We are accustomed to calling Alexander of Macedon ‘the Great’ even though this title was never used by his Macedonian subjects. Should we, therefore, avoid it? No, of course not. The final word on what to call a person does not rest with those who knew him. Every generation has the right to decide what, if any, epithet is used.
In regards Alexander’s Macedonians, although they – as far as we know – never called him ‘the Great’, we do know from the sources that they loved him dearly, and esteemed him most highly. If you went back in time and asked a member of his army, ‘is it legitimate to call the king megas alexandros?’ I would bet my last penny on them saying ‘yes, and more besides.’
Our generation, as with every generation before it (going back to the Romans of the late third and early second century BC who were the first people known to use the epithet), calls Alexander ‘the Great’ on account of his brilliant military record.
That is good. But as often as we call him Alexander the Great, though, we ought to reflect on the fact that this epithet comes from Alexander’s hard work, determination, and sacrifice. We should also remember that Alexander owes the epithet not only to his own own actions but also to those of his father, Philip II. Alexander, after all, won every battle with the army that his father founded, using weapons (e.g. the sarissa) and tactics that Philip perfected.
This is important because it helps keep before us the Alexander who was rather than the Alexander of our imagination. For example, it reminds us that when Alexander was born, he was a baby like any other. And when he was a boy, he had to learn the art of war just like everyone else. It reminds us that his future success was not written in stone. At any point – from his first known combat operation against the Maedians in 340 BC* (aged 16) to his last against the Cossaeans in the winter of 324/3** – he could have failed. This is the Alexander of history, the one who we should always be aiming to find.
Why is keeping the historical Alexander before us so important? Because it’s the only way to give Alexander the credit he is due. If we just focus on Alexander as the Great we effectively say that all the effort he put into becoming a great general doesn’t matter. This diminishes the humanity of the man we profess to like, and makes mere glory hunters of ourselves. At best, this makes us look silly. At worst, we make a cypher of him, no more than a projection of our own beliefs, something that is both selfish as well as ahistorical.
* Plutarch Life of Alexander9 ** Arrian VII.15.1-3
In This Chapter Alexander Lyncestis’ Plot Against The King
Alexander Lyncestis was a man lucky to be alive. He and his two brothers, Heromenes and Arrhabaeus, had been implicated in the plot to kill Philip II but while they had been executed he had survived. Arrian says that Lyncestis had been,
… one of the first of [Alexander II’s] friends to rally round him after Philip’s death and had gone armed at his side when Alexander entered the palace.
The fact that he was married to Antipater’s daughter could only have helped him as well. Not that he relied on this important connection to save himself. The potentially chaotic aftermath of Philip’s assassination and return to the palace where more assassins may have been laying in wait to complete what Pausanias started were acutely dangerous moments. No wonder he did well for himself, afterwards:
[King] Alexander held [Lyncestis] in an honoured position in his entourage, sent him to be his general in Thrace, and appointed him to the command of the Thessalian cavalry…
Alexander the king certainly put a lot of trust in the man who for all his loyalty was still ‘implicated’ in Philip’s murder. It’s true that Alexander was far more prepared than we ever would be to take in men who had once been his enemies but I suspect that this implication was founded not on a suspicion of actual guilt but opportunism: Alexander Lyncestis was the son of Aëropus who was the cousin of Eurydice, Philip II’s mother; this gave him a claim to the Macedonian throne. The murder of Philip II gave Alexander an opportunity to eliminate potential rivals for that throne and escape criticism by claiming that the victims were involved in the plot to kill his father. Lyncestis must have known this, hence – whether or not he had anything to do with Philip’s murder – he went to great lengths to prove his loyalty.
So, Alexander Lyncestis had done well for himself, but now his career came to a sudden halt. In Arrian I.17 we read about Amyntas son of Antiochus who so disliked Alexander III he ran away from Macedon. He ended up in Ephesus only to be forced to flee again just before Alexander arrived there. Arrian says that Amyntas arrived at Darius’ court with a letter from Alexander Lyncestis. This inspired the Great King to send a man named Sisines to negotiate with him. Arrian doesn’t tell us what the letter said, but from what he does say we can infer that it contained an offer to kill the Alexander III because Sisines was authorised to inform that if he did so,
… Darius would install him as king of Macedonia and present him with a thousand talents of gold as well as the kingdom.
But Sisines was captured, and (under torture?) spilled the beans to Parmenion.
