Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2006.03.41

Marek Jan Olbrycht, Aleksander Wielki i swiat iranski [Alexander the Great and the Iranian World].   Rzeszow, Poland:  Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Rzeszowskiego, 2004.  Pp. 412.  ISBN 83-7338-134-1.  



Reviewed by Tytus K. Mikolajczak, University of Gdansk, Poland (tytus@mikolajczak.org)
Word count: 1916 words

Marek Jan Olbrycht, a scholar from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of Rzeszow, has recently published a book entitled Alexander the Great and the Iranian world, which is a historical and archaeological study about Iranian presence in Alexander's empire. The author uses a wide collection of sources, both traditionally known classical sources and a large amount of written sources concerning Achaemenid Persia (the period occupying an important place in his study). He also analyses the results of archaeological excavations and iconographical sources. He is well acquainted with those different kinds of sources and provides thorough analysis.

This book presents different aspects of Alexander's activity towards Iranians in quite a new perspective. The author defines Iranians at the end of the Achaemenian empire and during Alexander's conquest as a community of people existing in the region of the Iranian Plateau and Central Asia. This Iranian community included Persians and Medes, as well as all East-Iranian people like Bactrians or Sogdians. They were joined together by language, ethnicity, religious rituals and numerous other customs. These peoples called themselves Ariya, a term from which modern 'Iran' and 'Iranian' originated. Olbrycht describes in details the role of these ancient Iranians within the structure of Alexander's empire.

Olbrycht argues that Iranians played a significantly more important role in Alexander's state than the majority of scholars think. The author discusses the opinions of well-known experts on the Macedonian conquest (A.B. Bosworth, N.G.L. Hammond, E. Badian, etc.) but he also challenges more recent views (e.g., M. Brosius, Alexander and the Persians, in: Brill's Companion to Alexander the Great, 2003). From his detailed analysis emerges quite a new look at this issue. Olbrycht's conclusions point to the Iranians' consistent impact on Alexander and his favorable attitude towards them.

The first part of the book, entitled Alexander in Iran and Central Asia (pp. 20-76), focuses on actions taken by the king towards Iranians and transformations of his empire. In the first phase of his conquest this activity was led by the need of the pacification of hostile territory. Olbrycht thinks that the turning point in Alexander's policy towards Iranians occurred in 330 B.C., in Parthia. The king accepted Iranian dress and royal insignia at this time, and new officials, with traditional Persian titles, appeared in Alexander's court. Other elements of Achaemenid royal traditions, e.g., harem and Iranian courtly guard, were re-initiated as well. In the author's opinion these reforms could not have been accomplished without a previous plan and must have been introduced during a longer stay in Parthia.

The next step in Alexander's 'pro-Iranian policy' followed, in 327 B.C., namely the wedding with Roxana, a daughter of the Bactrian nobleman Oxyartes. It appears that after this event Iranians realized that Alexander changed his attitude toward them to peaceful and conciliatory relationships. Continuously large number of former enemies were taking Macedonian's side. However, the king's new policy caused opposition among the Macedonian army and triggered the well-known matters of Philotas, Clitus and Callisthenes. It was also connected with introducing the Persian custom of proskynesis in the royal court in 327 B.C. Scholars agree that proskynesis concerned Asian subjects of the king, but the author thinks, unlike many scholars, that despite opposition Alexander used proskynesis for Macedonians in some scope.

One of the main notions of the book is that Alexander aspired to create the elite of his new empire from Macedonians and Iranians together. Olbrycht sees a famous wedding between circa 90 Macedonian companions (hetairoi) and Iranian aristocrat women (at Susa in 324 B.C.), as an attempt to join these two groups. A bit later there was a mutiny of the Macedonian army in Opis, which, significantly, was suppressed by Iranian units.

