Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.04.18

A.B. Bosworth, E.J. Baynham, Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2002.  Pp. ix, 370; 18 figs.  ISBN 0-19-925275-0.  $22.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Marc Steinmann, Landgraf-Ludwig-Schule, Giessen (
Word count: 2709 words

The volume under review which comprises the contributions to a conference held at the University of Newcastle (NSW, Australia) in July 1997 is the paperback edition of a hardback volume originally published in 2000.1 The ten essays try to throw new light on old problems and to give fresh answers by taking new approaches in Alexander scholarship. Several of the contributions should become compulsory reading and may certainly prove to be seminal in their fields.

The main problem in Alexander research, as B. Bosworth succinctly states in his concise introduction, is the "dearth of contemporary sources" (1): we have to rely mainly on derivative writings of the centuries after Alexander's death. Following the communis opinio this material falls into two branches, Arrian and the so-called Vulgata, the latter consisting of Diodorus, Curtius, Justin, and -- inter alia -- the Metz Epitome, an anonymous text from late antiquity, once preserved in a lone now lost 10th century manuscript. What makes interpretation of these secondary sources so difficult is that they did not simply follow or transcribe one primary author but deliberately mixed and distorted their sources, adapted or modified them for literary purposes, misunderstood them -- or a combination of these. The case gets even worse if we bear in mind that the surviving fragments of our lost primary Alexander historians -- Onesicritus, Nearchus, Aristobulus, Cleitarchus among others -- are also paraphrases by secondary writers. Hard evidence is scarce, and dating and interpreting the inscriptions, coins, papyri, and archeological discoveries that have emerged in recent years is as controversial as ever. So obviously the thoughts and solutions offered in the volume under review "cannot claim to seek universal truth" (1).

That is the background Bosworth outlines in the first part of his introduction which is followed by summaries of the single contributions, "beginning with political analysis, progressing to the historical interpretation of iconography and literary propaganda, and ending with issues of historiography" (17).

In his essay "A Tale of Two Empires: Hernán Cortés and Alexander the Great" (23-49) Brian Bosworth examines to what extent Alexander's conquest of the east can serve as an interpretative model for analysing and illuminating the Spanish invasion of Mexico under Cortés in the 16th century, and vice versa.2 As a matter of fact, imperial powers tend to emulate heroes of the past and/or their achievements. Hence it is surprising that, as far as I know, a link between Cortés and Alexander was not made during the Renaissance.3 On the other hand the concepts of natural slavery and just war have been heavily exploited, culminating in the famous debate at Valladolid in 1550.

Between the conquests of Alexander and those of the Spaniards there are obvious similarities regarding the facts and the sources. In either case a handful of well-trained soldiers, headed by a charismatic leader endowed with an aura of invincibility, overran and annexed great territories and by this changed the political map of the world. In either case, too, the historical documentation is split in a favourable and a distanced/unfavorable branch. Giving a detailed analysis of Cortés' march through Honduras and Alexander's march through the Makran, Bosworth points out striking similarities which tend to be valid universally: logistical problems in foreign territory, technical superiority to those encountered along with "sanitization of the military carnage" (36), leaders with a liking for challenges (partly out of self-indulgence), and the paradox of ruthless destruction of countries and peoples admired for their peculiar customs and institutions. An important but not very far-reaching difference is that Alexander -- unlike Cortés -- was willing to "collaborate with and use the conquered Persian aristocracy", because for "the Spaniards their new subjects were vassals of their European emperor ... Alexander, however, was taking over an empire and replacing the Great King" (47).

This leads thematically to the contributions of Ernst Fredricksmeyer and Michael Flower. Fredricksmeyer's "Alexander the Great and the Kingship of Asia" (136-166) is a revised and enlarged version of a topic the author has dealt with several times over the last years, but ultimately originating from a 1977 paper. Fredricksmeyer rejects the common view that Alexander's proclamation as King of Asia in 331, recorded by Plutarch only, denotes Persian kingship. Proposing eight detailed arguments, Fredricksmeyer comes to the conclusion that -- unlike Alexander's formal consecration as king in Egypt and in Babylon (146) -- the proclamation as King of Asia at Arbela "was not a continuation or renewal of the Persian kingship, but superseded it" (149). The looting and burning of Persepolis, the religious centre of the Persian empire, is the clear signal for this claim. In the second part of his essay, Fredricksmeyer discusses Alexander's innovations after the death of Darius in 330, which he divides into twelve points. All of them, he concludes, were prompted by practical political and military considerations and by no means served to substantiate Alexander's assumption of the Persian kingship. Instead, Alexander uniquely created an absolute monarchy over both Macedonians and Orientals.

