If you answered “yes,” then I have great news for you. A few months back I recorded an interview about bread in Ancient Greece with Aven McMaster and Mark Sundaram for their podcast The Endless Knot. That episode went live this morning. I haven’t heard the final product yet, but it got an excellent review from Emma Pauly, the person who edited and transcribed the episode.
You can get the episode anywhere you get podcasts or by using this link. Bon appétit!
This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.
But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.
Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.
Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:
Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths.
That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”
The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.
When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.
It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle
I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.
This past week was the first anniversary of January 6, a day on which a crowd of people stormed the capitol building to disrupt the peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. Increasingly, evidence is revealing that this was not the spontaneous action of an enthusiastic mob, but the result of coordinated action on the part of people who wanted to undermine American institutions.
I let the anniversary pass without much attention. For one thing, I have been attending a virtual conference while also trying to get my syllabuses together for classes that start on Monday. For another, there have been more incisive reflections than anything that has come to me.
But also, for as terrible as that one day was, I am having trouble balancing in my mind remembrances of January 6 for the events of that day and that the events of that day are a particularly violent reflection of an ongoing crisis. This is not to say that people aren’t talking about the latter. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos profiled the right-wing radio host Dan Bongino who frames his show in terms of information warfare and there is a congressional committee looking into the events of that day—to say nothing of the talk about a so-called “national divorce.” The division also manifested in the contrasting comments made by politicians, including from John Cornyn who thinks that the day shouldn’t be memorialized at all.
My thoughts are complex, perhaps because this is my first time living through an attempt to overthrow the government, constitutionally or otherwise.
The events of this week, combined with the salient reminder in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything that premodern people were, well, people, and my preparations to teach Greek history for the first time in a few years has had me reflecting on coups and coup attempts in ancient Greece.
There are a lot.
Perhaps the most poignant from Classical Athens occurred in 411 BCE when conspirators established a new government and dissolved the democratic institutions (Thucydides 8.65–73), which temporarily created two Athenian power centers when they failed to sway the fleet then at Samos. In fact, a parallel attempt at Samos resulted in the execution of thirty conspirators and the exile of three others (Thucydides 8.73). Seven years later, another coup established the notorious Thirty Tyrants in Athens when the men chosen to revise the constitution unsurprisingly just empowered themselves (Xenophon Hellenica 2.3). Attempts like these allegedly led to the creation of an ancestral law at Athens to disenfranchise those who attempt insurrection. However important these coups are, though, I keep coming back to events from an earlier epoch of Athenian history.
At the risk of making a banal observation, it took Peisistratos three tries to secure his tyranny in Athens.
Peisistratos was born in Athens in the late seventh century BCE, a time when Athens was divided by deep, regional divisions (despite the reforms of Solon). He was prominent enough to become strategos and won popularity in a war with Megara before carving out his own faction, the Diacrioi, from the people who lived in the Northeast of Attica. He hailed from this region and claimed to speak to their grievances, the core of which were that their isolation from the political processes taking place in Athens itself (1.59). Of course, Herodotus says, his real ambition was absolute power.
In 561, Peisistratos made his first attempt at power. The story Herodotus provides is that rushed into the Athenian agora covered with self-inflicted wounds and with a story that he had survived an attack. The Athenians decided he deserved a bodyguard. Peisistratos armed his guards with clubs and proceeded to capture the Acropolis, the easily-defensible ritual precinct that also served as the symbolic center of the city.
Other than Herodotus’ dramatic retelling of the story, the details of this plot are not that unusual. Less than a century earlier, the Olympic victor Cylon had attempted something similar at the urging of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (Thucydides 1.126). Cylon’s followers seized the Acropolis where they were besieged by the other Athenians and killed. The people responsible for killing them in the sacred precinct, the powerful Alcmeonid family, were forced into exile on the grounds that they had committed sacrilege. They were allowed to return during the period of the Solonian reforms a generation later and members of this lineage would provide some of the most famous names in the Athenian democracy. For my part, I am more interested in how Peisistratos initially lost the tyranny, which happened four or five years after he first claimed it (Herodotus 1.60):
Not long thereafter, the partisans of Megacles and Lycurgus collaborated to drive him out. Thus Peisistratos first had Athens and, because his tyranny did not have strong roots, lost it.
