give a source for this view. The relevant end note reads ‘The burial of Hephaestion: App. 1a #58’

I assume that he is referring to Appian; unfortunately, I can’t find the latter anywhere in the bibliography so am not completely sure. If you happen to know who ‘App’ is, and which work of theirs is being referred to, I’d love to hear from you – leave a comment below, and I will be grateful.

In terms of the sources, Arrian and Diodorus seem very clear – Hephaestion’s body was taken to Babylon where a funeral pyre was built for him (Arr. VII.14.5; 14.8; Dio. XVII.110; 114). Plutarch is less clear. He states only that Alexander,

… planned to spend thousands upon thousands of talents on [Hephaestion’s] tomb and on an elaborate funeral.

(Plutarch Life of Alexander 72)


He doesn’t say where the funeral and tomb were supposed to be, however. Depending on how you read Justin, he can be taken to imply that Hephaestion was buried in Ecbatana or somewhere else. He writes,

Alexander spent a long time mourning [Hephaestion. He] built him a tomb at a cost of 12,000 talents…

(Justin XII.12.12-13)

without saying where this happened.

Unfortunately, the relevant section of Curtius has been lost so we don’t know what he said about Hephaestion’s death.

When I wrote my last post, I didn’t refer to the sources. I was convinced within myself that they all took Hephaestion’s body back to Babylon and so there was no need to double-check. Well, as you can see, I should have double-checked. If I take nothing else away from my last post, it is that there is always a need to double-check!

One last point. The Wikipedia entry for Hephaestion states that,

Following Hephaestion’s death his body was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon.

(Wikipedia)

It cites Worthington in support of its view, quoting him as follows,

Then Hephaestion was cremated and the ashes were taken to Babylon. There, an enormous funerary monument was to be built of brick and decorated with five friezes. It would stand over 200 feet high and cost 10,000 talents. Alexander himself would supervise its building when he got back to Babylon. In the aftermath of the king’s death, it was abandoned.

(Ian Worthington Alexander the Great: Man and God p.255)


A variation on a theme.

To recap: Naiden has an altar being brought from Babylon (and Hephaestion being ’embalmed, not cremated’ (p.235); Justin, that Alexander simply built a tomb for Hephaestion somewhere not recorded; Plutarch, that Alexander planned to spend an awful lot of money on Hephaestion’s funeral and tomb somewhere not recorded; Worthington, that Hephaestion was cremated in Ecbatana and his ashes taken to Babylon for burial.

It’s all a bit here, there, and everywhere! A question: are Naiden and Worthington using two different sources? They disagree on whether Hephaestion was embalmed or cremated but agree that his body was taken to Babylon for burial. I really need to find out who ‘App’ is. Until I can find out more, I think I will lean on Arrian’s and Diodorus’ account of what happened but I won’t say the Naiden made an avoidable error in this regard.

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Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great

by F. S. Naiden (Oxford University Press, 2019)

Soldier, Priest, and God is a twelve chapter biography of Alexander, which, as per the title, tells his story with special reference to Alexander’s expedition to the east, religious observance, and divinity.

Is the book worth your time?

Three Pros:

  1. The focus on Alexander’s religious observance (not religion; Naiden doesn’t go into a discussion of who the Olympian gods were, etc). I can’t think of any other biography that gives this absolutely essential part of Alexander’s identity any significant amount of attention. If you know of any that do, feel very free to let me know.
  2. Naiden includes tables recording all the ‘acts of sacrifice and related rituals in the Alexander historians and in Strabo’ (p.273) and ‘omens and oracles’ (p.280) in the former. If you are half-interested in the religious side of Alexander, Soldier, Priest, and God is probably worth buying just to have these tables to hand.
  3. Naiden’s text is accessible. He does not have the light touch of a popular historian (though see below) but tells Alexander’s story clearly enough. Further to this, the text is supplemented by several nice-to-look-at maps and illustrations.