Persepolis also plays a major role in Michael Flower's essay "Alexander the Great and Panhellenism" (96-135). Flower first examines the intellectual background of the 4th century panhellenism, which was prominent not only among political and philosophical leaders but also in Greek popular opinion. Against this background Flower then investigates some of Alexander's actions. His emulation of Heracles and Achilles, for example, perfectly fit the claim to be avenging Greece, since the Trojans had long been identified with the Persians. "The battle of Gaugamela was nothing short of a panhellenist set piece" (112), and panhellenism reached its climax with the devastation of Persepolis.

Although it is generally asserted that the panhellenic part of Alexander's expedition ended with that deed, Flower convincingly argues that even after the burning of Persepolis4 Alexander continued the Hellenic crusade. As it is clear that Alexander manipulated panhellenism to suit his needs, Flower then analyzes, where Alexander actually deviated from panhellenist principles. In the last chapter of his essay it is shown that panhellenism would also have been well suited to Alexander's proposed conquest of the western Mediterranean.

Like panhellenism, Alexander accommodated even conspiracies -- the title of Ernst Badian's lengthy contribution (50-95) -- to his aims and needs. Alexander and Darius both came to the throne through conspiracies, and Alexander's involvement in the conspiracy that led to the death of Philip II is Badian's starting point. He then examines the cases of Alexander son of Aeropus, Philip the Acarnanian, the 'Philotas affair', the 'Cleitus affair', the conspiracy of the pages, Alexander's behaviour at the Hyphasis and at the city of the Malli, and, finally, the conspiracies regarding Alexander's death.

Out of these episodes a pattern crystallizes: "Alexander systematically exploited the tensions at his court, using conspiracies, both genuine and fictitious, to suppress opposition" (18) and strengthened his own position. Whether he died as a result of a conspiracy, however, remains unsolved. Darius, on the other hand, never utilized conspiracies to reach his aims but was constantly in fear of them. His "unavoidable care to guard against conspiracies led to his being unavoidably forced to give up the initiative" (83) and finally to his death.

As a by-product of his essay Badian appends a prosopography of "some Iranian rebels" (89), listed and discussed here (89-95) for the first time.

The Oriental motif of the lion hunt was short-lived in Greek art, being introduced in the late 4th century and not outlasting Alexander's marshals. Olga Palagia in "Hephaestion's Pyre and the Royal Hunt of Alexander" (167-206) examines its meaning and purpose in relation to Alexander and his successors.5 Confined in Archaic and Classical Greek art to the mythological episode of Heracles killing the Nemean lion, in Asia lions were symbols of kingship. Lion hunting was a ritual act, one of the duties of kingship. This motif was first employed by Alexander himself to honour his intended successor Hephaestion, who died in 324. It is found on the third frieze of Hephaestion's pyre, which is described in Diodorus 17, 115, 1-5. "The iconography of the pyre suggests that Alexander acknowledged Hephaestion's share in his own power and glory" (175). Hephaestion reappears on one of the long sides of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, where he attacks a lion on the right from horseback. Facing the lion is a hunter usually identified as Abdalonymus, the last Phoenician king of Sidon whose patron Hephaestion was. His appearance alongside Alexander, who is depicted right behind him, certainly enhanced his claim to the throne of Sidon. A similar arrangement of figures is found on the battered fresco of Tomb II at Vergina.6 Palagia plausibly demonstrates that it depicts Philip III Arrhidaeus, who should be also the owner of the tomb,7 Alexander, Cassander, and his brothers, whose participation "in a royal hunt involving both Alexander and his immediate successor, Philip III, would have served the double purpose of pointing out Cassander's claim to the throne of Macedon and of exonerating himself and his brothers from Alexander's alleged poisoning" (199).

In conclusion Palagia examines the Nachleben of Alexander's royal hunts in the hunting iconography -- now having lost political purposes.

Next come two complementary contributions on the so-called liber de morte, preserved in the Latin Metz epitome8 and concluding the extant versions of the Greek Alexander Romance, to which it is obviously not integral. The style of the Latin epitome is late, and long ago Lellia Ruggini in a very detailed analysis dated this version to 400 AD.9 Its origins, however, are much older, though evidently unhistorical. Brian Bosworth in his important and illuminating contribution "Ptolemy and the Will of Alexander" (207-241) redates this document and puts it in a narrow context. Often considered pure fiction without any purpose, often dated to the years immediately after Alexander's death (Merkelbach: 321 BC, Heckel: 317 BC) and assigned to various milieux (Perdiccas, Polyperchon), Alexander's Will until now resisted a completely satisfying interpretation. The main problem has been the extraordinary prominence of the Rhodians, who are the guardians of the Will and were usually interpreted as later interpolations.