Parmenion was either on his way to, or in, Phrygia at the time so sent the Persian under guard to Alexander. Sisines repeated his story. Alexander summoned his friends and discussed what he should do next.
Rather amusingly, and a sign of the closeness of the friends to their king, they rebuked him for having trusted Lyncestis in the first place. They also turned their minds to an incident that had occurred during the Siege of Halicarnassus when a swallow had settled on Alexander’s head and kept singing until he was fully awake. Alexander had asked Aristander to interpret what happened. The seer told him that ‘it signified a plot by one of his friends’ (Arr. I.25.8).
So it had proved, and now the loyal friends recommended that Lyncestis be executed. But the matter was a very delicate one: if Alexander executed Lyncestis, Antipater was in a position to do him a great deal of harm, perhaps even overthrow him. For that reason, therefore, he decided that Lyncestis should not be executed but simply put under house arrest. It appears that he was with Parmenion’s detachment at this time because agents were sent in disguise to the general to inform him verbally what Alexander had decided. Lyncestis was duly arrested and would continue to travel with the expedition until being put to death in Drangiana in late 330 BC.
A couple of things before I finish.
The notes to my copy of Arrian suggest that the story of the swallow may be apocryphal – Arrian tells it in ‘indirect speech’
Lastly, one can only wonder why – if Alexander Lyncestis was indeed guilty of plotting against Alexander III – he chose this moment to make his move. Alexander the king had just won his first major battle. He was extremely popular with his men. Anyone trying to overthrow him would have to contend with that afterwards. There’s a reason why the two other major plots against Alexander occurred in Bactria-Sogdia. I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would consider it more likely that either Lyncestis was set up or had indeed been plotting to kill Alexander in the future only for events unknown to force his hand so that he had to act now.
Text Used Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
In This Chapter Alexander takes Sardis and Ephesus
Calas In the days following his victory at the Battle of the Granicus River, Alexander turned to the now changed political situation in the region. With the death of Arsites, the satrapy of Hellespontine Phrygia was now vacant. He appointed an officer named Calas to the role.
Alexander’s Political Methodology A consistent feature of Alexander’s kingship is how he dealt with conquered territories on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, as in the case of Phrygia, he appointed a Macedonian governor. On other occasions, he appointed a Persian to the role, or else let the previous governor remain in office. As we shall see with King Porus, Alexander was also content to allow kings to remain in situ – as long as, of course, they were loyal.
In light of this, we can say that Alexander did not have a philosophy of power. He was, in one sense at least, a pragmatist. Could this be the reason why he refused to change Phrygia’s tax level? After Calas was appointed satrap, Alexander confirmed that the province would be required to keep paying the same taxes as it had under Darius III.
Zeleia and Dascylium With Phrygia taken care of, Alexander turned to Zeleia and Dascylium.
Zeleians had fought in the satrapal army. After its defeat, the city’s inhabitants fled into the mountains to escape Macedonian reprisals. Now, however, they came back down to surrender themselves. For his part, Alexander told them to go home and absolved them from blame for fighting against him – ‘he recognized that they had been forced to fight on the barbarian side’ (Arr. I.17.2). The way Arrian writes it, it looks like the Zeleians decided to surrender themselves and were then absolved. I suspect, however, that Alexander sent messengers to tell them that they were in no danger. It doesn’t make sense that they would flee and then return without any guarantee of avoiding the fate that they had tried to run away from.
Alexander’s last action before moving on from the Granicus region was to send Parmenion to Dascylium. Its Persian garrison had left the city so taking it was a formality.
Sardis Alexander marched on Sardis from the Granicus River. When he was still eight miles from it, Mithrenes, ‘commander of the citadel garrison’ (Arr. I.17.3) and the city’s civilian leaders came out to meet him. ‘Mithrenes surrendered the citadel and treasury’ (Arr. I.17.4), and the civilian leaders surrendered the city.
Alexander marched to within two miles of Sardis before sending Amyntas son of Andromenes into it to take control of the citadel. As a reward for surrendering, Alexander ‘kept Mithrenes with him in a position of honour’. He also let the Sardians – and Lydians at large – keep their traditional institutions and independence.
It is interesting to compare Alexander’s response to Sardis and Phrygia. You might have thought that being a glory seeker, he would value those who made a noble stand against him rather than those who simply gave way. Sometimes – as in the case of Porus – he did but as we see here, not always.
Why might this have been so? To paraphrase the writer, there’s a time for fighting, and a time for making peace. Alexander was a glory seeker but he was not a war monger. If he could get his way through peaceful means then he would do it. So, why was it a time for making peace rather than war? At a guess, I would say that Alexander did not want to fight again so soon after the Granicus battle; his men needed time to recover.