Three Cons:

  1. Yes, Naiden’s text is accessible but it is also a little dull. I was never bored while reading Soldier, Priest, and God but neither was I excited by it. In cricketing terms, Naiden plays with a very straight bat. As a result, while I will certainly keep this book for reference purposes I doubt very much that I will ever think about reading it from start to finish again.
  2. The text contains the odd easily avoidable error. For example, Naiden states (on p.76) that Sisygambis mistook Leonnatus for Alexander rather than Hephaestion. On Hephaestion, his funeral took place in Babylon, not, as Naiden says (p.235), in Ecbatana*.
  3. Naiden anglicises Alexander’s name but does not always do the same for the Persians. As a result, you may – like me – find yourself pausing to try and remember or work out who Mazdai, Huxshathra, and Spitamanah are (in case you would like to know, they are Mazaeus, Oxyathres, and Spitamenes).

So, Soldier, Priest, and God may be a little dull in the telling but Naiden does make you think – whether with a raised eye brow or not. For example, he talks about Alexander’s Companions as a ‘cult’ (p.1), mentions that a ‘2008 republication of an inscription proves that Alexander was crowned pharaoh’ (p.5)(my emphasis), accuses Alexander of ‘immaturity’ (p.25) in ordering the assassination of Amyntas IV, and states that the box he put his annotated copy of The Iliad in was previously used to store ‘cream scented with palm wine’ (p.143). What is good, though, is that he provides a very full set of end notes, so if you see a statement that looks debatable or plain wrong, there is a good chance he has mentioned his source(s).

In my first post of this year, I reviewed a review of Soldier, Priest, and God. I found the review on the Book Marks website here. If you click on the link you’ll also see extracts from James Romm’s review at the (paywalled) Wall Street Journal.

Obviously, I would agree with Romm about Naiden’s lack of narrative skill – I think I would call it his lack of a story teller’s touch – but I have to say I didn’t get the impression that Naiden was ‘strangely snarky’ in describing ancient religious beliefs. I’m sorry I don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal to read more about what he says on that point.

With that said, like Romm I did come away from the book ‘as puzzled as ever about the young king who conquered the world.’ though I am not sure I can wholly blame Naiden for that. Yes, any book about Alexander should make us feel afterwards that we have learnt something about him but on the other hand, he will always be ‘other’ to us. The lack of his own words, evidence of his inner thoughts and emotions, and differences in the way we live and perceive things compared to his time have seen to that.

In conclusion: Soldier, Priest, and God has its flaws but there is enough in it to make it a book worth considering if you would like to know about about the religious Alexander the Great.

*I’m going to come back to this point in my next blog post.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Soldier, Priest, and God: me! I took that photo

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Some Weekend Reads

IFL Science reports on the find of 50 mummies on the west bank of the Nile. You can read the article here. They may come from the Ptolemaic era. Reading the article, I was taken by the fact that they were found thirty feet below ground. Does this mean Ptolemy I’s Alexandria is now that far below ground as well?

“In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great set out to conquer the world.” We don’t actually know for sure that he did but this article on the Bookriot website is a nice little run down of facts about the Great Library of Alexandria, which either he or Ptolemy I Soter – not Demetrius of Phaleron as the article states – founded.

A neat little biography of Alexander can be found here at the National Geographic website. It contains a couple of interesting statements that I wouldn’t mind exploring in the future – that Alexander was not ‘much of a diplomat’ and that the Macedonian army became ‘mutinous’ in India.

The Ten Best Generals of All Time – According to Ethan Arsht. You can read the short version at Business Insider‘s website here, or Mr Arsht’s article here. Warning: it involves maths! This warning is really for me as I am useless at numbers but I will try to read Mr. Arsht’s article even though – shock, horror – he does not put Alexander at No. 1.

Book Review: The Land of the Elephant Kings: Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Seleucid Empire by Paul J. Kosmin. This is a short review at the StrategyPage website of a book that will be of interest to anyone who is serious about the Seleucids.

Could you be the next Seleucus I Nikator? Antigonus Monophthalmus? Scipio Africanus? Gamasutra and the makers of the ‘grand strategy’ game Imperator: Rome look forward to its release in late April here.

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Some Weekend Reads

Happy February! If you would like to read about what Alexander got up to around this time of year, read this blog post.

