Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.25

P.M. Fraser, Cities of Alexander the Great. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 263. $72.00. ISBN 0-19-815006-7.

Reviewed by Gary Reger, Trinity College.

In his essay "On the Fortune and Courage of Alexander the Great" Plutarch claims that "by founding over seventy cities (poleis) among the barbarian tribes and seeding Asia with Greek magistrates, Alexander conquered its undomesticated and beastly way of life" (Mor. 328E).1 Plutarch was making a rhetorical point in favor of Alexander's active life against philosophers like Plato, whose model constitution moved no one to found a city; the precise number of Alexander's foundations is rather beside the point. Nevertheless, the tradition that Alexander left a mass of cities behind in Asia is thoroughly rooted in the ancient sources, and finds its defenders (with reservations) in the modern scholarship.2

In Cities of Alexander the Great, P.M. Fraser has set himself the task "to collect and analyse the traditions relating to the foundations of cities by Alexander the Great" (vi). The book has been many years in gestation, certainly first conceived in the work that went into Fraser's massive Ptolemaic Alexandria,3 the standard study of Alexander's greatest foundation. The problem is immense. The passage from Plutarch (which Fraser does not mention) is only the tip of one strand of a tangled skein of evidence which includes the list of Alexandrias in Stephanus of Byzantium, the A and a strands of the Alexander Romance (treated nicely in Appendix 2, pp. 205-226, which can serve as an excellent and up-to-date introduction to the subject), and the works of the Arab and Persian geographers. There are even traces of the tradition to be found in the travel accounts of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to central Asia (discussed with charming modesty in Appendix 3, pp. 227-234). Fraser disentangles this complicated web -- to the extant it can be disentangled -- by careful and persistent plucking; in the end, much of it disintegrates before our eyes.

In the matter of the sources for Alexandrias, Fraser's most important result is his claim to have identified the source for the Alexandria-lists in the Alexander Romances in their various recensions and in Stephanus. Fraser argues that these lists derive from a lost Liber de urbibus Alexandri composed in Ptolemaic Alexandria in the third century, probably between 281 (battle of Kouroupedion) and 221 BC (accession of Ptolemaios IV and Antiokhos III). In Fraser's reconstruction, this Liber served the war of propaganda between the Ptolemaic and Seleukid dynasties by claiming Seleukid foundations or metonymies as foundations of Alexander the Great, thus undermining Seleukid claims to authority that were propped up by their great colonizing enterprises. His examples include Alexandria in Margiane, which was in fact a Seleukid foundation called Antiokheia; Alexandria pros Persas, which was actually Antiokheia tes Persidos; Alexandria epi tou Tigridos potamou, in fact Seleukeia on the Tigris, Seleukos Nikator's eastern capital; Alexandria en Sousois, probably to be identified with Seleukeia he pros Eulaioi; Alexandria in Skythais, actually Antiokheia en Skythiai; and Alexandria tes Mesopotamias, corresponding to Antokheia Mesopotamias (31-33, 240-243). For dating purposes the most important such reidentification is the Alexandria he pros Latmoi, which Jeanne and Louis Robert,4 following J. Droysen, had taken to be Alinda, the seat of the last Hekatomnid monarch Ida, whom Alexander had supported in her claim to rule Karia. Fraser offers a number of reasons why this identification is less than fully compelling (28-29 n. 58), and then suggests instead that the Latmian Alexandria was actually Alabanda, which was renamed Antiokheia between about 260 and 190 BC. This identification (part again of the anti-Seleukid propaganda campaign, which would have special point in Karia, which was a real ground for Seleukid-Ptolemaic competition in the third century)5 would give a terminus post quem for the Liber more precise than Fraser's own. Of this identification I am not fully convinced. There is no positive evidence to support it, and more importantly, the title "pros Latmoi" belongs typically not to Alabanda, but to Herakleia (to distinguish it from the other Karian Herakleia by the Salbake). Herakleia was briefly renamed Pleistarkheia in the late fourth century. The absence of any positive evidence for another metonomy to Alexandria has of course no probative value, as the recent discovery that Euromos in Karia was briefly renamed Philippoi reminds us.6 New documentation may enlighten us at any time.

