Posts Tagged With: Edward M Anson

Through A Glass Darkly

“Part of understanding Alexander’s success in conquering such a vast empire is to realize that Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory; all else was secondary. To put it simply Alexander was about conquest for conquest’s sake. He was not out to change the world, he was out to conquer it.”
Edward M. Anson Alexander the Great Themes and Issues

This is a great quote, though for me it identifies the beginning of what Alexander was about rather than the end.

The reason I say this is because I don’t believe that Alexander was simply ‘about conquest for conquest’s sake’. Anson seems to imply that this was so in his statement that ‘Alexander’s ultimate goal was personal glory’ only to conclude that Alexander ‘was not out to change the world’ only ‘to conquer it’.

To be fair to Anson, I think his last statement is true, although only to a point. While Alexander was certainly ‘out to conquer [the world]’, he was only not interested in changing it in terms of ushering in a new political or social order. That’s because he was very interested in changing himself and how the people of the world saw him.

Thus, rather than be known as Alexander son of Philip, he wanted to be Alexander whose deeds were greater than those of Herakles, Dionysos and Achilles, and by this excellence he wanted his enemies to be terrified of him, and his friends/allies to admire and adore him.

This is not the end of the matter. Anson’s Alexander is a rather pitiless conqueror. My Alexander, a vainglorious man. Neither portrayal is supported by the texts. Alexander was always happy to fight when necessary but also to use diplomacy if so required. He was capable of treating his enemies with exceptional kindness and was equally generous towards his friends. As for being vainglorious – how could he be truly so when he was empathic enough to identify himself with another man? And how could a vainglorious king ever be loved in the way that Alexander was by his men? Or excite the kind devotion that Sisygambis showed towards him.

Lots of questions. And, if truth be told, there is probably an answer for each and every one of them. It’s inevitable. Why? Because Alexander’s inner life, the only place where the truth about a man can ever be found, is hidden from us. We complain about the sources for Alexander’s life being written hundreds of years after the event but the truth is even if we had Ptolemy’s, Aristobulos’, Cleitarchus’ and Callisthenes’ books, they would still be the work of other people – however loyal they may have been – and therefore liable to being imperfect portraits of his character.

Our only real opportunity to understand Alexander would have been if he had published his autobiography. But even if he had, given the human capacity for (self-)deceit and manipulation – something Alexander was adept at – we could not guarantee a fully truthful work. Maybe it would have contained less truth than Ptolemy’s or any others.

It is for this reason that I regard Anson’s statement as a beginning rather than an end. The ‘end’, that is, the truth about us is simply too hidden to ever be found, or rather, fully revealed. In this life we may only look through the glass darkly.

But, at least we can look, and how boring life would be if we saw all, and understood all straight away! Maybe our bane is after all a boon.

* This is a slightly edited version of three posts from my Facebook Alexander the Great page, published between 27th-29 Dec. 2016

Categories: Alexander Scholars, On Alexander | 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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