Herodotus adds a note to say that Peisistratos ruled well during his first stint as tyrant, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure had done nothing to blunt the grievances that had brought him to power in the first place. Thus, it was not much later that the same Megacles who had driven him from power offer him a daughter in marriage and political power again. Peisistratos again turned to political theater to gain entry to the city. This time, Herodotus reports, he had a tall woman, Phya by name, dressed as Athena carried toward the city in a chariot with heralds declaring that Athena herself was carrying Peisistratos back to power.
Once again, things broke down. Peisistratos married Megacles’ daughter, but refused to have children with her, and when the stories of their “irregular intercourse” (whatever that means, ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον) got back to Megacles, he patched things up with Lycurgus and drove Peisistratos from the city (Herodotus 1.61). Not to be denied, Peisistratos spent a decade building support from his friends around the Aegean before returning to Athens in 546. This final attempt culminated in a battle between his supporters and opponents at Pallene, but when his enemies broke, Peisistratos ordered his sons to chase the fleeing Athenians and tell them to return to their homes. The ensuing tyranny only ended in c.510 when the Spartan king Cleomenes I invaded Attica and forced Peisistratos’ son Hippias into exile, prompting another round of political upheaval before the Cleisthenic constitution established a new status quo.
Political theater cosplay notwithstanding, the rise of Peisistratos and the contemporary moment are not directly analogous. That is not the way of history. But there are two broad points worth considering.
First, Peisistratos did not go quietly into retirement when one attempt at a coup failed. He regrouped and returned, finding new friends and adapting whatever systems he could to his advantage.
Second, in that final coup, Peisistratos took pains to convince people that it was in their interest not to cause a stir. To his credit, Peisistratos allowed the Athenian constitution to continue to function, so much so that Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians describes it as “more constitutional than tyrannical” (πολιτικῶς μᾶλλον ἢ τυραννικῶς, 14.3). (Tyrannos in Greek refers to an extra-constitutional ruler, which may or may not entail suspension of the constitution, though Aristotle seems to suggest that suspension was the norm.) The virtue of a democracy, at least in theory, is transparency and accountability, both of which are lost under a tyranny. Peisistratos’ moderation might have made it more tolerable to many among the landed classes of Athens, particularly because he consciously eschewed the violence that often accompanied these ancient coups. But neither did that make his rule less tyrannical.
My recent infatuation with Top Chef started me down a path of consuming a lot of food media again. I am a capable cook in a lot of areas, but a recent experiment with infusing chili oil reminded me that taste is a strange alchemy. It might have certain shibboleths (don’t serve fish with cheese, at Tom Colicchio pointed out to a contestant), but the key to developing complex delicious flavors involves a sensitive palette and creativity that is just beyond me.
Bread, by contrast, makes sense to me. It is simultaneously the simplest of foods — and one that has infinite variation.
Most people might not have the full vocabulary for bread (and bread products), but they can probably explain what it is. While baking technologies and the available resources for home bakers have changed, but the basic process has remained stable for thousands of years. Bread — ἄρτος, in Attic Greek — consists of just four mandatory ingredients: flour, water (or other liquid), salt (which helps maintain structure), and heat. Leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, etc.) and time are even optional.
This simplicity is one of the reasons that I am struck by other contexts where Greek authors use ἄρτος. Herodotus, for instance, describes the cooking techniques of three tribes in Babylon that he says only at fish, explaining how they turn the fish into powder and knead them into cakes (1.200). According to this description, one of the preparation methods involved baking these fish cakes “in the manner of loaves” (ὁ δὲ ἄρτου τρόπον ὀπτήσας). Bread-baking serves as an obvious cultural touchstone, but the loaves are not themselves bread. Bread still requires grain.
