Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.11.15

Claudia Wiener, Proles vesana Philippi, totius malleus orbis: Die Alexandreis des Walter von Châtillon und ihre Neudeutung von Lucans Pharsalia im Sinne des typologischen Geschichtsverständnis.   Munich and Leipzig:  K. G. Saur, 2000.  Pp. 125.  ISBN 3-598-77689-6.  DM 98.00.  

Reviewed by David A. Traill, Department of Classics, University of California (
Word count: 1551 words

Walter of Châtillon was one of the most talented of mediaeval Latin poets and the Alexandreis, an epic poem on Alexander the Great, is his major work. Given the large number of surviving manuscripts, it almost certainly had more readers in the Middle Ages than Beowulf, El Cid, Chanson de Roland and Niebelungenlied combined. Since the Renaissance, however, it has languished in relative obscurity. After centuries of neglect, the publication of a critical edition of the Latin text by Marvin Colker in 1978 precipitated a remarkable revival of interest. The last two decades have seen the production of a concordance, one German, one Spanish, and two English translations of the poem and numerous monographs and articles.

The title of Weiner's book no doubt suggests what she sees as most original in her contribution to Alexandreis studies: the importance for Walter of the typological approach to history and his use of Lucan's Bellum Civile in shaping the characters and themes of his epic. Just what W. means by this will, I hope, become clear later in this review, but I would like to suggest at the outset that her study provides advanced students with an excellent introduction to the problems of the Alexandreis and to recent scholarly work on them. Throughout her study, she subjects her predecessors' work to penetrating criticism, and, whether or not one agrees with all her conclusions, there can be little doubt that her study makes a significant contribution to our understanding of this important epic.

W.'s first chapter deals with the question of Walter's sources. On this topic, as on most others, Christensen's work (1906) still remains indispensable, though more recent publications have added to our understanding of the problem. It has long been obvious that Walter's primary source was Quintus Curtius Rufus. Less clear has been Walter's source for the first book since the first two books of Curtius' History were already missing in the Middle Ages. Christensen supposed that Walter was drawing on Justin. However, by carefully comparing selected passages, W. confirms the view, recently gaining acceptance, that Walter was often using not Justin but some version of a medieval supplement to Curtius compiled from various sources.1 W. rightly emphasizes that what Walter chooses to omit is often just as significant as what he includes. She finds that, although Walter does not represent Alexander as a flawless hero, he does tend to omit, or recast in more favorable light, the more discreditable episodes. Also, he appears to have rejected the standard view, followed by Curtius and others, that Alexander's character showed a progressive moral decline.

In her second chapter, W. examines Aristotle's speech to the young Alexander, and the trial of Philotas. Aristotle's speech, which takes the form of a short speculum principum, shows how lasting glory can be won. It has frequently been regarded as programmatic for the poem as a whole. However, exactly how we are to use it as a basis for assessing Alexander's subsequent behavior is far from clear. Scholars differ widely on this point and W. subjects their views to a critical discussion. Against the argument that Walter expected his readers to see the pursuit of earthly glory as an inadequate goal for Christians, W. observes that all the references to gloria in the Alexandreis are positive. Similarly, she points out that in the speech which he gives just before his attempted suicide the defeated Darius emerges as the exemplary ruler, for it is here that we find the moral qualities that are so conspicuously lacking in Aristotle's speech. How, W. asks, is Walter's intended audience to make moral sense of this? In the trial of Philotas, Walter ostensibly sticks to the neutrality of Curtius on the question of Philotas' guilt, but by comparing him in a simile to the notorious Burchard, who murdered Count Robert of Flanders in 1127, he makes it clear to a French audience that Philotas betrayed his king. In this way Walter exonerates Alexander in what is often seen as one of his most discreditable episodes. On the other hand, since his behavior at the trial violates Aristotle's advice, the episode certainly does not redound to Alexander's credit.

The third chapter deals with Walter's use of Lucan. W. points out that while Lucan's Caesar is the model for Walter's Alexander in a surprising number of episodes, Walter has generally taken pains to reshape the material to present his Alexander in a more sympathetic light than Lucan did with Caesar. He even seems to have made a particular point of correcting the very negative picture of Alexander that Lucan provides (BC 10.20-52). Thus W. argues that Walter's characterization of Alexander as "mundi fatale flagellum," which is to be seen as positive because it presents Alexander as an instrument of fate (God's plan), should be read as a pointed correction of Lucan's disparaging tag for Alexander: "terrarum fatale malum."