Now Bosworth takes it as a single, coherent document, dates it to 309/308, and argues convincingly that Ptolemy is the beneficiary of the Will's provisions: He, in contrast to the other successors, fulfilled, or at least tried to fulfil, Alexander's last wishes; he won Rhodian friendship, etc. The liber de morte serves his purposes, his regal ambitions, "surpassingly well" (224). In addition, Bosworth makes it plausible that Ptolemy was designated king and unofficially used this title as early as 309/308.10 He comes to the compelling conclusion that the historical events in 309/308 and the person of Ptolemy give "a pointed subtext to virtually every clause in the Will" (241). Its actual author might be Holcias, who had passed into the service of Ptolemy and whom Perdiccas had read out the Will after Alexander's death.11

Elizabeth Baynham in "A Baleful Birth at Babylon: The Significance of the Prodigy in the Liber de Morte -- An Investigation of Genre" (242-262) reinforces Bosworth's new dating by showing that the gruesome portent preceding Alexander's death -- hitherto usually explained as a late, bizarre interpolation -- makes sense only in the context of 309.

Birth omens are comparatively rare in extant Greek historiography and while portents abound in Alexander historiography, there is only one other birth omen -- the malformed lamb born just prior to Alexander's crossing of the Hindu Kush.12 However, the monstrous portent in the liber de morte consists of a dead boy with the lower part made up of a lion, a wolf, a panther, a dog, and a boar, symbolizing the dead Alexander and the five successors, Ptolemy, Cassander, Lysimachus, Antigonus, and Seleucus.13 All of them had emerged as clear contenders by 309, while by 321/317 -- the proposed earlier contexts of the liber de morte -- not even the eventual kingdoms were defined.

In a more general part of her essay Baynham compares the liber de morte with Xenophon's Cyropaedia and examines its narrative structure and its treatment of fact and fiction.

This aspect leads to the ambiguous figure of Parmenio, whose person and advice to Alexander constitute one half of Elizabeth Carney's essay "Artifice and Alexander History" (263-285), the other being Alexander's self-isolations from his army.

Because we often have just a single source, it is difficult to separate fact and fiction in the Parmenio episodes. To aggravate the situation, "significant variations in the accounts of different authors of the same incident strongly suggest that subsequent embroidery as well as significant excising occurred" (271). Another crucial point is the notorious undependability of speeches in ancient historical narratives. The initially political nucleus of Parmenio's advice acquired an increasingly literary aspect after the deaths of Alexander and his senior officer. Parmenio "became an all-purpose not-Alexander" (272), serving merely as a foil to the king. The more Alexander is heroized in our sources, the more Parmenio's reputation is consequently blackened. Therefore one should reject the historicity of the entire theme.

As regards the occasions where Alexander secluded himself from the rest of his army in order to obtain what he wanted from them, two principles can be detected. The first is Alexander's imitation and emulation of the Homeric hero Achilles and of Heracles, the second is echoes of the theme of paraklausithyron. Alexander himself and important elements in the army regarded his killing of Cleitus and his behaviour afterwards as unique and godlike, being reminiscent of the wrath of Achilles, fitting Homeric norms. Moreover, considering the sexual informed relationships of the male Hellenic elite, Alexander could be seen as the "flirtatious" lover, whose temporary withdrawal inspired loyalty and achievement in the "excluded" army. It was this second aspect that mainly contributed to the success of his "sulking" at Opis. At the Hyphasis, on the other hand, neither the erotic nor the Achilles-like behaviour worked out well for Alexander. His troops interpreted his seclusion rather as selfish.

So both the puppet master Alexander and our artificial sources -- as can be seen in the Parmenio episodes and Alexander's seclusions -- use artifice to control their target groups.

The presentation of Parmenio as a foil to Alexander with Alexander always coming out as the bolder and wiser, as handed down by the Alexander historians, stands in sharp contrast with Polybius' view that "only a share of the credit for the Macedonian conquest belongs to Alexander" (294).

This is one of five basic themes concerning the Macedonian king that interested Polybius, argues Richard Billows in "Polybios and Alexander Historiography" (286-306). Other themes are Alexander's destruction of Thebes, Alexander's comparison with contemporary kings, Alexander's character and generalship, and Alexander's fortune. The notion of Alexander as Fortune's favorite "is explicitly derived from Demetrius of Phalerum" (297) whose Peri Tyches Billows redates to the teens of the 4th century. Another source for Polybius is Hieronymus of Cardia, to whom a prominent role in Alexander historiography is attributed, because his "history began with a treatment of Alexander's reign in at least one or two books" (304).

In the final paper, "Originality and its Limits in the Alexander Sources of the Early Empire" (307-325), John Atkinson focuses on the concerns of the imperial authors Diodorus, Timagenes, Trogus, and of course Curtius. As a truism no artist can create an opus without being impacted by his environment. Thus historians with the ambition to explain history in the Augustan period went back to the pattern of the Herodotean sequence of world empires, differing only on the exact date when Rome might be said to have emerged as the world power and on what role political and/or military leaders played. While Diodorus and Trogus were overall favourable to Pompey, Timagenes was not.14

By the time of Curtius15 the world empire model had lost its topicality, and as a result Pompey is considered less important now. Writing a monograph rather than a universal history, Curtius "gave himself more scope for the display of originality" (325). His description of the roles of Arrhidaeus and Perdiccas at Babylon, for example, is highly influenced by his "experience of political intrigue and judicial murder in the early Empire" (21f.).