So consider this, nested within a lengthy bit of bread-banter in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae:
There is a loaf called the etnites, also the lekithites, as Eucrates says.
Two named breads with the same (or similar) preparation, made with pulses, the edible seeds of plants in the legume family harvested as dry grains such as chickpeas or lentils. That is to say “bean-bread.” Related words in a Greek lexicon make this point clear:
ἔτνος – thick soup made with pease or beans
λεκιθίτης – made of pulses
λεκίθιον – bean-meal
People sometimes say that cooking is an art, baking a science. The implication is that baking is a matter of persnickety formulas that must be followed absolutely correctly in order to get results. For cakes and pastries this is certainly the case, but bread-baking is much simpler, in large part because ambient conditions such as heat and humidity can play an enormous role.
I have only one secret for bread baking: understand how things you add will affect a dough. This particularly means knowing which ones affect the leavening (enriching agents, for instance) and which ones don’t. The former group changes the proof time, while the latter group is more cosmetic. But the list could be expanded to understand how higher water contents change a dough, how different ingredients and treatments affect gluten development, etc. There are formulas that can help understand each of these points, but I largely treat them more as guidelines than as rules.
You can find modern recipes for breads made with legumes, though I have never tried them. These modern pulse breads are additives because the pulses themselves don’t have the gluten of wheat, and technical manuals note that the pulses can compromise the gluten structure.
This leads to an obvious question about this etnites/lekithites loaf: does it, like the modern pulse breads, indicate a loaf that adds a pulse mixture to a wheat dough or is this an ancient version of a lentil loaf? In other words, what makes something a loaf of bread?
This bread might be named after the legumes, but I am inclined toward the former answer. Cheese bread might be named after the cheese, but the (wheat) bread is still a necessary component, whether the cheese is melted over the top or incorporated into the dough. Moreover, the line appears in a section of Athenaeus’ work dedicated entirely to other wheat-based breads.
For now at least I don’t see any reason to amend the core ingredients of a loaf of bread: water, flour, salt, and heat, even when bakers get creative with the other ingredients.
A few months back I received a message on Twitter from a friend. An editor had come to him with an idea for a piece bridging the ancient and the modern, using ancient Greece to confront modern dilemmas, but he was drawing a blank on the specific idea. Do I have anything that might appeal to the editor and, if so, should he pass along my information?
To be honest, I was in a bit of an end-of-semester daze, but I can usually find an argument once I start writing, so I said sure. One phone call and a month and a half of allowing my thoughts to percolate later, I pitched a piece that tied together Hesiod’s Works and Days, methods of divination in ancient Greece, and a doomed invasion of Sicily in 415.
In short: we live in an iron generation Zeus decrees that people are going to suffer. Risk mitigation requires both human preparation and appeasing the gods, but the steepest consequences of failing to adequately prepare for risk happen when a person’s action or inaction puts the community at risk.
I didn’t watch last night’s presidential debate. But while I chose to spare myself the rage, anxiety, and dread of watching live, I was not above rubber-necking the proceedings on Twitter. Even vicariously, the debate was a mess and one would be forgiven for seeing this as the death pangs of a superpower being televised.
Nevertheless, a tweet from from PFTCommenter, made me think once again about the which practices from Ancient Athens might be of value. The tweet made a flippant comment about how the particulars of the debate made a strong case for the Athenian practice of sortition. He describes sortition as drawing a name out of a hat, though, naturally the process was a little more complicated . According the Constitution of the Athenians, the ten tribes of Athens nominated eligible candidates for archon and then the sortition process chose from among those candidates. This is not a bad suggestion, but since final authority at least in theory resting with the Assembly (ἐκκλεσία) rather than with the magistrates so real power lay in the hands of individuals capable of convincing a crowd.
