Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.01.11

Claude Mossé, Alexander: Destiny and Myth. Translated by Janet Lloyd.   Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.  Pp. 256.  ISBN 0-8018-7995-7.  $58.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-8018-7996-5.  $21.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Evangelia Anagnostou-Laoutides, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (
Word count: 3219 words

Mossé first published her book in French in 2001;1 her intention was to explore the historical evolvement of the legend(s) surrounding the Macedonian king and thereby to introduce mythic traditions as a valid tool for the study of history. The author is very aware of her attempt to break with time-honoured historiography (p.214), always toiling to separate fact from fiction, and is overall successful in her illustration of how popular belief can, regardless of historical accuracy, inspire future generations to write their own history. One case in point is the several generations of Roman generals, from Scipio Aemilius Africanus to Julius Caesar and Augustus, who identified in their youthful dreams with Alexander, the conqueror son of a divine father with a mind-blowing mission to civilise the whole of humanity.2 Although conventional historiography would dismiss these mythical projections as untruthful propaganda, irrelevant or even harmful to a balanced appreciation of Alexander's contribution to history, such defiance of the power of myth would, in fact, limit our understanding of his legacy, both in ancient and modern times. After all, admiration for Alexander's exploits still inculcated the colonial movements of the 17th and 18th centuries. M's theory is ingenious not only in encapsulating accurately the hurtful historical truth that often myths shape our perception of history but also in considering effectively the role of historical recording in the light of this realisation.

The main drawback of this book is, in my view, the dense style in which the theory is unfolded, aggravated by the inconsistent structure of twenty chapters arranged in five parts. M follows a constructive chronological account of Alexander's campaign in Part I (Ch.1-4, pp.11-43) signposting the mythic traditions he inspired, myths that, enhanced with elements of propaganda and the prejudice of ancient historians, soon assumed a dynamic of their own. The remaining four parts discuss specific aspects of Alexander and his legacy, but a sense of repetition and lack of coherence often cloud the points. Part II (Ch.5-8, pp.47-83) examines the different 'faces' of Alexander in his own time as king of the Macedonians, hegemon of the Greeks, successor to the Achaemenids and son of Zeus. Inevitably, historical details just mentioned in Part I, are hard to avoid. Moreover, instead of tracing the reading(s) of these roles in subsequent eras, M interrupts the chronological sequence until Part V (Ch.16-20, pp.165-209), which recapitulates Alexander's image in antiquity before adding the mythical dimensions of Alexander in more recent centuries. Part III (Ch.9-11, pp.87-107) examines Alexander's personality as portrayed by ancient sources, while in Part IV (Ch.12-15, pp.111-161) M attempts a careful evaluation of his legacy. Part IV ought to follow Part V, while Part III, ought to precede Part II.

