Alexander Scholars

Dancing With The Lion, an interview with Jeanne Reames, Part Two

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an adventure that Alexander would surely have approved of, I continue my conversation with Jeanne Reames.

Jeanne has written Dancing With The Lion, a two part novel about the early years of Alexander, or, how he became the man we know as ‘the Great’. The first part Becoming just just been published. Part Two, Rise, will be published this October.

You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here. With that said, let’s jump back into the interview.

Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is represented very negatively by the Alexander historians; what is your assessment of her character, and how does it inform the way you look at her in Dancing with the Lion?
I stand with Beth’s picture: her reputation got a hatchet-job. This doesn’t mean she was nice, but she absolutely must be viewed in the full context of a polygamous court, her obvious intelligence, her Epirote ancestry, and the need simply to survive. This is why I use Myrtalē instead of Olympias, to detach her from all that baggage, much as I use Alexandros to detach him from “Alexander the Great” baggage.

Misogyny is THICK in a lot of Alexander fiction, perhaps unconsciously imbibed from the primary sources. It’s not only in how Olympias is portrayed, but in how Alexander’s sisters are overlooked. In Dancing with the Lion, not only did I try to write a powerful Olympias, but his full-sister Kleopatra is a POV character and even has her own coming-of-age arc, especially in book 2, Rise. Thessalonikē and Audata also play roles. (There’s another female voice that will appear in Rise, but I can’t say who, or it’s a spoiler.)

One might argue that negatively portraying Olympias doesn’t equal misogyny, which is true. And yes, she committed a number of murders (although she got blamed for some I’m pretty sure she didn’t commit, too). Yet as Beth points out in her articles, she didn’t do anything her husband and son didn’t also do. The horror was that she was a woman doing it. Greek women were supposed to stay out of politics, but Epirote Olympias didn’t get that memo! While the Macedonian court doesn’t appear to have been as repressive as, say, Athens, it also wasn’t as open as Epiros. Arriving in Pella, the 14/15/16-year-old Olympias must have found it all very flat, very hot, and very hobbling, compared to what she was used to at home. I expect Eurydike, Philip’s mother, had experienced something similar, decades earlier, and she, too, was roasted in the ancient sources. These powerful, northern women were not understood.

We must also recall the Macedonian court was polygamous (that’s why I never use “queen” for any of Philip’s wives in the novels). If royal polygamy had predated Philip, he employed it with gusto, marrying 5 women in his first 5 years on the throne. Olympias was either number 4 or 5, so even if her birth made her royal, she came into a situation with 3-4 other wives already there, plus the queen mother likely still alive. Imagine that.

At a polygamous court, the most important male in a woman’s life isn’t her husband, but her son. The more (healthy) sons she can produce, the higher her status, although it seems birth status also played a role, especially if there’s more than one son. As mother to the only viable heir, Olympias eventually became chief wife, but that took time to establish. And her continued position hung on ALEXANDER’S status, and survival. That’s what motivated her.

I’ve tried to make that very clear in the book. I’ve also tried to make her as savvy and competent as I think she was. Ergo, she acts as chatelaine for the entire palace, and is also trained as a healer and midwife, which comes into play in the first novel. The tale of her poisoning of Arrhidaios via “pharmakos” (herbs) may conceal an historical ability with herbal remedies. The Greeks were highly suspicious of “what those healer women did” and midwives, while necessary, were also viewed with mistrust. In myth, witches like Circe employed a knowledge of pharmakos. So Olympias gets called a witch by the men in the novel (including Philip), and poor Alexander is constantly defending her. To them, midwife-herbalist-priestess-witch…it would have been a fuzzy distinction.

How did you approach writing people about whom we know very little (e.g. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra) or nothing (e.g. Hephaestion’s father, Amyntor)? Did you have any models for them or did you give your imagination free reign?
Sometimes I do use real people as models; for instance, parts of Amyntor’s personality are based on my own father, but also on my mother. Yet no character is ever a complete match for a living person. They’re composites. I also use things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator to conceptualize them. So Alexander is an ENTP and Hephaistion an INTP. Amyntor is an ISFJ, and Philip an ENTJ. Thinking in these terms helps flesh them out, so that the details emerge organically from who they are. Fictional characters must be more consistent than real people, in part because they are fictional.

