The Impossibility of Alexander

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.

Reign: The Conqueror

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.

οὔτε γὰρ ἱστορίας γράφομεν, ἀλλὰ βίους, οὔτε ταῖς ἐπιφανεστάταις πράξεσι πάντως ἔνεστι δήλωσις ἀρετῆς ἤ κακίας, ἀλλὰ πρᾶγμα βραχὺ πολλάκις καὶ ῥῆμα καὶ παιδιά τις ἔμφασιν ἤθους ἐποίησε μᾶλλον ἢ μάχαι μυριόνεκροι καὶ παρατάξεις αἱ μέγισται καὶ πολιορκίαι πόλεων, ὥσπερ οὖν οἱ ζῳγράφοι τὰς ὁμοιότητας ἀπὸ τοῦ προσώπου καὶ τῶν περὶ τὴν ὄψιν εἰδῶν, οἷς ἐμφαίνεται τὸ ἦθος, ἀναλαμβάνουσιν, ἐλάχιστα τῶν λοιπῶν μερῶν φροντίζοντες, οὕτως ἡμῖν δοτέον εἰς τὰ τῆς ψυχῆς σημεῖα μᾶλλον ἐνδύεσθαι καὶ διὰ τούτων εἰδοποιεῖν τὸν ἑκάστου βίον, ἐάσαντας ἑτέροις τὰ μεγέθη καὶ τοὺς ἀγῶνας.

Plut. Alex. 1.2–3

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 both 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.

Charles Le Brun, The Family of Darius in Front of Alexander (1661)

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.

Alexander (2004), revisited

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.

*There are a number of books on this subject, my favorites being Elizabeth Baynham’s Alexander the Great and Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander.

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.

Borders

I have always loved maps. In fact, I had a pocket atlas of the world in middle school and was teased for “reading” it. But in a European tradition, maps are seductive, deceptive. They instill a sense of order and possession in the world that bear not resemblance to reality. Sure, sometimes the line is a simulacrum of a wall or a road or a river or a mountain, but in many instances that is an artificial creation; where the line is not man-made, it is wont to move,such as when a river changes course.[1]

There are other issues with maps, too. One West Wing episode features a petition from a group called Cartographers for social equality–a group dedicated to flipping the usual N-S paradigm because having north on top creates top-bottom attitudes. Likewise, the central panel of a map centralizes that landmass–usually the United States or Europe–in the viewer’s awareness. Then there are claims to ownership that the cartographer inscribes on the map, which gets us back to the issue of lines. The common practice in Ancient Greece was to place boundary markers (horoi) to denote borders of property (particularly rented or mortgaged property) and temple land.[2] Similar stones could denote the boundary of the chora that belonged to the town. There may also have been border watch posts or border forts along or near that border that would have extended a more physical presence along the border. Within the territory there was ownership of property, but on a state level the possession of territory was more about what the state could claim as its own and subsequently protect than any sort of “ownership” in the modern sense.

Lines that appear on maps showing the extent of territory in the ancient world are often problematic, but so too is replacing the lines with nodes. The key here is a multiplicity of forms of territory. Each city in Greece would have possessed its own chora, but the furthest border was rarely a line, even if there was a border of boundary stones. Control and borders of empires are even more problematic. We can drawn an outline of Alexander’s conquests, but in the furthest reaches of Bactria and in central India, those lines would have been meaningless. Territory was only possessed if it could be controlled–lines were only real if they had physical manifestations. This necessity led to an emphasis on urbanization by ancient state buildings (Seleucus and Antigonus among the successors to Alexander’s empire being classic examples). Sedentary peoples were easier to control than nomads and cities, or fortresses in some instances, offered a physical presence in the area. The Seleucid kingdom eventually reached a point where it was consisted of cities along the royal road, with each city having its own chora.

I wrote before that these fissures and cracks in the ancient world and how we think about it are where I see some ancient relevance to the modern world. Recently there have been some reports about the escalation of violence in Syria and Iraq and how the US withdrawal from Iraq has allowed “terrorist” groups to form actual camps without fear of airstrikes. In a radio story (apologies, I forget which NPR program this was on), the host asked the expert to clarify whether the camps were in Syria or Iraq and was told that the people involved did not recognize a border in the region. The United States and Western Europe are committed to a nation-state paradigm and territorial integrity for their own reasons, which is why there has been only a passing discussion of breaking up Iraq and Syria,[3] but it is easy to forget that the borders only exist in as much as there is collective agreement and are enforced. The jigsaw puzzle of the world map offers certainty and completion in the world and in some parts of the world that paradigm works, but in any number of other places the borders are just as illusory as the concept of the state that the borders are supposed to demarcate.