M first examines the political relations of the Greeks with their eastern neighbours at the time of Alexander's enthronement in order to emphasise the difficulties the young king had to resolve before undertaking the Asian campaign (Ch.1, pp.11-17). The exemplary subjugation of the Theban revolt (Ch.2, pp.18-21) is discussed as an event that sealed Alexander's early reign, giving an early glimpse into his capacity for cruelty, although some historical accounts attribute the Theban disaster to the grudge of the Greek allies against them for their erstwhile pro-Persian stance. Having pacified Greece, Alexander conquered first the western and then the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire. Interspersed with several informative maps this section prompts geographical awareness of his endeavour. Having already noted the problem of sources regarding the Theban revolt, M outlines the two main historical traditions on Alexander, represented by Diodorus Siculus and Quintus Curtius on one side, and Arrian on the other (Ch.3, pp.22-31). Although the inconsistencies of our sources affect our appreciation of Alexander's strategy against the Persian Empire, the general tone of the analysis seems to interfere with the focus of this section. Instead, a more effective use of footnotes/endnotes might have produced firmer arguments. Next M relates events that acquired mythical dimensions such as Alexander's visit to Troy, the famous incident of the Gordian knot, the consultation of the oracle of Ammon Zeus at Siwa,3 and Darius' bestowal of his kingdom on Alexander (Plut.Alex.43.4). However, interesting points such as Alexander's kinship with Achilles and Agamemnon, partly reviewed in chapter 8, are here mixed with historical details about the status of the Greek Asian cities, which welcomed Alexander only after his impressive victories. M is also interested in the relation of Alexander with the different elements of his forces, the Greek allies, his Macedonians, and the Iranians whose integration in the army so offended the latter (ch.4, pp.32-43). Incidents such as the executions of Parmenion and his son Philotas, the murder of Cleitus (Plut.Alex.51.5), the famous Pages' Plot, and the proskynesis affair, when the Macedonians refused to prostrate themselves before the king, exemplify the increasing rift between Alexander and his soldiers in the eve of the Indian campaign. The death of Bucephalus, Alexander's horse, and the army's refusal to continue the campaign highlight a dark period of unfavourable omens (cf. Plut.Alex.63.3). Soon after, Harpalus, the king's treasurer, fled to Athens with an army and royal funds; the 'Susa weddings', the revolts of the Macedonians at Susa (as per Diodorus) and/or Opis (as per Arrian), and the death of Hephaestion intensified a sense of imminent disaster soon realised with Alexander's death in May 323 BC. Shortly before his death Alexander had asked the Greeks to grant him divine honours.

With regard to Alexander's profile as king of the Greeks (Ch.5, pp.47-54) M investigates the nature of Macedonian kingship against contemporary definitions of monarchy. It appears that the role of the army during the early reign of Alexander and the Asian campaign outlines Macedonian monarchy as a remnant of Homeric kingship. The alienation of Alexander from his army is explained in our sources by the traditional opposition between Greek liberty and barbarian despotism to which the king had succumbed. As a hegemon of the Greeks (Ch.6, pp.55-65) Alexander 'liberated' the Greek cities of Asia, an endeavour once more questioned. M notes that several Greeks remained in Alexander's army after their discharge as mercenaries and were eventually installed in the cities Alexander founded across central Asia. However, she focuses on the king's aspirations when founding Alexandria in Egypt due to its Greek design (ch14) and its prominence in later times. Consulting the sources meticulously M concludes that surely Alexander wished to be compared to ancient founding heroes, but in building Alexandria he also made a strategic decision. A brief overview of the king's Greek entourage concludes that Alexander prided himself over his Greek origins and that, provided they pleased him, the Greek companions enjoyed his trust. However, his despotic attitude towards the Greek cities provoked the Athenians and their allies to prepare for war in 324 BC, despite his alleged divinity. As the successor to the Achaemenids (Ch.7, pp.66-72) Alexander tried to avoid offending the patriotic sentiment of the Macedonians. Hence, he promoted himself as the successor of Cyrus the Great, who was admired by the Greeks (Xen.Cyr.8.3.12), rather than of weak Darius. He dressed himself in Iranian costume only when dealing with the 'Barbarians', and, having inherited Darius' harem, he sought to appease his critics by marrying Roxane according to the conventions of tradition (Plut.Alex.47.7-8). M notes that the Macedonians should have been more accepting of the presence of Iranians in Alexander's army, having briefly experienced Persian domination, and that, despite our sources' claims, Iranians did not play a major role in the administration of the conquered provinces. Furthermore, Alexander's divine descent (Ch.8, pp.73-83) was compatible with the traditional claims of the kings of Macedon, who traced their ancestry to Heracles. Alexander was also linked, on his mother's side, to Achilles.4 Plutarch mentions a number of omens associated with the birth of the king which evoke the presence of Zeus (lightning), but also of Dionysus (snake). Despite numerous connections, M estimates that Dionysus was associated with Alexander only much later by Ptolemy of Egypt (Plut.Alex.13.4), because these traditions were virtually absent from Alexander's early reign. In her view, Alexander demanded divine honours only from the Greeks who often offered heroic cults to city founders, Olympic victors, and even great strategoi during the classical period (Plut.Lys.18.5; Aesch.Ag.Ctes.3.243), because he wanted his absolute power recognised. Although the Achaemenid kings never claimed divine ancestors, M overlooks the special relation of god with the Persian rulers (p.78).5

