Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.1.11

Roisman, Joseph, Alexander the Great: Ancient and Modern Perspectives. Lexington: D.C. Heath & Co., 1995. Pp. xxv + 241. ISBN 0-669-34501-6.

Reviewed by David Silverman, Reed College,

This book is a textbook aimed at undergraduates and advanced secondary school students. Its eight chapters consist mainly of abridged excerpts from the previously published writings of modern historians, together with selections from ancient authors in translation. The first of these chapters is on sources; the second, on Philip II, with a concentration upon his death; the third, on relations between Alexander and the Greeks; the fourth, on the aims of Alexander, especially those attributed to him after his death; the fifth, on Alexander as a military leader, with an emphasis on the battle of Issus; the sixth, on the Philotas affair; the seventh, on Alexander's divinity; and the eighth, on the integration policy. As R. notes in the introduction, "The approach is more thematic than chronological..." (p. 20).

The book is in the series Problems in European Civilization, from which two earlier works are most likely to be known to classicists: D. Kagan's The End of the Roman Empire and A. F. Havighurst's The Pirenne Thesis. The editor of this volume, Joseph Roisman (hereafter R.), has chosen the essays from the best recent work. Badian, Borza, Bosworth, Brunt, Hammond, Heckel, and Heisserer are all represented, among others; only Green is conspicuous by his absence. The translations are also reliable, excerpts of the Loebs of Arrian, Diodorus, Demosthenes, Strabo, and Plutarch's Moralia, and the Penguins of Curtius and Plutarch's Lives. But the constraints of the series have imposed some serious flaws, which the reader may begin to imagine by asking himself this question: what is the difference between a high school student and the intended reader of one of Badian's articles?

The best thing about this book is its combination of low price and convenient completeness. It is designed to stand alone as the only volume a student needs for an introduction to Alexander. Each chapter could be an assignment and provide a discussion topic for an hour's class. The students get the portable benefit of a variety of ancient and modern opinions, without the messiness of multiple volumes of Curtius and Arrian on reserve or the bother of hunting through the stacks for books and articles. The previously published material was re-keyed and typeset, which could have led to multiple typographical errors; but the texts (with the exception of the place names on the maps, xv-xvii) were very meticulously proofread. So much, I suppose, the publishers would be glad to read in a review. A teacher who faced severe limitations in terms either of his students' budget for the purchase of books or the resources of his library might well order this book for his students. I myself would not relish having to do so for mine. Less prescriptive course materials such as sourcebooks, which give the instructor greater freedom, are better. Moreover, for all that R.'s choice of originals was judicious, the abridgement process as practiced here ruined them.

When we give students a text we are implicitly suggesting that it constitutes a model for their own writing, and therein lies the fault of the abridged texts. R.'s publishers insisted that footnotes be kept to an absolute minimum, standard practice for the series. R. eliminated all footnotes or endnotes from the excerpted sources. Cutting the footnotes sometimes works as intended. For example, R. includes a section of Bosworth's Conquest and Empire on the Exiles' decree.1 Cutting Bosworth's footnotes on chronology works fine (in the original, notes 36-38 on pp. 220-221); only a scholar or a zealous graduate student would want to pursue that question, and presumably they are reading Bosworth himself rather than R.'s abridgement. Elsewhere, though, the effect is less than pleasing. As edited by R., Burstein's excellent article on the death of Philip is made to discuss the views of Andronikos without giving the reference to the book (p. 43). Badian is made to mention the views of Meyer, Tarn, Green, and Kraft, without giving the reference to any of them (p. 199). And examples of this problem in the volume could easily be multiplied.

A similar drawback arises from the frequent omission of references to primary sources, whether originally intratextual or in footnotes. Whether to include or omit such a reference was regarded by R. and his publishers as an editorial decision. In Bosworth's piece on the Exiles' Decree, for example, we find all references to Diodorus and to Plutarch's Alexander have been left in. All references to Dinarchus 1 and to Plutarch's Demosthenes, however, have been omitted. And, unlike the chunks of text which R. occasionally and more or less judiciously omits from his source, marking the omission with the conventional three or four dots, these references to ancient authors all disappear without a trace. Even those three or four dots do not always appear when they should to show that text has been cut (as e.g. on pp. 33, 71, 156).

The decision regarding what to cut and what to leave in appears to have been made on the basis of whether the reader can be expected to know of the existence of a particular text, assuming that the reader's entire knowledge of the topic is derived from this book. If this was the principle, it was applied inconsistently; for example, in Hammond's account of the battle of Issus, the references to Polybius 12. 17-21 are left in, even though the only primary text supplied is Arrian. A long paragraph by Bosworth on the rules for the restoration of exiles at Tegea is included, but references to the text (as all references to epigraphical corpora) are omitted, and this despite the existence of a good published translation by Harding.2 In Heckel's piece on the Philotas affair, we read "Furthermore, any such story that derives from Callisthenes (and only one can be assigned to him with certainty) need not be attributed to a deliberate attempt to undermine Parmenio's reputation" (p. 156). In the original article, that one story, about Parmenion's mismanagement at Gaugamela, is identified in the footnote, along with the necessary reference to Plutarch, Alexander 33.3 In R.'s abridgement that rather important reference simply disappears. Again, a bad example is set for the student readers, because the good scholarly references of the originals become vague undocumented allusions.