[1]The root of the English word “meander,” for instance, is the Maeandros River in Anatolia, a waterway notorious for wandering around the valley.

[2]The word also denotes other borders or memorials.

[3]If the United States was to support separatist movements without widespread international support (such as from the UN), then there would be precedent for other nations to support Hawaii in its separatist bid. Most nations have groups that would rather be independent, so unless there is a compelling reason (e.g. ethnic cleansing) for the region to be independent, there is a dearth of support for such groups on the international level.

More than a discourse

Luke Skywalker walks into a bar and orders a drink. Dr. Cornelius Evazan [1] grabs him, tells him that he is liked by neither the doctor nor his friend and then threatens to kill Luke. According to Wookiepedia, the online depository for all information about the Star Wars galaxy, Evazan threatens Luke because he is a sociopath. Evazan doesn’t want money or power or prestige or food or sex. He just wants to kill Luke because he doesn’t like him. The Emperor/Darth Vader/Grand Moff Tarkin may want to kill Luke to continue to hold onto their grip on inter-planetary power, the Sand People may want to kill Luke because he trespasses on their territory and they would like to take his stuff, and Boba Fett [2] may want to kill Luke because he is a getting paid to do so, but Evazan just doesn’t like him.

The example used here from Star Wars is an extreme example of the point I am building towards. For something more mundane, there are people I don’t like and I feel guilty about disliking some of them. It can be a personality issue, or their behavior or their voice, particularly on days when I am irritable. It can also be the circumstances under which we met or that I was decaffeinated. And, most of the time, I can be perfectly pleasant with the person I dislike–the rest of the time we can not interact. Certainly I wouldn’t try to kill that person. The point is that most of the time my dislike is not due to a rivalry for a mate/food/prestige/power or the external manifestation of a cultural discourse of alterity/machismo/nationalism/spirituality, although it may also be any of those.

I mention this because it is something that often seems forgotten when writing a historical narrative. The explanation for this is that the historian is supposed to find reasonable causes events that rely on evidence that is demonstrable. For instance, to say that two people disliked each other is acceptable, but it would be preferable to say that those two people disliked each other because they were rivals for m/f/p/p or that the antipathy is the externalization of a cultural discourse of a/m/n/s. Even an attested “s/he looked cross-ways at my spouse” provides a reasonable and acceptable explanation. Unexplained maugre doesn’t happen in history. Naturally. Well, not really.

Inevitably, there are explanations for the dislike, but they are just of the sort that are not passed down in the historical record or are terribly satisfying and, often, the picayune cause for dislike exacerbates the rivalry or the cultural discourse and vice-versa. I am not suggesting that historians should seek to explain interpersonal relationships through a simple love/hate lens. Rather, I am musing that when there is evidence for a dislike that stems from a conflict of personalities or other similarly nebulous explanations, those should not be glossed over in favor of the rivalry for m/f/p/p or a discourse of a/m/n/s.

To take one example from the histories of Alexander the Great, Craterus was, arguably, Alexander’s most skilled military commander after the execution of Parmenion and was reputed to be a friend to the king. Hephaestion was Alexander’s childhood friend and likely homosexual companion and was reputed to be a friend to Alexander. These two men certainly were in a competition for power within Alexander’s army when they drew swords and attacked each other while in India. Each had a different avenue to power and prestige within the army and each had his own partisans who participated in the melee. They were also manifesting an agonistic masculine Macedonian discourse and, at that moment, transcending the issue of alterity in order to come to blows several thousand miles from home. But there is part of me that suspects, without any specific evidence, [4] that pointing out the rivalries and discourses doesn’t actually explain why the two men didn’t get along. Maybe, just maybe, Craterus also told stupid jokes and Hephaestion made slurping sounds when drinking his wine. But this is the purview of the historical novelist more than that of the historian.[5]


[1] Yes, he has a name. No, he’s probably not a real doctor. Yes, he calls himself a doctor. No, to the extent that the galaxy has bureaucratic regulations that control who is and is not a doctor across worlds, no world recognizes Evazan as a doctor because they think he’s crazy, but the galaxy was a big place so he could evidently pass himself off as one. Yes, there is an implied question at the start of each sentence in this footnote.
[2] And the other mooks. [3]
[3] Storm Troopers, Palace Guards, etc.
[4] If I remember correctly, Plutarch says that they didn’t like each other and both seem to have been notoriously prickly characters. But that isn’t much.
[5] Then again, it has been argued time and again for millenia that the purpose of fiction is to reveal greater truths than non-fiction ever can.