Once Amyntas had taken the city, Alexander entered it. He went to the citadel and was impressed by its strength. The idea of building a temple there occurred to him but while he was searching for a suitable building site, a thunder storm struck. Arrian says that the downpour took place ‘exactly where the Lydian royal palace stood’ (Arr. I.17.6). Alexander saw the will of the gods in this and acquiesced: he gave orders for the temple to be built on the site of the palace.
A Tripartite Government Macedonian rule over Sardis was split between Pausanias (citadel) and Nicias (assessment & collection of tribute). Asander son of Philotas was given the satrapy of Lydia.
Sardis represents the first occasion in Arrian that we see Alexander splitting authority in one place between more than one person. The most famous example of this happening is in Egypt. The likely reason he did so there is because Egypt was too big and too powerful (in terms of wealth and defence capabilities) to be given to one person. Perhaps Sardis was the same: as we saw above, Alexander recognised the strength of the citadel.
Further Orders Arrian notes that Alexander sent Calas, the new satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, and Alexander son of Aëropus to ‘Memnon’s territory’ (Arr. I.17.8) with a number of troops. Alexander son of Aëropus was a man lucky to be alive: ‘[h]is brothers, Heromenes and Arrhabaeus, were both executed for their alleged complicity in the ‘plot’ to assassinate Philip II’ (Heckel, p.19). Following Philip’s death, the son of Aëropus (who we also call Alexander Lyncestis) was the first to declare Alexander III ‘king’. This probably saved his life. Unfortunately, he subsequently either turned against Alexander or was set up. Either way, he was arrested, and after being held under arrest for some time, executed in the aftermath of the Philotas affair.
Ephesus Upon hearing the result of the Battle of the Granicus River, the Persian garrison in Ephesus – which was comprised of mercenary troops – fled. With them went Amyntas son of Antiochus. He was a man used to being on the run, having fled Macedon in order to get away from Alexander. Why? Arrian tells us that Alexander hadn’t hurt him but that Amyntas simply disliked or hated the king and ‘thought it would be an indignity to meet with any unpleasant reprisal from him’ (Arr. I.17.9).
Alexander hurried towards Ephesus, reaching it after three days. The city immediately fell into his hands. Alexander allowed those Ephesians who had been forced into exile for supporting him to return. He abolished the city’s oligarchy, instituted a democracy, and ordered that taxes should now be paid to the temple of Artemis.
The oligarchs had ruled Ephesus badly. Arrian records that as well as inviting the Persian army into the city, they had,
… plundered the sanctuary of Artemis… pulled down the statue of Philip [of Macedon] in the sanctuary and dug up the grave of Heropythus, the liberator of the city…
Retribution against the oligarchs was swift and bloody. It got so bad that Alexander had to step in to prevent further bloodshed – especially against the innocent. Arrian concludes this chapter by saying,
No other action won Alexander as much credit as his handling of Ephesus at this time.
In This Chapter The Greek response to the fall of Thebes
News of Thebes’ fall spread throughout Greece, and the city-states who had been antagonistic towards Alexander rushed to reverse their position.
Arcadian troops had been sent by the city to aid Thebes; they had got as far as the Isthmus of Corinth before pausing to see how the battle went. Very useful. Upon seeing the Macedonians triumph, the soldiers condemned their leaders to death.
Elis recalled her (pro-Alexander) exiles.
Aetolia sent embassies to Alexander to ask forgiveness ‘for their own hint of revolution’.
Athens evacuated the countryside and closed the city gates. The Assembly passed Demades’ motion that ten ambassadors be sent to Alexander to congratulate him on his successful campaigns in Thrace and Illyria and Thebes.
The ambassadors were carefully chosen. There was only one criteria: they had to be men whom Alexander liked. Three years after Chaeronea, Athens knew she was in a sticky spot and was treading very carefully indeed.
After meeting the ambassadors, Alexander took no action against Athens but the city was not quite out of the woods. The king demanded the surrender of Demosthenes and eight of his associates. In his letter, Alexander blamed them for,
Athens’ and Thebes’ defeat at Chaeronea
the ‘subsequent wrongs committed on Philip’s death against both himself and Philip’ (I presume Alexander was accusing them of being part of the conspiracy to kill Philip here?)
