Books

A Lion in Winter

We have snow in London today! And not just the usual two flake job that we sometimes get. Okay, I am not exactly snowed in right now but the snow has made my neighbourhood look quite pretty. Unfortunately, it is of the crystalline sort so as soon as the temperature goes up a notch it will all melt away.

Did Alexander ever have to deal with snow? Of course, he did. He no doubt had to trudge through it during his crossing of the Parapamisus (Hindu Kush aka Indian Caucasus) in 329 B.C., though both Diodorus (XVII.82) and Curtius (VII.3.6-18) focus on the difficulties that the conqueror faced when he marched through the territory of the Parapamisadae.

Curtius shows Alexander at his best as the Macedonians toiled in this primitive tribe’s inhospitable land. He describes how,

The king made the round of his troops on foot, raising up some who were on the ground and using his body to lend support to others when they had difficulty keeping up. At one moment he was at the front, at another at the centre or rear of the column, multiplying for himself the hardships of the march.
(Curtius VII.3.17)

If you only had time to give someone just one example of why the Macedonian army followed Alexander to India the above passage would be worth quoting. His selflessness here is absolute. Not only was he doing something very kind but he was doing at great personal risk. Of course, if he had collapsed, he would have been carried; but in his weakened state, would he have survived? That would not have been guaranteed.

***

In the last few days, I have finished reading The Old Guard section of Waldemar Heckel’s The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire. Along the way, I have learnt a few new words. E.g. synotrophos – a close councillor. Heckel calls Parmenion’s son Philotas the synotrophos of Amyntas Perdikka; philotimia – one who loves to be superior and philarchia – one who loves power. Antigonus Monophthalmus is described as being both of these. I should say that I got the meanings for all of these words from a Google search so if you know ancient Greek and disagree with the meanings described, do leave a note in the comments.

By the way, the Amyntas mentioned above was Amyntas III son of Perdiccas who became king of Macedon at the age of five or six in 360/59 B.C. Because of his extreme youth, Philip II either served as his regent before replacing him as king, or just took over as king from the outset. It was a necessary move, not least because of the threats that Macedon was facing at the time. Philip gave Amyntas III his daughter, Cynnane’s, hand in marriage and the couple lived in peace during Philip’s lifetime. Amyntas, however, was killed on Alexander orders in the dynastic purge following his own accession to the throne.

That was unfortunate, but in terms of Macedonian realpolitik, Amyntas’ death was necessary for he was a rival claimant to the throne. Indeed, his claim was stronger than Alexander’s, so he had to be killed lest either he create a rival power base or somehow else do so using him as its figurehead in order to overthrew Alexander.

On the theme of necessary killings, let’s jump forward to the Battle of Granicus in 334 B.C. After defeating the Persian cavalry and main body of the infantry, Alexander surrounded the Greek mercenaries who had been held back by the satraps and proceeded to massacre them. Not all the mercenaries were killed but those who survived were taken in chains back to Macedon to be worked as slaves until Athens successfully sued for their release (see Arrian III.6.2) in 332/1.

What should Alexander have done after surrounding the mercenaries? I suspect most people would say ‘accept their surrender’ and perhaps they wouldn’t be wrong. But The Marshals contains a passage which reminds us that allowing one’s enemies to live came at a potentially high cost. In the entry on Antipatros (Antipater), Heckel describes how King Agis of Sparta’s army at the Battle of Megalopolis in 331 contained 20,000 infantry, with ‘as many as 8,000 mercenaries who had escaped from Issos’ (p.41). From a strictly pragmatic point of view, Alexander should have hunted down those mercenaries and exterminated them. By allowing them to live, he put Antipater under threat and therefore his kingdom. Of course, he did something similar when he banned his satraps from using mercenaries in 324. The now unemployed soldiers returned to Greece, eventually joining Leosthenes’ army and fighting in the war against Antipater (See Dividing the Spoils, p.37). To be sure, it wasn’t Alexander’s kingdom that was placed under threat but that of Alexander IV, Philip III, and, more to the point, the Successors.

