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.

Narratives Matter

An excerpt of a new book appearedin Salon this week, provocatively titled “Why Most Narrative History is Wrong. The book is similarly provocative, alleging in the subtitle to reveal “the neuroscience of our addiction to stories.” Naturally this caused a series of knee-jerk reactions that spawned long Twitter threads. I had a similarly impulsive response to the chapter, but also wanted to response to it in good faith before returning to a point the author and I actually agree on, that narratives—the stories we tell ourselves—are fundamental to human societies, because my distaste with this piece emerges from the consequences of this point.

below the jump

Civilization and its Resources

A few months back I wrote about the rhetorical position taken by the Civilization series. This post cascaded into a desire to teach a course that blends historiography and historically-themed games and while I am not here to announce that I am teaching such a course, I recently found myself again thinking about these issues.

Strategy games operate on economies based largely on resources. The Total War games have a monetary economy paired with population, where the population is necessary to recruit troops, but the real limitation is money that acts as a proxy for all necessary resources. The Age of Empires series used the quartet of gold, stone, food, and wood and included trade and a supply-and-demand marketplace mechanism to manipulate your resource stockpile. Food was the most common resource so long as you had access to wood because you could continually build farms, but maps were finite and so were resources.

Civilization is different. (I am using Civ 5 as representative here.) At first there is stone, wheat, grapes, wild animals. Wood mostly exists for the energy used in construction, which then speeds up building the civilization. The other resources are not immediately usable, but they are visible. As the civilizations progress through the ages, resources become available. Horses, iron, coal, oil, aluminum, and finally uranium. In each case, the civilization constructs the human apparatus (pens, mines, plantations, wells) to exploit the resource, with each location providing a variable amount. Once the resource is exploited, it is available until used and reclaimed once free.

From a game-construction perspective, this makes sense. The long version of the game spans thousands of years and has multiple win-conditions, including technology and culture. Conquest, which is the core of the other games mentioned above, is just one possible outcome. Resources are necessary to achieve any of these conditions and streamlining resource management improves game play. Civilization does offer a facsimile of colonization to find new resources as settlers move into uninhabited lands, but sanitizes the concomitant exploitation. At the same time, though, it is possible to win with only minimal expansion because all resources are permanent.

Just as there is no slavery in Civilization, neither is there rape of the environment outside the gradual reclamation of swamps and forests for their exploitation by humans.

What is History? – Edward Hallett Carr

This post consists of snippets of wisdom from What is History? by E.H. Carr, that I put out on Twitter over the past few months as I read the book in fits and starts through that period. It is not intended as a review, but does highlight some notable passages and themes, some that I agree with, some that would make for good conversation primer in a class. For people interested in the “meta” aspect of history, it is well worth reading.






















Isocrates, on the importance of history and oratory

Furthermore, if it were possible to present the same issue in just one shape and absolutely no other, then one might think it superfluous to bore the listeners by speaking in the same manner that had been done in the past. But logos (discourse or oratory) has such as a nature that the same issue may be interpreted in many ways, whether making the great small or bestowing greatness (on the insignificant), and laying out the things of old in a new fashion or speaking of recent events as though they were old; no one can escape the topics that people in the past spoke about, but [we] must endeavor to speak about them better.

The past is an inheritance held in common, but to lead it forth at the appropriate time, to conclude the appropriate things about each example, and to arrange the right expression is the individual gift of the wise.