Athens did not fold, but very bravely asked Alexander ‘to forgo his anger’ against the nine men. He forgave eight of them. The ninth, Alexander said, had to go into exile. This was Charidemus, a naturalised Athenian citizen. Athens acquiesced and Charidemus went overseas where he joined Darius III’s war council.
Why did Alexander forgive any of the nine men? Arrian suggests it was either ‘out of respect’ for Athens or because he simply wanted to get the expedition to the east started.
Thoughts I still can’t believe the Arcadian troops stopped to see how the battle was going before deciding to get involved or not! Given how cynical the ancient Greeks were about their treaties, I don’t suppose I should be surprised; but still -.
As you see above, the translation of Arrian’s Anabasis that I am using for these posts refers to the ‘hint of revolution’ in Aetolia. This makes their plea for forgiveness rather touching if a little pathetic. The Landmark Arrian omits any mention of hints. It says that the Aetolian tribes ‘had revolted on learning of the Thebans’ revolt’ (Landmark Arrian p.21).
I have to admit I am not quite sure why Alexander demanded above all else the exile of Charidemus. There is nothing in this chapter of Arrian that suggests he was any worse a person than, say, Demosthenes. Charidemus had been very powerful in Thrace; maybe Alexander feared the he might be again, or else simply wanted revenge for the trouble he had once caused Philip II.
Texts Used Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013) Romm, James (ed.) The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (New York, Pantheon, 2010)
In This Chapter How Alexander escaped from a pincer movement
Cleitus and Glaucias could not have asked for better luck. Alexander and his army was caught right between them, and what’s more, both could sally forth and begin the final showdown at their leisure: Cleitus was safe behind the walls of Pellium and Glaucias had the advantage of height as offered by the hills that surrounded the city. In addition to that, the woods that covered them gave him a good protection.
In Chapter Four we saw how Alexander used shock and awe tactics in order to defeat the Getae. Outside Pellium, he used the same tactic but in a very different way.
Rather than attack either the city or the hills hard and fast, or simply retreat, and risk being attacked in his rear, Alexander formed his phalanx up to a depth of 122 rows. Then, after ordering silence, he took his infantrymen through a series of manoeuvres. ‘[S]pears upright’, then down and left and right; he marched the phalanx forward at speed, and wheeled it about on both left and right wings. Finally, he put it into a wedge formation and approached Glaucias’ men who were watching from the foothills. Unnerved by the Macedonian display of discipline and power, they fled back into the hills. Alexander allowed his men to beat their shields and issue their battle cry. This added to the Taulantians’ terror. Those who did not flee into the hills made their way into Pellium.
Having nullified the threat of Glaucias for now, Alexander rode away from the phalanx to dislodge some of the Taulantians who held a hill overlooking the pass that was the Macedonians’ only route to safety. On seeing him come, they fled. The Taulantians were not at all keen fighters. Or maybe they were just realistic ones.
The Phalanx forded the river (Eordaicus). Instead of ordering it to continue marching, Alexander lined it up on the other side of the bank – to discourage the Taulantians from pursuing him and picking off the men at the rear.
This, though, is what they tried to do. As the Taulantians rushed forward, Alexander and his cavalrymen charged them. You will not be surprised to read that, according to Arrian, Glaucias’ men did not stand and fight but once more fled.
The Taulantians made one last attempt to claim some scalps but as the last of the Macedonian army crossed the river, Alexander gave the order for catapults and archers to provide covering fire. This was effective. Alexander lost no men in his retreat.
Alexander may have been forced into a retreat but like Glaucias, he was not above an act of opportunism. Three days later, on hearing that the Illyrians and Taulantians were camped outside Pallium ‘in disorderly fashion’, Alexander led a large company of men back over the Eordaicus ahead of the main body of the army. Cleitus and Glaucias had assumed that Alexander had left the area and not bothered to send any spies to confirm this. This was their undoing.
Alexander came crashing down on the Illyrian and Taulantian men. Many were killed in their beds. Others tried to flee; those who did so successfully were forced to dump their weapons on the way. Cleitus locked himself in Pellium. Seeing no hope for the future there, he burnt the city down and snuck away to rejoin Glaucias in the latter’s kingdom.
Thoughts In the way he used silence and discipline to overwhelm the Taultantians, Alexander showed himself to be a master of psychological warfare. He knew exactly what would get under his enemy’s skin, what would make it panic and flee. Thanks to the brilliant training of his army – for which he would have had to thank his father, Philip – he was able to execute his idea. If the death of Langarus changed the complexion of the Wars of the Successors (see Arrian I.2.1-6 here) this was a ‘battle’ that was won in 359 BC when Philip became king.