***

In his entry on Black Kleitos, Heckel makes a very interesting point about how Alexander treated the old guard: he got rid of them whenever he could. But not by murder. Heckel cites Kalas, Asandros, Antigonos, Balakros, and Parmenion – all of whom were given commands in this place or that – but importantly, away from the royal court. The same would have happened to Cleitus had he not died.

***

I am a big fan of Formula 1 racing. For many years, it was run by Bernie Ecclestone who employed a divide-and-conquer strategy in order to keep the power hungry teams in their place and make them do his bidding. The more things change the more they stay the same. Go back to the Lamian Wars in 322 B.C. After losing the Battle of Krannon, the Greek allies sued for peace. But,

… Antipatros refused to deal with the Greeks collectively, demanding instead separate peace terms with each state.
(pp.45-6)

A simple and clever move, and potentially devastating for any of the allies who didn’t play ball.

***

For this section of the post, I owe Shiralyn Mayon much thanks as she has kindly shared some You Tube videos relating to Alexander and Greek history on the Facebook page. She asked me my thoughts on them.

The first is this one,

As you can tell by the title, this video is not actually about Alexander. That notwithstanding, I enjoyed it. I learnt a little about Greek history and came away with a smile. The channel which made it is called Overly Sarcastic Productions and so, yes, the narrator is pretty sarcastic, but amusingly so.

The problem with sarcasm, however, is that it works by distorting the truth of whatever it is talking about. So, did Thebes have a ‘hissy fit’ at a peace conference? This brings me to my complaint: the video contains no dates! Which peace conference is the video talking about? I am still learning my pre-Alexander history so need all the help I can get with stuff like this. I was wondering if the video might be referring to the Peace of Antalcidas in 386 B.C. but the entry in my copy of A Chronology of Ancient Greece doesn’t really match the video’s account of what happened.

The second video is this one,

It was interesting to watch but even though it is less than five minutes long it quickly tailed off into not much, really. It starts with a claim: that ‘Alexander expressed an interest in widening his grip on India’. I would be interested to know the source for this as I have never heard it before. The other thing that jumped out at me was the statement that Alexander would probably have died in his 50s as life expectancy in antiquity ‘wouldn’t have gone past the 60s’. Tell that to Ptolemy, Seleucus and Lysimachus who all died in their 70s-80s. For me, this video is a start. The creator could profitably go back and update it when he knows more about the Wars of the Successors.

Categories: Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Parmenion and Thaïs

My tea is cooking, I am drinking a rapidly cooling cup of coffee, but I cannot not write about Alexander.

***

Since Sunday, I have only had time to read Parmenion’s entry in The House of Parmenion, Part Two of Waldemar Heckel’s The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire. And I have to admit, I did not underline any of it with my green pen. Nothing stood out enough. I feel that I have done Parmenion a disservice.

Sadly for him, that’s nothing new. His execution, brought about by the execution (some might say judicial murder) of his son Philotas, in 330 B.C., was a terrific fall from grace for someone who had been such an important figure in the Macedonian court for many years. In the years following his death, his reputation was besmirched either by Callisthenes or others in Alexander’s court whose mission it was to justify his death. They couldn’t do it directly because he had done nothing wrong, so they told stories about him – that he was an incompetent soldier, that he gave bad advice etc.

***

I have a Second Achilles Tumblr page, which I confess I do not update nearly as often as I would like; I have, however, updated it twice today. If you would like to know what contemporary song Thaïs of Athens would like, click here; if learning a little about my Twitter Macedonians takes your fancy, click here.

I have to admit, though, I wrote both posts with a bit of trepidation. I mentioned Thaïs’ song on the Facebook page the other day and I am not used to effectively re-publishing posts. Will people feel short changed? On the other hand, perhaps not everyone who uses Tumblr uses Facebook or has Liked/Followed my page there.

In regards the Twitter Macedonians, I am always wary about talking about that side of my work because I often feel it will distract from the story that I am telling on Twitter. I don’t want people to read Alexander and co’s tweets and be thinking of me. But, you know, when I read The Lord of the Rings I don’t think about Tolkien so maybe I am overthinking the matter and worrying too much. If you have any thoughts about either matter, do let me know.