The proliferation of bracketed glosses in the text is also unfortunate. It appears that the publishers told R. to supply a gloss in the text for any Greek word or concept with which the student could be expected to be unfamiliar. This is inoffensive when the gloss follows the Greek word and translates it: "Since no charge was in fact brought against Parmenio, it is almost certain that none could be; the plot with Hegelochus must be an effort of later apologia [attempt at defense]" (Badian, p. 150). At least R. glosses hybris as "insolent transgression" rather than "pride" (p. 85). It is much clumsier and more disruptive when the brackets precede the word being glossed, as R. does regularly with proper names: "[The Greek historian] Thucydides described the Macedonian cavalry in action ..." (Hammond, p. 93). Exactly how uninformed are these readers supposed to be, that they have never heard of Thucydides? Nor is the practice consistent: "From the spoils of the [Battle of] Granicus ..." (Brunt, p. 82) but two pages later: "He proclaimed this aim ... again before Gaugamela." Both appear on the time line (p. xiii), so why assume the reader needs to be told that Granicus refers to the battle and not the river? Surely by the book's last chapter the student has figured out the identity of [second in command] Parmenio (p. 222)?

R.'s principle seems to have been to decide whether the individual or place was sufficiently explained by the text already, or had been identified recently enough that the reader would remember; if not, he glossed it. Our sympathies belong with R. here, the blame with whoever enjoined upon him this thankless task. Thankless, because on the principle just outlined there could have been five times as many bracketed glosses as were actually printed. But surely most of these brackets will be more distracting than helpful for R.'s readers. It would have been better to have included a single comprehensive glossary or set of glossaries for terms, people, and places, and to have left the text unblemished by the proliferation of supplements, glosses, corrections, and replacements.

Sometimes the word used by the original is simply omitted and replaced by a gloss in brackets. In Brunt's remarks on the sources for Alexander, taken from the introduction to his Loeb translation, we read of Diodorus, Book 17, that "there is a long [part missing] ..." (p. 16). Why was this necessary, when the student could find the word lacuna in an English language dictionary? "Even on [the geographer] Eratosthenes' later reconstruction of the eastern hemisphere he was not so far distant from his objective when he reached [the river Hyphasis in India]" (Brunt, p. 86). "By comparison even the militarily enforced peace and the political inertia of the Corinthian League [were] a welcome change" (Bosworth, p. 75). Bosworth's original has "was". This would seem to indicate that R. thought the original sentence ungrammatical and in need of correction. If so the proper way to indicate that would have been (sic) and not brackets. At one point R. does use the word sic. Unfortunately, he does so in reference to Bosworth's phrase "5000 cavalry" (p. 236), which is a perfectly fine usage. And what of this: "Their territory was divided into [plots of land], farmed by other Boeotians ..." (Bosworth, p. 70); [plots of land] replaces cleruchies. Is this also a correction? Is R. saying that the Boeotians did not call these plots cleruchies, so Bosworth was wrong to use the term? If so, is this book the appropriate place to offer such a correction?

If most of the problems with the book are caused by an excess of concern to make things easy for the student reader, in one area at least the error was in the opposite direction. Apparently the publisher prohibited cross-references. Everyone knows publishers hate cross-references, because they have to be filled in at the last minute after the final numbering of the pages is set. But in a book of this sort they could have been very valuable. For example, Brunt's piece on the sources for Alexander alludes (p. 21) to "Arrian's preface." The reference comes towards the end of the essay, after the student has already read about numerous texts and authors, some extant and some not, which he has not been given to read. However, this particular passage of Arrian is something which he has been asked to read, and a reminder of that would be useful. We have a mention (p. 217) of the "notorious hypomnemata" of Alexander preserved by Diodorus, but not a hint that the text being alluded to appears in a previous chapter (p. 80). Surely, when the reader comes across the Hypaspists (p. 206), a reference back to the extended and authoritative definition of this group by Hammond (p. 100) would be more useful than the gloss [élite infantry]. Glossing asthetairoi as [royal guard] obscures the issues raised in Hammond's discussion (pp. 94-95), to which a cross-reference would have been useful (p. 207).

The main weaknesses of the book, all of which derive from the process of abridgement, have now been described. For the rest, this review is not the place to comment on the validity of the ideas expressed by the writers selected by R., since those ideas have all been before the public for some time already. The material here published for the first time can be treated briefly.

