Books

Shipping Cyrus (Amongst Others)

I visited my sister yesterday; she homeschools her children and is currently studying ancient Greek history with her eldest. More than that, they are currently studying Alexander the Great!

We had a good chat about who might have killed Philip II and why, what happened to Alexander’s empire after the wars of the successors and how Alexander himself might have fared in battle against other great generals, including Cyrus the Great.

Speaking of whom, he is the subject of an interesting new book from the Harvard University Press.

As soon as time and money allow, I will definitely be checking out this volume. Cyrus, of course, was one of Alexander’s heroes. Their lives intersected, in a manner of speaking, at several points during Alexander’s life.

For example, Alexander favoured the Ariaspians (aka Euergetae) for the help they gave Cyrus during his campaign against the Scythian people (Arrian III.27.4-5), and may have had Cyrus in mind when he tried to introduce proskynesis in Bactria (see Arr. IV.11.9); in addition, one of the reasons Alexander chose to cross the Gedrosian desert was to emulate and better Cyrus (and Semiramis) who had done so at the cost of their armies (Arr. VI.24.2-3). Finally, he made a point of visiting Cyrus’ tomb in Pasargadae, and was very distressed to find that it had been desecrated (Arr.VI.29.4-11).

When you consider that Alexander also looked up to Herakles and Achilles, he really was a one-man multiple fandom.

Back at my sister’s house, I was happy to see that her study book asks the student to consider why the sources give us certain information and what it might mean. I have to confess that when I first started reading the Alexander historians, I trusted them from start to finish, and it took me several years before I finally said to myself, ‘hold on, I can’t do that’.

This was a product, no doubt, of my own laziness of thought and the casual way I read the books back then. Never mind – what’s done is done; coming back to the present, you’ll notice that all the citations above are from Arrian. Very likely, then, he is referencing Ptolemy and/or Aristobulos. A good question to take away from this post, therefore, is why they – or Arrian’s sources in general – might have decided to highlight Alexander’s connection to Cyrus the Great.

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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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Two Women, One King and Belonging

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One Story, Different Interpretations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credits
Both images are from Amazon (UK)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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A Quick Catch Up

It has been just over a month since my last post and I am afraid to say that in that time I have let my Alexander reading go a bit. As is common with me, I have been rather distracted by other books and writing projects.

One book that has been very much on my mind, or rather, in my ears is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I have been listening to the audiobook version as read by Jeremy Irons.

Brideshead is one of my most favourite novels. You may know that Irons played the protagonist, Charles Ryder, in the superb 1981 ITV adaptation of the book. If you have not seen it, I can’t recommend the series highly enough. It is faithful to Waugh’s book and utterly sumptuous.

Despite all that, I would not have cause to mention it here except for one piece of dialogue, spoken by Ryder’s wife, Celia in Chapter Two of Book Three. There, Ryder – as the narrator – describes how his wife drew party guests ‘to the subscription list for the book of Ryder’s Latin America‘. He continues,

I heard her say: ‘No, darling, I’m not at all surprised, but you wouldn’t expect me to be, would you? You see Charles lives for one thing – Beauty. I think he got bored with finding it ready-made in England; he had to go and create it for himself. He wanted new worlds to conquer…’

‘He wanted new worlds to conquer…’

Depending on who you read, Alexander is said to have cried either because there were no new worlds to conquer or because when there was an infinity of worlds, he had not yet conquered one (for more on this, see the ‘Disputed’ section of Wikiquotes entry on Alexander here).

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The BBC’s new Troy: Fall of A City series begins on 17th February. I will be writing about it on this blog. The series has aroused interest and controversy on social media due to its representation of certain characters; most notably, Achilles, who is played by a black actor.

What will I be looking for from the series? What with the fall of Troy being a myth, I would like to see a drama that speaks to our age as well as that of Troy: if I wanted The Iliad, I would read the poem. With that said, I would like to see the characters being faithful to Homer’s vision of them. The worst thing that could happen is that they are written as moderns. Period dramas where the characters are men and women of our age are an insult to the past.

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The Fb Mary Renault Reading Group has changed its name to The Alexander the Great Reading Group. From March, the focus will move on to Renault’s Nature of Alexander. The change in name is wise for at some point or another we will move on from Renault. I am very disappointed, though, that we were not able to bring Funeral Games to a finish. The will, however, was simply not there.