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The Macedonian Supremacy

Today’s post is being powered by a glass of St. Chinian’s wine. It is a French red that, I am disappointed to say, tastes rather bland. Before you ask, this isn’t going to stop me from finishing the bottle. Red wine is too important for that. Anyway, let’s talk about Alexander.

***

Since last Wednesday, I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to anymore of Robin Lane Fox’s lecture. In fact, I am going to listen to Nos.1-4 again as I’d really like to share some of his insights.

***

What I have done, however, is started reading The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire by Waldemar Heckel. Heckel is the author of Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great which is undoubtedly the most useful reference book about Alexander that I have ever bought. If you are studying Alexander, or writing about him in any capacity, Who’s Who is an absolutely brilliant work.

But what about The Marshals? Well, I suppose this is an expanded version of Who’s Who, focusing – as the title suggests – on the most important men in Alexander’s life and army. The book is more of an academic one; you can tell this by the fact that whereas Who’s Who talks about Antipater, Craterus and Perdiccas, The Marshals has Antipatros, Krateros and Perdikkas. Scholars always mean business when they use the directly transliterated version of Greek names.

As I write this post I have only read the opening chapter of The Marshals: The Old Guard: Introduction and The House of Attalos. My green underlining pen has been busy, though. Here are some quotes.

The army that crossed the Hellespont in 334 B.C. was still very much that of Philip II…

… a purge, whether in the name of justice or filial piety, could extend only so far…

… the new King lacked the authority to reform but slightly the command structure of the expeditionary force.

All these come from the very first page. That the army was still Philip’s is, of course, a truism but also a fact that is easy to forget if we focus on Alexander too much and so worth recalling all the same. The second, and especially third, quotations are ones that are surely more difficult to remember. Alexander was king, surely he could do whatever he wanted! No, not at all. Of the latter two quotes, the third strikes me the hardest. It builds upon what I have heard other authors say about how the Greeks viewed Alexander at his accession – they did not think very much of him. It’s probably why Darius III let a satrapal army fight him at the Granicus (Graneikos if you are Weckel): Why should I waste my time with this upstart? Let the satraps give him a spanking and send him home.

One more quote,

When Alexander set out for Asia, he left many enemies, potentially dangerous, alive, both in Makedonia and within the army: witness the series of intrigues and conspiracies that followed the death of Philip II.
(The Marshals of Alexander, p.11)

This statement alone really brings home how vulnerable Alexander was in all aspects of his life. He must have had such a strong will to not succumb to paranoia from his earliest days. In light of statements like the above, it’s worth remembering that not only did Alexander not become paranoid from the start but he maintained his friendships. And had an exceptionally close one with Hephaestion. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him not to trust Amyntor’s son, and yet ~.

I do find myself in awe of his ability to be so close to Hephaestion despite having every reason to stay aloof from him and everyone.

***

Over on the Facebook page, I am coming to the end of my run of links. Tomorrow’s is the last and is about Circadian rhythms. This is your body clock – that part of you that tells you when to go to sleep and, unless you own a cat, when to wake up. The article that I link to (Shh – don’t tell anyone but it is this one. I don’t mind mentioning it here as I know not everyone on Facebook will click the link when I link to this blog post there). The scientist being interviewed states that it was,

… one of Alexander the Great’s soldiers [who] noticed circadian rhythms in the way that plants hold their flowers up towards the sun during the day, and drop during the night.

But doesn’t say which soldier. Fortunately, since I scheduled the above mentioned post, Google Alerts has told me about another article on the same subject It is this one; and here, we are told the soldier’s name: Androsthenes. Who was he? According to Weckel in Who’s Who he was a trierach in Alexander’s Indian fleet and served under Nearchus on his Indian Ocean expedition. Weckel says that Androsthenes wrote an account of that voyage – the original is lost now, but was cited by Strabo. Perhaps, therefore, Strabo is the source for Androsthenes observing the leaves of the tamarind tree?