There are six introductory items before the first chapter. First, a chronological table, which lists major events for each year of Alexander's reign (xiii-xiv). The table does not aspire to more than a minimal sketch. Second, two maps (xv-xvii). The first of the maps stretches from Greece to the Hyphasis. It shows the routes taken by Alexander, Nearchus, and Craterus, and it fits neatly on one page. The second map shows a smaller area on a larger scale: Macedonia, Greece, and western Asia Minor, with many more sites plotted than space permits on the first map. Unfortunately it is split across two facing pages with a wide expanse of blank paper between them. Although it is better than nothing, the original should have been reduced to fit on one page. Unlike the text, the maps have typographical errors. On the first, there is Sardes for Sardis. On the second, we have Moeander for Maeander, Potidoea for Potidaea, Bithnia for Bithynia. Third, there is a list of abbreviations, unobjectionable unless one wishes to quibble that B.C. and B.C.E. do not both stand for "Before the Common Era", nor do C.E. and A.D. both stand for "The Common Era", or that it is inconsistent to translate the title of Quintus Curtius Rufus's work into English while giving the title of Athenaeus's as Deipnosophistae.

Fourth, there is a glossary of "Principal Proper Names." It provides entries for only thirteen individuals, which hardly makes up for the lack of an index. The rationale behind its composition is not apparent. Of the thirteen, five are not contemporaries of Alexander: Cyrus the Great, Heracles, Perseus, Polybius, and Xerxes. One might imagine that these are included because the texts refer to them, but the student will not learn their identities in the essays themselves. But the other eight are people close to Alexander, all of them figuring prominently at some point in the essays. Again, a comprehensive glossary would have been useful.

Fifth, there is R.'s own introduction, three pages. This provides a general overview of the book, but no strong sense of R.'s own position on the issues raised in it. Because the avowed purpose of the book is to stimulate discussion about questions to which there are multiple possible answers, and it explicitly disavows any claim to provide a hegemonic discourse, R.'s studied neutrality here is appropriate. Those who would hope to see much attention paid to method will be disappointed. According to R., "our view of the past is strongly shaped by our own circumstances and experiences," a compact but rich statement. Beyond this, nothing about method, except the truism that it is desirable to pay attention to ancient as well as modern sources. The rest of the introduction consists of a pleasant brief commentary on each chapter in turn.

Sixth, there is a curious little section entitled "Variety of Opinion" which consists of snippets from major modern writers (xxiv-xxv). Another standard feature of the series. The quotations are from Wilcken, Grote, Hamilton, Lane Fox, Badian, Hammond, Bosworth, and Green. Two of them, out of context as they are, appear as platitudes: Wilcken is quoted to the effect that Alexander had a great impact in human history; Hammond is quoted to the effect that Alexander was one of the greatest military commanders of all time. Grote's and Hamilton's are more shrewdly chosen, provocative and mutually exclusive statements on a single theme: the Hellas-Asia mix. Then we get two views on Alexander's psychology. Lane Fox says Alexander "lived for the ideal of a distant past" (i.e. associating himself with Achilles and other heroes, a theme explored at length in this volume by Edmunds). Badian sees him as he sees certain other monarchs, as driven primarily by lust for power. Bosworth's statement was originally a comment on the worthlessness as evidence of materials like the Alexander-romances, but out of context it is somewhat opaque. Finally, there is a very provocative snippet of Green's about how we (presumably historians) conceptualize Alexander. It too would no doubt be more easily intelligible in context. It is impossible to put the quotes in context, however, because no references are given.

Finally, there are a couple of unobjectionable sentences by R. introducing each new author and topic, and at the end a bibliography. The bibliography is in narrative rather than tabular format, another conventional feature of the series. R.'s own name does not appear there; no reference to his articles.4 As the bibliography does not even remotely aspire to be comprehensive, it would be foolish to complain at length of things left out. But I note that, presumably because there was not time between the submission of R.'s manuscript and the appearance of Stewart's book, Faces of Power did not make it in to the sentence about Alexander in art.5

It feels strange to render so negative a verdict about a volume which contains writings by many of the leading authorities on Alexander and the Macedonians, but I can not recommend giving this book to students. If their level of background knowledge and ability to do research is so slim, then let them read something originally written especially for that level, and not a dumbed-down version of something originally written for the readership of Phoenix or JHS.


  • [1] A. B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: the reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • [2] SIG3 306 = Tod II 202 = 122 in P. Harding, From the end of the Peloponnesian War to the Battle of Ipsus. [Translated documents of Greece and Rome; v. 2] Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • [3] W. Heckel, "The Conspiracy Against Philotas" Phoenix 31 (1977) 11 note 13.
  • [4] J. Roisman, "Ptolemy and his rivals in history of Alexander" CQ 34 (1984) 373-385, and "Why Arrian wrote the Anabasis" RSA 13-14 (1983-1984) 253-263.
  • [5] A. F. Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.