The real virtue of the sortition process is that it does not merely apply to who becomes the chief executive. Instead, almost every magistracy—from the wardens overseeing prisoners, to the clerks, auditors, and chief magistrates—were appointed by lot. Combined with these other mechanisms of government like the courts and the Assembly, sortition was designed to encourage wide widespread participation in democracy.
What sortition gains in civic participation, though, it loses in expertise and this year of all years should teach us the value of that. As a result, my first instinct actually went to a practice of “straightening” (εὐθύνη):
εὐθύνη amounted to an end-of-term accounting for their conduct in office. Any official who handled money was required to submit his accounts for public audit that could lead to criminal charges against him. The United States budget is bit more complicated than Athenian public finance, but the spirit of public accountability is spot on.
Equally useful, therefore, would be the Athenian process dokimasia (δοκιμασία) where appointed and elected officials underwent formal review before taking office. The candidate for office had to answer a series of questions before presenting their references (witnesses) and faced potential charges from the general public before the jury gave a thumbs up or thumbs down. Finally, the official entered office by swearing an oath to uphold the laws and not take presents (bribes) on account of the office.
Some of the questions are not particularly relevant today. Despite the racist allegations made about President Obama’s eligibility, we don’t need to ask who someone’s father is and what deme he belongs to, for instance, and I think we’re okay not asking about their devotion to Zeus or Apollo. But οther questions are still worth asking. According to the Constitution of Athenians, the next set of questions were (55.3):
Whether he treats his parents well, and whether he paid the taxes he owes, and whether he served his military service.
What about ostracism, perhaps of a particular individual?
In fifth-century Athens, there was an annual question brought before the Ekklesia, asking whether there should be an ostracism vote. If they answered in the affirmative, then a second vote was set at which time every voter received an ostrakon (a pot sherd) on which they wrote a name. If the votes reached a certain quorum, the leading vote-getter was required to leave Athens for ten years.
Sounds great, right?
In practice, this process was much messier and less suited for today’s situation. For one, recent research into the surviving pottery sherds has revealed numerous votes to ostracize “hunger,” so one might imagine many Americans voting to send away COVID. For another, ostracism fell out of practice in Athens after the vote of 416/15 when two political opponents in an extremely polarized Athens, Nikias and Alkibiades, decided against to minimize the risk of losing a vote by turning their supporters against a third candidate, Hyperbolus. The 2020 election is an extreme example, but this would be the equivalent of Jill Stein “winning” the ostracism vote held in 2016. Some people would have wanted that to happen and others could argue it would be for the best, but neither was she the reason an ostracism was called.
(I jest. Somehow Ted Cruz probably would have gotten ostracized.)
My bigger issue with ostracism is another aspect of the practice. In Athens, ostracism was meant to mitigate the risk of any one politician becoming too powerful. Thus the ten-year exile was designed to remove them from their base of political support but did not strip the person of their property. In a modern globally interconnected world the former is impossible unless they’re somehow banished to a moon of Jupiter while the latter rather misses the point given the reporting about how much money has been leeched from the American taxpayers.
Fantasizing about ostracism is fantasizing for a quick fix, but it is too toothless and fickle an institution to resolve any of the problems facing the United States. The debate stage last night might have had on it a face and a name who has come to embody every one of those issues, but slipping into the wishful thinking of ostracism buys into his cult of personality as though what was on display were not the product of long-developing processes. If we’re going to be learning lessons from the Athenian democracy—and I’m not saying that we should—I think it would be better to look to the mundane procedures of accountability and oversight.
In short, let’s bring back the dokimasia. Who’s with me?
What I would write about if I were no longer pursuing an academic career has been on the forefront of my mind of late, and I have found myself gravitating back toward Alexander as a result. The following post is adapted from something I have recently started to work on in that vein.