***

Last night, I watched Jason Bourne for the first time since seeing it in the cinema. Narratively speaking, it is a rather tired film, but I still enjoyed it far more than I expected. Perhaps part of the reason for that was because I found a point of connection between Bourne and Alexander. Jason Bourne is a force of nature. He can never be stopped. When he turns his mind to something, he will see it through – all very Alexandrian traits.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Books | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Good Way, The Bad Way, The Macedonian Way

Hello from London, UK. Well, this chest bug is still with me. I had a bad time of it yesterday but overnight it weakened, and so things haven’t been so bad today. I really hope it behaves (or, well, why not, goes) as I am attending a Christmas drinks event tomorrow. Christmas drinks in November; I know, I know. Anyway, let’s talk about Alexander the Great.

***

I am still reading Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy by Partha Bose. I have to be honest and say that nothing about the book has really grabbed me in the last couple of days; however, I am appreciating still – and perhaps a little more the deeper into the book I go – his business insights. The one that sticks in my mind tonight is the example of Lou Gerstner who became CEO of IBM in the early 90s when it was in decline. By careful management of the company’s divisions, actually listening to the staff (what an idea!), stopping meetings where people talked and nothing happened, and no doubt more, he turned its fortunes around. The Macedonian equivalent of this would be Philip II’s restoration of Macedon’s fortunes after he became king in 360/59. When he took the throne, the country was in danger of being torn to pieces by its various enemies. By reforming and re-arming the army and the clever use of diplomacy he turned it into a porto-imperial power. Alexander, of course, finished the job.

***

One of the members of the Alexander the Great Reading Group on Facebook is currently posting a series of lectures by Robin Lane Fox. I have listened to the first four and cannot recommend them highly enough. Here is Part One:


Notwithstanding the fact that he is a great Alexander scholar, Lane-Fox is also a total Alexander fanboy. This is evident from the start – Alexander was the greatest conqueror… the great king… of antiquity… ever! – and whenever he talks about his involvement with Oliver Stone’s film. It’s wonderful. The lectures have some lovely titbits of information and are very insightful; for example, on the vexed question of whether the Macedonians were Greeks or barbarians or somewhere inbetween.

If you are not a member of the Reading Group, do join. You can find the group here.

***

I had a lovely conversation with @MichaelBagatti on Twitter yesterday that reminded me I need to learn more about the Hellenistic Age. By and bye, he also recommended James Romm’s Ghost on the Throne. I bought that book a while ago and am looking at it even as I type these words. (Looking at the screen again) Once I have finished with Bose, that will be my next read. I don’t have time to dive into the Hellenistic Age at the moment, but I am thinking about ways I can dip my toes in. Watch this space.

***

And that’s all for now. I have nearly finished my mug of tea. I wonder if I might open a bottle of brandy and take a sip of that later. What would Alexander do? I expect he would have finished the brandy already, chest bug or not.

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From Dionysos to Pixodarus

26.II.17

Last Thursday in Alexanderland (see the last post) was a bit of a wash-out thanks to my cold. Fortunately, it turned out to be a 24 hour illness and so on Friday I was feeling a bit better. Once this chest bug goes I’ll be really happy.

As Friday is the closest thing I have to an ‘off-day’, when I make no arrangement to do anything after I get home from work I didn’t do anything Alexander related until yesterday. Then, I opened my e-mail and looked through my outstanding Alexander related Google Alerts. Some of the links were of interest and so I will be posting them on the Facebook page from midnight GMT tomorrow (Monday, 26th November) until the same time on 4th December.

Here is a sneak-peak of what is upcoming.