I’m not sure how well that answers your question, but it’s how I think about characterization generally. Ultimately, all these people are characters, even those about whom we may know more: Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy, Aristotle. There’s still a boatload we don’t know. So, for instance, Alexander’s favorite fruit was, supposedly, apples. But we don’t know what his favorite color was. His voice is described as deep and harsh, but we don’t know what hand he favored. I made him a lefty for the hell of it. My point is chiefly that, even for the better-known characters, I’m still filling in a lot of blanks.

Your scholarship no doubt helped you write Dancing with the Lion– do you think your novels will help you as a scholar, and if so, how?
Absolutely writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be more aware of the various levels of probability in the historical record. One has the factual (and even what’s “fact” can be disputed), then the probable, the possible, and finally, educated speculation. Pure fiction is the next step.

In addition, writing fiction can force the historian to think about old problems in new ways, ask questions we might not think to ask. So, for instance, the novelist wonders what happened in those first few minutes, and hours, after Philip’s murder. It must have been a madhouse in Aigai. Diodorus tells us nothing—yet it’s still important to consider. So that’s the sort of thing fiction can bring to light.

Mount Olympus

Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed about writing Becoming and Rise? A character, perhaps, or a scene?
Kleopatra and Hephaistion were my favorite characters to write.

Kleopatra, because she’s a “type” I favor in storytelling. If the Dionysos novel ever gets published, Ari(adne) there is similar. Both are the antithesis of the drama queen or “spunky heroine.” Kleopatra just quietly gets shit done without flailing, and unlike her brother, she isn’t given to romanticizing things. If/when I get back to the series, readers will see more of her.

I also really enjoyed writing Hephaistion because he’s that rare personality type who just doesn’t give two figs what most people think of him, with a few exceptions such as Alexander or his family. He’s therefore always authentically himself. That doesn’t mean he has no filter; he keeps his mouth shut a lot of the time, but when he does express an opinion, he says exactly what he thinks. He’s also a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a smart-ass, which in turn means he gets to star in some of the funnier moments in the novel. In several, he takes down Kassandros a peg, but my favorite with him is when he and Erigyios throw another student in a cold river, because the boy was being insufferable. Later, Alexander tells the boy, “Hephaistion doesn’t start things, he ends them,” which is a fair summary.

That said, my overall favorite scene, at least in Becoming, is “Drunk Aristotle.” I won’t say more or it’s too much of a spoiler. Just…drunk Aristotle and a tutorial. I’ll leave you with that.

Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to write their own work of (historical) fiction, especially if it’s about Alexander (and Hephaestion)?

First, practice the art of getting it right.

That means do your homework, and not all on the internet. Read books and articles, read more than one or two, and not just biographies on Alexander. It’s vitally important to understand Macedonia. Also, if writing about his conquest of Persia, then one MUST understand Persian culture and the court, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures from Phoenicia and Egypt to Baktria and India. Plus knowing Greek culture would help, too. Ha. It’s not a small undertaking.

Make sure you understand the world you’re writing about, so the characters act and react in ways authentic to their era. Otherwise, it’s just a costume drama with modern characters in ancient dress. While yes, one can’t make them too alien, or modern readers won’t connect/care, ancient Greek attitudes can be surprising not just in predictable ways (misogyny, acceptance of slavery), but unexpected ones, at times.

Do look up details. Not long ago, I read an ATG novel that had the Persian female characters talking about limes (didn’t exist yet, just the citron) and referencing Zoroastrian religious beliefs that developed in the Sassanid era—hundreds of years later. One is bound to make a mistake or three; it’s almost inevitable. But a lot can be avoided by double- and triple-checking. Even a throw-away line can be wrong. In an earlier draft, I had Hephaistion tell Alexander to wash out his mouth with clove water. Whoops. Cloves weren’t known in Greece yet. Had to look up ancient Greek dental hygiene. 😊All for a single line.

Additionally, a mistake is different from making a choice about a controversial matter; so, for instance, I come down on the side that Argead Macedonia was not a constitutional monarchy. That means a potential author needs to realize there is a debate about whether ancient Macedonia was a constitutional monarchy. Back to doing one’s research.