Alexander the Great is deceptively easy to write about, which has led to oceans of ink spilled about the Macedonian king over the past several millennia. In fact, he makes almost any short-list of individuals about whom the most has been written over that span, up there with the likes of a certain Jewish man born in Bethlehem during the final years of the 1st Century BCE and an Arab merchant of some renown born some six centuries after him. Alexander’s afterlives are numerous and varied, appearing across Eurasia from Malaysia to Persia to Ethiopia to Medieval European manuscript, as well as on screen in India in 1941 and in Hollywood in 1956 and 2004, as well as in a Japanese Anime Series from 1999–2000.
Alexander also appears in numerous novels, including recently Dancing with the Lion by the ancient historian Jeanne Reames that explores Alexander’s childhood and relationship with Hephaestion. (Jeanne does more justice talking about their relationship than I can, though I have not yet read her novel.) I also personally own more than thirty-non fiction books with Alexander in their title, which represents just a fraction of the total. And yet, the sheer volume of work that has been done about Alexander obscures the fact that Alexander is actually very difficult to write about well.
One issue is an issue of genre. Biography, by its very definition attempts to write the life of an individual. In antiquity, this meant using a famous life to offer moral exempla, both good and bad. Perhaps the most famous description of purpose comes from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, part of a pair of lives that also included Julius Caesar, where he declares:
For I am writing not histories, but lives, and distinguished deeds do not always reveal either virtue or vice, while a slight deed, word, or idle pastime reveal one’s character more than a battle where tens of thousands die or the greatest siege of cities. So, just as the portrait artist takes the likeness from the face and the appearance of the look, which is where the character appears, but pays little mind to the remaining parts, so too must I be allowed to enter into the signs of the soul that I may portray the life of each, leaving their great deeds to others.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of modern biography, both of which evolved from the ancient genre much as that ancient genre evolved from earlier forms of praise poetry. The first type of biography is a character study that offers a deep dive into the every detail of an individual in order to discover what makes that person tick. These biographies tend to make academic historians skittish. Even when they are well-researched, and many are, these studies often plumb the depths of unanswerable questions and cannot escape moral overtones because their focus is on what Pierre Briant termed “psychologistic” questions. Equally insidious, though, is that the focus on one individual smacks of an antiquated type of history that centers historical development on the deeds of “great men.”
The second type of biography aims to subvert these issues somewhat by using the life of an individual person as a vehicle to explore a particular period or issue. Douglas Boin, for instance, just published a biography of Alaric the Goth that aims to understand the fall of Rome from the outsider’s perspective, while the New Historicism literary movement pushed by, among others, Stephen Greenblatt aims to understand the literary production of an individual through how they interacted with society. And yet, even Boin mentions in the linked video that he wants readers to come away with an understanding about how one person can change history and Greenblatt’s The Swerve, which came under fire for inaccuracies, aims to show how the singular discovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and its atomistic, scientific world view made the world “modern.”
Biographies about Alexander fall into both categories, but tend to follow a predictable template. First, the reader is introduced to the Macedonian kingdom that Alexander’s father Philip built. Then we meet the precocious young Alexander in the Macedonian court where he demonstrates his potential and chafes against the yoke of his father, often egged on by his intense mother, Olympias. When Philip meets his ends in the theater at Aegae in 336, Alexander ascends the Macedonian throne by popular acclaim of his soldiers and proceeds to crush any and all opposition inside and outside of his kingdom. By 334, Alexander is ready to meet his destiny, crossing the Hellespont and launching an invasion of Persia where he slaughters his way across Asia before being “defeated” at the Hyphasis when his soldiers simply refuse to advance any further. By 323, Alexander returned to Babylon for his second date with destiny.
In other words, a precocious young man takes the throne at 18, conquers everything from the Mediterranean to India, and dies at 33 or 34.
Along the way this template prescribes a certain set of questions: How did Alexander’s drinking affect his reign? What caused Alexander’s growing orientalism? Did Alexander think of himself as a god and, if so, when did that begin? What were Alexander’s plans when he died? Who killed Alexander? Did Alexander believe in the ‘Unity of Mankind’? Was Alexander Great?
