Alexander Scholars

An engaging historical mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7/10

Picture Credit
Front Cover of The Lost Book: Tower Books

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The Air He Breathes Is The Complexity Of Life

The Mighty DeadThe Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicholson is an intense and enlightening read.

The book is also a deeply personal one as Nicholson grounds Homer’s story – which for him begins not in the eighth century B.C. when Homer is supposed to have lived, nor even in c.1250 when the events that inspired The Iliad are believed to have taken place, but centuries earlier – in the journey of his own life.

Thus, we find him ruminating on Homer while sailing in the Atlantic, and searching for the gates of Hades in southern Spain. This might have been just a nice literary conceit had Nicholson not included an account of how he was raped at Palmyra in Syria.

It is very brave of him to tell such a story and it elevates the personal aspect of this book from potentially being just a means to an end to being part of the end; Palmyra connects his life to that of the Trojans and Greeks whose story Homer told in a way that writing from a study or even boat never could.

Even at the best of times, The Mighty Dead is not an easy going read – there’s too much going on, both in the past and present – for that to be the case, but what it loses in casualness it makes up for in insight. I cannot stress that enough. Therefore, if you are interested in Homer or even just want to read a really well-written book, I recommend The Mighty Dead to you. I am sure you will not be disappointed.

9/10

Picture Credit
Front cover of The Mighty Dead: Waterstones

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Getting the Rub of the Green

For the last three or so years I have concentrated on reading the five ancient Roman/Greek accounts of Alexander’s life.

Having now read Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus, Justin and Plutarch all the way through and more than once I now feel ready to engage with the modern historians once more.

Unfortunately, I do not at the moment have half as much time as I should like to do this. Never mind, I told myself, I’ll limit myself to reading previously unread historians all the way through. I’d like to say hello to old friends, though, so I will just read a chapter of their books in order to re-acquaint myself with the author again.  It’s not perfect but is better than nothing.

p_green

In that spirit, I opened up Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. A Historical Biography. It was one of the first books about Alexander that I read and second only to Robin Lane Fox’s in how much I enjoyed it.

This time round I read the chapter titled The Captain-General and I am delighted to say that I enjoyed it just as much as I did in memory. What I appreciated most was the way Green combined his historical account of Alexander’s life with his own comments and analysis. The two seemed to me to be in perfect balance and harmony. Perhaps as a result of this, or just on account of Green’s superior penmanship, the chapter flowed really well and before I knew it I had reached the end.

I didn’t think the chapter was perfect. Green makes unsupported statements*. It is only recently that I have begun to realise that scholars do this, and in my opinion – even if you are writing for a general audience – this is a bad habit. Why do they do it?

But what is positive about this chapter far outweighs the negative. For example, another good thing about it is its judicious use of graphics; here a map of Alexander’s route through Asia Minor, there a map of the Persian satrapies – and in the middle a table showing the make-up of the Macedonian army when it left Macedon.

I would like to end by praising Green’s analysis. Useful, valuable, and interesting. Here are some of the things that I highlighted as I read,

  • Parmenion and Antipater may not have been acting in an entirely disinterested fashion when they told Alexander he should marry and father an heir before beginning his expedition. Both had unmarried daughters
  • 12,000 of Alexander’s men remained behind to defend Macedon against her enemies after he left for Asia Minor. This tells you a great deal about how reconciled Greece was to Macedonian control
  • The ‘scientific knowledge’ that Alexander brought back with him after his return to Babylon formed the basis of the West’s understanding of the East for centuries afterwards

I came away from Alexander of Macedon feeling enriched by it. I had learnt new knowledge, or relearnt old, dared to disagree and been encouraged by Green’s professionalism to continue my own study. I really can’t ask much more from a book than that.

So, if you are looking for a book about Alexander to read, I strongly recommend this one. Peter Green has been there and is a great teacher to listen to and debate with, to ponder and use as a springboard to further study.

* For example, ‘Alexander himself often derived malicious amusement from playing [his court writers] off against each other’. Really? This is a juicy bit of gossip – and not information I recall seeing anywhere else – it must be worth an explanation, or at least a footnote. Sadly, neither is forthcoming
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A Country Ancient and Modern

I.

I have just started reading Philip and Alexander of Macedon by D G Hogarth. This book was first published in 1897 and so represents a Victorian (or Victorian’s) view of Alexander and his father.

I’m reading the book for two reasons.

One To find out what the Victorian view of Alexander was. As Philip and Alexander predates World War One I am imagining that its view of war, for example, might be more ‘positive’ (if that is the right word to use). Hogarth’s view of the Persians in relation to Alexander will also be interesting to see. Will his Alexander be to his subjects what Britain in the late Victorian period was to hers?

Two I would like to learn more about David Hogarth. I first discovered him in my reading about T E Lawrence; Hogarth was Lawrence’s boss during the 1910 archaeological season at Carchemish. The two would meet again during the Arab Revolt. Last week, I attended a talk on Lawrence at the British Museum. There, the speaker described Hogarth as a man ‘in desperate need of a biography’. If I can read more of his works, including, of course, his autobiographical ones, maybe I will jot down a few words about him.

T.E._Lawrence;_D.G._Hogarth;_Lt._Col._Dawnay T E Lawrence (L), D G Hogarth (centre), Lt. Col. Alan Dawnay (R)

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It isn’t in my mind to do a ‘read through’ of Philip and Alexander but as and when I come across any information or insights I will be sure to share them.

On that note, I already have something I would like to mention. In his Prologue The Man of the Age Hogarth dismisses Connop Thirlwall’s idea that Philip was ‘”great, not for what he was, but for what it was given him to do!”‘. Philip, Hogarth replies, was not ‘a blind tool of heaven’ but could see clearly ‘the faults of a dying order’. His response was to evolve

… the first European Power in the modern sense of the word – an armed nation with a common national ideal.

I had to catch my breath when I read that as I am used to thinking of the nation state rising in the Middle Ages. Thinking about it, though, I can see the sense in what Hogarth is saying. If he is right, I wonder if we can call Alexander’s empire an E.U. of the east. I shall keep that thought in mind.

Picture credits
T E Lawrence, D G Hogarth and Lt. Col. A Dawnay: Wikipedia

See also
ii. General Ronald Storrs and Cardinal Francis Bourne
iii. David Hogarth on Alexander’s Influence

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