The Macedonian sunburst

Second, have a story you want to tell.

I think the two biggest problems I’ve seen in novels about Alexander (or any historical figure) are those that do a half-assed research job because “it’s just fiction.” If you don’t want to do your homework, please, write something else where you can make it all up. But the other side of the coin is forgetting one is writing a story in the effort to make it accurate. That confuses historical fiction with creative non-fiction, which is a thing and has a place. But it’s not a novel.

What is the STORY you’re telling? It might be an adventure story (e.g., the point is action), or it might be a character story (e.g., the point is character development), but there needs to be some sort of story-arc. The plot/characters must go somewhere, be different at the end than at the beginning. When somebody asks me, “What’s your novel about?” I say, “It’s about Alexander becoming Alexander-the-Great,” or “It’s a coming-of-age story about a prince who doesn’t know if he’ll live to become king.” That’s a story-arc. Then you build on it.

If it’s a coming-of-age novel, who should be included? Parents, check; siblings, check; teacher, check; first love, check; even nemesis, check. Next, you can select what historical events allow you best to tell that story, which may mean tweaking some, eliminating others, or adding a few. But you don’t begin with events then try to construct a story around them, or it’ll be disjointed. So for instance, in Becoming, I don’t do a lot with the politics following the Third Sacred War and Philip’s Scythian/northern Thracian campaign because the story isn’t about Philip, it’s about Alexander, and he’s off at Mieza. If he would certainly have been aware of these things, it would have been peripheral. It’s only in Rise that I start to insert more about wider-world politics, because by then, it matters to his story.

An author has to keep her eyes on the ball, not go down random rabbit holes, no matter how interesting!

***

And on that note, I would like to thank Jeanne for her time. It has been a pleasure having her here. Go buy the book! And if you do, feel free to let me know what you think of it, either in the comments below or via e-mail – thesecondachilles @ gmail.com
MJM

all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission

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Dancing With The Lion – an interview with Jeanne Reames, Part One

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.

You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here.

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.

Mieza, where Aristotle taught Alexander, Hephaestion et al

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.

Coming this October…

All the images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission

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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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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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A Grave Matter

diary

As I write this post, we are just ninety minutes away from the start of the World Cup final. Sadly, football will not be coming home for England as the national team were knocked out on Wednesday by Croatia. It’s hard to be too upset by this as football hasn’t come home for an awfully long time.

On Twitter a few days ago, I considered (as one does) who else never went home. The best answer, of course, is Alexander. After leaving Macedon in 336 B.C. he never looked back. It looks like he didn’t even want to return home in death, either. Michael Wood states that Alexander wished ‘to be buried with his ‘father’ in Siwa’ (In the Footsteps of Alexander, p.217). Of course, his body never made it there; after hijacking the cortege, which under Perdiccas’ instructions was on its way to Macedon, Ptolemy took the coffin, first to Memphis and then to Alexandria a few years later, once the city had been built.

***

On the subject of coffins, there has been a great deal of interest in a large black coffin that has been discovered in Alexandria, Egypt. You can read about it here. The coffin dates to the Ptolemaic period so naturally there has been speculation that the body inside is Alexander’s.

Well, the size of the coffin certainly indicates that it belonged to someone of great wealth, and therefore importance, and it has been found in Alexandria – Alexander’s last known resting place – so… However, the Macedonian king was not the only important person to be buried there. Maybe the coffin belongs to one of the Ptolemys. I would be very happy for it to be Ptolemy I’s. We just don’t know who was laid to rest inside it and will have to be patient and wait for the Egyptian archaeologists to open it. Let’s hope they find enough evidence inside to solve the mystery.

***

A link to Alexander: Gay or Straight? appeared on my Twitter timeline earlier today. It is a 2011 blog post on the Forbes website. The post is quite short but still worth your time as it features Paul Cartledge and James Romm – two classicists who know all about Alexander. James Romm is particularly worth paying attention to as he co-edited the lovely Landmark Arrian book. On a personal note, I like Paul Cartledge, too, as he signed a book for me after a talk once and was very friendly.

