Did Alexander the Great suffer from CTE?

The following are some thoughts on this article, which, in short, suggests that the personality changes over the course of Alexander the Great’s reign could have been caused by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) perhaps caused by his shorter than average height. In other words, to quote Jake Nabel, Alexander the Great “often got bonked on the head.”

The thrust of the article is as follows: Alexander the Great was short and was therefore closer to his opponents and was struck in the head by at least glancing blows in the sources with some regularity. As has been a topic of concern in the arena of football, repeated head trauma can lead to CTE, which manifests with symptoms such as altered personality, uncommon susceptibility to alcohol, blackouts, extreme emotional swings, paranoia, and violence. All of these symptoms are attributed to Alexander and CTE provides an explanation that accounts for the greatest number of symptoms, ergo Alexander had CTE.

Some of the points made in the article are provocative and worth consideration. The focus on CTE could be poo-pooed as a flash-in-the-pan contemporary concern brought on by modern athletics, but ought to be taken into account in how we think about ancient warfare. Our medical data from antiquity is, effectively, non-existent, but human physiology hasn’t changed that much.

That said, I am skeptical of the larger argument.

First, I think that Alexander’s shortness, while a generally accepted fact, is a bit of a red-herring, not only because he was frequently fighting from horseback, but also because I wonder whether the difference in height would have made a significant difference over, say, his recklessness. Then, is it necessary to single out Alexander from the other Macedonians whose bodily harm receive less attention?

Second, the author implies that Alexander’s men also became more violent as Alexander’s head trauma grew worse. The implication is that they were following Alexander’s orders, but I am mistrustful of such a direct causal relationship, particularly because the author (following the model of the ancient sources) chooses to focus directly on Alexander’s erratic behavior. This is not a problem unique to this article, but is endemic in the thinking about Alexander the Great’s campaigns.

Third, the author too readily accepts the ancient sources at face-value, something which has been called into question, particularly on the issue of wounds (see particularly: Riginos, JHS, 1994). I happen to believe that Alexander the Great was wounded fairly regularly and sometimes severely, but hinging an argument on the specifics of the wounds is problematic, to say the least. This approach sees the symptoms and then goes looking for the wounds to support the thesis, without questioning whether those wounds might not have actually existed.

Fourth, and building from the issues of sources, all of which were composed or written hundreds of years after Alexander died, the article in question seemed to me to downplay any political, social, or literary explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior. On the one hand, this is the rhetoric of a journal article, but, on the other, it ignores how a Roman philosophical context shaped the accounts of Alexander murdering Cleitus just as much as it ignores the strains placed on the court by Alexander’s appointing Persian nobility to important positions, thereby challenging the supremacy of the Macedonian elite.

The author concludes by invoking the unsolved mystery that is Alexander’s death and suggesting that Alexander’s greatness should be read in terms of disability because of how long he functioned with a deteriorating brain. (I assume this differs from the alcoholism thesis because the latter is self-inflicted.) Such post-facto, blind diagnoses are deeply problematic, good for a headline, but light on substance.

Like many theories about the ancient world, the idea that Alexander suffered from CTE or a comparable type of trauma cannot be discounted because there is not enough evidence one way or another. The author is certainly correct that a surface-value reading of the evidence does supply evidence for CTE, and I like this explanation better than an anachronistic attribution of “alcoholism.” And yet, it is also necessary to pull back to see where this fits within the larger context rather than looking to isolate CTE as a universal explanation for the changes in Alexander’s behavior.

Alexander, Ephesus, and Plutarch

One category of the legends about Alexander the Great were the omens surrounding his birth. The most calamitous of these was that on the very day the future conqueror was born, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus went up in flames, supposedly the victim of arson. Despite a mundane explanation, the connection to Alexander caused this story to take on a life of its own, and people soon began to say that the reason that the goddess was not home to protect her temple was that she was busy watching over Alexander’s birth.

(Despite Plutarch’s implication that Artemis was there to watch over the newborn, one of her duties was to protect women during childbirth. Our male correspondents say nothing about whether Olympias’ labor when birthing Alexander was particularly difficult, but one wonders.)

According to Plutarch, the magi (sic) in Ephesus rent their clothes, convinced that this was an omen of one destined to conquer Asia was born. More likely, the lamentations were caused by panic at seeing the temple go up in flames and I suspect Plutarch’s mention of “magi” here isn’t connected to actual Persians though there were indubitably those, but rather that he using the term to refer generally to the sacred staff at the sanctuary where at least one of the priests bore the Persian title Megabyxus. Framing the episode this way pushes the vision of Ephesus as Asian and has a way of further magnifying Alexander’s importance.