Alexander the Great, paranoia, power struggles at court: some thoughts

This is me thinking publicly about a hangup that I have about one of the major scholarly debates surrounding aristocratic politics at the Macedonian court. There is no research beyond what I have done in the past and it relates right now to a single line in a nineteen page paper. Nonetheless, it is a pivotal concern because it basically dictates how the Macedonian court is perceived.

Ernst Badian wrote his classic article “Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power,” in which he defaults to some of the Romantic notions about the nature of genius and ambition, but concludes that Alexander’s relationship with the aristocracy hinged upon Alexander’s paranoia and lust for power. He describes Alexander as being increasingly unstable, approaching ever closer to madness. Alexander became king as the pawn of several older aristocrats from whom he consistently rebelled, always trying to actually be king in his own right. He goes so far as to call Alexander’s removal of Parmenion in 330 a “coup d’etat.” For Badian, Alexander’s compulsion to achieve first genuine kingship, then ultimate power, shaped his further actions and caused him to be increasingly hostile towards any member of the aristocracy who opposed him.

In her doctoral dissertation, Elizabeth Carney claims a similar setup of the Macedonian court, with there being a competition between the aristocracy and the king, and Sabine Mueller provides a clever construction in her book Massnahmen der Herrschaftssicherung genegüber der makedonischen Opposition bei Alexander dem Grossen in which she argues that the conflict between aristocracy and king was an ongoing tension at Alexander’s court rather than something that was a result of Alexander’s increasing paranoia. The tension, she claims stems from Alexander’s control not being unlimited, which brings her back to Badian’s basic point that Alexander desired ultimate power unrestrained by any constitution or aristocracy.

These arguments have roots in two related places: the cult of personality surrounding Alexander the Great and the narrative record that we have. Basically, everyone has their own opinion of Alexander the Great, who he was, his behavior, and his motivations. This perception then dictates how credulous each person will be in regard to Alexander’s actions, and, say, whether his cause of death was alcoholism, poison by any number of suspects, or repeated injuries and illness, or some combination thereof. This is not a problem with history of Alexander per se because there is no solution to it. Instead, I consider this the most fundamental fact to the history of Alexander the Great, and believe that it is the reason that so many people are drawn (professionally or otherwise) to this larger than life figure.

Then we have a varied historical record that describes a repeated pattern of conflict between Alexander and the aristocracy, though usually in the form of Alexander ordering the deaths of people or stabbing people himself. It is at this point that people usually put on their tinfoil hats and claim Alexander was executing a long-term plan to eliminate any potential threat to his throne. It is also this record that is hard to argue against.

I believe that Alexander was prone to paranoia, perhaps to a greater degree that your run-of-the-mill autocrat (somewhere less than Pol Pot and Stalin, and probably Nixon, but greater than Napoleon, Ghengis Khan, and his father Philip), but I also believe that he was no fool. In this light, I am not convinced that he had a grand plan to eliminate any of his many talented followers simply because they were talented, and there are plenty of instances in which he gave second and third chances. Nevertheless, when presented with evidence of treason or a threat to his life, Alexander was more apt to believe it because of his paranoia. Alexander was also notoriously rash/audacious, so, when presented with a threat or a problem, his wont was to deal with it immediately and directly (see: Mallian Fortress, Philotas, Attalus, Gaugamela, etc). Even those people who believe Philip greater than Alexander and those people who believe Alexander to be dangerously unstable do not deny that he was an incredibly talented individual. We also have only a few accounts of Alexander becoming uncontrollably angry, with many more claiming that he had a temper, but was remarkable in part for his control over it. Coming full circle, whether you believe in the calm, rational instances, or the ones wherein Alexander does his best Hulk impressions, or a little of both, relates directly back to what type of individual you believe Alexander was.

My take is that a degree of paranoia is possible in even the most calm and rational people, something that would only be exacerbated in a position of power, with a mother like Olympias, a father like Philip, and an adult life entirely consumed by war, drinking, and sex–particularly when the latter two are sometimes punctuated by people trying to kill you.