Despite more than a century’s worth of scholarship and dozens of books that have shed light on any number of aspects about Alexander’s reign, we are barely closer to answering the fundamental questions about Alexander. In part, these issues stem from the tenuous nature of the sources for Alexander’s reign, but there is an even more insidious issue at work. The questions that frame studies of Alexander are designed as though they can be answered using evidence when, in fact, they are unanswerable except by imparting a healthy dose of opinion. For example, if you look closely at how I framed the questions above, one takes for granted a fundamental change in Alexander’s character as he progressed into Asia and frames that change in terms of a modern concept.
All historians are constrained by their sources and many of the questions I posed above are found already in the ancient evidence. Calling the sources for Alexander “weak” is generous. Five narrative accounts of Alexander’s reign exist in part or whole. The earliest of these, Book 17 of Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History dates to the first century BCE, while the latest, Justin’ epitome of Book 11 of Pompeius Trogus’ history is a synopsis of a first-century BCE work compiled in the third century CE. The three remaining accounts fall between these two dates: Quintus Curtius Rufus’ History (first century CE), Plutarch’s Life of Alexander (late-first or early-second century CE), and Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri (early-second century CE). In other words, every account of Alexander the Great that exists from antiquity was written between three hundred and six hundred years after he died. Then there are issues with each individual work. Diodorus Siculus and Justin/Trogus wrote “universal histories” that inserted Alexander into their histories of the world down to their current day, while Plutarch wrote biography, a genre that explicitly claimed a moral, rather than historical, purpose. Curtius’ history, which was the most well-known of these throughout the Middle Ages, has long gaps and is missing the first two books in their entirety.
Historians have long sought to answer the question of which source ought to be believed through a process of peeling back the layers in the existing histories to find their sources, which, while fragmentary, offer a more accurate picture of what happened.
This research revealed two overarching traditions for Alexander. The first tradition is the so-called Vulgate of Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin/Trogus that trace their origins to a 3rd-Century BCE work by Cleitarchus, while the second, “high,” tradition of Arrian declares that it follows the accounts of Aristobulus and Ptolemy, who actually accompanied Alexander and therefore before knew him. Based on his preferred sources and largely-intact text, it makes intuitive sense to trust Arrian’s history the most among the five existing accounts, and this is exactly what historians have often done. However, Arrian’s history is also not without problems, including that his sources wrote decades after Alexander had died and he seems blithely trusting that Ptolemy, who had become a king by the time he wrote his history, would have no cause to manipulate his account.
In fact, most sources that purported to be directly connected to Alexander, such as his will, were likely early Hellenistic forgeries created to further the ambitions of one successor or another. The only truly contemporary account of the campaign was that of Callisthenes, Alexander’s court historian and propagandist who wrote dispatches back to Greece extolling Alexander’s successes before Alexander ultimately had him had executed.
These source problems lead modern Alexander biographies to be colored by a rich anecdotal tradition that owes its earliest incarnation to Alexander’s own propaganda and has grown in the intervening millennia as generation after generation has latched onto the same tales. Alexander demonstrates his generosity by granting his mistress Pancaste to Apelles after the artist painted her nude and fell in love or by tolerantly laughing off the potential slight when the Persian queen mother Sisygambis mistakes Hephaestion (or Leonnatus) for Alexander. Meanwhile his temper is on display at a drunken party in Pella where Philip allegedly tries to run him through, and again at Maracanda when a drunk and enraged Alexander impales one of his longest-tenured retainers with a spear. Slicing through the Gordion Knot demonstrates pride, while the conflagration of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus on the same day as Alexander is born—the goddess had allegedly left her home unprotected to watch over the momentous birth—foretold greatness.
Already from the time of Callisthenes ALEXANDER consisted of a larger-than-life facade enveloping a shadow, regardless of whether you were pro-Alexander or against him. This is not to say that Alexander was a non-person—on the contrary, I suspect that his charisma was magnetic. Rather, Alexander the historical figure is even more impossible to recover than most biographical subjects because almost everything we know about his character are projected by later sources onto an ambiguous blank slate.