Anyway, back to Alexander: the title of the blog post is, of course, unhelpful as it imposes a modern understanding of sexuality on someone who lived in the fourth century B.C. The highlight of the post for me was learning that some scholars doubted the existence of Alexander’s eunuch, Bagoas.

***

I have finally started reading Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander. I’m commenting on it as I read over at the Facebook Alexander the Great Reading Group. I may post them on this blog after I have finished the book but for now, you can read them, here.

***

One last point – I first found out about the Alexander: Gay or Straight blog post when someone I follow retweeted the original post containing the link. The retweeter was none other than @Olympias_Epirus. Alexander was very fortunate to live in an age where he never had to come out as gay, straight, bisexual, etc. Instead, however, Olympias or Philip II worried about their son’s apparent lack of interest in sex. Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae X.435) states that Olympias hired a courtesan to sleep with him; ‘they feared he might prove to be a womanish man’, which perhaps means a eunuch? Unfortunately for Olympias it would be a little longer before Alexander set her mind at rest.

***

It is now 3:37pm. Kick-off is in 23 minutes. Time to get ready for the game!

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20th June 2018

This afternoon, I had lunch and a beer in the Marquis of Cornwallis pub in Bloomsbury. While I was eating I looked up and happened to see a framed picture of The London Illustrated News with a coin bearing Alexander’s image on it. What an unusual sight! And a very pleasant surprise. Here it is:

Apologies for the interruption of myself in the glass. You can tell the head is Alexander’s on account of its leonine hair but most especially the ram’s horns, which indicate Alexander’s connection (i.e. sonship) to the Egyptian god, Ammon.


The picture was a surprise for me but not the pub. On the way to the toilet I saw a portrait of some eighteenth century soldiers sighting… with light sabres. The owner clearly has a taste for mixing the old and new.

***

This week, the World Cup continues apace in Russia. Obviously being English, I am supporting England; however, as I drew France in our office sweepstakes, the mercenary in me would like them to win so that I would be quids in. Are there any teams from Alexander’s world taking part? As a matter of fact, yes, there are, though only two: Egypt and Iran.

Unfortunately, Egypt have lost their first two games and so will make no further progress in the tournament. I saw some of their game against Russia last night and was entertained by the pharaonic head dress that some of the fans were wearing. It’s nice that they remember the past even if it is only for entertainment value. Who knows, though, perhaps they discussed the pharaonic dynasties afterwards?

As I write this blog post, Iran – Persia – is playing Spain and acquitting herself very well. The first half is coming to an end and the score is still 0-0.

Of the other countries playing, only Saudi Arabia comes close to having an Alexander connection: at the time of his death in June 323, of course, he was about to invade it. During the siege of Tyre in 332 BC, Alexander did actually launch a few sorties into Arabia.

***

I am currently reading Ghost on the Throne by James Romm – his account of The Wars of the Successors. I have been reading this book on and off for months. I don’t know why it has taken me so long as it is a good book. Mea culpa: laziness on my part along with a great ability to be distracted by other books is most likely to blame. Anyway, I am coming towards the end now and overall my impression of the book is a very positive one – except, that is, for one thing: Romm’s tiresome habit of calling Antipater ‘old man Antipater’. Thank goodness we have passed 319 BC and Antipater has died but up till that point it was rather annoying me. Antipater was more than just his age; I don’t know why Romm had to alert us to it in a not very complimentary way very other time he mentioned him.

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The Haunted Empire

Several months ago, I bought a copy of Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. The sub-title to the book explains what it is about: The Death of Alexander the Great and the Bloody Fight for His Empire.

To date, the only other book dedicated to the wars of the Successors that I have read has been Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils. As I write these words I am 170 pages into the 322 page long book, and I have to say I am not enjoying it as much as I did Dividing the Spoils. Not because I think Romm is a bad historian but because Waterfield is simply a better write. He has the rare gift of making his text flow easily off the page.

Having said that, Ghost on the Throne is a well written book; it is also very well laid out. Romm not only sub-divides his chapters but gives the latter their own titles so that you know exactly where and when you are in the story.

As for me, I have seen the death of Leonnatus in the Lamian War, and the death of Alexander’s half-sister, Cynnane, as she travelled east to marry her daughter, Adea, to Philip III. Coming up is Ptolemy’s theft of Alexander’s body and the death of the most popular living Macedonian at this time, Craterus.