CoinWeek has started a series based on coins of the Seleucid dynasty (c.305/304-64 BC). It’s well worth a read if you are interested in Hellenistic coinage or would like an overview of the Seleucid kings. The link will take you to part one in the series.

Who can be surprised at this? Inquisitor reports that a Graeco-Roman winery has been discovered on the banks of the Nile. It was probably founded by Ptolemy I for his Macedonian friends as they sailed up and down the river!

If you are looking for a short biography of Alexander, then Greek Reporter has your back. If you are already familiar with Alexander’s life, the article is still worth reading to see if the writer’s understanding of Alexander matches your own. For instance, do you think this statement correct: ‘What are now the modern-day countries of Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and the entirety of the modern-day Arab world, became Greek in less than ten years’ time.’ (emphasis mine)?

This story has appeared all over the internet over the last few days: ‘Otago academic offers new explanation for Alexander the Great’s death‘. This headline comes from Voxy. It’s a creepy, painful and fascinating story. I’m very grateful to the person on my Alexander Facebook page who said that they had spoken to Dr. Hall who told them that she thought Alexander would have lost his higher functions by the time he was mummified; he wouldn’t have felt anything.

Are you in Liverpool (U.K.) at 6pm on 21st February this year? If you are, you could attend this adventurously titled lecture The Further Adventures of Alexander the Great – Boyfriend, Gay Warrior, Porn King. More details can be found on Liverpool University’s website here.

Your occasional reminder that (a) Afghanistan didn’t exist in Alexander the Great’s day and (b) he defeated its predecessor people – the Bactrians and Sogdians – during the course of his eastward march. His victory was not a lasting one but it was still a victory. Why am I mentioning this? Read this article at We Are The Mighty.

Finally, could the dispute between Greece and the Former Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) regarding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by the latter finally be over? The BBC reports here that the Greek Parliament has approved FYROM’s name change to North Macedonia. I have to admit that I don’t understand how ‘North Macedonia’ can be a more satisfactory name than the ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ so am very glad that this blog is focused on Alexander rather than modern Balkan politics.

BTW If you have come to this post from my Alexander Facebook page and would like to comment on the Greece/FYROM story, please do so on the blog; if you do so on the Fb page I will have to delete it. It’s not that I don’t want to hear from you, but the issue is so controversial that any mention of it will quickly lead to insults and barbs.

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Before & After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great

by Richard A. Billows (Overlook Duckworth, 2018)

Before & After Alexander is split into three main sections. In the first, Billows looks at Philip II’s kingship and shows how he took Macedon from being a backward country on the brink of destruction to being a regional superpower. In the second, he examines the career of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. And in the third, he discusses the Wars of the Successors and takes the story of Hellenism right up to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 1453 and beyond.

Three Pros:

  1. It makes a convincing case for seeing Philip II as the man who made Alexander the Great’s successful career possible. This is important as while Philip is by no means a forgotten figure he does tend to live in Alexander’s shadow. Without him, though – without his reorganisation of the Macedonian army and development of weaponry and tactics -, without his social and economic policies, which increased Macedonian manpower, Alexander would not have been able to challenge much less defeat the satrapal army at the Granicus let alone Darius III at Issus or Gaugamela.
  2. It does something new by taking the story of Hellenism all the way from Philip II to the Renaissance. Further to this, Billows does not limit himself to talking about Hellenism in the context of Christianity but also Islam.
  3. While Billows’s text does not flow quite as smoothly as some writers’, it is still very accessible. The book also comes with End Notes and a Glossary of Greek Terms as well as the more usual maps, genealogies and chronology.

Three Cons:

  1. The section on Alexander comes close to being a hatchet job. After reading it, I had no sense that Billows intended to engage with him. It was as if Alexander existed simply to be criticised and make Philip look good.
  2. Billow’s conclusion is very contentious.

