Posts Tagged With: Mary Renault

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)

Categories: Books | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Doubting Mary

27th August 2018

In my last post, I mentioned an online article which cast doubt on the veracity of the figure of Herakles, Alexander’s son by Barsine. It was, I said, the first time I had seen doubt expressed regarding whether Herakles was a real person or not.

A few days later, and perhaps rather inevitably, I came across another writer expressing the same doubt. That writer was none other than Mary Renault in The Nature of Alexander. Speaking about the capture of the non-royal women at Damascus*, she says,

These ladies, not being royal game, were not so strictly preserved. One has a role in Alexander’s legend, another in his history. Only Plutarch says that he took for himself Barsine, Memnon’s widow and Artabazus’ daughter; for the staggering reason that Parmenion – of all people! – told him she would be good for him. The dubiety of the story lies not only in this, but in the powerful motive for inventing it. No record at all exists of such a woman accompanying his march; nor of any claim by her, or her powerful kin, that she had borne him offspring. Yet twelve years after his death a boy was produced, seventeen years old, born therefore five years after Damascus, her alleged son ‘brought up in Pergamon’; a claimant and short-lived pawn in the succession war, chosen probably for a physical resemblance to Alexander. That he actually did marry another Barsine [Stateira II] must have helped both to launch and preserve the story but no source reports any notice whatever taken by him of a child who, Roxane’s being posthumous, would have been during his lifetime his only son, a near royal mother. In a man who named cities after his horse and dog, this strains credulity.
(Mary Renault “The Nature of Alexander” pp.100-1)

It would take a blog post or two to do justice to Renault’s statement. For now, I would like to just mention a few thoughts that I have about it.

  1. Is it really so hard to imagine Alexander taking advice from Parmenion? I know he gets short shrift in some of the texts but even if that is because he made some wrong or bad calls, Alexander never stopped trusting him. When he left him at Ecbatana, he put into Parmenion’s hands, an awful lot of money and troops. It would have been truly ‘staggering’ for him to do that if he did not have complete confidence in the general.
  2. Herakles wasn’t produced out-of-the-blue twelve years after Alexander’s death. Nearchus suggested him for the vacant crown at the first Babylonian conference (Curtius X.6.10-12). I presume Renault would say this was a fiction created in 311 –
  3. – But if so, wouldn’t Cassander have known it? Wasn’t he in Babylon when Alexander died, after all? Even if he wasn’t, he could simply have asked someone – Ptolemy, for example – who was there, if Nearchus had mentioned Herakles and then acted accordingly. Well, maybe he didn’t have time. The whole matter is still very fishy, though.

* Following the Battle of Issus in 333 BC

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Speaking of The Nature of Alexander, I am still reading the book. This morning, I started the Persia chapter and left a comment about it on the Alexander Reading Group Facebook page. To read it, or any of the other comments in the Reading Group, click here.

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Curtius (VII.6.12) states that Alexander asked a friend of his named Derdas to cross the Tanais* river to undertake a diplomatic mission and engage in a little intelligence gathering. He asked him ‘to explore the terrain and make an expedition also to those Scythians who live beyond the Bosphorus’.

I’ve always been intrigued by this passage. As you no doubt know, the Bosphorus is the strait** that splits Istanbul into a European and Asian city. Did Alexander really think that he had travelled so far round the world that he was but days or mere weeks away from Asia Minor? It sounds like it, though the idea is hard to credit.

Speaking of ’round’, did Alexander know that the world was a sphere? You would be forgiven for saying ‘no’ on the grounds that there was so much that the ancients did not know about the world. However, if you did, you’d be wrong. According to the British Library’s blog, here, Plato and Aristotle – Alexander’s teacher, of course, – taught unambiguously that the world was round. What no one knew, though, was how people on the other side of the world didn’t fall off it. Gravity remained unknown.

*aka Jaxartes, modern day Syr-darya
** As well as the ‘small indentation at’ the base of a woman’s throat. First prize to anyone who can guess which book and film this comes from. It’s been mentioned on this blog before!