A full bibliography (327-352) and a useful index (353-370) complete this valuable contribution to Alexander scholarship. In sum, the specialist and the student alike are served equally well by this highly recommended.16


1.   There is a review of this edition for BMCR by J. B. Grossman. Other reviews published are: R. Stoneman, Classical Review 52 (2002), 103-105; G. Wirth, Historische Zeitschrift 275 (2002), 434-435; A. Demandt, Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft 4 (2001), 1143-1144; H. van Wees, Greece & Rome 48 (2001), 237; F. Pownall, Classical Outlook (spring 2002 issue), 125; Anonymous, Contemporary Review (February 2001 issue); and (non vidi) J. Davidson, London Review of Books 23 (Nov. 1st 2001 issue).
2.   Here Bosworth enlarges and deepens a subject he had already treated from a slightly different angle in his Alexander and the East. The Tragedy of Triumph, Oxford 1998, 159-164.
3.   Given the state of research in Renaissance literature such traces might well come to light. Interestingly, Petrus Martyr in his De novo orbe decades octo (Madrid 1530) compares Cortés to another hero of Antiquity, Caesar, emphasizing that "Caesarem cum minoribus copiis ... copias ingentes debellasse" (5,1 = fol. LXIII v).
4.   A stimulating treatise on the Persepolis episode has recently been published by Gary Morrison in Antichthon 35 (2001), 30-44: "Alexander, Combat Psychology, And Persepolis."
5.   Because embedded in a more widespread study, "Hunting and Funerary Realm", the fourth chapter of Judith Barringer's recently published The Hunt in Ancient Greece (Baltimore 2002; see also the review in BMCR 2002.10.32), makes good complementary reading to Palagia's special topic.
6.   The 18 b/w figures which support Palagia's contribution have an overall good reproduction quality. However, due to the heavy damages of the original fresco, it is hard to "read". Fortunately, a drawing of the fresco is found in fig. 12 (190).
7.   So the widely held though not universally accepted opinion that the tomb covered the remains of Philip II is demolished. Less persuasive to this reviewer is Palagia's assumption that the "Greek-looking trees" (199) are reminiscent of a mountainous landscape in Macedonia, but she corrects herself at once: "Perhaps the Greek artist ... improvised" (200).
8.   A translation and commentary is being prepared by J.C. Yardley and E. Baynham (11) -- not by A.B. Bosworth and E. Baynham, as I falsely stated in my bibliography on the Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi in GFA 4 (2001), 52. I take the opportunity to correct another slip there: the annotations to Pfister 1976b and Pfister 1976c have to be interchanged.
9.   Her study (L'epitoma rerum gestarum Alexandri Magni e il liber de morte testamentoque eius, Athenaeum 39 [1961], 285-357) is mentioned neither by Bosworth nor Baynham. Although as a rule text editions are not included in the bibliography, it is puzzling to have to look up Thomas' Teubneriana to learn that there does exist an edition by Otto Wagner even with a small commentary (which at times is quite helpful).
10.   This is substantiated by Bosworth restoring the unanimous manuscript reading βασιλέα at Plutarch, Alexander 17.6, long ago deleted by Reiske. Bosworth redates two inscriptions (one being SEG 17,639) and a papyrus (P. Colon. 247), in each of which Ptolemy is called king, to 309/308 as well.
11.   Metz epitome 114.
12.   Plutarch, Alexander 57,4.
13.   Metz epitome 90. Baynham proposes several associations between the individual Diadochoi and the beasts (257-259), but all this must remain, as she admits herself, highly speculative.
14.   Besides "we can trace a dialectic progression in the universal histories of Diodorus, Timagenes and Trogus, and they also mark stages in a decline from cautious optimism to gloomy cynicism as the Augustan autocracy dragged on" (318).
15.   As in his commentary on Curtius and his recent Forschungsbericht in ANRW II 34.4 Atkinson argues for an early Claudian date.
16.   Typographical errors are almost non-existent. The few I noticed are: p. IX 'Leidon' should read 'Leiden'; p. 47, l. 12 'Mexica' should read 'Mexicans'; p. 243, l. 3 should read 'so much that <he> deposited'; p. 245, l. 29 should read 'However, <it> is'; p. 341, l. 38 should read either 'Historiker-Fragment' or 'Historikerfragment'; p. 297 the single line at the bottom looks misplaced; p. 9 something went wrong with footnote 25/26.

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