πρὸς δὲ τούτοις, εἰ μὲν μηδαμῶς ἄλλως οἷόν τ᾽ἧν δηλοῦν τὰς αὐτὰς πράξεις ἀλλ᾽ ἢ διὰ μιᾶς ἰδέας, εἶχεν ἄν τις ὑπολαβεῖν ὡς περίεργόν ἐστι τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον ἐκείνοις λέγοντα πάλιν ἐνοχλεῖν τοῖς ἀκούουσιν: ἐπειδὴ δ᾽οἱ λόγοι τοιαύτην ἔχουσι τὴν φύσιν, ὥσθ᾽ οἷόν τ᾽ εἶναι περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πολλαχῶς ἐξηγήεσασθαι, καὶ τά τε μεγάλα ταπεινὰ ποιῆσαι καὶ τοῖς μικροῖς μέγεθος περιθεῖναι, καὶ τά τε παλαιὰ καινῶς διελθεῖν καὶ περὶ τῶν νεωστὶ γεγενημένων ἀρχαίως εἰπεῖν, οὐκέτι φευκτέον ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ περὶ ὧν ἕτεροι πρότερον εἰρήκασιν, ἀλλ᾽ ἄμεινον ἐκείνων εἰπεῖν περατέον. αἱ μὲν γὰρ πράχεις αἱ προγεγενημέναι κοιναὶ πᾶσιν ἡμῖν κατελείφθησαν, τὸ δ᾽ ἐν καιρῷ ταύταις καταχρήσασθαι καὶ τὰ προσήκοντα περὶ ἑκάστης ἐνθυμηθῆναι καὶ τοῖς ὀνόμασιν εὖ διαθέσθαι τῶν φρονούντων ἴδιόν ἐστιν.

Panegyricus 4.7-10

This passage comes near the start of the oration published in 380 BCE, in a section that Isocrates gives over to justifying and explaining why he is returning to a theme that has been addressed before. The obvious explanation is a clear justification for the study of history. If history was nothing more than a timeline of events that happened in the past, then there would be little incentive to keep studying the same things and history could be taught almost exclusively by video. Isocrates does not go as far as, for instance, E.H. Carr, in arguing that history is a dialogue between the past and the present, but, then, neither is “history” his primary emphasis.

Oratory and history share a common DNA, with the distinction, perhaps, that history looks backward while oratory looks forward.

In this passage, Isocrates alludes to a common critique of sophistry that it allows the speaker to invert the proper order by making the stronger argument weak and the weaker one strong, but does so with some modification. First, he distinguishes between the mean rhetoric of the courts and that which deals with important issues. Second, and more importantly, he removes moral weight from both great and small. This feature of oratory, then, is not about the individual allowing an unjust argument to be stronger, but giving importance to issues that might not have been considered. Once again this line of reasoning is very much in step with the opinion of many modern historians.

For Isocrates, analyzing the events of the past and deploying them in the appropriate cause is the purview of a wise man, one who would not apply this skill to corrupt purposes. Obviously in this instance the wise man is Isocrates, who, he’ll have you know, is going to speak about the past in a way that is better and more prudent than those who did so in the past. A digression on the misuse of history is simply beyond the scope of this address, but it remains the natural reverse side of the coin. Great harm may follow good intentions and vise-versa, but intent matters.

Isocrates takes an optimistic stance on the use of history. He is aspirational in a way that asserts both the importance of the past and the capacity of people in the present to improve that discourse whether by elevating the importance of the underappreciated or by changing how we think about about our forebears. Isocrates is of course being self-serving in these declarations since they serve to set up the larger arguments he is going to make later on, but this alone does not invalidate what he says.

I returned to the Panegyricus recently in the course of my research and this short section jumped out at me because of the debate over public monuments that has been going on in the United States. This context made what Isocrates omits all the more glaring because both sides assert that the other is attempting to misuse history, sometimes as though public monuments are the primary vehicle for recording the past. (They aren’t, but commemoration and the construction of monuments are their own history that reflects how we think about the past…but that is a topic better suited to another post.) History is an ongoing dialogue and the onus is on all historians (broadly construed) to engage with it responsibly. A modern mind might call for history to be used in ways that are more just or accurate, but there is a simplicity to Isocrates’ dictate: do better.

“Glorious Confusion”

A review of: From Herodotus to H-Net, Jeremy D. Popkin

[Ed. Note: What follows is an attempt to recreate an earlier post that was written earlier this week with access to the text but, with a perfunctory “document could not be saved,” vanished to the devils of technical difficulties.]

Jeremy Popkin’s From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introduction to historiography, or the history of writing history. After a brief, but sufficient, introduction, the text is divided into two parts, the origins of history to 1960 and 1960 to the present. The title of this post, “Glorious Confusion,” is taken from the opening chapter of the second part, but could aptly describe the book as a whole.