From Arrian we hear that Alexander exploited the story linking the conflagration with his birth by offering to pay for repairs. The offer was not spurious and would demonstrate his wealth, magnanimity, and piety while binding Ephesus to him. Why the Ephesians rejected the donation is a matter of some debate, but, needless to say, served as fodder for even more fanciful stories.

Here’s the catch: Plutarch, our main source for the story about Artemis and Alexander’s birth, never mentions Alexander’s offer to pay for the repairs at the temple. The absence of any given episode in Plutarch’s life of Alexander is not itself notable. Early on in the work, perhaps by way of preemptive explanation, Plutarch makes a point of saying that he will focus on small events and gestures that have moral value. Nor is it necessarily surprising when an ancient author doesn’t follow up on a topic, but it is somewhat curious for Plutarch to establish the connection between Alexander and Ephesus only to gloss over the period when Alexander was actually there.

I don’t want to speculate as to Plutarch’s purpose in leaving out any mention of Alexander in Ephesus, though there are certainly plausible rhetorical explanations. What interests me in this instance is that the only source among the surviving accounts to mention Ephesus in conjunction with the birth is Plutarch and the only one to mention what he did there is Arrian. Aside from giving me a historiographical headache at the moment, this ought to be a reminder just how constructed are our histories of Alexander’s reign, particularly when it comes to imputing his motivations.

Alexander the Globalist

A link to a JSTOR-Daily post came across my Twitter feed this morning commenting on an article arguing that Alexander the Great was the founder of globalization because his vision of a universal empire of “indeterminate identification,” led by humanist transcending the limits of any one identification. Since the chapters I’ve been buried in the past two weeks now walks, talks, looks, and feels like a dissertation chapter (finally) and happens to focus on Alexander, I thought I’d offer a few of thoughts.

First, the basic argument (as is often the case with this topic) is rehashed to the point of exhaustion and reframed, but not new. The principle adaptation that the article advocates for is to consider the supposed “universal empire” described by Plutarch as a truly humanistic impulse rather than a sign of philosophical training or of his determination to Hellenize the world. The basic observation that Macedonia was at a crossroads and introduced young Alexander to a variety of cultures is a valuable observation, but why this would make him more tolerant of exotic cultures than his Macedonian followers is not explained. Most likely, Macedonian resistance to the elevation of others was the result of political friction as their place within the hierarchy was challenged. It is easy to be humanistic when you aren’t being threatened.

Second, the article’s main point is that the “indeterminacy of identity” is at the root of globalization, as distinct from moral or economic factors. This is fair, but hits a snag because he hinges much of the argument on the idea of national origin in antiquity. Taking on these multiple roles was also nothing new for ancient rulers. The Macedonian kings were kings of the Macedonians, but were also alone formally ruled to be Greeks—-similarly the Spartan kings were formally not Dorian because they were descended from Heracles instead of the later interlopers. Cultures and identities, in those examples, but also elsewhere in the Greek world and beyond, were much more fluid than are often imagined, so why Alexander ought to be special in this regard is a mystery.

Third, and most importantly, I question the idea that globlization is something that can be achieved by individuals rather than larger forces. This is not to say that I particularly like or subscribe to the idea of the invisible hands of markets, but rather that a truly humanistic globalization as described by the article is, when made by an individual, a political decision that, in this case, was a way to unify an empire that consisted of a large number of disparate forces and factions. The easiest way to rule such a state was for Alexander to wear all of the hats simultaneously—-and when the easiest way to conquer or rule the state was bloody slaughter, that is what he did. Alexander was a pragmatic and (usually) open-minded political actor whose policies cannot be divorced from his drive for domination. The fact that he dominated Greeks and Macedonians as well as barbarians is irrelevant.

I do believe that we should look at the ancient world as an interconnected system not unlike globalization. However, genuine globalization cannot seen as the work of an individual without recognizing the benefits that person gains in pushing the agenda.

Foundation and Alexander

My single favorite observation about Alexander the Great and his empire is attributed to Joseph Stalin, in a series of articles published in Pravda in 1950 called “Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.” In this, he answers a series of questions about language, its relationship to marxism (e.g. “is language a superstructure?”), whether language is inherently “class language” whether this changes if a society possesses multiple languages. Along the way, Stalin notes that empires of the “slave and midiaeval” eras, including Alexander’s was a “transient and unstable military and administrative association” that was unable to create a solid economic foundation of their own. Stalin expands this observation to apply to all ancient empires, but it particularly suits Alexander’s kingdom, which is sometimes credited with aspiring to form a more unified kingdom through intermarriage, at least among the ruling class, and that quickly disintegrated.

I was reminded of this today as I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation. In this novel, a scientist named Hari Seldon perfects “Psychological History,” which is a way to mathematically predict the history of the future based economics, sociology, and group behavior. The process works best for large groups and when most independent variables can be eliminated. At the outset, Seldon predicts the fall of the millennia-old galactic empire and claims that his method has shown there will be thirty-five thousand years of barbarism, but that this dark age can be reduced to a thousand years if he is allowed to establish an outpost of science and knowledge on the periphery of the galaxy–The Foundation.