… if not for Philip’s new Macedonia, if not for his unification of Greece, if not for his bold plan to invade and conquer the Persian Empire and spread Greeks, the Greek language, and Greek culture all around the eastern Mediterranean, it is very debatable whether Greek literature and ideas would or could hold the place in western and even Islamic culture that they do.
(Before & After Alexander, pp.301-2)

Philip certainly made Macedon anew. But, he didn’t unify Greece. He didn’t even control all of it; Sparta remained beyond him. True, he could have taken it if he wished, but he didn’t. And the rest of Greece, which he did control, never accepted him as its master. To the best of my knowledge, we do not know that Philip intended to conquer the Persian Empire much less spread Greeks, the Greek language or culture. Recently, I read that his usual modus operandi was to campaign for a season before returning home, then repeat the same process the following year – perhaps going a bit further territorially. Surely, this is what he would have done in Asia Minor.

I think the analysis offered in the chapters above shows clearly that Alexander is one of the most overrated figures in world history. The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip; and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and of turning those lands into viable empire with Greek cities and Greek culture.
(Before & After Alexander, p.302)

Obviously, I disagree that Billows’s analysis succeeds in showing that Alexander was ‘one of the most overrated figures in world history’. His analysis, such as it is, is too one sided and brief to be convincing. However, I do agree that Philip was a great man. For what he did for Macedon he deserves to be called Philip the Great.

Unfortunately, Billows’s book is dedicated to taking the credit away from Alexander for his successes and giving it to Philip for his. Indeed, Billows’s Alexander is not much more than an extension of Philip’s genius; he is not his own man. This is not an accurate way to describe either father or son. Philip II was an excellent general but his greatness comes from the way he rescued and then developed the Macedonian army and state. Alexander’s comes from his military genius. Philip II and Alexander III, therefore, are complimentary figures, not rivals; to see them as such blinds us to the skills and talents of the other.

How much credit can we give Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus? In truth, this is a question I need more time to think about. My first response to it, though, is this:

Antigonus spent most of his time fighting. He founded a few cities but I didn’t get the impression from Billows that he did much more of lasting value than that. I don’t know, therefore, how Billows can criticise Alexander for just fighting and yet be so favourable towards Antigonus. I’ll note here that Antigonus did not found the Antigonid empire in Macedon. The credit for that goes to his grandson Antigonus Gonatas (277 and 272 BC). I wonder if Billows is referring to him? If he is, I don’t know why he is referring to the Antigonus who governed the lands that ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in…’.

Billows says that Ptolemy and Seleucus deserve credit for turning their kingdoms into ‘viable empires’. Alexander’s empire was equally viable. Even though he died childless, Roxane was pregnant, and the empire would have survived had the generals remained loyal. For various reasons, however, they weren’t. It’s fall, therefore, is as much on them as it is on Alexander.

To stay with this quote, Billows states that, ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in’ the Persian empire; he did not turn ‘those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture.’

There is a sense in which this is correct. Alexander’s main purpose in life was to win glory; to prove himself better than those who came before him (for example, Achilles, Herakles, Cyrus the Great, Semiramis, his own father, etc). He was not primarily interested in establishing Greek cities and culture. He believed in both, however, and so they flourished under him.

We could, perhaps, argue that Alexander is to the Ptolamiac and Seleucid empires what Philip is to Macedon: the founder, the man who paved the way for those who came after him. On a personal note, it is a great shame that Alexander died so young, really only at the end of the first phase of his life’s work. I feel that had he lived longer, we might have seen him develop his kingship to the benefit of Hellenism.

Or maybe he would just have continued fighting. But if he had, he would not have simply marched and fought, marched and fought any more than he did during the first expedition. For while he did not stop nearly often, or long, enough to properly establish Hellenism, we do see him stopping to secure his territory and engaging with his subject people.

For example, in Asia Minor he visits Gordium to see the famous knot; in Egypt, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Siwah; he refuses to let his men loot and pillage many of the places they visit; in India, he goes on a second pilgrimage past Nysa to Mount Meros; in Pasargadae he goes to the tomb of Cyrus the Great to pay his respects.

Often, Alexander had a vested interest in doing some of these things; other times, there was no need. But when we take these actions, and put them together with the knowledge that Alexander also had an abiding interest in literature, and especially philosophy and medicine, we see that there was much more to him that just fighting and marching.

3. Before & After Alexander has a few annoying typos. They don’t detract from the reading but are a nuisance in a book that costs £20.