Chapter Six marks the end of the Illyrian campaign. In the next chapter, Alexander heads south to deal with Thebes. What do the Thracian and Illyrian campaigns tell us about Alexander? As a general, this:
– He had a tactically creative mind – He had supreme confidence in the abilities of his soldiers – He was able to think on his feet – He was a calm thinker, not given to panicking – He did not look down on ‘dirtier’ acts, such as acts of opportunism – He knew the minds of his enemies – He lead from the front
Having defeated the Getae and declared himself a friend of the Celts Alexander ‘advanced towards the territory of the Agrianians and Paeonians’. He was not intending to attack either of these tribes as they were both allies of Macedon(1). Indeed, Langarus, the king of the Agrianians, was a personal friend of Alexander’s and joined the Macedonian king while he was still on the road.
During his march, Alexander was informed that an Illyrian client king named Cleitus had revolted against him. Cleitus would have been known to Alexander for in 359 BC, Cleitus’ father, Bardylis, killed Philip II’s brother, Perdiccas I, in battle. More bad news followed: Cleitus had been joined in his revolt by King Glaucias of the Taulantians who had, up until now, remained independent of Macedonian control. And furthermore, another independent tribe named the Autariates intended to attack (ambush?) him while he was on the road.
Once or twice in Alexander’s career he was hit by uncertainty over what to do at a critical moment, but no such weakness struck him in the spring/summer of 335 BC. He decided to move at speed towards the troublesome tribes. Langarus did his bit to make things easier by offering to deal with the Autariates for him; Alexander accepted.
Langarus was so successful in his mission that Alexander offered him the hand of his half-sister Cynane in marriage. Unfortunately, Langarus died (of natural causes) before any marriage could take place. Twelve years before the Wars of the Diadochi started, fate worked to destabilise the environment in which they would take place that little bit more.
Back in 335, Alexander marched on the city of Pellium by the Eordaicus river: Cleitus had seized the city. Upon his arrival, Alexander set up camp by the river. He intended to assault the city walls the following day.
But there was a problem, for Cleitus had men hidden in ‘the thickly wooded heights’ that surrounded the city. If Alexander attacked it, they would run down and attack him in the side and rear. Alexander’s only advantage was in numbers for Glaucias had not yet joined Cleitus so the number of men in the woods was limited.
As Alexander advanced on Pellium, the Illyrians performed a human sacrifice, killing ‘three boys [and] two girls’ before joining the fight. They rushed down the slopes and engaged the Macedonians. At some point after – it isn’t clear how long the battle lasted – Alexander forced the Illyrians back; they fled into Pellium. The Macedonians found the dead youngsters in the hills.
Alexander had won the battle but was still at risk of losing the war as Glaucias was close by ‘with a large force’ – in fact he was now in the hills surrounding Pellium. Alexander clearly had spies monitoring Glaucias’ movements because he knew he did not have the numbers to attack both Pellium and Glaucias at the same time.
While he worked out what to do next, Alexander sent Philotas (Parmenion’s son) on a foraging mission. While Philotas was gone, the Macedonian king received word from his spies that Glaucias intended to ambush Philotas. Alexander immediately set out with a small force to rescue him.
Glaucias’ attack was perhaps an opportunistic one, because on hearing of Alexander’s advance, Glaucias backed off. Maybe he just wanted to save his men for the bigger battle ahead. Either way, Philotas returned to the Macedonian camp safely.
With Philotas back in camp, Alexander was back to square one: what was he to do about the threats in front and behind him? He was caught in a pincer movement that, if he made one wrong move, could bring his life to a sudden end. Surely retreat was the only option, but the only way out was through a narrow pass that would take an agonisingly long time to march through and risk the Macedonian rear being ravaged by Cleitus’ and Glaucias’ forces.
Thoughts I have gone against my practice in the previous posts by inserting some commentary in the first part of this post. One thing remains on my mind now: how did Alexander get himself into such an awkward spot? How did he end up having to worry about Cleitus in front and Glaucias behind him?
He knew about Cleitus and Glaucias coming together before arriving in Pellium. I presume that as soon as he learnt this, he sent spies to report back on their movements and hoped that he would be able to take Pellium before Glaucias and his men arrived. Given that Glaucias arrived on the day he intended to attack the city, however, he was cutting it incredibly fine to the point of given himself an unrealistic target. With this in mind, it could not have been wise to send Philotas foraging in such a dangerous area.