There is also a tendency to make Alexander out to be younger than he was. He was about twenty years old when he took the throne. Young, yes, but still a grown man, and old enough that he would likely have been beyond Ephebe status at Athens. He also would have needed to have aristocratic support to be king whether he was twenty or forty. It might have been easier to directly appeal to the soldiers were he older, but aristocrats played a key role in supporting the king, and other than the instances such as this one where someone raised a rebellion (in this case Attalus, who was doing so on behalf of his niece and her child), the aristocracy necessarily chose sides. In this case the choice was the talented young man who had first taken the regency upon himself at sixteen, his mentally deficient half brother, or an unborn child, and I suspect that Alexander’s inheritance was not actually threatened as much as some people believe, particularly if he rallied his supporters quickly. This depended as much or more on Alexander than it did on the aristocrats who (supposedly) were the main reason for his accession. Basically aristocratic support was a fundamental part of the Macedonian kingship, but he did not really have rival claimants.

I also suspect that there is more at work in terms of geopolitics, human realities, and ideologies that caused the conflicts between Alexander and the aristocracy. The first “conflict” was Alexander’s having a legitimate threat (the uncle of his father’s last wife) executed, but he was attempting to foment rebellion against Alexander. There were certain minor incidents at points during the next six years, but it was not until 330 that there was another major incident (at which point Justin claims that Alexander began acting as though he was an enemy toward his followers). It was then that he had Philotas put on trial, and then had Parmenion, Philotas’ father, executed. I believe that the former was the victim of a coup in the Macedonian court, but prompted by the lower ranked aristocrats who coveted his position. Parmenion was executed because Philotas was found guilty of treason, which also extended to family members under Macedonian law. Thus, Alexander was not to blame for this action. Other people suffered from the fallout, but it was all related to the perceived treason of Philotas–which was cunningly linked to an actual plot to kill Alexander.

Then there was the murder of Cleitus, for which Alexander cannot be exonerated since he physically held the spear. This is the one incident in which Alexander became incoherent with rage, but he was also drunk. Moreover, there is an episode from his father’s reign where, at a similar banquet, he threw his cup at another aristocrat at an off word. Yet, even in this instance, there was some provocation in that the two men were at odds over a song or poem, with Cleitus defending some Macedonians. Alexander is to blame, but it does not seem to be a product of a long-standing plan so much as a momentary rage for which Alexander reputedly repented.

The next death attributed to this plan was Coenus, the man who spoke out against Alexander’s drive to conquer the entire world on the Hyphasis. Coenus died on the return from India and there was some supposition that Alexander poisoned him for his opposition. Of course there is no proof. Does this at all change if he wasn’t alone in opposing Alexander, much less if the confrontation at the Hyphasis is pure fiction (i.e. that Alexander decided to turn around on his own)? How does this change our interpretation of Alexander? Of course, the histories are riddled with such incongruities and fictions.

Then there is his “reign of terror” where, by all accounts, Alexander replaced and punished governors and officers who had misbehaved. Rather than punishing people who threatened him, he was punishing misrule. There were other issues, of course, and at various points Alexander threatened genocide because his horse had wandered off, slaughtered and enslaved the city of Tyre, and had done any number of other reprehensible things. Conquerors usually do. But the fact is that Alexander make rather feeble attempts to establish rule over a huge swathe of land in a period when the speediest messages went by horse. Without enough oversight, the opportunities for mischief were too great. The most notorious criminal of the bunch was Harpalus, Alexander’s treasurer who took off with (supposedly) 5,000 talents —somewhere on the order of 2.5 billion dollars or more. Yet Alexander is often portrayed as the megalomaniacal monster for punishing these actions. Perhaps he is at fault for not doing more to establish infrastructure, but by most accounts these actions are not those of a madman or of someone hellbent on freeing himself from the aristocracy. They are the actions of a talented, if paranoid and driven, individual who put himself in a position to eventually fail because he tried to do too much. Scholars then try to present a case of Alexander and the aristocracy being at odds that is not borne in the sources.

The problem that I have with this is that it is an easy and compelling case to make that Alexander and the aristocracy were at odds. I hope my present work can beat back some of the of those claims. But as cathartic as this was, I’m not sure that it makes my case as well as I’d like, or that it is really that pertinent to my current inquiry.

Midnight Musings: The Death of Alexander

One of the great, unsolved mysteries of history is the death of Alexander. The cause of death has troubled historians, writers and students for millennia, including several books in the past few years and a new article on whether or not bacteria from the River Styx could have killed him. Solving this mystery will be a great accomplishment and further our historical understanding in ways not yet dreamed of. Or so they say.