  • 27/11 Dionysos in India On the Dionysiaca, one poem equal to The Iliad and Odyssey in length written about the ancient gods just as Christianity became the dominant religion in the west.
  • 28/11 A review of Assassin’s Creed: Origins. This game has been getting a lot of positive reviews. Reading this one was quite bittersweet for me. I loved AC 2 but lost faith in the franchise over its glitchiness and the yearly release schedule. I’m happy that Origins has been a return to form but sadly still feel no inclination to play it.
  • 29/11 A letter writer claims that Alexander tried to invade Ethiopia but was forced to turn back when he saw his opponent’s army. Uh-huh.
  • 30/11 A call for more Philippics and jeremiads. Don’t we already get them on Twitter?!
  • 1/12 Happy Advent! The Downfall of the Seleucid Empire. I wondered whether to post this article because it addresses current political concerns, which is not really what the Fb Alexander page is about. I wonder how Fbers will react?
  • 2/12  A re-telling of the famous anecdote about Alexander and Diogenes; this one, with a slightly different ending to their exchange (or, at least, an ending that I had not read before)
  • 3/12 A repeat of the claim that Alexander suffered from epilepsy. Did he? I could tell you to wait until this post goes up before seeing my response but that would be click baity and horrible. I’ll tell you now, No, he didn’t. It’s a misunderstand of what happened at the Cydnus river
  • 4/12 Circadian clocks and Alexander’s army. The link is to an article on the Sputnik News website. I had not heard of this website before so looked it up; apparently, it is a pro-Russian site that publishes suspect stories. In light of that, I might not have bothered with this article but have decided to post it anyway as it isn’t about politics (although it has just occurred to me that the Nobel Prize is rather political. Let’s see what the Fb readers say)

If Google Alerts provides more interesting articles, they will appear after the 4th.

***

This morning, I reached the 88th page of Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy by Partha Bose so must now decide whether to continue with it. I am still more-or-less enjoying it so will do so. I am, also, however, still bothered by his approach to the book.

I mentioned in my last post how Bose makes assumptions about Alexander’s life in order to draw lessons from them. He also plain makes up details. For example, at the start of Chapter 3 The Men Who Could Be King he has Philip II being assassinated as he falls over while some climbing steps leading into a temple. Diodorus (XVI.92-94), however, is quite clear that Philip II was assassinated as he walked into the theatre  – Oliver Stone gets this spot on in his film.

He gets other details wrong. In describing how Alexander was almost removed from the Macedonian political scene, Bose refers to the Pixodarus affair (Plutarch Life of Alexander 10). In his version of the story, however, it is not Pixodarus of Caria in south-western Asia Minor who offers his daughter’s hand in marriage to Arrhidaeos but an unnamed satrap ‘of the Persian part of Thrace’. Thrace was under Philip II’s control.

There is also a case of what might be called sinning by omission. In Bose’s retelling of the Pixodarus affair, Alexander prevents the marriage by having the actor Thessalus go to Thrace to use his acting skill to dissuade the satrap from proceeding with his offer. As a result, the ‘next day the satrap quietly withdrew the marriage proposal’. Bose’s account of the affair ends there.

According to Plutarch, however, Alexander not only sent Thessalus (to Caria) but gave him orders to tell Pixodarus that he, Alexander, was willing to marry the Carian’s daughter instead. Did Bose forget this or did he omit it because it was an wholly amateurish move that was bound to be discovered by Philip to Alexander’s and Bose’s embarrassment. For, surely, what Alexander did was not the action of a role model for CEOs and Chairmen.

Categories: Books, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

The Powers Behind the Sarissas

In my last post, I started discussing Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt, which I recently finished. Here, I am going to share any passages from Frank L. Holt’s Into the Land of Bones, which I have just started reading, and which jump out at me.

First up is this:-

No matter what the climate or circumstances might be, Alexander had to procure every day the equivalent of 255 tons of food and forage, plus 160,000 gallons of water, just to see his army alive and moving forward.
(Into the Land of Bones, p.32)

This passage comes with an end note – Holt is quoting from Donald W. Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army (University of California 1978), which I have a copy of but have yet to read (Soon! Soon!),

I read the above yesterday and it still bowls me over. 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons. That’s an awful, awful lot of food and water. It brings into very clear view the fact that Alexander benefitted from an absolutely brilliant logistics operation during his invasion of Asia. In fact, I read a while ago that it failed him only twice during his ten year anabasis – and that was when he was half way up the Hindu Kush and in the Gedrosian desert.

Who is the unsung hero of Alexander’s expedition? Whose hard work enabled the Macedonian army to remain fed and fit? Hephaestion is the name that comes first to mind because we often see him carrying out logistical work on behalf of the king.