In This Chapter Arrian’s account of Alexander’s life is titled Anabasis Alexandrou, which means ‘Alexander’s Expedition’. For this reason, Arrian begins his account of Alexander’s life with Philip II’s murder and Alexander’s accession to the throne of Macedon.
Having established his kingship Alexander marched on the Peloponnese where he asked the ‘Peloponnesian Greeks’ to give him ‘leadership of the campaign against Persia’, a role previously granted to Philip. Everyone except the Spartans, who believed only in leading rather than being lead, agreed.
Arrian mentions in passing that Athens stirred in opposition to Alexander but that his quick arrival put an end to it. Alexander was given various honours by the city and returned home.
Alexander became king of Macedon in October 336BC. Arrian now jumps forward to Spring 335BC and the new king’s campaign to secure Macedon’s northern borders before heading east.
Alexander marched into Thrace where he confronted Triballian and Illyrian forces. In his first battle as king (as recorded by Arrian, of course), Alexander used a very inventive tactic in order to nullify a potentially catastrophic threat.
Alexander and his army came to the foot of the Haemus mountains. Above them stood a rag tag army of locals and ‘independent Thracians’. They had with them carts which they intended to push down the side of the mountain and into the Macedonian army.
Had this tactic worked, it would have thrown the Macedonian army into disarray, making the job of repelling it – perhaps even destroying it – that much easier. Seeing what the enemy intended to do, however, Alexander ordered his men to do one of two things; either (a) part ways so that the oncoming carts simply rolled down empty channels either side of them, or, where that was not possible, (b) lie down with their shields on their backs so that the carts rolled over them. The Macedonian soldiers did both these things and as a result, Arrian tells us, suffered no deaths. With their best chance of defeating the Macedonian army having rolled away, the locals and independent Thracians were easily defeated in the scrappy battle that followed.
Thoughts How do the other Alexander Historians begin their works? Well, both Diodorus and Justin begin at the same point as Arrian – with Philip’s death and Alexander’s accession to the throne. The first two books of Curtius have been lost so we don’t know where he begins. Only Plutarch tells us anything about Alexander’s early life. In reading it, though, we have to be careful as there is a fair amount of mythologising and propaganda there.
Arrian glosses over the manner of Alexander’s accession and what happened after. In fact, in regards the latter, he has next to nothing to say, which is odd because it is relevant to his focus – a military history of Alexander’s life. For more information, we have to turn to Diodorus.
By the way, Diodorus gives us the first opportunity to ask which of the sources might be more accurate. Diodorus says that when Alexander became king Evaenetus was archon of Athens while Arrian says it was Pythdelus – who is right? Or are these two names for one man?
It isn’t clear from Arrian whether Athens folded after Alexander’s quick arrival at Athens or elsewhere. Diodorus tells us that it happened after the Macedonian king’s arrival in Boeotia, to confront Thebes, which had rebelled against him.
On the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, an adventure that Alexander would surely have approved of, I continue my conversation with Jeanne Reames.
Jeanne has written Dancing With The Lion, a two part novel about the early years of Alexander, or, how he became the man we know as ‘the Great’. The first part Becoming just just been published. Part Two, Rise, will be published this October.
You can find Dancing With The Lion: Becoming on Amazon in the U.K. here and U.S.A. here or from all good bookshops. Jeanne’s book website is here. With that said, let’s jump back into the interview.
Alexander’s mother, Olympias, is represented very negatively by the Alexander historians; what is your assessment of her character, and how does it inform the way you look at her in Dancing with the Lion? I stand with Beth’s picture: her reputation got a hatchet-job. This doesn’t mean she was nice, but she absolutely must be viewed in the full context of a polygamous court, her obvious intelligence, her Epirote ancestry, and the need simply to survive. This is why I use Myrtalē instead of Olympias, to detach her from all that baggage, much as I use Alexandros to detach him from “Alexander the Great” baggage.
Misogyny is THICK in a lot of Alexander fiction, perhaps unconsciously imbibed from the primary sources. It’s not only in how Olympias is portrayed, but in how Alexander’s sisters are overlooked. In Dancing with the Lion, not only did I try to write a powerful Olympias, but his full-sister Kleopatra is a POV character and even has her own coming-of-age arc, especially in book 2, Rise. Thessalonikē and Audata also play roles. (There’s another female voice that will appear in Rise, but I can’t say who, or it’s a spoiler.)