I am most disappointed in myself. I enjoyed Renault’s previous Alexander books and I could have made a lot more effort to finish Funeral Games. There was always something else to read, though…

I’m determined not to forget Funeral Games, though; I will dig the book out and will make an effort to continue reading it in the coming weeks/months. I will post any thoughts I have here.

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Changing the Past: In Antiquity and Today

New Year is well and truly over and I am back at work. When is my next holiday?

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This week I read Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. Don’t be confused by the last name, she is that Agatha Christie. Mallowan was her married name. The reason for its use here is because Come, Tell Me is not a crime novel but an account of the archaeological trips to the Near East that she undertook with her archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, in the 1930s.

In Chapter One, Christie and her husband make their way to Syria on the Orient Express. They witness no murders, fortunately, but do pass the Sea of Marmora and Cilician Gates in Turkey.

As soon as I saw these names, my mind went back to Alexander. Christie’s Marmora became Diodorus’ Marmarens. The Marmarens (who, I should say, lived in Lycia rather than around the Sea of Marmara) attacked the Macedonian army as it marched past, killing no few soldiers, kidnapping others and stealing booty. Alexander, unsurprisingly, was rather displeased by this, and lay siege to the Marmarens’ fort.

For two days, Alexander attacked it. However, although he failed to break its defences, he did enough to persuade the Marmaren elders that he would stay until he had done so. Upon realising this, the elders,

… advised their younger countrymen to end their resistance and make peace with the king on whatever terms were possible.
(Diodorus XVII.28)

Interestingly, the younger Marmarens refused to do this. Diodorus tells us that they ‘were eager to die together simultaneously’ (Ibid) for the sake of their freedom. Now, at this point, you might have thought that the elders would have knocked their children’s heads together, remind them of who was in charge and lead the surrender before the youngsters came out with another tom fool idea. But no, they acquiesced to this, and came out with a tom fool idea of their own. The elders told the young men If you are determined to die, kill your wives, children and elderly relatives then break out of the fort and hide yourselves in the mountains.

The young men liked this idea and went away to have a last meal with their families. That evening, however, some of them reneged on the plan. But they didn’t run away with their loved ones. Instead of killing their families ‘with their own hands’ (Ibid) as the elders had suggested, they set fire to their homes and burned them alive. Six hundred men did this, and having done so, they should have had the decency to die with their loved ones. But no. They duly broke out of the fort and headed to the mountains.

This story has stuck with me since I read it. I am fascinated by the apparent equality of power between the young and old Marmarens. I have not heard of any other society in antiquity, or since, for that matter, where a similar situation has existed.

But… Did it exist? It may not have. The above quotations from Diodorus comes from my Loeb edition. The notes there state that ‘Appian… tells the same story of Xanthus, traditionally destroyed in this way three times… it was something of a literary topos’ (Diodorus XVII.28 n.5). Indeed, as the notes say, Diodorus repeats the story in Book XVIII.22 of his Library. There, it is the Isaurians in Pisidia who, seeing that they have no chance of breaking Perdiccas’ siege, burn their families alive in their homes. The Isaurians, however, do not try to flee afterwards. Instead, they destroy their possessions in the fire and, after defending the city for a little while longer, jump into the flames themselves.

Diodorus calls the Isaurians’ actions ‘a heroic and memorable deed’ (Dio.XVIII.22). I can only wonder if he changed the original account of what happened to the Marmarens and Isaurians to highlight their perceived heroism or if his sources did so.

***

Only Diodorus mentions the Marmarens. In contrast, both Arrian (II.4.3-6) and Curtius (III.4.11-14) refer to Alexander’s passage through the Cilician Gates on his way to Tarsus. There, their similarity ends.

Curtius states that Alexander looked at the narrow path ahead of him and,

… they say [was] never more surprised at his good fortune. For, he observed, he could have been crushed just by rocks, if there had been anyone there to hurl them down on his approaching troops.
(Curtius III.4.11)

According to Arrian, however, the Cilician Gates were heavily defended when Alexander arrived, but when the Persian soldiers realised ‘that Alexander was leading the attack in person’ (Ar.II.4.4), they fled. This sounds altogether a more likely version of events than Curtius’ as it would make no sense for the local satrap, Arsames, to leave the pass undefended.

***

One of the things that makes Alexander such an interesting figure to study is the fact that he defies our expectations. I was reflecting on this the other day and contemplating writing a blog post titled ‘Alexander the (Social Justice) Warrior’ focusing on how he pardoned Timoclea after she killed the Thracian soldier who raped her (Plutarch Life of Alexander 12), his treatment of the Persian queen and princesses (Pl. Life 21) and the conquered Persians (e.g. in the way he tried to integrate them into his imperial hierarchy as satraps). These were all very progressive social actions.