Among his missions are picking a vassal king for Alexander in Sidon (Curtius 4.1.16-26), sailing to Gaza with siege engines (Ibid 4.5.10), and building a bridge across the Indus (Arrian IV.28). However, I don’t get the impression that Hephaestion was the chief logistician. What he was, or rather, who he was, was someone Alexander could trust to get these kind of unglamorous but absolutely necessary jobs done and so was used often in that capacity.

I’m coming round to the view now that there was not a chief logistician – not beyond Alexander himself. The way I see it happening is that Alexander said ‘I want this done’ then told whichever officer he wanted to complete the job to do it. Sometimes – often?-  it would be Hephaestion; other times, someone else. Hence, we see other senior officers also engaged in logistical work. For example, Craterus, when Alexander ordered him to gather supplies in preparation for what he thought would be a long siege at the Aornos Rock (Arrian IV.29), and again when the king ordered him and Coenus to forage in the territory on the near side of the Hydraotes river (Ibid V.21).

There is the saying ‘jack of all trades and master of none’ but it seems to me that the Macedonian officers were not only jacks-all-trades but masters of their work as well. How else could they manage to keep finding the 255 tonnes and 160 thousand gallons in diverse territories and sometimes difficult conditions for ten years on the trot, and, of course, keep winning battles under the direction of their king, a genius, it seems, on and off the battlefield?

Categories: Books, Historians of Alexander | Tags: , | 3 Comments

The Will to Create Kingdoms

lost_testamentTwo new books about and relating to Alexander have lately been published.

In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great is written by David Grant. According to The Daily Mail, Grant,

… claims to have unearthed the Macedonian king’s dying wishes in an ancient text that has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for centuries. The long-dismissed last will divulges Alexander’s plans for the future of the Greek-Persian empire he ruled. It also reveals his burial wishes and discloses the beneficiaries to his vast fortune and power.

You can read the full report here.

The ancient text referred to here is, of all things, the Alexander Romance. At first glance, the Lost Testament sounds like one of these extremely speculative works by by a historian on the fringe of respectability in their field. You know the kind: a big idea extracted from hardly an iota of evidence and then expanded with more creativity than a writer of fiction usually brings to bear on his work. However, it would not do to dismiss Mr. Grant’s work; at least, not without reading it first. Every man deserves a hearing. If we aren’t prepared to give it to them, we are better keeping our mouths shut lest we make fools of ourselves.

Therefore, don’t expect me to mention the book on this blog as I don’t intend to read In Search Of The Lost Testament Of Alexander The Great just yet. Amazon is currently selling the hardback version for £25.97 (rather surprisingly, the paperback version is priced at £29.95). Even the iBook version costs £19.99. I understand that even e-texts take a lot of work to be made ready for sale but such a high price for a book that maybe awful as well as brilliant is for me unrealistic. If the hardback receives excellent reviews from scholars in the field of Alexander studies, I would change my mind; otherwise, I shall wait for the paperback and – depending on reviews – take a punt then.

David Grant’s website: The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great
Lost Testament front cover: Amazon

The second book is From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities and a Fiefdom pyrrhus_to_cyprusby Billy Cotsis. According to Neos Kosmos, for which Mr. Cotsis writes,

Billy Cotsis explores 36 Hellenic kingdoms, territories, empires and a fiefdom to demonstrate the extent of the Greek world. From Pyrrhus to Cyprus covers the period following the end of the Alexandrian empire to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. Added to the mix are a number of independent Greek entities which existed during and post Ottoman times. The book has a twist and a connector in that it is told by a fictional Thucydides, who has managed to survive for an eternity thanks to a spell cast by Apollo. This is Cotsis’ tribute to the brilliance of Thucydides as the first-ever historian who truly presented primary facts with minimal bias.

To read the full post, click here.

I like the idea of Thucydides narrating the story. It’s a nice touch. I like even more that in the article from which I have just quoted, Mr. Cotsis places the Ptolemaic dynasty above its Seleukid counterpart in his Top Ten Greek kingdoms and, of course, puts Alexander’s empire first. For this reason, I will not be boorish and remind you that Alexander’s empire was not a Greek empire but a(n ancient) Macedonian one.