The truth is that I don’t care about the death of Alexander. I don’t care if he died from alcohol poisoning, wounds, malaria, typhoid or was poisoned, though I will point out that silence in the ancient sources about deaths from an epidemic really doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur, just that it wasn’t written down. If Alexander was poisoned, I don’t care who did it or how.

In fact there are exactly three episodes that I do care about from the week or so he was dying. 1) I care who he supposedly granted succession to. 2) I care what the aristocrats were doing on the day and night of his death. 3) I care that he died.

This is an instance where perceptions (ancient perceptions, both contemporary and later) matter more than what actually did happen. So, once again, I don’t really care what did happen.

A second issue here is that Alexander did die. Every attempt to solve the whodunit is an exercise in rhetoric and argumentation from the flimsiest of evidence. Looking at the actions Alexander did while alive, the impact of those actions and the ripples from his death. For the overall historical narrative these are what matter, these are what will enable a more detailed understanding of the historical period.

And so, one final time, I don’t care how Alexander died.

Parmenion – Birth in camera, death in the spotlight

Parmenion led Philip’s advance force in Asia Minor. Parmenion’s son Philotas was the commander of Alexander’s Companion Cavalry; his son Nikanor led the Hypaspists; Parmenion held the left wing at Issus and Gaugamela, as well as the military governorship in Syria during the siege of Tyre. In 330 Alexander ordered the execution of Parmenion.

This is most of what we know as fact about Parmenion, arguably the greatest general of his age, architect of Philip and Alexander’s greatest victories.

Unraveling the mystery of where Parmenion came from will further the study of Alexander. Scholars have placed his birthplace from Thessaly to Upper Macedonia, to Lower Macedonia to Paeonia and inevitably use this “fact” as the cornerstone for their theories on Alexander’s behaviour throughout his reign. Now, as thousands of years ago, Parmenion’s actions and personality and influence are seen to affect Alexander’s decision making processes. Yet without knowing more about Parmenion himself, the logic that follows is inherently flawed.

Two aspects of the Alexander history pop out in this vein. The first is that Parmenion plays the literary foil to the brilliant young king in all of the histories. This works because, in some ways, it is true. Alexander is young, dashing, impetuous; Parmenion is old, wise, cautious. There are not two men, other than perhaps Antipatros and Alexander, who make such a marked contrast while both excelling at the same profession. Due to his success, his position under Philip and, depending on who you believe, his loyalty to Alexander or his indispensability to Alexander,1
Parmenion was a prominent enough figure to balance the aura that surrounds Alexander.2 Thus whenever Parmenion said this or that or contradicted the king, it may well be accurate, but it may also be that he represents a faction within the Macedonian Kingdom that would otherwise be passed over.

The second is that the murder of Parmenion and execution of Philotas stem from different motives depending on where Parmenion was from and his relationship with Alexander. If Parmenion was from Upper Macedonia and had a major devoted following and hesitated to join and was dragging his heels, then Alexander may have resented him and wanted to eliminate his influence. If Philotas was truly that insufferable and belittling Alexander’s accomplishments, and Parmenion was resented, outside of the Lower Macedonian Aristocracy, then Alexander may have attacked the son to get at the father. However if he was from Lower Macedonia and simply getting old–not resented, then it may be (as I claim) that Alexander’s inner circle attacked Philotas, not to get at Parmenion, but to get at higher ranks. Parmenion died from this because Alexander could not let him go free after killing his son; there was just too great a chance he would rebel. I could continue spinning situations for quite some time, but the above gives the general idea of the range that these theories can take.

In the end, Parmenion’s influence on the Macedonian army, his decision making, his place in society and ultimately his death rest in some measure on his birth, a “fact” that has not yet been sufficiently argued.


1 There is some suggestion that Parmenion had to be bribed to join Alexander with positions for his sons and then only joined reluctantly.
2 My own claim is that the Parmenion portrayed in the Alexander histories is a mouthpiece and representative of the aristocracy or some large portion therein.

Advancing Macedonian Historiography

According to Collingwood the mark of the historian and the purpose therein is to relive past events in order to spin out the why of stories. History inevitably ends with the present, not the future, but for history to have value, it must discover why past events happened the way they did, be it from socio-economic trends or from reliving military campaigns from the point of view of the general.

