Posts Tagged With: W W Tarn

Tarn Springs Some Surprises

I have now finished W W Tarn’s Narrative. Here are three things that made an impression upon me between pages 86 and 148. If you would like to read what I thought of the first half of the book and can’t see the relevant post below this one, just click here.
Alexander and Herodotus

Herodotus was no longer much read… there is no sign that Alexander knew him at all, not even his account of Scylax’s voyage.
(Tarn, p. 86)

I almost drew breath when I read this even though I have no idea whether it is accurate or not. My understanding is that Alexander was a well read man. Is this not true? Of course, we may well have been and still not known about Herodotus’ Histories if the latter had fallen into obscurity. Tarn’s book was published just after World War II ended and at least one part of it was written in the 20s so scholarship may have discovered that Herodotus was not a stranger to Alexander after all. I certainly hope so. The alternative does not seem at all fitting.
In the last post, I noted a couple of points where Oliver Stone used Tarn’s text in his film about Alexander. In the film, Stone has Bucephalus die during the Battle of the Hydaspes River. I had always thought this to be inaccurate and that Bucephalus died at some point earlier or later. Tarn surprised me, therefore, when I read,

Alexander after his victory [in the Battle of the Hydaspes] founded two cities, Alexandria Nicaea where his camp had stood, and Alexandria Bucephala on the battlefield, nicknamed from his horse which died there…
(Tarn, pp 96-7)

Ah. Maybe my memory was at fault, then. I jumped to Arrian to see what he said. Sure enough…

Porus’ son… wounded Alexander with his own hand and struck the blow which killed his beloved horse Bucephalus.
(Arrian, p. 274)

To be sure, Arrian is talking about the engagement that took place just before the battle started but it was a confrontation that was part of the whole so on that basis we can give Stone and Tarn a qualified pass. Except, Plutarch –

After [the battle at the Hydaspes River] Bucephalus… died, not immediately but some while later. Most historians report that he died of wounds received in the battle, for which he was being treated but according to Onesicritus it was from old age, for by this time he was thirty years old.
(Plutarch, para 61)

I don’t know much about Onesicritus but if his Wikipedia entry is accurate then he is not necessarily a writer to be trusted.
The last thing that made a big impression definitely did make me draw a breath, which is funny because its one of those things I kind of knew already. In short, it highlighted how interested Alexander was in exploring and learning about the world. My principle image of him is, of course, as the second Achilles – being all about the war and glory. Tarn makes it clear though, that Alexander was simply not about blood ‘n guts. Here is the relevant passage:

[Alexander] attacked the secret of the ocean. He sent Heracleides to explore the Hyrcanian sea, and ascertain whether Aristotle had been right in calling this great expanse of salt water a lake, or whether the old theory that it was a gulf of Ocean might not be true after all…

He himself turned his attention to the Persian Gulf. He took steps to ensure better communication between Babylonia and the sea by removing the Persian obstacles to free navigation of the Tigris and founding an Alexandria on the Gulf at the mouth of that river…

He also planned to colonise the eastern coast of the Gulf, along which Nearchus had sailed, and sent 500 talents to Sidon to be coined for the hire or purchase of sailors and colonists. This would help to establish the already explored sea-route between India and Babylon; but he meant to complete the sea-route from India to Egypt by exploring the section between Babylon and Egypt and circumnavigating Arabia, possibly as a preliminary to still more extensive maritime exploration in the future. He therefore planned an expedition along the Arabian coast…
(Tarn, p. 118)

I can’t tell you what about this passage opened my eyes because I don’t know, but reading it felt like a splash of cold water to the face. As I said above, I already knew that Alexander was a keen explorer and student but what this passage has succeeded in doing is bringing that truth home to me in a strong and direct way. I’m not going to rename this blog The Second Aristotle but sure I won’t forget it in a hurry.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Plutarch The Age of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 2011)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Some Thoughts on W W Tarn’s “Narrative”

In the four years I have been reading about Alexander the Great the name of W W Tarn has often been mentioned, usually as an apologist for Alexander; a modern-day Aristobulos. Today, I visited the library and started reading Sir William Woodthorpe Tarn’s words for the first time. The book in my hands was vol. 1 of his two part book on Alexander – Narrative.
The Narrative is a short book (148 pages) and so races through Alexander’s life. Having started on page 1 I ended the day on page 85 with the Macedonian army about to invade India.
The reason I have been inspired to put finger to keyboard is because of a couple of things that Tarn says that sounded very familiar. Here is the first. According to Tarn, Persepolis marked the beginning of ‘Alexander’s tragedy’. It was,

… the tragedy of an increasing loneliness, of a growing impatience with those who could not understand, of a failure which nevertheless bore greater fruit than most men’s successes.
(Tarn, p. 55)

Sound familiar? Compare it with this:

… His tragedy was one of increasing loneliness and impatience with those who could not understand. And if his desire to reconcile Greek and barbarian ended in failure… What failure! His failure towered over other men’s successes

Here is Tarn again, talking about the Macedonian army as it reached the Jhelum river.

The army had become a moving state, a reflection of the Empire…
(Tarn, p. 84)

And now this,

In the spring, Alexander marched an army of 150,000 across the passes of the Hindu Kush into the unknown. In his dream, it was the promised route to the end of the world. We were now a mobile empire stretching back thousands of miles to Greece.

The second quotations are from Oliver Stone’s Alexander film (2004) – both form part of the elder Ptolemy’s narration. It looks to me like Mr Stone and his co-writers had Tarn by their side when they wrote the script for the film!
I don’t agree with everything that Tarn says. For example, he finds no fault with the trial and execution of Philotas but says that Parmenion’s death was ‘plain murder’. In my opinion, the issue of Philotas’ guilt is the difficult matter and the necessity to kill Parmenion the straight forward and justifiable one.
Taking Philotas first; Tarn cites Ptolemy who, according to Arrian, says that

… the persons who had reported [the conspiracy against Alexander] came forward, with various irrefutable proofs of [Philotas’] guilt… of which the most damning was that he admitted knowledge of a plot against Alexander but had said nothing about it, in spite of the fact that he was in the habit of visiting Alexander’s tent twice a day.
(Arrian, p. 191)

Philotas may have been given a fair trial ‘according to [the Macedonian army’s] lights’ (p. 63) but being executed simply because he hadn’t reported the plot seems awfully rum to me. You could say, ‘well, it was a plot; he was at the very least hopelessly naive for not reporting it’ but I can’t accept that someone of Philotas’ experience would make such a basic error. If he didn’t report, I think it would have been because he genuinely didn’t feel it needed to be reported.
As for Parmenion, Tarn himself admits that there was no chance that the general could be made to retire. ‘There were only two known alternatives: he must rebel or die’ (p. 64). It seems to me that if the Macedonian army acted properly in condemning Philotas, then Alexander acted correctly in assassinating Parmenion. He would have known what Parmenion’s two choices were and took the only decision that someone in his position could reasonably take. Parmenion’s death may have come about due to an unjust execution but his death, while unfortunate, was wholly necessary and justified.

Editions Used
Arrian The Campaigns of Alexander (Penguin Classics London 1971)
Tarn, W W Alexander the Great I Narrative (Cambridge University Press 1948)

The quotations from Oliver Stone’s Alexander come from the Alexander Revisited cut of the film

Categories: Of The Moment | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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