Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.02.09


John Maxwell O'Brien, Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy. London and New York: Routledge, 1992. Pp. xx + 336. $29.95. ISBN 0-415-072254-9.


Reviewed by Waldemar Heckel, University of Calgary.

John Maxwell O'Brien's new study of Alexander is subtitles "A Biography", and such it is -- in the ancient sense. Colourful, lively, and largely anecdotal, the final product calls to mind Plutarch's distinction between history and biography:

"For it is not Histories that I am writing, but Lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles where thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities" (Alex. 1.; B. Perrin tr.)
Thus, we have come a long way back from Brian Bosworth's admirable attempt to de-Alexanderize the history of this period in his Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great, which deserves to be subtitled "A History". But, although Alexander has dominated the pages of earlier works on this period -- including Fritz Schachermeyr's powerful Alexander der Grosse of 1973 -- none, not even Mary Renault's The Nature of Alexander (1975), comes as close to portraying the ethos of Alexander, in the Plutarchean style, as O'Brien's biography.

The unifying theme of the book is Dionysos, the god of wine, "the invisible enemy". In 1980, the author published two papers in the Annals of Scholarship (1.3: "The Enigma of Alexander: The Alcohol Factor", and 1.4: "Alexander and Dionysus: The Invisible Enemy"), the results of which were reported in the press world-wide. (I still have my clipping from the Calgary Herald tucked away in my lecture-notes on the Death of Alexander.) Though earlier scholars have admitted that alcohol was a factor leading to Alexander's death, most have rejected the notion that he and Hephaistion drank themselves to death as hostile propaganda put out by the likes of Ephippos of Olynthos and Nikoboule (FGrHist 126-127; cf. L. Pearson, The lost Histories of Alexander the Great [New York, 1960], 61-68). In 1971 Bosworth went so far as to suggest that the famous story of Alexander's last drinking-party at the house of Medios of Larisa and the Royal Diaries which recorded it were fabrications intended to "cover up" the King's murder by poison, recorded in the Liber de Morte (CQ 21 [1971], 112 ff.; but see now From Arrian to Alexander [Oxford, 1988], 157 ff.). O'Brien's contribution then was not only to take the reports of Alexander's heavy drinking seriously but also to marshal the evidence for alcoholism, as it is recorded by ancient sources, and apply it to these reports. Whether the book advances beyond the 1980 articles is debatable. Presented within the context of a biography, the evidence becomes diffuse. The concluding chapter on the King's death paraphrases and quotes from accounts of Alexander's last drinking bout without arguing the case for alcoholism -- the conclusions to be drawn from the admirable chart in Appendix B: "Attributes of wine in Alexander the Great's readings" (p. 233-238) are not integrated into the text -- or reaching a forceful conclusion. Instead the discussion ends rather lamely:

"There is, however, a general agreement that Alexander died of some sort of disease. Schachermeyr suggests leukemia, and Engles a form of malaria: Engles states that the king's condition was aggravated by his overindulgence in wine. Badian says, 'Immoderate feasting, to which, particularly in this last period of life, he was in any case given, either caused the disease or accelerated it; ... He certainly died of disease, undiagnosable to us.'" (pp. 227 f.).
To this O 'Brien adds the quotation from Euripides, Bacchae 220: "A certain Dionysus, whoever he may be."

In general, the work is eclectic rather than analytical. The narrative moves smoothly, unencumbered by attempts to resolve problems of interpretation, the modern solutions to which are presented in smorgasbord fashion for the reader to choose according to his tastes. The text is accompanied by copious endnotes (pp. 242-277), and an immense bibliography (pp. 279-322), arranged by subject, which is in fact one of the book's strongest features.

For the reader encountering Alexander for the first time, or at least for the first time in an organised way, O'Brien's biography will make entertaining and often highly informative reading. the style is bright and expressive, with translated passages from the extant Alexander historians effortlessly interwoven into the narrative. Less satisfying, and occasionally obtrusive, are the quotations from Greek literature, especially Homer's Iliad and Euripides' Bacchae. Curiously, where the relevant passages might be useful -- e.g., the description of Achilleus' battle with the Skamandros might be quoted in the context of Alexander's struggle at the confluence of the Akesines and Hydaspes rivers (cf. Diod. 17.97.3, who describes Alexander "as one who, like Achilleus, did battle with a river") -- they are not used, but others quite unrelated to the context are scattered gratuitously through the text. Similarly, O'Brien, in his desire to link Alexander with his mythical past, strains the evidence and finds connections everywhere: the Rhodian general Memnon is described as a "man, whose namesake was slain by Achilles in the Trojan War" (p. 66); a Theban captured at Damaskos by Parmenion, "was called Dionysodorus ('the gift of Dionysus')" (p. 81); on Alexander's feigned attempt at suicide, O'Brien remarks: "This course has been taken by Ajax, another of Alexander's mythological ancestors" (p. 137); and mules, killed and eaten in the Gedrosian desert are called "creatures dear to Dionysus" (p.182).

The anecdotal approaches indeed bring Alexander to life. But does this give us a clearer picture of the man as he was or as the ancient writers recreated him? Here a little Quellenforschung is called for. Instead, however, we are treated to anecdote up on anecdote with little regard for their historicity. More frustrating is the space allotted to these anecdotes in relation to matters of real historical interest. For example, the notice that Harpalos "fled from his responsibilities to Megara" (no background or motive is provided) precedes a paragraph on the monument of Sardanapalos in Kilikia and his alleged (hedonistic) philosophy of life (p. 74); Dareios III's victory over a Kadousian champion is related and documented, but no attempt is made to explain the precise nature of his relationship to Artaxerxes III Ochos (p. 75: "member of a collateral branch of the royal Achaemenid family"; but cf. O. Neuhaus, RhM 57 [1902], 610-623, challenged by Bosworth, Comm. 217f.); lengthy passages are quoted concerning Alexander's personal appearance at Gaugamela and how he "slept in" on the morning of the battle, but the engagement and its tactics are dismissed in a few words (pp. 95-96); and the Hydaspes battle, which gets much fuller treatment, fails to mention the names of Alexander's squadron and battalion commanders (pp. 159-160), but is followed with details about Bucephalas, Alexander's horse who died at age 30, the king's dog, "Peritas, which he had raised from a puppy", and "Porus' retired elephant, dubbed Ajax by Alexander after the beast's Homeric performance" (p. 161).

In short, my own objections to the book reflect a fundamental difference in approach. I found O'Brien's biography highly readable and, as a piece of literature, enjoyable. But those who claim that the truth about Alexander the man is irrecoverable will not change their minds after reading this book. Some have lamented that the study of Alexander inclines too much towards Quellenforschung. Perhaps so, but the history of this period will not be advanced significantly without this approach or, at least, the fruits of the source-critic's labours. A shorter study of Alexander and alcoholism would indeed have been useful. What we have is an expansion of Plutarch's Life, interwoven with the references to Dionysos (in fact, the frequent quotations and allusions make him all too visible), which makes entertaining reading but leaves us to absorb the author's main thesis, chiefly through osmosis.