Her study of the king's personality is based on Plutarch's Life of Alexander, which gave him a philosophical dimension. M explores the upbringing of the Macedonian prince (Ch.9, pp.89-93), commenting on the taming of Bucephalas and his teachers -- the frugal Leonidas, Lysimachus, who viewed himself as another Cheiron supervising a young Achilles, and Aristotle. Although M remains sceptical about Alexander's correspondence with Aristotle, whose political program he supposedly tried to realise, M argues that these diverse influences anticipate his complicated character (Plut.Alex.7.5). Alexander's physical courage and tenacity, his self-control, especially towards women, his generosity and kindness are examined as philosophical qualities (Ch.10, pp.94-102). Plutarch argued that Alexander proved himself 'highly philosophical' by his decision to 'civilise' the barbarians (Fortune 1.238d-e) and by his conception of all humanity as a single community, with Greeks and Barbarians intermingled. Nevertheless, M accurately observes that this single polity was perceived according to the Greek model of life (Fortune 1.330D). Alexander's philosophical disposition is most incompatible with his violent outbreaks, ever more fuelled by intoxication and negative omens (Plut.Alex.74.1). Despite often regretting his actions (Ch.11, pp.103-107), Alexander gradually lost his humanity after the death of Darius. Rejecting absolute judgements on Alexander, M reasons that "he was a man of his times, no doubt affected by the contradictions implied by a Greek education, the extent of his conquests and servility of part of his entourage" (p.107) and that he ought to be judged by his achievements.

Regarding the fragile unity of Alexander's empire (Ch.12, pp.113-123) the evidence "confirms [that] the king had no systematic conquest in mind", and he did not associate the Iranians with his power "in the name of some vague idealism" (p.117). Thus, two tricky issues arose after his death: the acclamation of a new king by the army and an undisputed heir. However, the rivalry among his successors led to the murder of Philip Arrhidaeus and Alexander IV. After long wars, in 306 BC Antigonus and his son Demetrius assumed the royal title, and were soon followed by Ptolemy, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Cassander. The co-existence of several kings, which exceeded the Macedonian law, heralded a new type of rule. Hellenistic monarchy was, in fact, consistent with philosophical trends of the 4th century BC (Ch.13, pp.124-139). Still, the 'ideal kings' of Isocrates, Xenophon and Plato differed and M embarks on a most stimulating comparison of their theories. Aristotle notably mentioned that the superiority of one suitable for absolute kingship makes him 'like a god among men' (Pol.1284a, 10-11) and the very substance of the law (1284a13-4), thus reflecting two essential aspects of Hellenistic royalty. In the monarchies of the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Attalids the cult of the king was predominant. Drawing on A. Aymard's views (Etudes d'histoire ancienne, Paris, 1967) M argues that "these cults were offered them by the Greek cities ... so ... they found a place within a tradition that originated within the Greek world" (p.138). She also claims that Alexander's 'itinerant' kingship relied mostly on the authority of a victorious general who bequeathed to his successors an immeasurably extended Greek world (Ch.14, pp.140-50). On the basis of M. Rostovtzeff's study (The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, Oxford, 1941), M maintains that the new features of the economy affected mainly the urban centres, inhabited by Greeks and Macedonians. However, their political organisation was more formal than real. Alexandria is particularly discussed because of its large foreign population (i.e. Diaspora Jews). M argues that the Greek presence did not affect essentially the structures of the eastern societies although local leaders soon emerged in minor posts all over the Hellenistic world (i.e. Judaea). She refutes the commentators' exaggerations regarding a) the civilising effect of the Greek culture on less evolved peoples, and b) the contamination of the Greek culture when it came in contact with the East (Ch.15, pp.151-161). Both trends are further discussed in Part IV, and again the issue of structure arises. M stresses the importance of Alexandria, Antioch and Pergamum in the fusion of eastern and Greek traditions in the Hellenistic world, although she doubts the scale of the phenomenon (p.154) which remained confined to the urbanised Greek or Hellenised bourgeoisie. M holds that the limits of Hellenisation are most visible at the level of religion, where 'mysticism' made its appearance, although she doubts the influence of mystery cults over the popular masses and indeed over Alexander. However, in claiming that Euripides' Bacchae reveals "other forms taken by the cult of Dionysus, forms more sinister and less civic" (p.156), she overlooks the antiquity of Dionysian mysteries in Greek cities.6 M barely mentions the syncretism that took place in the Greek cities of Asia Minor prior to Alexander's advance (p.158) and focuses on the confusion of deities rather than comparing them. Sarapis is mentioned as the most curious example of urban syncretism, yet the overt understanding of religious structures behind this attempt of political manipulation is passed over in silence. M argues that in the countryside eastern religions resisted Hellenisation, mainly with the encouragement of the local clergy. The Jews again are the example, but one wonders how general an example the Jews are. Also her discussion on the possible influence of Hellenism over Judaism is disappointingly hurried and regurgitates the works of E. Will and C. Orrieux (Ioudaïsmos-Hellenismos, Nancy, 1986).