Popkin has a catholic vision of history and, as such, tries to balance two divergent visions of recounting the past. On the one hand, he walks the reader through what might be termed the “grand narrative” of historiography to show the general developments in how mainstream history has been written; on the other, he tries to show the extreme diversity in terms of representations of the past–so much so that he even name-drops “the Hitler Channel” as a nickname for the History Channel. The result of this diversity is that Popkin implies the “glorious diversity” after 1960 was a radical reinvention of history as an academic discipline post-1960, rather than a revision of how to think about the past.

The two threads to From Herodotus to H-Net frequently results in summary of the major historiographical works. Most of the major figures and/or works make their way into the dizzying series of names such as Marx, Weber, Wallerstein, Foucault, Said, and Chakrabarty. For the ones I have read, Popkin’s summaries and critiques are more than adequate, generally presenting the approach and how it came to be adopted by historians without being dismissive. After all, his objective is to show the multiplicity of historical approaches.

Specialists may quibble with the specific character of “history” in their time period, even though this “problem” actually furthers the core assumptions. For instance, Popkin’s account of ancient historiography is dominated by the canonical authors Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, Livy, and Tacitus. Certainly he suggests that these authors were not alone in their writing, but, unlike later periods, there is no recognition that ancient peoples represented the past through poetry, rhetoric, and even plays the way that he acknowledges for later periods. Too, despite nods towards Chinese (and to a lesser extent) Muslim histories, there is an excessive focus on Western historiography, as building toward the creation of history as an academic discipline. As a result, representations of the past in Babylon, Persia, and Africa in both written and non-written forms are given short shrift.

The penultimate chapter, “historians at work” is a radical departure from the preceding historiography that would be of particular interest to undergraduate and MA students. In it, Popkin provides an overview of how one goes from being a history major in college to applying to college to graduate school to applying for jobs, getting tenure or finding jobs outside the academy. The process he gives is somewhat distilled and runs the risk of becoming dated, but is neither overly optimistic nor pessimistic. I appreciated his frank discussion, though it was somewhat surprising that there was no mention of being interdisciplinary in graduate school given the preceding vision of historiography. Another issue that Popkin raises in this chapter is that it is common for students to arrive in college with an aversion to history because of how it is taught in high school. He solution, it seems, is to have his legion of readers, history devotees all, reform how history is taught from the inside, without acknowledging the institutional limitations faced by such instructors.

Despite, or perhaps because of these issues I think that From Herodotus to H-Net is an excellent introductory text to a historiography course. It would, of course, be necessary to pair it with more pointed studies about or using the variety of methods Popkin discusses, but the book sows the fields from which fruitful discussion may grow.

An Old History Worth Reading

But the memory of man is short, and his imagination is fertile. Facts in their actual form are easily forgotten and soon covered up by the accruations of imagination. Religion and reality overlap in human life; and therefore historical incidents easily assume the form of fairy-tales and legends, and are mixed up with man’s belief in higher powers which direct his life. For this reason many historical facts, in the course of oral or even written transmission, assume the form of myths, or tales which describe the interference in human life of divine and superhuman powers.

Man has not only a strong impulse to learn the truth, but an equally strong impulse to mutilate it, consciously and unconsciously. Man’s tendency to poetic creation and the fertility of his imagination cause him often to restate facts till they are unrecognizable; he fills up gaps where he is ignorant and alters what he knows; he mixes up the region of religious and the fabulous conceptions with the sphere of actual events. Myth and legend are inseparable from history, and even in our own time grow up round great historical events and, even more, round great historical persons. Together with this process, facts are also deliberately distorted under the influence of various motives—material advantage, or the endeavour to defend the reputation of the narrator or his friend, or or the tendency to support a particular point of view or political theory. The influence of patriotism is active here…we must never forget that historical events were not recorded by machinery but by men, distinct personalities with definite characteristic of their own. Few of them have kept free from prejudice while recording historical events, which, in one way or another, touched themselves nearly.

Both quotes are taken from the first part of M.I. Rostovtzeff’s A History of the Ancient World, volume 1: The Orient and Greece. He continues the second quote with a discussion of historical criticism that includes determining whether what one is reading actually adheres to historical reality. Personally, I believe this influence of “accruations” and distortions of the historian carry over into secondary histories. Ironically, Rostovtzeff himself succumbs to this in his book Caravan Cities, where, amid all of the wonderful descriptions of getting to the archeological sites, he goes on lengthy tirades about the criminality of the bedouin. Events that touched him nearly bleeding into the narrative. It is charming in its quaintness, but horrifying in actuality, and colors how I think about early twentieth century archaeology.