Alexander was not just about the fighting; and when he did fight he did not do so just to make Greece look good. Like any social justice warrior he wanted to change the world for the better. Hence, the above mentioned actions and the fact that he took surveyors and scientists on his expedition.

Of course, the name ‘social justice warrior’ has a pejorative meaning as well. And guess what. Alexander can be found there as well.

Thus, taking the Urban Dictionary’s definition (here),

… an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation.

Having been taught by Aristotle, Alexander could hold his own in an argument. However, he was undeniably concerned with his reputation. That was the whole reason for the expedition.

Social Justice Warriors or SJWs are: People with paper thin skin who always find something to be offended about. They generally have no concept of humour.

As Black Cleitus (Curtius VIII.1.22-52), Callisthenes (Pl. Life 53) and Cassander (Pl. Life 74) found out to their collective cost Alexander could be very easily offended sometimes, with fatal consequences.

[SJWs] aggressively call for the downfall of the person who carelessly offended them.

Philotas (Curtius VI.7.1-11.40), anyone?

But as I said above, Alexander defies our expectations. He is not only a progressive but also very conservative. Perhaps I will come back to that in my next or a future post.

***

The BBC and Netflix are producing a new drama based on the Trojan War. Controversy is following in the series’ wake, however, due to the fact that some of the characters, including Achilles, are being played by black actors. For more, see the Greek Reporter here.

If I had been the casting director, I would have chosen a white actor to play Achilles. That’s what he was. However, the more I think about it, the less I think that the casting director is obliged to hire a white person.

The Iliad is not history. Homer’s Achilles did not exist. He might be based on a real person but he is not them. Homer’s Achilles is a myth. He is a meaning. And in that capacity, he can be reinterpreted by every age as it sees fit. Indeed, it is only by being reinterpreted that he remains relevant to us.

If a law was made that permitted only one, single version of Achilles, we would bound him to the meaning of a specific time and place, and one day, he would become strange and unknowable to us. I would a thousand thousand times over rather have a black Achilles, a female Achilles, an Achilles who loves Hector rather than Patroclus or a pacifist Achilles rather than an irrelevant Achilles.

Categories: Alexander in Film, Arrian, Books, Diodorus Siculus, Homer, Plutarch, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Of Ghosts and Footprints

Happy New Year! I hope you have a happy and fruitful 2018. Have you made any resolutions? I have two Alexander related ones:-

  1. Read Diodorus’ account of Philip II’s life (Book XVI of his Library)
  2. Read The Iliad again

Philip II
I have never read a full account of Philip’s life. All that I know about him comes from books about Alexander. He deserves better than that so Diodorus XVI will, I hope, be a first step in doing justice to the man without whom Alexander would not, could not, have conquered most of the known world.

The Iliad
I am going to read the World’s Classic translation. I have owned this edition since my university days in the ’90s. The poem, of course, has been translated more recently but I am keen to read the World’s Classic version because I am looking for a particular quotation:

Men will know the difference now that I have come.

In my memory, these words are spoken by Achilles. When, though, I can’t remember. I presume it is after he leaves his tent following Patroclus’ death. I have to admit, though, it is only the quotation that I can remember (Though do I have it right…?). For all I know, I actually read it somewhere else and over time I have attached it to The Iliad because it is the kind of thing Achilles would say. Well, in 2018 I hope I can find out whether or not this is true.

***

Straight after finishing Partha Bose’s Alexander the Great’s Art of Strategy, I started Ghost on the Throne by James Romm. Ghost is his account of the Wars of the Successors.

The last book length treatment of these wars that I read was Robin Waterfield’s Dividing the Spoils, which I enjoyed tremendously. Ghost on the Throne has, therefore, big boots to fill.

So far, I have only read the six page introduction but it begins very excitingly with Manolis Andronikos’ discovery of the royal tombs at Vergina. The introduction includes photographs of four ivory heads found in the tomb. They are identified as ‘Alexander’s Companions’. Before opening this book, I had only heard of the Alexander and Philip busts so it was a revelation to discover that there was more.

… though having said that, doesn’t Michael Wood see these heads in his In the Footsteps of Alexander documentary?

***

This morning, I read Plutarch’s 23 page Life of Eumenes. I wasn’t expecting to read this but yesterday I received a message from ‘anonymous’ via my Alexander Tumblr page asking for my thoughts about Alexander’s war secretary who went on to become one of the most skilled generals in the Wars of the Successors so before replying I decided to take the opportunity to refresh my memory concerning him.