Mr. Cotsis’s book is on sale at Amazon for £7.23, which makes taking a punt on it extremely tempting.

Billy Cotsis’s website: Hellenic Travels to the Past
Front Cover of From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Amazon

Categories: Books | Tags: , | 3 Comments

The Battle of Bosworth

I have known for a while that my Alexander reading is skewed in favour of the primary sources. Over the past few years I have read, re-read and re-re-read them in order to get a good understanding of what they had to say about the Macedonian king.

However, the ultimately deficient nature of this approach came into sharp focus recently when I was asked if I could recommend any texts to read about Alexander. All I could think of was Peter Green, Robin Lane-Fox and Michael Wood – historians who I read prior to focussing on Arrian et al in 2013. And to be honest, I think I first read them at the start of my interest in Alexander, c.2007. Way too long ago*.

As a result of this, I decided to try and make 2017 the year in which I would make a concerted effort to read more secondary accounts of Alexander’s life. My second decision was to start that process now, or rather, last week, rather than wait until 1st January. Impatient as ever.

I have a lot of buying to do (my Amazon trolley is starting to heave) but for once I thought I would be sensible and start with a book that was already on my desk waiting patiently to be read – A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire The Reign of Alexander the Great.

Before I continue I should say that as I write these words I have read the first, biographical, half of the book. The second is made up of Thematic Essays, which I will leave for another day. I will explain the reason for this below.

bosworth_conques_and_empireBosworth’s name frequently pops up in my Alexander reading. In my mind – and I am sure in reality, too – he is up there with Tarn and Badian as one of the major scholars of the conqueror. Reading his book, therefore, has been a privilege.

I can’t say, however, that it has been particularly enjoyable. On the one hand, Conquest and Empire contains some good insights. On the other, it is written in a very sober to the point of dull fashion. It is not a book to read if you want to get excited about Alexander.

Part of the reason for this is that Bosworth is a sceptic when it comes to Alexander’s greatness. Actually, that’s fine; in fact, it is more than fine, it is important – we need scholars who recognise the truth that not everything Alexander did was wonderful, and that he did not always behave in a ‘great’ fashion; what made the book a bit of a chore to read was Bosworth’s style of writing. Not everyone can write with the infectious enthusiasm of Michael Wood but it’s a shame when they write in such a staid fashion that you feel your enthusiasm being sucked out rather than renewed.

For this reason, I am going to skip Bosworth’s Thematic Essays for now. I’ll come back to them after I have read one or two more books. That will give me time to forget how Bosworth wrote and remember the value of what he wrote. Speaking of which, my favourite chapter of the book is definitely the epilogue where he briefly discusses what happened in the years following Alexander’s death. The insights there helped to make up for what I didn’t like about the rest of the book.

***

Would I Recommend This Book?
Yes, definitely – but not to someone who had never read about Alexander before. Conquest and Empire is for someone who has already got excited about Alexander’s achievements but now needs to come back down to earth by understanding their cost.

* Of course, I have read other books in the meantime, but not enough

Credit
Conquest and Empire front cover: From Amazon

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: | 1 Comment

A Glimpse

hephaestions_journalHephaestion’s Journal represents a glimpse into the life of Alexander the Great as he was seen through the eyes of his closest friend.

So begins the introduction to this short (136 page) book, translated by Valentin Numbers and edited by Loren J Herbin.

Except that neither Numbers or Herbin are real; Hephaestion’s journal is a fiction-within-a-fiction, which Saiz uses to draw the reader deeper into the ‘reality’ of the book. For another example of this type of literary conceit see The Lord of the Rings, which purports to be a translation of a book written by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.

But whereas Tolkien’s role as the actual author of his work is highlighted in the Note on the Text, Note on the the 50th Anniversary Edition and Forward to the Second Edition, Saiz keeps herself very firmly in the background. Her name appears only on the spine of the book and its copyright message. It is absent from the brief About the Author note at the back of the book.

As for the book – if I had read Hephaestion’s Journal on fanfiction.net I would have have regarded it as a good example of that genre. It is a thoughtful piece of work and has been competently written.