Categories: Of The Moment, On Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

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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!

Categories: Alexander Scholars, Books, Historians of Alexander, Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Categories: Books, Homer | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

From Cats to Flowers, Kings to Poets

Linked to Alexander (4)
More Links Here

30th October 2014
Local cats get national attention with calendar
Alexander the Great… cat from NWF Daily News

31st October 2014
When the Greeks Ruled Egypt
Good to read something about the Ptolemies

31st October 2014
Letter: Alexander wasn’t ‘great’
From the Daily Freeman newspaper

31st October 2014
Homer truths in high places: plant-hunting on Mount Olympus
Robin Lane Fox goes flower hunting

More Alexander
Why not visit this blog’s Tumblr page? I have started a series of short blog posts on Plutarch’s Life of Alexander. Click here to read more.

Are you a fan of Mary Renault? We are reading her Alexander trilogy over at Facebook.

Categories: Linked to Alexander | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Politicised Archaeology and other Subjects

Linked to Alexander (3)
More links here

21st August 2014
Mary Renault’s Alexander: history and fiction both
The Guardian Book Club on MR’s Alexander trilogy (see also 24th Aug. 14)

23rd August 2014
Hamblin & Peterson: Alexander the Great wasn’t content to be merely human
On Alexander’s divinity

26th August 2014
Book Review: All our Alexandrias
“Hala Halim examines the long and cosmopolitan history of Alexandria”

26th August 2014
Tom Holland’s web-chat with The Guardian Reading Group on Mary Renault and other subjects
Scroll down to the comments to find the web-chat

1st September 2014
Michael Wood on Alexander the Great and the Middle East
A free talk on Monday 15th September 6-7:30pm

1st September 2014
Amphipolis Tomb: All Circus, No Bread at Greece’s Newly Found “Archaeological Disneyland”
A critical article from the Greek Reporter on the hullabaloo surrounding the Lion Tomb

2nd September 2014
Politicized Archaeology
from ekathimerini newspaper

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Mary Renault Reading Group on Facebook

Alexander-trilogy
Have you read Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy? Would you like to? One of the the members of this blog’s Alexander the Great page on Facebook has set up a Mary Renault Reading Group page.

The aim will be to read the trilogy and then Renault’s biography The Nature of Alexander.

I have never read Renault’s books before – actually, that’s not quite true; I started one of them a few months ago but got distracted and never went back to it. Being part of a reading group, therefore, will be great motivation to open the books up again.

The Mary Renault Reading Group is for anyone who loves Alexander. It doesn’t matter whether you know a lot or little about him, or whether you have read Renault’s books before, or never even knew they existed. Sharing, learning and – most of all – enjoying are what the group will be about.

Happy reading!

Mary_Renault

  • The picture of Renault’s trilogy comes from their publisher – Virago Books
  • The photograph of Renault herself is from Wikipedia
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From Macedonia in Fiction to Crete in Fact

Links to Alexander (2)
More links here

5th August 2014
Historical Fiction can speak very clearly to the present and to the past
The Guardian Book Club – references Mary Renault’s Fire From Heaven

8th – 10th August 2014
Counterpunch
The No State Solution
Alexander represents what needs to be destroyed in order for peace to prevail

10th August 2014
Popular Takes on Raksha Bandham
A legendary story of how Roxane used this Hindu festival to help Alexander

12th August 2014
Making Alexander great: creating a hero from zero
The Guardian Book Club on Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy

13th August 2013
USC historian plays with the pieces of an ancient puzzle
“An expert on the Ptolemaic dynasty broadens her studies of Hellenistic Egypt”

Also…

There have been numerous stories around the web on the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis. Dr Dorothy Lobel King says what needs to be said best on her blog PHDiva.

The Patrick Leigh Fermor blog has good news about the publication this autumn of not one, but two books about the abduction of General Kreipe by Leigh Fermor and Cretan partisans during the Second World War.