My scholarly interests have recently begun to drift the way of my stomach, leading to more time spent thinking about ancient bread. About a year ago I delivered a paper at the Classical Association of the Middle-West and South annual meeting that looked at bread in the public food-scape of the Greek city, concluding, among other things, that most of the labor was done by women and non-citizens, both free and enslaved. Meanwhile the celebrated baker of Ancient Athens, credited with training a generation of bakers and introducing large bread ovens was a man named Thearion.
(The introduction to the paper is available here.)
Plato’s Gorgias (518B–518c) mentions Thearion at a point where Socrates is dismantling the idea that food can train the body for gymnastics:
As if, when being asked with regard to gymnastics who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” Equally you might be aggrieved if I were to say to you: “Sir, you know nothing about gymnastics: you speak to me of servants, providers for the appetites of human beings, but without any right and proper understanding of [those appetites], those men who first fatten and fill human bodies to great applause and then wipe away even their original flesh.
Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae (3.78) includes several fragmentary references to Thearion, including a clipped section of Plato’s Gorgias that inverts Socrates’ point.
Antiphanes also recalls the Attic loaves as particularly excellent, thus in the Omphale:
How could one of good birth Be able to come out from such a chamber, Looking upon these white-bodied loaves Fill the oven close-packed in the passage And seeing them, form shapes in covered vessels Copied by Attic hands, who Thearion Trained for the common people.
[Note: I struggled to reconcile δημόταις, settling on something akin to “for the public good.”]
This is that Thearion the bread maker whom Plato recalls in the Gorgias and along with him Mithaicus, writing so: “about those who were or are good trainers of the body, you say to me in all earnestness, “Thearion the baker, Mithaecus the author of a book on Sicilian cooking, and Sarambus the tavern-keeper, these have all shown themselves to be marvelous attendants of the body, the one by preparing marvelous loaves, the next opson, the third wine.” And thus Aristophanes in his Gerytades and Aeolosicon:
“I come, having left Thearion’s bakeshop, where is the abode of the cookwares.”
Perhaps the most famous food writer in antitquity was the fourth-century Sicilian Archestratus, who wrote a verse poem about food that sources variously call Gastronomy(Γαστρονομία), Luxury(Ἡδυπαθεία), Deipnology(Δειπνολογία) or Cookery(῾Ὀψοποιία, Athenaeus 1.7). Although it is frequently Gastronomy in modern descriptions the title Hedupatheia, is attested earlier.In general, Archestratus was a proponent of fresh food cooked when it is at its best. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae preserves the only extant fragments of this poem. The two below (from Athenaeus 3.77, OS Fr. 5 and 6) are the rare fragments about bread.
First, Moschus my friend, I will recall the gifts of fair-haired Demeter and take these into your heart. Take these the best and greatest of all: [The flour] of fruitful barley sifted clean grown entirely From famed Eresus on the sea-girt knoll Lesbos, lighter than ethereal snow. Indeed if the gods eat barley groats, this is where Hermes buys it for them from the market. And suitable is [bread] in seven-gated Thebes, And in Thasos and in many other poleis, but olive pits These would seem, you can clearly judge [in comparison]. Seek [σοι ὑπαρχέτω] the rounded Thessalian roll [κόλλιξ] Kneaded by the fair hand of a woman, the one they call Krimnites [possibly barley], but others call the Chondrinos loaf. Then, from Tegea, I commend the son of the finest wheat flour Baked in the Fire [the ἐγκρυφίας]. But famed Athens sends to market the best made loaves for men. And in grape-bearing Erythrae from an earthen cook vessel, comes a loaf, bright and risen, that brings cheer at mealtime.
For the entirety of my academic career, Oliver Stone’s epic biopic Alexander has been an object of ridicule. I praised a handful of casting choices when it came out (Angelina Jolie as Olympias, even if I don’t love what they did with the character; Anthony Hopkins as old-man Ptolemy), but otherwise loudly complained about the way the film warped history and have particular issues with the work of one of the main historical consultants.