As a history book, A History of the Ancient World is dated. This is hardly a surprise, given that it is 95 years old, and to a contemporary eye it suffers from this. Entire schools of history have risen and fallen in the intervening years. Too, some of the underpinning assumptions about the format of the ancient economy have been debunked. From a bird’s eye view, though, one assumption that may have, so to speak, accidentally been tossed out with the bathwater, is the fundamental linking of Greece with the Orient, rather than with Europe. Following K. Vlassopoulos in Unthinking the Greek Polis, though, this was (usually) not a coincidence, but rather an ideological decision wrought by, among others, people committed to Greece’s indo-european heritage. In contrast, Rostovtzeff fundamentally links Greece with the Near East.

Still, his conception of the orient is rather limited. The orient, in this book, consists of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and, to an extent, the Iranian plateau, and barely includes areas linked by trade and excludes entirely China. As a result, this vision of the ancient world doesn’t look much different from how (in my limited experience) Western Civilization courses are often taught. The one point that Rostovtzeff might quibble with is the teleological assumption that from the Near East to Greece to Rome and beyond came Western Civilization. Yet, it also appears to me that instructors are blurring some of these lines because the camp committed to Greece as foundational for Western Civilization did not want the Near East to even be included. Many textbooks do prioritize Greece and Rome (and Christianity coming within that milieu), but these courses are a mashup of the two divergent schools.

Rostovtzeff is not as prone to the memorable turn of phrase as some of his contemporaries, but I am nonetheless enjoying working my way through his oeuvre as a way of familiarizing myself with the classics and giving myself food for thought.

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.

Meta-Marxism in Wilhelmine German anti-Semitism

Disclaimer: This is a further discussion built off of my Historiography seminar 4.14.2010, and the book The Butcher’s Tale, by Helmut Walser Smith.

This book is focused on the Jewish ritual murder case of Konitz in 1900. In his section on accusations, Smith refutes that they were inherently about class and power struggles. He argues that some of the cases were, but that not all of the charges were brought by a lower class person against a higher class and therefore there was something more than class struggle at play.

What struck me, though, was the rhetoric used by the anti-Semitic newspaper making the ritual murder charges. When the Prussian army deployed to stop the riots, the newspaper denounced the act as the result of Jews running the state and running the police and army. This sounded eerily familiar to another book, namely Mein Kampf. This led to me ask another question: if the rhetoric claims that Jews are in power, can there be a larger sort of analysis that will hold up in terms of groups, but not individual cases? May any attack on a Jew, no matter class in either situation, be seen as a class struggle because of the perceived class?

This further begs the question of whose worldview matters: the historian or the contemporary? For example, if a group claims that the world functions via class struggle, and shapes their actions accordingly, does a historian a hundred years down the line have the right to claim the world functioned differently?

Midnight Musings: Historical Narrative

In a review of a new book, Carthage Must Die,Christopher Hart was generally hostile. I have not read this book, but the sense of the review was that this is a new history of the Roman-Punic conflicts from the Carthaginian angle. In the strictest sense, the criticism is that this is (I can only assume) an academic book and that historiography gets in the way of history.

Frankly I have multiple issues with this review, but the biggest one is this: especially for ancient history the historiography is an essential component to scholarship and history. So much of what we have to work with must be interpreted as something other than history that using the sources is as much dismissing them as accepting them. Historical narratives make for nice reading, but generally speaking they have already been done. Further, this book addresses a topic from the point of view of a civilization that was wiped off the map–literally. To say that being source critical and historiographically novel takes away from the book suggests that he just missed the point. Of course it would be a harder read.

Let me be clear: I have not read the book in question, and for all I know there may be serious issues with it, but my gut instinct is that it was an academic book read by a pop reviewer. As it is I am willing to give the benefit of the doubt to this author for the approach, if for nothing else. Unless you are just telling stories, how the historian handles the texts is what sets people apart and that can only be judged if it is included in the text.