In conclusion: I would definitely recommend Before & After Alexander to anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of where Alexander came from and where the actions of he and his father ultimately took Hellenism. I can’t recommend the chapter on Alexander himself but it is still worth reading in order to gain an opposite view – which has, after all, been there since Cleitarchus put quill to papyrus – of the man who, for all his faults, is still important enough to have his name in the book’s title rather than his much vaunted father.

Credit Where It’s Due
Image: Amazon.com

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Reviewing the Reviewer

No end to Alexander’s talents

As this is my first post of 2019, may I wish you a belated happy New Year. I hope 2019 is a good one for you. It will be an interesting one for me: in two days, I leave my job without another to immediately go to. It will also be an interesting year for Great Britain as on 29th March this year she leaves the European Union. If you follow British politics you will know that the Brexit journey has not been – and continues not to be – a very smooth one. In fact, Brexit has caused such tumult that our national politics are currently about as stable as an ancient Macedonian party.

Recently, a new biography of Alexander came out. Titled Soldier, Priest & God it is an attempt by Professor F. S. Naiden of the University of North Carolina to put Alexander into his religious context. I have been interested in Alexander and his religion for a while now so was delighted to hear about this book. I now have a copy and hope to start reading it soon. In the meantime, what are reviewers saying about it?

I’d like to take a quick look at Benjamin Welton’s review in the New York Review of Books, here. The review does not have the most auspicious beginning. Welton states,

Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexander the Great, took a backward Balkan nation and turned it into one of the first multiethnic empires of Western history.

This statement is not entirely correct. When Alexander came to the throne of Macedon in 338 BC, Macedon was not a ‘backward Balkan nation’ but a regional superpower. It was his father, Philip II, who came to the throne of a ‘backward’ country.

Welton states,

Some [historians] have suggested that Alexander may have even been divinely aided, with the Greeks arguing that his father was none other than Zeus.

I would be a little careful with the phrase ‘the Greeks’ here. It suggests that ‘the Greeks’ as a whole argued that Alexander’s father was Zeus, which wasn’t the case.

According to Welton, ‘Naiden notes’ that,

Some scholars (mostly British) have seen Alexander as a proto-Anglican who went through the motions of pagan rituals, but did not take them seriously.

In all the reading I have done on Alexander, I have never seen him compared to an Anglican. Neither have I read any of the sources and got the impression that he was anything other than a devout worshipper of the gods. I hope Naiden expands upon this idea. At this point, though, I’m not altogether impressed by the insinuation that Anglicans have an empty faith. Their communion is, perhaps, too broad, but not so much so that the faith on which it is based is no longer taken seriously.

His companions, who have mostly been remembered as officials, officers, and members of the traveling court of Macedon, were in fact members of an elite circle of priests—a coven, if you will.

If Mr Welton doesn’t mind, I won’t. This gives what is to my mind a false picture of Alexander’s court. Its members may in their own lives have had a priestly function but as soon as you call the court a coven you introduce images and ideas that really have no place there.

I found Welton’s review via the Book Marks website, here. If you click on the link, you’ll find two other reviews mentioned; however, since you need to be subscribed to the relevant websites in order to read them, I will not say anything more about them here.

Credit Where It’s Due
The image above comes from Book Mark’s website.

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Two Women, One King and Belonging

A week ago, I went to see Disobedience at my local cinema. Directed by Sebastián Lelio, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Ronit Krushka, a British born photographer working in New York who returns home following the death of her father, Rav Krushka.

The Rav* was an Orthodox Jew, much loved and very influential within his community. Ronit, however, is almost persona non grata. Several years earlier her father caught her in flagrante with another woman – her friend, Esti. As a result, Ronit left the community. When she returns, she is barely welcomed, though not spurned. Tolerated about sums it up.

One of the themes of the film is that of belonging. We could ask of Ronit, where does she belong? To whom? Why? But I think the questions apply more to Esti. For her, finding answers is of the uttermost importance: they will define her life, health and happiness. Esti is a lesbian. Her husband Dovid is a good man but she only married him because she had to. She is not happy – it’s why she contacted Ronit to let her know that her father had died (no one else in the community chose to do so). If she doesn’t find answers to the questions that are within her, the rest of her life will potentially be a long defeat to a way of living she does not believe in.