It doesn’t yet work, however, as a novel. The story is under developed – Saiz’s Hephaestion does little more than record key moments in Alexander’s life. He feels hardly more than a royal secretary. Yes, we get insights into the development of his relationship with Alexander but only insights. These two men are at the heart of the story, we should be getting much, much more.

Only Saiz can tell us what that ‘more’ should be but I found the way she portrayed Hephaestion as being antagonistic towards Alexander during their childhood and then, in the later years of the expedition east, of the opinion that Alexander had gone mad as being intriguing ideas that have a lot of potential for further exploration.

The same could be said for some of the other characters. Saiz’s Perdiccas is licentious and a sadist, Ptolemy ‘solid’ and Craterus bent on power. So much could be done with people like them. I really hope that Saiz comes back to this subject in the future to do them justice.

Saiz’s main source for Hephaestion’s Journal is Arrian, although she also uses Plutarch and Curtius. Aristotle and Xenophon are also referenced as is Alexander scholar Elizabeth Carney. In that Saiz places Cassander (and Antipater) in Alexander’s army she may be taking inspiration from Oliver Stone’s Alexander film as well.

All-in-all Hephaestion’s Journal has the feel of a work written at leisure and then published at the writer’s ease. If Hannah Saiz was to take it back and develop it further I am confident that she would then have a book that any publisher would be interested in taking on.

6.5/10

  • Thank you to my friend Jen who sent me her copy of Hephaestion’s Journal to read. You can read her review of the book here.

Photo Credit
Front cover of Hephaestion’s Journal Booksamillion

Categories: Books | Tags: | 1 Comment

More A Catalyst Than A Creator

E.M.AnsonI didn’t mean to buy Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues by Edward M. Anson (Bloomsbury 2014).

I was in the bookshop to attend the launch of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton, and you know how it is. You attend a book launch and get your book signed. You should be happy with that, but are you? Are you really? No, book lovers can always do with one more book; even when they have no room for them.

By the time I left the bookshop, one book had become four. I read The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare first and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am biased because I have met Milton (he is a very friendly man!) but I can say with absolute honesty that he really knows how to tell a tale. And when the tale is as good as how Britain fought a ‘dirty war’ against the Nazis during the Second World War then you are in for a rollicking good ride. I thoroughly recommend The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare to you.Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare

I do not know Edward M. Anson but I am going to be even more effusive in my praise of Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues. For two reasons,

1/ Anson cites his sources in his text. I love Peter Green’s and Robin Lane Fox’s biographies of Alexander. I think they’ll always be my modern ur-texts but I really appreciate having a book where the author goes to the effort of telling me there and then his source for the statement he has just made. Well, I’m being unfair to Green, Lane Fox and others like them: they are writing popular histories and including sources would break the story up so really Anson’s book is a compliment to theirs rather than being better.

2/ The whole of Themes and Issues is a conversation with the five major sources of Alexander’s life and – especially this – modern day historians. On one page we find Anson disagreeing with Ernst Badian over this, and then on the next agreeing over that. Reading this book was like being in a lecture theatre again, and it was very exciting.

In light of the above, I am really grateful to have found this book just three years after its publication as it means I now own an up-to-date scholarly work. At least, I hope so. That’s a problem with living outside academe and not being an independent scholar: with no access to the academy you are always likely to be ten steps behind whatever the professionals are saying. I don’t even know of any academically minded Alexander blogs.

Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues isn’t perfect. There are mistakes within the text and I didn’t find the book to be a visually easy read. Anson’s text is by no means impenetrably dense but is just heavy enough for me to wish that Bloomsbury had printed the book in a slightly larger format with the text more widely spaced.

Because Themes and Issues is a more academic work I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to read about Alexander for the first time. Green, Lane Fox and the other popular historians are the perfect place to start. But once you have polished them off, Edward M. Anson’s book absolutely deserves to be in your hands and on your shelf. It has sources and good insights; it doesn’t just talk about but discusses. It is a very rewarding read.

8.5/10

Picture Credits
Alexander The Great: Themes and Issues – Goodreads
The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare – The Times

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books | Tags: | 2 Comments

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