Eumenes does not appear in the major sources of Alexander’s life very often. Arrian mentions him all but four times, Curtius twice; Plutarch (in his Life of Alexander) and Diodorus do not mention him at all. The reason for this is no doubt because for most of Alexander’s expedition, Eumenes served ‘only’ as the king’s war secretary. His only recorded military action was in India. There, Alexander gave him 300 cavalrymen and orders to notify two rebellious towns that a third, Sangala, had been captured but that if they submitted then they would have nothing to fear from him. In the event, Eumenes was unable to deliver this news as the residents of both towns had already heard about Sangala’s fall and fled.

Having given Eumenes only 300 cavalrymen Alexander clearly did not intend him to do anything more than deliver his message. If the Indians had resisted, Eumenes would undoubtedly have backed off and called to Alexander for help. As it was, this is pretty much what happened, anyway. Eumenes sent word to Alexander that the towns were empty. Thereafter, the king chased after the Indians. They had got a head start, though, and so most escaped.

It is interesting that we don’t hear of Eumenes chasing the Indians, either before or after Alexander’s arrival. He could have done but it wouldn’t surprise me if Alexander had told him ‘stay where you are’ on account of his inexperience.

But could he have been so inexperienced? It is astonishing to see how he went from administrator to one of the most competent generals of the early Successor Wars (Eumenes died in 316 BC). Where, though, might that experience have come from?

Alexander could have used Eumenes in a military capacity at any time during the expedition. But if he had, is it very likely that he would have given him this really minor responsibility now? I can’t see it. Sangala was destroyed in the summer of 326 BC. I wonder if Alexander gave Eumenes further military responsibilities as the Macedonian army, first, made its way to the Hyphasis river, and then, as it marched and sailed to the Indian ocean. The army did not reach the Gedrosian desert until September 325 so Eumenes would have had nearly a year’s experience as a general (perhaps a little more if he took part in the Cossaean campaign) to take into the Successor period. That’s still not much time, but perhaps men of genius don’t really need it.

By the way, if you would like to read Arrian’s and Curtius’ account of Eumenes’ sole known military command under Alexander, you can do so at Arrian V.24.6-7 and Curtius IX.1.19.

***

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading Caesar’s Footprint’s: Journeys to Roman Gaul by Bijan Omrani. When I saw it in the bookshop, I had to buy it. I love travelogues, and especially ones where the writer walks in the footsteps of famous historical people.

Having said that Caesar’s Footprints is not quite Omrani’s In the Footsteps of Alexander; his scope is far broader. He begins with Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul but moves on to look at the impact that Rome had on the territory from the time of Caesar through to the end of the Roman age five hundred years later.

The book is a great read, being in turn informative, descriptive, and evocative. I’m always happy to spend time in Julius Caesar’s company but was especially happy to learn about Gallo-Roman citizens such as Ausonius, who wrote a beautiful love poem to his new wife; a Gallic goddess named Sequana, and early Christian bishops like St Martin of Tours who did 25 years in the army before becoming a priest. He did several tours before becoming of Tour (sorry).

Of course, I knew about St Martin already but not the details of his life. I was sad to read that he wanted to deal with paganism using the same violent methods that Rome did in respect of Christians. I suppose he and Rome regarded their enemies as an existential threat but I still wish that he could have employed something other than violence to do away with pagan temples (There’s no mention of St Martin authorising acts of violence against people but we know that other Christian leaders though time have done so).

Anyway, I would not have mentioned the book here except that there does appear to be an Alexander reference. Sidonius sent a book to his relative, Apollinaris; with it, he sent a poem, addressed to the book, in which he ‘describes the route it must take to reach its destination’ (B Omrani Caesar Footprints 2017 p.212). Upon its arrival, Sidonius says it will ‘probably encounter Apollinaris walking in his secluded gardens’ (Ibid),

And if he were not to be found among the flowers, he would be cooling himself in his imitation grotto on the slope of a neighbouring hill, a ‘cavern’ formed by the branches of trees arching together to create a natural portico – better even than the ancient orchards of the Indian King Porus, which he decorated with golden vines heavy with clusters of gems.
(Ibid)

Is this Alexander’s Porus? I don’t recall the sources talking about his wealth but I don’t know of any other important kings of that name. Then again, I don’t know much ancient Indian history apart from Alexander. It would be great to get some background to this.

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

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