As soon as I started thinking about the idea of belonging, I started thinking about Alexander.

As an Argead prince, Alexander lived at the centre of Macedonian society. He did not, however, enjoy a stable life. He could have been killed in battle at the age of sixteen; his mother, Olympias, loved him, but had things turned out differently, he could have fallen victim to her schemes at any time up until becoming king – and after; he was a target for assassination from others as well; he was for a time forced into exile by his father. Alexander lived in a palace, but that palace was built on a cliff edge. He lived at the centre of Macedonian society, but it ran along a fault line that could have killed him in an instant.

Nothing changed when Alexander became king. For though he was now the most powerful man in Macedonian society, his power depended upon the support of the army. He was now under increased threat from assassination and death in combat. He had to be careful about how he treated people lest he alienate not just individuals but whole sections of his empire.

As Crown Prince no one except the king belonged to Macedon more deeply than Alexander. Thus, when Alexander succeeded to the throne, he – in his very person – became its centre.

However, thanks to the type of society that he belonged to, no one belonged to it less than him. Those under Alexander could afford to be fully themselves. He could not. He tried to be, but failed; he kept trying, and suffered two revolts by his army as a result.

Of course, Alexander didn’t help matters by encouraging people not to see him as one of them. I refer here to his ‘claim’ of divinity. But in a way, that was the most heroic thing he ever did. He could have not gone to Siwah. He could have used any number of other – far safer – methods to keep the support of those under him. Instead, he chose the most dangerous option of all. There is a certain heroism in that even if Alexander was acting cynically.

By and by, I think it is this same desire – to be (herself) rather than to simply belong – that causes Esti to pick up the telephone and call Ronit at the start of Disobedience. It would have been the easiest and safest decision not to call the only person she ever loved. After all, she enjoys teaching, has a good husband, and is a faithful Jew. But as it turns out, these are only roles; they are not her. What is she? As mentioned, she is a lesbian. To be herself, to know herself, she needs the freedom to explore what that means. At the end of the film, and to his immense credit, Dovid gives her that freedom.

In modern terms, Esti is a far nobler person than Alexander. Hers is a spirit of generosity; of giving: to Ronit in their first (and second) affair; to her community, and to her husband, despite the pain it causes her; to her unborn child: the ability to decide where they belong. By contrast, Alexander’s spirit was dominated by a selfish desire for glory. He wanted to be the noblest person alive, the strongest and greatest; true this led him to do good things as well as bad but to want glory for oneself is still essentially a selfish desire. God, however, had the last laugh. After Alexander died, his desire for glory led to a coming together of cultures and civilisations that might never have joined otherwise, causing them to bear new fruit. Think of Greek art in the Indian sub-continent and the spread of the Greek language and the way it helped disseminate Greek ideas (and, of course, Jewish/Christian ones).

Disobedience has a similarly unexpected ending. Orthodox Judaism does not come across very well in the film. While not treated as the bad guy, so’s to speak, it is still what exiled Ronit and wants to keep her and Esti apart. However, at the end of the film, when Dovid gives Esti her freedom (i.e. divorces her), he does so in the synagogue while continuing the homily that the Rav started before his death. Esti’s future ability to be herself, therefore, and her child’s ability to decide where it belongs, comes from within the faith rather than from outside it. Granted that the film is a work of fiction, but unless Dovid’s homily is completely heretical, it shows that even a religion so seemingly set in its ways can bear new fruit. God is certainly not daunted by difficult situations!

*After watching the film I looked up ‘Rav’ on the internet and found that it is a title, meaning teacher, rather than a name. We don’t learn the Rav’s first name during the course of the film

***

WordPress tells me that this post is my 500th for The Second Achilles. I’m very happy that I’ve been able to spend it writing about Alexander and a very thought provoking film

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The Pilgrim Conqueror

Two weeks ago, I watched a film called The Way. In it, Martin Sheen plays a bereaved father who undertakes the Camino pilgrimage in memory his son, Daniel, who died while undertaking the same journey. Since then, pilgrimages have been much on my mind – even to the point when I’ve thought about doing the Camino myself. I’m a Catholic so the idea of a pilgrimage is a familiar one to me. I also have personal reasons for wanting to undertake the walk.