One might argue that negatively portraying Olympias doesn’t equal misogyny, which is true. And yes, she committed a number of murders (although she got blamed for some I’m pretty sure she didn’t commit, too). Yet as Beth points out in her articles, she didn’t do anything her husband and son didn’t also do. The horror was that she was a woman doing it. Greek women were supposed to stay out of politics, but Epirote Olympias didn’t get that memo! While the Macedonian court doesn’t appear to have been as repressive as, say, Athens, it also wasn’t as open as Epiros. Arriving in Pella, the 14/15/16-year-old Olympias must have found it all very flat, very hot, and very hobbling, compared to what she was used to at home. I expect Eurydike, Philip’s mother, had experienced something similar, decades earlier, and she, too, was roasted in the ancient sources. These powerful, northern women were not understood.
We must also recall the Macedonian court was polygamous (that’s why I never use “queen” for any of Philip’s wives in the novels). If royal polygamy had predated Philip, he employed it with gusto, marrying 5 women in his first 5 years on the throne. Olympias was either number 4 or 5, so even if her birth made her royal, she came into a situation with 3-4 other wives already there, plus the queen mother likely still alive. Imagine that.
At a polygamous court, the most important male in a woman’s life isn’t her husband, but her son. The more (healthy) sons she can produce, the higher her status, although it seems birth status also played a role, especially if there’s more than one son. As mother to the only viable heir, Olympias eventually became chief wife, but that took time to establish. And her continued position hung on ALEXANDER’S status, and survival. That’s what motivated her.
I’ve tried to make that very clear in the book. I’ve also tried to make her as savvy and competent as I think she was. Ergo, she acts as chatelaine for the entire palace, and is also trained as a healer and midwife, which comes into play in the first novel. The tale of her poisoning of Arrhidaios via “pharmakos” (herbs) may conceal an historical ability with herbal remedies. The Greeks were highly suspicious of “what those healer women did” and midwives, while necessary, were also viewed with mistrust. In myth, witches like Circe employed a knowledge of pharmakos. So Olympias gets called a witch by the men in the novel (including Philip), and poor Alexander is constantly defending her. To them, midwife-herbalist-priestess-witch…it would have been a fuzzy distinction.
How did you approach writing people about whom we know very little (e.g. Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra) or nothing (e.g. Hephaestion’s father, Amyntor)? Did you have any models for them or did you give your imagination free reign? Sometimes I do use real people as models; for instance, parts of Amyntor’s personality are based on my own father, but also on my mother. Yet no character is ever a complete match for a living person. They’re composites. I also use things like the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator to conceptualize them. So Alexander is an ENTP and Hephaistion an INTP. Amyntor is an ISFJ, and Philip an ENTJ. Thinking in these terms helps flesh them out, so that the details emerge organically from who they are. Fictional characters must be more consistent than real people, in part because they are fictional.
I’m not sure how well that answers your question, but it’s how I think about characterization generally. Ultimately, all these people are characters, even those about whom we may know more: Alexander, Philip, Ptolemy, Aristotle. There’s still a boatload we don’t know. So, for instance, Alexander’s favorite fruit was, supposedly, apples. But we don’t know what his favorite color was. His voice is described as deep and harsh, but we don’t know what hand he favored. I made him a lefty for the hell of it. My point is chiefly that, even for the better-known characters, I’m still filling in a lot of blanks.
Your scholarship no doubt helped you write Dancing with the Lion– do you think your novels will help you as a scholar, and if so, how? Absolutely writing fiction makes me a better historian because it forces me to be more aware of the various levels of probability in the historical record. One has the factual (and even what’s “fact” can be disputed), then the probable, the possible, and finally, educated speculation. Pure fiction is the next step.
In addition, writing fiction can force the historian to think about old problems in new ways, ask questions we might not think to ask. So, for instance, the novelist wonders what happened in those first few minutes, and hours, after Philip’s murder. It must have been a madhouse in Aigai. Diodorus tells us nothing—yet it’s still important to consider. So that’s the sort of thing fiction can bring to light.
Was there anything in particular that you enjoyed about writing Becoming and Rise? A character, perhaps, or a scene? Kleopatra and Hephaistion were my favorite characters to write.
Kleopatra, because she’s a “type” I favor in storytelling. If the Dionysos novel ever gets published, Ari(adne) there is similar. Both are the antithesis of the drama queen or “spunky heroine.” Kleopatra just quietly gets shit done without flailing, and unlike her brother, she isn’t given to romanticizing things. If/when I get back to the series, readers will see more of her.
