Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.07.35

Jona Lendering, Alexander de Grote. De ondergang van het Perzische rijk.   Amsterdam:  Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, 2004.  Pp. 407.  ISBN 90-253-3144-0.  €22.95.  



Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk, Ancient History, University of Amsterdam (j.p.stronk@hum.uva.nl)
Word count: 1629 words

Jona Lendering (henceforward L), known to many of us from his website Livius, sets out to describe Alexander and his actions essentially as they emerge from non-western (i.e. non-Greek or -Latin) sources. L phrases it as follows: 'It is time to broach non-western sources, but most ancient historians effortlessly succeed in brushing aside this necessity' (p. 13). L uses Persian and a variety of Babylonian material to describe both Alexander's march and the world he conquered, though not ignoring 'western' evidence. Moreover, as is shown both by the maps and the photographs presented, he has firsthand knowledge of many of the sites discussed.

In twenty chapters, in addition to the introduction, we follow Alexander from birth to burial, more or less along familiar lines. L starts with an outline, 'Persia, Macedonia, and Greece', and continues with 'Philippos and Alexander' and 'The First year of Government', after which the story of the expedition proper begins in chapter four ('The Beginning of the Persian Expedition'), still essentially based upon Greek sources but, as regards the capture of Daskyleion, also on archaeological records. The next chapter, 'The Conquest of Asia Minor', is generally based upon Greek accounts, as well.

In the chapter 'Issos', which relates the prelude to and the battle of Issos as well as its aftermath, some Babylonian sources, notably the so-called Astronomical Diaries, have been used; the report of the battle itself, however, is based (again) mainly upon the surviving classical sources and L's own knowledge of the region. Also 'The Levant' is almost exclusively based upon the same source material, apparently from lack of other evidence. In 'The Birth of the Gods' we encounter again some non-Greek evidence in the text, though it is not supported in the notes with solid references, apart from one text on the god Amun, taken from Papyrus Leiden I 350, which dates from the 52nd year of Ramesses II.

Persian and Babylonian sources have been used in 'Gaugamela'. They predominantly serve to illustrate L's view that, due to celestial omens, a large part of Darius' army had been demoralized to such an extent that Alexander obtained a relatively easy victory. L also points to some omissions and/or exaggerations in Greek accounts, as well as at some notable differences from eastern accounts. A very important difference is that, where Greek accounts relate the cowardly behaviour of Darius III, the Astronomical Diaries inform us that 'The [Persian] troops deserted their king, ... they fled to the countries in the east' (p. 173). According to L this account may well have been closer to the truth than the Greek ones.

In 'Babylon' L continues with the events following the battle of Gaugamela. Here, too, he points out some disputable passages in Greek literature, notably Herodotus' account of Babylon. Also in this chapter he frequently refers to non-Greek sources. The description of the situation in Susa shows L's first-hand knowledge of this site. The chapter 'The demise of Persia' begins with the march from Susa into Persis. Here too L displays his familiarity with the terrain. As regards the causes for the burning of Persepolis he remains cautious. Archaeological reports are used to determine the centre of the fire: the resulting conclusion as to the likely scenario for the destruction appears persuasive. The story of the pursuit of Darius III is again coloured by L's familiarity with the geographical situation but here, too, Greek sources dominate the account.

The following chapter, 'Metamorphosis', discusses the transformation of Alexander from a Macedonian king into a Persian ruler. It starts with a Babylonian source which is opposed to Arrian's account and appears to be more trustworthy. Throughout the chapter the reliability of accounts in Greek, notably those related by Diodorus, are questioned. L describes an accumulating discontent towards Alexander both of his own soldiers (displayed in the so-called Philotas affair) and of the Persians, though for different reasons. These occurrences delayed, to some extent, 'The Pursuit of Bessos'. Again L has to rely on the accounts of Diodorus and Quintus Curtius Rufus, though he also adduces some evidence of archaeological or numismatic origin as well as illuminating geographical information, even if not on the basis of autopsy.

