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.

Murder at Babylon, the problem with pop-history, don’t trust everything you read!

The new book Murder at Babylon is atrocious. [an inserted note is that I have not actually read the book, just skimmed a couple of chapters at the bookstore] True enough, it is laudable to go about trying to solve one of history’s great mysteries in such a fashion (more on this presently), but troubling is how the information for the search was found, and this became more and more evident throughout.

I suppose that I should first comment on the methodology before proving why this is a mistake and to do this I should set the stage. The year is 323 BCE, sometime during the summer, the place is Babylon, which is Alexander’s new capital, the center of the empire and the staging ground for a new wave of campaigns. The Macedonians who are left have been with Alexander since his rise to power after the murder of Philip and have since marched for 13 years and well over 25,000 miles.

Alexander had not been himself since Hephaestion died, nay, even before when he was wounded in India by some native dart. Newly recovered from sickbed, Alexander stormed through and conquered more territory, then crossed the desert, before presiding over a mass marriage and more campaigning, during which he lost his closest companion and even lover. To alleviate the depression that accompanied this loss, Alexander resumed a campaign to punish rebels before crossing into Babylon. Some months Later, Alexander died.

What this book does is approach Alexander’s death the way a death in the modern world would be–first reaching the conclusion that it was an unnatural death, largely becuase “the symptoms” don’t match any known disease; they do, however, match a number of poisons. After determining that it was poison, the author tracks eight suspects, looking for motive and opportunity to commit such a deed, before concluding that it was Roxane who killed Alexander, not Antipater, Seleukos, Meleagros or any of the other ludicrous possibilities.

Of course poison could have been used–and as much is suggested in the existing sources, but frankly this is rubbish. Poison had a very low success rate unless it was self inflicted, so it is not likely on that account, but also the author discredits himself with his historical research and source use.

None of the existing sources were written within 400 years of Alexander’s life and all were based off of two accounts written shortly after Alexander died, by his contemporaries. This fact did not deter the author from using their testimony about symptoms as admissable, and creates an argument for poison based on which symptoms each author chose to use, discounting that any number of them could have been fictional and that there was noone taking down which symptoms were real when Alexander lay dying. As for the historical bent, his history is wrong. While reading the chapter on Seleukos, the author rewrites the plot against Philotas as a plot against Nikanor that was brought about by Seleukos, the second in command of the Hypaspists–with the other officers brought in at the last minute becuase Seleukos was low ranked. In the histories, however, Seleukos is nowhere mentioned, and Nikanor was six months dead by the time that the case against Philotas came to a head.

Rather than properly researching and coming up with suspects, the author has instead shoe-horned Seleukos and Nikanor into an unbelievable situation that is not based in fact while badly misportraying both. Though not to the same degree, he has done similar discredit to his work in the analysis of Meleager, who he judged a suspect because of his jealousy over being low ranked (which could be reasonable if that was not also the reason for his dismissal as a suspect), and Roxane who takes out her jealousy against Statiera and the son of Alexander by killing Alexander, instead of killing Statiera. I need to go back and review his arguments again, but it is much more feasible that if Alexander was poisoned by someone of note that it was done by Antipatros, but even then the most logical explanation is that Alexander was wounded a vast number of times, and that in the end he received an illness, be it malaria or pneumonia or something completely different, and his already weakened body, and lungs in particular, simply could not cope.

In an effort to bring this full circle to the title, there are two reviews of this book on Amazon. They both give the author five stars, though one person admitted that she didn’t know what historians would say–that she started with the Oliver Stone movie of Alexander did not bode well for her, though. The other person considered himself an Alexander buff, owning every book made (I call bull on that, by the way, and I have problems with his type, but that is neither here nor there), but the point is that both of them chose this book for readability, not accuracy. I cannot talk about readability since I did not truly read it (though I shuddered at some of the organization), but it was inaccurate.

The spotlight effect

For two years now my greatest complaint about studying ancient history is a spotlight effect. This effect is that in the primary sources certain “great” men dominate the attention and it is impossible to know what else goes on. The best example of this is Alexander III who has at least three ancient works dedicated to him and another that covers him extensively, yet it is nigh impossible to know what some of his officers, in particular the more junior ones, are doing at a given time. Alexander has a spotlight on him that follows wherever he goes and we mostly know what the other men were doing as they entered the spotlight.

Of course there are other problems with the histories, not least of which is that their source was mostly Ptolemy who in turn rewrote history to slander his opponents and make himself show up more often, but Alexander also hogs the spotlight. Some of the time what Alexander ordered and the sparse information from elsewhere does provide adequate knowledge, but other times men who are not immediately around him disappear entirely.

With Alexander I can somewhat understand it because in terms of pure charisma he was by far the most dynamic person of his time, but it is a disservice to the men who served under him who were often brilliant military commanders (Parmenion likely had a better grasp of strategy, if not tactics than did Alexander, Krateros and Seleukos were each defeated but once, etc), fiery personalities (Krateros and Hephaestion fought each other at one point and only Alexander stepping in prevented a battle), and so on.

Still, this is a recurring trend in ancient scholarship, and really before there was information commonly available for what pretty much everyone did, and is one of the difficulties of scholarship at such a great length.