In short, I was in line with the 16% score Alexander received on Rotten Tomatoes.
Outside a handful of conversations I hadn’t given thought to Alexander in a decade when I decided to show it this semester in a class called “The Afterlives of Alexander the Great.” Then two things happened: first, I discovered that 67% of reviews on Amazon gave it either 4 or 5 stars; second, I discovered that the movie is not as bad as I remember it.
First, despite hitting a few of my pet peeves in filmmaking (e.g. how will we know we’re in Greece if there aren’t schooling scenes with broken columns???), it is beautifully costumed in ways that show the increasing distance of the expedition away from Greece. I’m not wild about the script and Colin Farrell looks too old for teenaged Alexander, but the look is gorgeous and immersive, nicely capturing the fact that the Macedonians were leaving a relatively poorer part of the Ancient World for territories that were older and wealthier.
Second, Alexander tries to offer a psychological portrait of a king. I think this is where the critiques that it is a talk-y epic come from. I can appreciate the ambition even as it hews too far toward “Alexander the Idealist” for my taste, and the theatrical cut is overly concerned with an Oedipal interpretation that is deemphasized in the later cuts. However, this big swing also comes with drawbacks. For instance, one of the hallmarks of the ancient sources like Curtius Rufus and Plutarch is that they struggle to reconcile the great, humanistic idealist with the brutal and ruthless monarch.*
In fact, since all of our surviving narrative histories of Alexander campaign date from several hundred years later, they offer as much a commentary on monarchy and power as they do evidence for Alexander’s reign.
Stone’s Alexander struggles in much the same way, trying both offer a humanizing portrait of the great man and a soup-to-nuts biopic that covers the warts and all. The result is an uneven movie that swings from Alexander espousing idealistic platitudes about how Asians are people, too, to a wedding-night rape scene, to Alexander the tender homosexual lover, to him killing his loyal followers in a drunken rage, to showing his perpetual struggle for the approval of his parents. Trying to put it all in a single film that focuses this closely on Alexander lays bare just how contradictory our original sources can be.
Third, I was much more forgiving of how the movie warps the chronology, combining and compressing the battles. These scenes dragged in the film as it stands, so I could see how doubling or tripling their run-time would have just bloated the movie further without supplementing the attempted psychological portrait.
The obvious solution is that an entire Alexander story cannot fit in a movie. But Alexander predates HBO’s Rome (2005–2007), let alone Game of Thrones or a show like the Crown. The space afforded by a prestige drama, whether a single season on Alexander culminating in his death a la Ned Stark and multiple seasons on the period of the successors or an eight season run with three on Alexander is a much more appropriate format for this story, both because it better fits long-form storytelling and because a series would allow the creators and writers to develop characters other than Alexander, both Greek and Persian––an under-appreciated requirement for any successful adaptation of this story.
Fourth, one of the really interesting things that Alexander does is to frame it as being told by old-man Ptolemy, now a king in Egypt, in the process of writing his history of Alexander’s campaign. As with other points, I picked nits with the scenes, including that there is a fully-completed Pharos lighthouse and a statue of Philip with a Pericles helmet, but since Ptolemy did write a history of this period he is a natural surrogate as a narrator in the same way that Bilbo and Frodo Baggins tell the stories of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings and Samwell Tarly writes Game of Thrones. The problem is that this framing device has layers of consequences for the story that the movie utterly disregards, leaving both superficial narration and a generic amalgam of the Alexander story.
To be clear, Alexander remains a hot mess of a movie. It doesn’t have much time for women, doesn’t do enough to get at the fundamental violence of Alexander’s reign, or spend enough time either humanizing the non-Greeks or exploring the sense of alienation that Alexander’s men, any of which could have made for a more compelling film than its psychological portrait. But it is also a hot mess with ambition in ways that give it more to think about than most movies that fail this spectacularly.