In 'The first Sogdian Revolt' L continues Alexander's odyssey with Spitamenes' (possibly a descendant of Zoroaster [Zarathustra] Spitama) revolt which started in 329. It appears, also on the basis of Zoroastrian sources, that Alexander was at odds with at least part of the Zoroastrian priesthood -- as he was with part of the Persian nobles. Spitamenes led a revolt that took the form of guerilla warfare: unfortunately the incidents are badly documented and the topography offers serious problems. It appears that Alexander's measures to counter the guerillas did much to alienate the local population still further from the new ruler. Nevertheless his troops finally succeeded in subduing most of the rebels: Spitamenes was killed (in 327), allegedly by his own men. At the same time Alexander contemplated the introduction of proskynesis, for Persians, Greeks, and Macedonians, to create a single etiquette at his court: the Macedonians especially appear to have resented this measure. Here, again, L has to rely exclusively on Greek sources.

Also for the next chapter, 'Punjab', Greek sources offer the backbone of information, though here again this is supplemented by autopsy: L specifically remarks that ancient Indian literature does not refer in any sense to the Persian and/or Macedonian invasions (p. 274-5). It does, though, refer to the general situation in those days. L's knowledge of the geographical situation proves especially useful in his description of the events at Aornus and in the Punjab, en passant trying to put the battle against the Indian raja Poros in perspective.

The beginning of Alexander's return to the west is related in 'Loss of control'. The journey over the Indus to the south proved to be tiresome and bloody: also Alexander himself was wounded. This news triggered a new revolution in Sogdia, in which Greeks (supported by Sogdians) confronted Macedonians. A similar discrepancy became more and more apparent in Alexander's own army as well. Again, most of L's sources are Greek and frequently either conflicting or unreliable. Only incidentally other sources appear available, notably the Astronomical Diaries, mixed with L's own observations regarding the geographical peculiarities.

Also in the first part of 'Alexander the god' L mixes Greek sources with geographical observations. Having returned in Persia from the Indus region with great losses, in men and reputation, Alexander attempted to get things going again. It appears, however, that his attempt backfired to some extent. Tensions between different ethnic groups increased, as rank-and-file Macedonians felt themselves threatened in their, so far, more or less privileged position, as did many noble Persians. Here, too, L almost exclusively follows Greek sources: the notable exception is the cautious use made of a recently discovered cuneiform tablet BM 41080, which still awaits final publication.

One of the first sources used in 'Death in Babylon' is the 29th Ahû-tablet of Enuma Anu Enlil obv., a Chaldaean source. Also other Babylonian tablets are referred to, as well as some Greek information. Greek sources dominate the penultimate chapter 'Civil war' and the Astronomical diaries and the Babylonian Chronicle 10 are used only incidentally. They describe the rapid disintegration of the Macedonian Empire and its shifting between the various generals, relatives, and successors of Alexander.

In 'Assessment' several sources are discussed, ranging from a map in the Lahore museum, through the medieval roman d'Alexandre and an Iranian-Zoroastrian book, to various Greek visions. L makes it clear that no univocal image of Alexander and his achievements can be created due to the diversity, both in quality and in view, of the sources. A 'Chronology', 'acknowledgements', 'bibliography', 'notes', and 'Index' close the book. The bibliography, especially, I found rather disappointing. In it I missed the books of M. Wood (In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: a Journey from Greece to Asia, London 1997 [also translated into Dutch]) and R. Lane Fox (The Search for Alexander London and Boston 1980), who have, like L, directly followed the trail of Alexander, at least as far as possible (Afghanistan being at present less hospitable than it used to be). Also some other quite recent and important books are lacking in the bibliography, like C.A. Robinson, The History of Alexander the Great, 2 vols. Providence [RI] 1953-1963; I. Worthington, Alexander the Great: A Reader, London / New York 2003; or J. Roisman (ed.), Brill's Companion to Alexander the Great, Leiden 2003. I understand L's problems what to include and what to exclude in a select bibliography, but in a book with such emphasis on source material as L's these books should, I think, not be overlooked.

L writes clearly and compellingly, though I do not share his love for psychological profiles. The book is manifestly written for the general public, though its use of Near Eastern sources may makes it in some respects also attractive for a more specialized readership. There is, however, a 'caveat': as is stated at the beginning of this review, "the book sets out to describe Alexander and his actions essentially as they emerge from non-western sources". Throughout the book L does try to adduce various of those non-western sources: all those sources taken together make unmistakably clear that, though they may serve to clarify some aspects of Alexander or his actions, the number of non-western sources useful for anything but a superficial text on a detail of Alexander's life is zero. At the same time it is true that the corpus of Near Eastern texts is still dramatically expanding: L's book may, therefore, be regarded as a serious incentive for scholars to try and match the knowledge obtained from this increasing source of information with the existing Greek and Roman ones.

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