I also really enjoyed writing Hephaistion because he’s that rare personality type who just doesn’t give two figs what most people think of him, with a few exceptions such as Alexander or his family. He’s therefore always authentically himself. That doesn’t mean he has no filter; he keeps his mouth shut a lot of the time, but when he does express an opinion, he says exactly what he thinks. He’s also a bit (maybe more than a bit) of a smart-ass, which in turn means he gets to star in some of the funnier moments in the novel. In several, he takes down Kassandros a peg, but my favorite with him is when he and Erigyios throw another student in a cold river, because the boy was being insufferable. Later, Alexander tells the boy, “Hephaistion doesn’t start things, he ends them,” which is a fair summary.
That said, my overall favorite scene, at least in Becoming, is “Drunk Aristotle.” I won’t say more or it’s too much of a spoiler. Just…drunk Aristotle and a tutorial. I’ll leave you with that.
Do you have any advice for anyone who would like to write their own work of (historical) fiction, especially if it’s about Alexander (and Hephaestion)?
First, practice the art of getting it right.
That means do your homework, and not all on the internet. Read books and articles, read more than one or two, and not just biographies on Alexander. It’s vitally important to understand Macedonia. Also, if writing about his conquest of Persia, then one MUST understand Persian culture and the court, as well as other Ancient Near Eastern cultures from Phoenicia and Egypt to Baktria and India. Plus knowing Greek culture would help, too. Ha. It’s not a small undertaking.
Make sure you understand the world you’re writing about, so the characters act and react in ways authentic to their era. Otherwise, it’s just a costume drama with modern characters in ancient dress. While yes, one can’t make them too alien, or modern readers won’t connect/care, ancient Greek attitudes can be surprising not just in predictable ways (misogyny, acceptance of slavery), but unexpected ones, at times.
Do look up details. Not long ago, I read an ATG novel that had the Persian female characters talking about limes (didn’t exist yet, just the citron) and referencing Zoroastrian religious beliefs that developed in the Sassanid era—hundreds of years later. One is bound to make a mistake or three; it’s almost inevitable. But a lot can be avoided by double- and triple-checking. Even a throw-away line can be wrong. In an earlier draft, I had Hephaistion tell Alexander to wash out his mouth with clove water. Whoops. Cloves weren’t known in Greece yet. Had to look up ancient Greek dental hygiene. 😊All for a single line.
Additionally, a mistake is different from making a choice about a controversial matter; so, for instance, I come down on the side that Argead Macedonia was not a constitutional monarchy. That means a potential author needs to realize there is a debate about whether ancient Macedonia was a constitutional monarchy. Back to doing one’s research.
Second, have a story you want to tell.
I think the two biggest problems I’ve seen in novels about Alexander (or any historical figure) are those that do a half-assed research job because “it’s just fiction.” If you don’t want to do your homework, please, write something else where you can make it all up. But the other side of the coin is forgetting one is writing a story in the effort to make it accurate. That confuses historical fiction with creative non-fiction, which is a thing and has a place. But it’s not a novel.
What is the STORY you’re telling? It might be an adventure story (e.g., the point is action), or it might be a character story (e.g., the point is character development), but there needs to be some sort of story-arc. The plot/characters must go somewhere, be different at the end than at the beginning. When somebody asks me, “What’s your novel about?” I say, “It’s about Alexander becoming Alexander-the-Great,” or “It’s a coming-of-age story about a prince who doesn’t know if he’ll live to become king.” That’s a story-arc. Then you build on it.
If it’s a coming-of-age novel, who should be included? Parents, check; siblings, check; teacher, check; first love, check; even nemesis, check. Next, you can select what historical events allow you best to tell that story, which may mean tweaking some, eliminating others, or adding a few. But you don’t begin with events then try to construct a story around them, or it’ll be disjointed. So for instance, in Becoming, I don’t do a lot with the politics following the Third Sacred War and Philip’s Scythian/northern Thracian campaign because the story isn’t about Philip, it’s about Alexander, and he’s off at Mieza. If he would certainly have been aware of these things, it would have been peripheral. It’s only in Rise that I start to insert more about wider-world politics, because by then, it matters to his story.
An author has to keep her eyes on the ball, not go down random rabbit holes, no matter how interesting!
And on that note, I would like to thank Jeanne for her time. It has been a pleasure having her here. Go buy the book! And if you do, feel free to let me know what you think of it, either in the comments below or via e-mail – thesecondachilles @ gmail.com MJM
all images used in this blog post belong to Jeanne Reames and are used with her permission
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.