***

Out of what I have read so far, two facts mentioned by Romm have really jumped out at me. I think I knew them already but for whatever reason they have made a strong impression on me now.

The first is that only Macedonian kings could marry more than one woman at a time. This was a big shame for Perdiccas – if noblemen could have practiced polygamy, he could have married Nicaea, Antipater’s daughter, and Cleopatra, Alexander’s only full-sister, and put himself in an all but unassailable position if he wished – as he surely did – to make a bid for the Macedonian throne. As it was, he had to pick one with the inevitable result that he would insult the parent of the other.

The second is how – between the cavalry and infantry – utterly divided the Macedonian army was. Even though I know very well what happened after Alexander died – how the infantry demanded that Arrhidaeos be made king while the cavalry decided on Roxane’s as yet unborn child, and the way in which the infantry more or less ran the cavalry out of town before a reconciliation was reached – reading about it again is still astonishing.

The fault line between infantry and cavalry seems to have been absolute. No cavalry or infantrymen joined the other side. How could they have been so opposed to each other? Had the rebellions at the Hyphasis river or at Opis divided them? Or would they have still turned on each other if Alexander had died without ever going to Asia? Whatever the answer, the fact that he managed to hold the two sides together and make sure a brilliant fighting force out of them speaks many volumes for his charisma and intelligence.

Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Ghost on the Throne: Goodreads

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XI: Size Doesn’t Matter

20th September – Eleven days to go until the 2,348th anniversary of the Battle of Guagamela. But wait; I am publishing this on the 21st. Why so? Read on. Yesterday’s question was, ‘What was the size of the Macedonian and Persian army?’

Here is what the sources say:

Arrian
Macedonian army (A.III.12.5)
– Cavalry 7,000
– Infantry c.40,000

Persian army (A.III.8.6)
– Cavalry 40,000
– Infantry 1,000,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200
Elephants c.15

Curtius
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (IV.12.13)
– Cavalry 45,000
– Infantry 200,000

Diodorus
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry  not given

Persian army (D. XVII.53)
– Cavalry 200,000
– Infantry 800,000
in addition (Ibid)
Scythed chariots 200

Justin
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (J.XI.12)
– Cavalry 100,000
– Infantry 400,000

Plutarch
Macedonian army
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry not given

Persian army (Life 31)
– Cavalry not given
– Infantry 1,000,000

Yesterday, when I compiled these figures, one thing about them struck me, and it became the reason why I am publishing this post a day late. Namely, only Arrian gives the number of Macedonian cavalry and infantry.

A confession: To find the figures, I opened my copy of Arrian et al and skim read the relevant section until I found them.

After I had finished, I was so surprised that none of the others gave the size of the Macedonian army that I feared that actually, they had done so, and in my haste I had passed them by.

Today, I had to take a day off work to go to the dentist, so I used some of the spare time to properly read each source’s account of Alexander’s journey from Egypt to Babylon just to make sure that I didn’t miss their account of his army’s size given perhaps early, perhaps later than the battle itself in the text.

In case you are wondering which sections of the books I covered:-

  • [Arrian III.6.1-16.4]
  • Curtius IV.9.1-V.1.23
  • Diodorus XVII.53-64
  • Justin XI.12-14
  • Plutarch Life of Alexander 31-35

The outcome of this exercise was that I discovered that, no, I had not missed anything out; it is indeed only Arrian who tells us the size of the Macedonian army. I am at a loss to say why.

Given that nearly all the sources – Curtius, of all people, being an honourable exception? – over inflate the size of Darius’ army, I wonder if the writers somehow wanted us to focus on the Persians as a horde, as the ineluctable wave, the seemingly invincible force that Alexander somehow managed to overcome in order to achieve glory.

Perhaps. But I have to admit, it’s not a feeling I get from the texts.

That aside, one thing can be said with certainty – or as much as history ever allows: the Macedonian army was greatly outnumbered at the Battle of Gaugamela. Despite this, it managed to achieve a stunning victory. The question of how this happened will be the focus of an upcoming post.

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

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