The basic narrative is based on the fall of the Roman Empire, sometimes in clever ways, sometimes in somewhat clumsy ones, but Asimov spins out an engaging story over a long extent of time and space, but one passage in particular jumped out:

“Seldon, when he planned our course of future history, did not count on brilliant heroics but on the broad sweeps of economics and sociology.”

One of the issues I have with the basic accounts of Alexander’s conquest is that they rely extensively “brilliant heroics.” The sources make this largely unavoidable, and Alexander’s cult of personality is particularly potent. Asimov’s “Psycho-History” doesn’t offer a solution, but I am struck by the juxtaposition and that the exceptional (Alexander) seem to defy the broad trends. Of course there were economic and social currents that made Alexander’s conquest possible, including Philip’s reformation of the Macedonian Kingdom, but the actual conquest will forever be considered at least largely the product of Alexander’s implacable drive.

The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Andrew Young

Andrew Young, The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Westholme, 2014.

“This is a book about a book,” Young opens, but that book is lost. Young declares that it nevertheless possible to reconstruct Ptolemy’s history of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore Ptolemy’s vision of Alexander. A dedicated manuscript–not a not a full reconstruction, obviously, since that is tantamount to tilting at windmills–about Ptolemy’s history would be a wonderful benefit to scholars and general readers alike and recovering the “real” Alexander, or how Alexander died or even the original histories about Alexander are the ambitions of bookwork treasure-hunters everywhere. Ptolemy is even an engaging figure himself, a royal court hanger-on, soldier, governor, king, historian, so situating what is known about his historical work within the context of the early Hellenistic world where he was not the only ruler to engage in intellectual pursuits (see Demetrius of Phalerum and Antipater) would be a worthwhile enterprise. This is not that book. In fact, it is not even a book about a book. The Lost Book of Alexander the Great is another dry regurgitation of Alexander’s campaign, with passing attention paid to passages known to derive from Ptolemy’s history.

There are a host of issues with Young’s book. First, although he makes broad pronouncements about his angle of inquiry being the reconstruction of Ptolemy’s history, and thus being a textual study, he admitted in a Reddit AMA that he doesn’t know Greek and therefore relied on translations. It was not a surprise, then, to see that Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians and Brill’s New Jacoby project are absent from the bibliography, both of which provide commentary on the known fragments of Ptolemy’s history. But also absent were Bosworth’s commentaries on Arrian’s Anabasis and From Arrian to Alexander and Hammond’s Sources for Alexander the Great, which include essays about the source tradition. A general audience does not require these sources, but any study looking at the source tradition (which this purports to be) does. A deeper dive into the bibliography reveals further deficiencies. Neither Errington’s “Bias in the Ptolemy’s History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1969) nor Roisman’s “Ptolemy and his Rivals in his History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1984) appears. Nor do the biographies of Bosworth, Hammond (x2), Worthington, Heckel, Cartledge, and Green show up, though Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s volume, published in 1890, does. Young does list the translations he used and honestly includes the list of websites used in composing the manuscript. Of course, without any sort of citations, including for the direct quotations of modern and ancient sources, the bibliography is minimally useful.

this book is intended for a broad audience and while I have thus far identified where he failed w/r/t the declared purpose, I wish that I could recommend it as a general audience introduction to Alexander. I cannot. There are a number of inconsistencies in style (mons/mount; Roxanna/Roxana), but four issues, increasing in severity, stood out.

  1. Young chose to use “Belus”, the latinized version of the Greek name for Bel, rather than keeping the semitic version (97). This is not a problem per se, but it comes off as archaic and awkward.
  2. For some reason Young chose to use “Pexodarus” instead of “Pixodarus” (14), a variant I don’t recognize since the Greek original uses an iota.
  3. Instead of “Hetaira,” the Greek word for courtesan, Young multiple times used “hetera” (101-2), a spelling choice that a simple Google search changes to the latinate “hetaera.”
  4. According to Young (116), Zeus chained Perseus to Mt. Caucasus and allowed his liver to regrow every night, sending an eagle to eat it out every day. Except that that fate belonged to Prometheus.

Note that almost none of these issues actually concern the campaigns of Alexander. The issue is that there is nothing remarkable or innovative about the account. Or about Ptolemy’s history. Young’s book is not a book about a book, but a narrative about Alexander’s campaigns interspersed with vignettes about aspects of Greek culture–often gleaned from the internet–that the author finds interesting. I cannot recommend this book for anyone. May this ill-fated offering inspire someone to write a more current contribution to the study of this history of Alexander the Great in its social milieu than Pearson’s The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.