Last Week’s Links

Categories: Linked to Alexander | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

14. 3. 2014

By-the-Bye No. 1
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Tom Holland and Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy
A few weeks ago on my Alexander Facebook page I mentioned that Virago Books are re-releasing Mary Renault’s Alexander Trilogy. I started reading one of them, The Persian Boy, I think, a while ago but got nowhere with it. Not the book’s fault – the story was being told from Bagoas the eunuch’s perspective, and I’m not really interested in him. I might have another go with the new editions, though, especially as they will come with an introduction-or-three by Tom Holland.
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Alexander the Fourth… Version
Did you know that Oliver Stone is releasing a fourth version of his ‘biopic’ of Alexander? It will be called Alexander The Ultimate Cut and is due for release on 3rd June this year. Here it is at Amazon. I will buy it, if only to see what changes Stone has made. Unfortunately,  I don’t expect to come away thinking ‘Finally, Oliver Stone has made a great picture’. This is because, to my mind, his Alexander is fundamentally flawed; for example, in silly mistakes such as the absurd accents or the insipid interpretation of Hephaestion, but also in the more serious errors such as the hatchet job done on Philip II. This is not to say that the film is and always will be unwatchable – I enjoyed watching Alexander Revisited for my scene-by-scene series and appreciated the film more as a result – but I do think it means that no matter what Stone does to the film he will never get the first class picture that he craves.
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And yet, he must clearly love it to come back to it time and again. If only he would move on and, perhaps, direct or produce a documentary series on Alexander. That would be worthy of his devotion and give him a new chance to write the story he obviously wants.

300 Rise of an Empire
300 Rise of an Empire has just come out in Britain. Lucky us. I am being a little unfair. 300 was immensely silly but enjoyable in its own silly way; I daresay that Rise of an Empire is more of the same. I enjoyed reading Pop Classics’ review of it; particularly as it taught me a new word – parallelaquel, being a sequel that takes place before, during and after the original movie!

Forgotten Dynasties
A couple of days ago I opened the Livius website and started reading about the Attalid and Antigonid dynasties. Before doing so you could have summed up my knowledge of both as – the Attalids? Who? Where? And, Antigonids? You mean the ones defeated by the Romans? So it was good to learn a little more about them both. Next, I should do the same for the Seleucid kings. My heart will always be with the Argeads and Ptolemies but it is good to fill in the blank spaces in one’s knowledge.
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Well Done to The Last of Us et al
The British Film Academy held its annual video game awards this week (Here is the Daily Telegraph’s report). Am I the only one who would love to see a game based on the Macedonian phalanx. It could be a First Person… what? Shooter obviously won’t do; I am going for Stabber and Slasher. I believe there are strategy games based on Alexander’s conquests but the FPS&S would allow the player to get up close and personal at the front of the phalanx. Blood, gore and mayhem. Brilliant.

Pi in the Sky
Happy Pi Day to this blog’s American readers.
The official (??) website claims that this day is celebrated ‘around the world’. Alas, not in Britain where – as you can see from the title of this post – we place the day before the month. Still, the sentiment – that we use the day to celebrate maths – is a good one. As I am as good with numbers as Ptolemy I Soter, though, I fear I will use our different method of dating as an excuse to ignore all things mathematical until tomorrow (and thereafter).
 
2058 Years of Hurt
Speaking of anniversaries – tomorrow is, of course, the Ides of March. Had I been around in First Century BC Rome I would definitely have been on Julius Caesar’s side* so it will naturally be a sad occasion for me. I may have to take a little wine to assuage the pain. If so, I shall raise a glass to the other great man. 

* Well, okay, I would probably have been a peasant but I’m sure we have all harboured thoughts of being a patrician. Haven’t we?

Themes
This blog uses the WordPress “Adventure Journal” theme. I would like to replace it with one that looks more professional without being totally smooth and soulless. Can you recommend one? All ideas are welcome! On this point, if you have any comments about the content of the blog, I am very happy to receive them – this applies not only to what you have read but also anything that you like or dislike about the blog or would like to see etc. I may or may not act upon what you say but I will certainly take your thoughts into account in deciding what to write in the future.

Categories: By the Bye, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

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