Fraser makes excellent use also of the neglected Arab and Persian geographers. These writers, as Fraser stresses, were interested in recording the actual, contemporary state of the world that had come under Arab control after the mid-seventh century, and had little interest in the traditions of a long-ago Greek ruler. Thus the cases where they indicate surviving Alexandrian foundations are all the more compelling; their rarity is one of the crucial components of Fraser's minimalist case. In the end, Fraser can show the sources, or likely sources, for the various traditions preserved in the works of Arab and Persian geographers and travelers. They point to fewer than a baker's dozen of genuine Alexandrian foundations, a figure that finds its agreement in some of the Greek sources already canvassed.

Fraser limits Alexander's genuine foundations (aside from the great city in Egypt) to Alexandria in Aria(na), which is located, without much debate in the scholarship, at modern Herat; Alexandria in Arakhosia, located at Old Kandahar; Alexandria in the Paropamisadai, which is equated with Alexandria of Opiane, but whose precise location remains in doubt; Alexandria Eskhate, which is located at modern Khojend (formerly Leninabad); Boukephala and Nikaia; Alexandria-Rambakia, or Alexandria among the Oreitai; and Spasinou Kharax, identified with the modern Naisan.

Fraser rejects an Alexandria at Merv, taking the city there as a Seleukid foundation (116-118), Alexandria in Sakastane (123-127), and Alexandria at Baktra, which Fraser says might be identical with Alexandria Oxiane (153-154). Fraser also declines to follow the trend in scholarship that wants to identify the city at modern Ai Khanum with Alexandria Oxiane. He stresses, quite rightly, that the third century BC evidence that we have gives one Kineas, not Alexander, as the founder of the city at Ai Khanum (154-156); this seems to me decisive.

In his penultimate chapter, Fraser assesses Alexander's achievement as a founder of cities and offers some explanation for the purpose of the foundations he regards as historical. Fraser identifies two basic purposes to Alexander's foundations. First, sited at or near Achaemenid fortresses or satrapal capitals, they "emphasized the continuity of urban and military settlement" which "represent[ed] the political aspect of his foundations" (173). To this view I think no one would raise objection. Fraser's second point, however, strikes me as more controversial. For Fraser, Alexander's foundations reflect an "appreciation of the need to stimulate the expansion of contacts between peoples and regions, both to develop trading and commercial activity in its widest sense, and to encourage the natural growth of a settled agricultural way of life." Fraser goes even further in this direction when he claims that Alexander had in mind "the wider issue of the incorporation of the potential economic productivity and range of the Persian Empire into the new empire of which the commercial pivot would be Alexandria in Egypt, and which would embrace the Aegean, with its enormous market potential" (174) -- a view articulated long ago with considerable force by Fritz Heichelheim and others, but which finds its roots, as Pierre Briant has noticed, in the liberal economics of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.7

In this context it is worth recalling Arrian's discussion of Alexander's motivation for the foundation of a new city at the Tanais river, Alexandria Eskhata (151-153):

He was himself planning to found a city on the Tanais, and to give it his own name. For in his view the site was suitable for the city to rise to greatness, and it would be well placed for any eventual invasion of Scythia and as a defence bastion of the country against the raids of the barbarians dwelling on the other side of the river. He thought the city would actually rise to greatness because of the number of settlers and the splendour of its name.8
Invasion and defense are the concrete poles of Alexander's reasoning; if there are any "economic" ideas here, they are, to say the least, rudimentary. Indeed, in his survey of Alexander's "policies" of "economic development," Briant concludes that Alexander "hoped to draw on new resources which would permit him to undertake new wars of conquest. [There is] no trace in all this of motivations of economic development in the sense in which this expression is normally used; economic rationality is inserted into the category of the economics of tribute and the economics of war." This conclusion falls perfectly in line with the results of other recent research on the motivations of Makedonian imperialism, which above all sought economic exploitation of territories under its control in order to feed the imperial war machine.9