God and I certainly need to have a chat – about terrible jobs, His Church and a lot else besides. Let’s see what happens; in the mean time, The Way has also lead me to take a closer look at Alexander’s expedition to the east.

I am accustomed to seeing the expedition as a single event, one which involved a march from Macedon to India and back to Babylon, and which involved a war of conquest as well as other types of battles (for example, a war of liberation in Asia Minor) and missions (a quest for glory for Alexander). Maybe this is how you see the expedition as well.

However, after watching The Way it occurred to me that Alexander also undertook several pilgrimages during the course of his kingship. For example, in 336, after securing for himself the captainship of the pan-hellenic crusade against the Persian Empire, he went to Delphi to find out what the gods thought of his expedition (Plutarch Life of Alexander 14). One of his first actions in Asia Minor was to visit Troy to pay homage to Achilles (Arrian I.12.1); Diodorus XVII.17; Justin XI.5.10-12; Plutarch LoA 15). And in Egypt, he went out of his way to visit to the temple of Amon at Siwah (Arrian III.3.1-4.5; Curtius IV.7.5-32; Diodorus XVII.49-51; Justin XI.11.2-12; Plutarch LoA 26-27). In India, Alexander approached Nysa intending to lay siege to it. After the Nysaeans claimed Dionysus as their father, however, Alexander took what could be called a pilgrimage up a mountain associated with the god. I hesitate to call this a true pilgrimage, however; to be quite honest it could have just been an excuse for the Macedonians to go on a drunken bender (See Curtius VIII.10.1-18; Arrian’s account of Alexander’s visit is more dignified – Ar. V.1.1-2.7). Finally, on the way back to Babylon, Alexander paused to visit the tomb of Cyrus (Arrian VI.29.4-11; Curtius X.1.30-32).

People go on pilgrimage for many reasons. Sometimes it is religious, sometimes not. For the most part, the purpose of Alexander’s pilgrimages were military and religious. Delphi, Troy and Siwah all fall into the former category; Nysa and Cyrus’ tomb into the latter. And they were all very personal experiences for him – especially Siwah.

At the end of The Way, Martin Sheen’s character finds a measure of peace following his arrival in Santiago. Whatever the reason one undertakes a pilgrimage that ought to be the least that comes out of it. Unfortunately for Alexander, none of his pilgrimages lead him to becoming a more peaceful person. This is because they all served his purpose rather than helping to define it.

For example, he went to Delphi not to find out if he should undertake the expedition but to find out if the gods approved of it. I have no doubt that he would have still left for the east even if he had received a warning not to do so (look at how Alexander ignored Aristander’s warning at Gaza (Arrian II.26.4-27.1 and again in Sogdia [Arrian IV.4.3]). Perhaps, as might have happened at the Hyphasis river, another sacrifice would have been carried out, one which this time delivered the ‘correct’ result.

One can’t blame Alexander for not finding peace in his pilgrimages. He did not live in a time of peace and in any case, this conception of a pilgrimage is probably a Christian one so it would be unfair to judge him by it. Despite that, I have enjoyed breaking down Alexander’s journey a little, seeing and appreciating that it was more than just a march from one end of the known earth to the other. If I do hit the road at Saint Jean Pied de Port, my own purpose notwithstanding, I shall smile at the opportunity to think about Alexander’s journey some more.

Categories: Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Justin, On Alexander, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Fake Argument

In an article titled A Brief History of Fake News on the Asharq Al-awsat website here, Amir Taheri states the following,

A bigger piece of fake news came in the shape of the yarn woven around Alexander the Great, the invincible conqueror. He is supposed to have lived to the ripe old age of 33.

In just 10 years, the Macedonian is supposed to have conquered almost all of the then known world from the Balkans Peninsula to Russia to the Indian Ocean and from North Africa to the Indian Subcontinent, Central Asia and China. That involves a distance of around 40,000 kilometers, allez-retour, which means he would have been traveling quite a bit. And, yet, he is supposed to have built 20 cities named after himself, taken four wives (long before Islam) and “disappeared” for an unknown length of time looking for the fountain of eternal youth.