The last part of the book considers Alexander as a mythical hero. M summarises P. Goukowsky's work (Essai sur les origins du mythe d'Alexandre, Nancy, 1978-81) on the renewed interest in Alexander in the 1st century BC and argues that "we must be content to make a number of discontinuous research approaches into this or that period of history, endeavouring only to gain from the example of Alexander a slightly better understanding of the manner in which historical memory functions" (p.166). The structure of the book in which historical periods are kept studiously apart is suddenly explained; however, the evolution of historical memory which generations have inherited along with our texts is most obvious in M's analysis. Ptolemy's uncritical history of Alexander appealed to Arrian, while Clitarchus' account of the great deeds of heroic Alexander haunted the Roman generals of the first century BC (Ch.16, pp.167-177). This idealised image of Alexander was challenged by the Peripatetic and the Stoic philosophers, splitting the tradition on Alexander into two conflicting currents: the image of a philosopher king who dreamt of a universal civilisation versus a violent drunkard, incapable of self-control. Plutarch merged the two currents by presenting a young king full of excellent qualities who gradually turned into an implacable, oriental despot. M also refers to the Alexander Romance by Callisthenes, which relates Alexander's special relation with the Jews and his adherence to the one God. The dualism of Alexander continued into the medieval years (Ch.17, pp.178-188). The most complete manuscript of the Romance (3rd century AD), now in Paris, contains various magical tales and fantastic journeys to the unknown. M argues that the 'courtly' or 'chivalric' character of French medieval Alexander of the 11th and 12th century also presented rulers with the image of an ideal king. Although hesitant (p.183), M seems to accept G. Carey's (The Medieval Alexander, Cambridge 1956) division of works on Alexander into didactic and entertaining. Later, under the influence of Aristotle's Arabic translations, Alexander was given a philosophical dimension. In the Arab tradition Alexander retains his dual nature and becomes an instrument of God, though notably not a prophet. Similarly, in the works of Judaism God warns Alexander of his limits. The translation of Greek historians gave him a more political dimension. In the 17th- and 18th-century France the dominant projection of Alexander was that of the victorious warrior and absolute monarch (Ch.18, pp.189-196). Many kings identified with Alexander, including Louis XIV. However, although Alexander remained an exceptional figure of the arts, royal absolutism was increasingly questioned from the middle of the 17th century, and in the 18th century Alexander became the symbol of rulers who persecute philosophers. M then discusses the views of Rollin (Histoire ancienne), Montesquieu (L'esprit des lois) and Voltaire (Essai sur les moeurs; cf. Questions sur L'Encyclopédie, s.v. Alexander) on Alexander, before noting the criticism that historical sources on Alexander started attracting in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Quellenforschung (research into sources) was introduced in the late 18th century in Germany (Ch.19, pp.197-201). In 1833 J.G. Droysen produced the first history of Alexander based on the examination of the sources. From a Hegelian perspective he claimed that Alexander consciously propelled the fusion of the Greek and Asiatic cultures which at religious level anticipated the triumph of the single God. While Alexander's universalistic dreams reflected the romantic vision of German unification, in England and France the so-called 'bourgeoise Athens' was formed. Later German works (H. Berve, F. Schachermeyer) employed Alexander's achievement to allude to the superiority of the Nordic peoples while, during the period of British decolonisation, Tarn stressed Alexander's desire to acculturate the eastern peoples. Nowadays authors tend to compare the literary sources and replace them in their cultural context, while also consulting material culture. M at last examines two modern novels (Ch.20, pp.202-9). Klaus Mann, inspired by pseudo-Callisthenes, wrote a historical novel which also echoes the years following WWI (1929, Alexander. Roman der Utopie). Mann was attracted by Alexander's persistence in his dream to unify the world and make it happy, a dream destroyed because power corrupts. M argues that the sublimated vision of homosexuality in the book is of an initiatory character. Valerio Massimo Manfredi (Alexandre, 1999) wrote a three-volume novel which endorses the interpretations of all four principal historians without seeking to reconcile them. The novel is remarkable for the absence of magical elements and the detailed descriptions of famous sieges. The image of Alexander is resolutely positive because people want to relate to someone who has achieved his dreams.