The next advancement in Macedonian history will come in one of two places. The first being the fore bearers of Philip and Alexander, bringing to life the institutions so poorly understood in the time of Philip and Alexander. The second, and more probable,* place will be in the study of the Macedonian hierarchy under Philip and Alexander.

Each new work on Alexander brings in a new perspective because each is by a historian** with a different set of experiences, but most are not really saying anything new. Many of these books simply rehash other arguments and arrange the information in new ways. When they do say something new, it is often touching upon absurd, such as investigatory evaluation of suspects for Alexander’s murder.

In short, what has been brought to life about Alexander has reached the limit of usefulness. Of course this will not stop people from writing about Alexander, but new works are less useful than one might think.

Each of the two topics for advancement round out the study of Alexander and Macedonia the way a new book about Alexander does not. For this field to advance, one or both needs to be seriously studied. Careful and convincing answers are needed.

*More probable simply because the focus of so much work in on Alexander. For some reason people find him interesting. Go figure.

**Though labeling some of the authors as historians would be generous at best.

Footnotes versus Endnotes

As both a reader and a researcher I love footnotes. I love the ability to digress slightly, relate related, even if not especially pertinent information, to explain minutiae of an argument without detracting from the narrative. They are also extremely useful for noting where certain information, especially primary information and obscure facts, come from. For scholars, especially respected ones, to simply state a fact as true without acknowledging or explaining where this information comes from is simply unacceptable to me.1

The same information may be expressed in an endnote, but I find them to be unwieldy. In a footnote you may explain tangents, but they must be narrower in scope simply because there should be more text on a given page than footnotes. In theory the same could apply to end-notes, but there is more freedom to ramble on.

As a reader, I hate end-notes because they interrupt the flow of my reading.2 Reading footnotes I can pause at a paragraph break, skim through the footnote and pick up again with little time lost. End-notes I can stop at a paragraph, but then have to find where in the notes at the end of the book my particular note is located. This is even more true when the author renumbers their end-notes by chapter, because then if I reach the right number, I may not be on the right page.

There it is. End-notes are better than no notes, but inferior to footnotes because of reading flow and their lack of checks on their length or deviation.


1 Most recently I saw this in Paul Cartledge’s book Alexander the Great, where he chose a starting point for much of the action with the claim that Parmenion was from Upper Macedonia. My research does not support this, if for no other reason than that Parmenion was a major player in Lower Macedonia for years prior to unification and that there are no sources attributing to his birth location. My suspicion is that he was a middling aristocrat from Lower Macedonia. Further, Upper Macedonia is the modern term for several different principalities, not one unified area. I could go on into much more detail, but that is another footnote.

2 That is if I care enough to follow through.

Seeing with eyes unclouded

Two of my most recent reads were A History of Modern Greece by C.M. Woodhouse and Alexander the Great by W.W. Tarn. Each has value; Woodhouse endeavours to document Greece from 306 C.E. up through 1977, while using just 300 page; Tarn almost single-handedly launched the modern study of Alexander III. They also have deficiencies. Most glaring for each is their tendency towards racial, ethnic or other stereotypes, combined with unabashed judgments about people or events. Tarn believes that Alexander was the first person to suggest the universal brotherhood of mankind, began the two main trends in political theory (monarchism and universal brotherhood, from what I can tell) and that if Alexander hadn’t died, we would be living in a Utopia under his descendants; Woodhouse hates Mussolini with a passion and is perfectly willing to deride him as an absolute monster without justification other than that he attacked Greece and felt petty jealousy toward Hitler.

If I actually had to use these two authors as sources, I would find myself in a deep dilemma. On one hand they know what they are talking about for the actual narrative, on the other, their arguments and their methodology is weak (in fact, I would go so far as to say that Thucydides, writing thousands of years earlier had better methodology, but that is a pet argument for me). To my mind, outrageous arguments such as the ones suggested above tarnish what could otherwise be very good work. The same is true of primary sources and ancient secondary sources, though in the latter case they often suffer from source problems as well and make do with comments such as “I don’t know how they did it, but here is what should have been done or what I would have done.”

As I do not need them for any sources (and even in Alexander studies, I find Tarn usually of secondary import), I can be somewhat amused at their eccentricities, but it goes to show that historians must always be vigilant lest their sources lead them astray. Of course this doesn’t mean that simple narrative with no explanation or analysis takes place, but the historian should make up their own mind rather than allowing the biases of their sources play a prominent role.