Cities of Alexander the Great is not an easy book; it makes few concessions to the reader. It begins with no programmatic statement, no review of the literature or summary of the problem, but with a list of the three types of sources that will be treated; within a page, Fraser is in the thick of his analysis. Moreover, the topic itself may seem esoteric. After all, does it really matter all that much whether Alexander founded five cities or twenty-five? Fraser reserves his answer for the very end of the book, when "we can see how clearly they [Alexander's foundations] dominate the map of central Asia ... [and] foreshadow the strategic requirements and economic potential on which, centuries later, the Imperial strategists of British India ... insisted ... [T]he locations of Alexander's cities testify that the requirements of imperial rule in Central Asia are laid down by nature, and were as valid in the time of Alexander (and earlier) as in that of Queen Victoria" (189-190). These comments are certainly true, but seem to me rather to minimize Fraser's own achievement in this book. To reduce to a small number Alexander's genuine foundations helps to place his accomplishments in perspective. The "Hellenization" of Asia was not finished at Alexander's death. The Seleukids played a role at least as, and arguably considerably more important than, Alexander's. Our understanding of that role in founding cities and promoting Greek culture in their vast empire, which in Fraser's own view called forth a response in Ptolemaic propaganda in the form of the postulated Liber de urbibus Alexandri, gains considerably from Fraser's labors. We can now see Alexander's foundations in their context, as both sequel to the Achaemenid cities and fortresses, and as predecessors to those of the Seleukids and the many other central Asian empires that followed.10


1. The text is slightly corrupt; some corrections that have been suggested are collected in the apparatus of the Teubner edition.

2. Michael Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (Oxford 1941) 131: "numerous"; Claire Preaux, Le monde hellénistique. La Grèce et l'Orient de la morte d'Alexandre à la conquête romaine de la Grèce (323-146 a. J.-C.) (Paris 1978) 402-403; F. W. Walbank, The Hellenistic World (Cambridge, MA 1982) 43: "a substantial number, perhaps a score in all" (unchanged in the second edition, 1993, p. 43); the same number in Pierre Briant, Alexandre le grand (Paris 1994) 73; A.B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire. The Reign of Alexander the Great (Cambridge 1988) 245-250; Getzel Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlements in Europe, the Islands, and Asia Minor (Berkeley 1995) 15-20. This random sample, culled in volumes in easy reach as I write, could easily be multiplied.

3. Oxford 1972, 2 vols.

4. J. and L. Robert, Fouilles d'Amyzon (Paris 1983) 6, cited by Fraser with additional bibliography at 28-29 n. 58. See now Cohen, The Hellenistic Settlements 245-246, canvassing Herakleia by Latmos but favoring Alinda.

5. The situation in Karia in the third century will be greatly clarified by the work-in-progress of John Ma and Andrew Meadows.

6. Fraser considers the possibility of Herakleia briefly at 28-29 n. 58, where he allows that "[t]he identification with Herakleia ... is stronger ... than Hornblower ... allows" (Simon Hornblower), Mausolus [Oxford 1983] 314 n.156, making reference especially to R.M. Errington, "Alexander in the Hellenistic World," in Alexandre le Grand. Image et réalité, Entretiens sur l'antiquité classique, Fondation Hardt 22 [1976] 164-167, esp. 165-66 n.4) For Herakleia by Salbake, see Louis and Jeanne Robert, La Carie II (Paris 1954) 153-230; for Herakleia by the Latmos, Louis Robert, Documents d'Asie Mineure (Paris 1987) 198-214 (= BCH 102 [1978] 502-518); and, on the metonomy to Pleistarkheia, known from Stephanus s.v., Richard Billows, "Anatolian Dynasts: The Case of the Macedonian Eupolemos in Karia," Classical Antiquity 8 (1989) 188-193, with further references. The inscription was published by Malcolm Errington, "Antiochos III, Zeuxis and Euronomos," EA 8 (1986) 1-7.

7. Fritz Heichelheim, Wirtschaftliche Schwankungen der Zeit von Alexander bis Augustus (Jena 1930); Rostovtzeff, Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World 1026-1312; see also Karl Polyani, The Livelihood of Man, ed. Harry Pearson (New York 1977) 238-251. Briant, Alexandre 76-88.

8. Arrian 4.1.3-4, tr. P.A. Brunt (Loeb edition).

9. Briant, Alexandre 85. See recently Richard Billows, Kings and Colonists. Aspects of Macedonian Imperialism (Leiden 1995). This view is however hardly new; see, for example, the remarks on Alexander's foundation in W.W. Tarn, The Greeks in Bactria and India2 (Cambridge 1951) 6-8.

10. See generally Susan Sherwin-White and Amelie Kuhrt, From Samarkhand to Sardis. A New Approach to the Seleucid Empire (Berkeley 1993). For and introduction to some of the controversies this book has raised, see the essays in Topoi 4 (1994) 431-610.