That there is no contemporaneous account of those marvelous deeds has persuaded some historians to doubt the existence of such a character which first appeared in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD, that is to say, centuries after the claimed events.

I don’t know who Amir Taheri is but judging by the bio at the top of the article he is a very experienced writer and journalist. If so, he has let himself down here.

First of all, a quibble: Alexander died at ‘the ripe old age’ of 32. However, maybe I should let that go as Alexander less than two months before his thirty-third birthday. I will not do the same with his other comments.

Secondly, Alexander never made it to Russia (or, to be more precise, the country that is now Russia). You could say that insofar as he conquered territory in what is now Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, he therefore conquered land from the Balkan peninsula to the former USSR but if that’s what Taheri meant he ought to have said it. It would have been best, though, if he had referred specifically to the countries above. That would have been most accurate.

Also, Alexander did not enter China. He didn’t even know it existed. If Taheri had bothered to look at a map of Alexander’s empire, he would have known this.

Thirdly, Alexander married three times, not four. A quick look at Wikipedia could have told Taheri this.

Fourthly, Alexander did not spend any time looking for the fountain of eternal youth. This tale comes from the Alexander Romance which is a fictionalised account of Alexander’s life. If one is going to claim that Alexander the Great is not a real person one might at least try to show that the supposed histories of his life are false rather than the fictions.

Fifthly, Alexander did not first appear ‘in Greek and Latin literature in 160 AD’. Certainly, Arrian and Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the second century AD but before them came Curtius, probably in the first century AD, and Diodorus, in the first century BC. Alexander is also referred to – as Alexander the Great, by and by – by Plautus in his comedy Mostellaria, which was written in the late third century/early second century BC by the Roman playwright, Plautus. Taheri’s claim, therefore, that Alexander does not appear until 160 AD is rot.

Finally, Taheri bases his claim that Alexander is ‘fake news’ by pointing out that there are no ‘contemporaneous accounts of those marvelous [sic] deeds’. It is disingenuous to use the fact that we no longer have the contemporary accounts of Alexander’s life to suggest that he never really lived.

What Taheri ought to be doing is looking at the accounts that we do have – in conjunction with the other evidence – and deciding on the basis of what he sees there whether Alexander lived or not. As it is, he has taken the path of a troll who purposefully uses bad arguments in order to score a point. Badly done, as Mr Knightly, would say; all the more so as he suggests that this is what other historians (I should like to know who) believe rather than himself.

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Story, Different Interpretations

I have recently finished two Alexander related books – The Nature of Alexander the Great by Mary Renault, and Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction by Hugh Bowden.

The Nature of Alexander of the Great took me several months to read; that, however, was due to my own tardiness rather than any failing with the book. The Nature is an easy-to-read run through of Alexander’s life with interesting insights sprinkled throughout. If anything makes the book stand out it is that Renault is very positive towards Alexander’s general, Hephaestion. Her comments are a very good alternative to the negative views of historians like Peter Green and Waldemar Heckel.

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Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction is just that; it is a quick dive into the life of Alexander using not just the Alexander historians but other sources as well – coins, inscriptions, and so forth.

What I most liked about Hugh Bowden’s book is his reminder that the real Alexander is an enigma to us. We may think we know a lot about him but we have to remember that the sources we are using, whether they wrote in Greek or Latin, were Roman citizens, and were writing for a Roman audience. That shaped how they wrote about Alexander (Bear in mind as well that when Ptolemy et al wrote their histories or memoirs that also shaped what they said and how they said it).

Bowden is not afraid to challenge our preconceptions of Alexander and the events of his life. For example, he suggests that Alexander did not found Alexandria (except, perhaps, as a fort) and that there was no revolt at the Hyphasis river.

Whether or not one agrees with Bowden’s assertions or suggestions, Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction is very well worth having – if not quite for reference then definitely for dipping into from time to time and having a conversation with the author about what he is saying.

Credits
Both images are from Amazon (UK)

Categories: Books | Tags: , | 1 Comment

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