In the fourth chapter, W. argues that Alexander's facta were much more important to Walter than his moral character. Scholarly preoccupation with questions of Alexander's guilt and hybris and how Walter expected his audience to evaluate him are, in W.'s view, largely misguided. She stresses instead the importance for Walter of the vision in Daniel 8.1-22, in which Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire, his subsequent death and the division of his empire into four smaller units are foretold. Since these events were foreordained by prophecy, they would happen with or without the help of hybris. Hence Walter's conspicuous lack of interest in depicting Alexander as acting hybristically. Significantly, W. suggests, the aspect of Alexander's character most emphasized by Walter is his speed--the characteristic singled out for mention in the vision in Daniel. In this chapter too W. points out the importance of typology for the interpretation of the Alexandreis. Just as Christian theologians maintained that Adam and Moses are the types sub Lege that are fulfilled in Christ, the antitype sub Gratia, so, according to the message of the Alexandreis, Alexander is the type sub Lege that should find its fulfillment sub Gratia in the young Philip Augustus.

W. devotes her fifth chapter to the digressions--Alexander's dream-vision, his entry into Babylon, and the ecphrases on Stateira's tomb and Darius' shield. Here she takes arms against what she calls the Hybris-Kritik. Some scholars see hybris or at least arrogance in Alexander's optimistic interpretation of his vision about Jerusalem, which he, unlike the reader, can barely understand. W. refutes the charge of hybris by pointing out that the reader also knows, from his knowledge of the prophecies in Daniel, that Alexander's conquests are divinely sanctioned. Similarly, though Alexander's triumphal entry into Babylon, where he will eventually die, is modeled on Christ's entry into Jerusalem, W. holds that this is not intended to be seen as hybristic on Alexander's part. Instead, it is Babylon that is criticized for not heeding the prophecy of Daniel 8, which was first written down within its walls. Finally, with regard to the scenes of Persian history depicted on Darius' shield, W. considers the view that these constitute some sort of warning for Darius to be mistaken. The scenes on Aeneas' shield, she points out, are directed not to Aeneas, who cannot understand them, but to the reader, who can. For W., the primary function of Alexander's dream and the various ecphrases is not to throw light on the moral qualities of the participants but rather to place the whole narrative in the context of Weltgeschichte and, more particularly, Heilsgeschichte.

W.'s common sense is conspicuous in the closing chapter, in which she addresses the questions of the date of composition of the Alexandreis and the meaning of the poem for Walter's contemporaries. Though much ink has been spilled on the dating of the poem, there is general agreement that it must have been completed between 1176 and 1182. Swayed by Dionisotti's arguments for an early date, W. opts for a completion date around 1178 or 1179. Given the clear indication (5.510-20) that Alexander is to be regarded as a model for France's young Philip Augustus, to inspire him to lead a third crusade to the Holy Land, precise dating that would enable us to link the poem more closely with specific contemporary events would be welcome. Attempts, however, to achieve precision turn out to be illusory. Philip was crowned in November 1179 and, as W. makes clear. Walter was certainly thinking of the French ceremony when he described Alexander's coronation in Bk. 1. However, whether we are to think of the French ceremony as having already happened or merely anticipated is unclear. The first book is equally applicable to the twelve-year-old prince or the fifteen-year-old king.

W.'s interpretation of this difficult poem seems to me the most satisfactory so far put forward. Naturally, it is built on the work of her predecessors. It has long been obvious, for instance, that typology played a major role in Walter's poem. W. seems to be right, however, in stressing its pivotal role and in demonstrating that other considerations are subordinated to this concern. The interpretations of other scholars, who urge us to see a sustained, if subtle, attack on Alexander's character, seem less satisfactory in light of the hope, unambiguously expressed at the heart of the poem, that the young Philip Augustus will prove to be another Alexander.


1.   Edme Smits, "A Medieval Supplement to the Beginning of Curtius Rufus's Historia Alexandri An Edition with Introduction," Viator 18 (1987) 89-124.

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