In the conclusion (pp.211-213) M holds that Alexander the man will always remain a stranger to us. Encouraged by material evidence, she agrees with the tendency to stress the continuity of classical Greece right down to the end of the 3rd century. However, although Alexander's contribution to Hellenistic culture did not became obvious until well after his death, when his image was more fictional than real, it remains tangible. In the foreword Paul Cartledge described the book as a "documentary record of historiography and other kinds of writing about [Alexander]" with "an exceptionally contemporary and up-to-the-minute feel" (p.viii). Although he stresses the cultural prejudice of ancient and modern historians which precludes a more consistent judgement of Alexander, he seems less convinced that the re-opening of the discourse could lead to a more thorough appreciation of history. However, posing imperative questions about our understanding of history is perhaps as significant as the answers awaited. The English edition includes a brief Supplementary Bibliography, a list of Alexander's principal companions, a table of chronology and a list of the Achaemenid kings, which will be particularly useful to the wider public.


1.   Alexandre: La destinée d' un mythe (Payot and Rivages).
2.   See E. Anagnostou-Laoutides, "The Roman Princeps and the Sun: the eastern milieu of Augustus' claim to power" (forthcoming); also D. Spencer, The Roman Alexander, Exeter, 2002 (included in M's Supplementary Bibliography).
3.   Alexander allegedly asked the oracle at Siwa whether god would give him 'sway over the whole earth' (p.27), but M doubts this tradition because in 331 BC Darius was still in control of most of his empire. This is incompatible with the ambitious Alexander M sketches (Parts I-III), although she later emphasises that his campaign lacked a preconceived plan (Part IV). Thus, M often seems to undermine her views because her points are scattered and not even specifically associated.
4.   M noted that Heracles was admitted to Olympus, unlike Achilles, who was not vouchsafed an apotheosis -- at least in the Odyssey. However, this observation does not lead to any further argument regarding Alexander's claims and is typical of arguments that are left hanging in the book.
5.   For Alexander's relation with the sun god, which was anticipated in the relation of Ahuramazda with the Persian king, see: Anagnostou-Laoutides (above note 2); A.T. Olmstead, History of the Persian Empire (New York, 1969 second edition); L.W. King, R.C. Thompson, The sculptures and inscription of Darius the Great on the rock of Behistûn in Persia (London, 1907); and L.R. Taylor The Divinity of the Roman Emperor (Middletown Conn., 1931). The notion of the ruler as the protégé of the sun god was widespread in ancient Near East and Egypt which the Persians had conquered when Alexander embarked on his campaign.
6.   Dionysian cult always entrusted its wild side to women; see R. Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings (Oxford, 1994); M.B. Cosmopoulos (ed.), Greek Mysteries (London, 2003).

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