Despite the common view, Greeks did not have a high place in the hierarchy of Alexander's empire. According to Olbrycht, it seems that after 330 B.C. Iranians received more and more influence in Alexander's court and in the army. In fact, between 324-323 B.C. they were dominant. The king's pro-Iranian policy cannot be explained by the necessity of adjusting to new conditions and the protection of power. On the contrary, it led to conflict with the Macedonians. According to Olbrycht, the sources support the opinion that Alexander intended to unify the Macedonians and Iranians as an elite of his empire. However, Olbrycht notes that this was an utopian plan.

The next part of his book is entitled Iranians in Alexander's army and Iranian influence upon his art of warfare (pp. 77-204). Olbrycht is especially interested in the military history of this period. With a great exactitude he enumerates several Iranian formations and their increasing significance during the reign of the Macedonian conqueror. He begins with a description of the Achaemenian and Macedonian armies. Remarks about changes in Alexander's army, in the period between 330-324 B.C. follow. The author also analyses the corps of Alexander's individual satraps. According to Olbrycht, these officials had quite extensive prerogatives and military power. Moreover, satraps of East Iran and Central Asia, Iranians generally, had wider entitlements than their counterparts in the West. In the East, instead of strong occupying garrisons independent from satraps, the king assigned them supervisors and trusted in their loyalty.

In previous scholarly literature the issue of reinforcements for the Macedonian army was raised quite often. Scholars usually agree that the majority of reinforcements were Macedonians, as well as Greek and other mercenaries. According to Olbrycht, this is true only for the period before 330 B.C. After that date it seems that Iranians were more and more numerous in Alexander's army. The first significant Iranian formations are testified in his service in 328 B.C. However the author finds evidence that Iranian cavalry units appeared in Alexander's army already in 330 B.C.

Then the author provides examples of royal guards consisting of Iranians which Alexander formed following the model created by Achaemenid kings. One such troop, called δορυφόροι, appeared already in 330 B.C. and was commanded by Oxyathres, Darius III's brother. As in the Achaemenid court, the Macedonian king called up a guard, known as ῥαβδοφόροι / ῥαβδοῦχοι, which held courtly service. Olbrycht also convincingly argues that horsed javelineers (ἱππακοντισταί) were recruited from Iranians. Alexander was forced to include more Iranian cavalry in his army during warfare with Spitamenes. Only the significant participation of Iranian forces in Coenus' corps caused his victory over Spitamenes. The author calculates that in 328 B.C. Alexander recruited a considerable amount of Iranians into his army, including circa 9000 cavalry and significant reinforcements to the hetairoi. Olbrycht also suggests that Achaemenian traditions had serious influence upon the formation of the argyraspids -- the famous Silver Shields. The importance of Iranians in the Macedonian army rose in following campaigns. The author estimates Alexander's forces during India campaign in 326 B.C. at about 120 000 soldiers, most of them recruited from Iran and Central Asia.

These changes found their culmination in military reforms in Opis. Iranian formations replaced or duplicated Macedonian ones. For example in the phalanx, Macedonian veterans were dismissed, with soldiers recruited in their stead from among the epigonoi, i.e., from known Iranian units trained in the Macedonian way. Olbrycht in detail describes all the new formations and argues that between 324-323 B.C. Iranians were dominant in Alexander's army, about 75000 in the field army. Scholars usually depreciate the significance of Iranian formations and suggest that positions of power (like commanders and officials) were held by Europeans. Similarly, reforms in Opis, where Iranians took over numerous commands, are often seen as ephemeral. In Olbrycht's opinion these changes lasted until Alexander's death.

In the next part of the book, entitled Alexander's colonies in North-Iranian satrapies (pp. 205-281), the author enumerates all the new cities founded in this region, like Alexandropolis in Parthia, Alexandria in Margiana, Prophtasia in Drangiana and others. He tries to gather all available information from literary sources, archaeological excavations and scholarly works, but sometimes this knowledge is very scant. The most debatable issue in this part is the exact location of each settlement. Often the author gives only a hypothesis about this, based on fragile premises. Unfortunately nothing more can be done in face of insufficient data. Then Olbrycht provides a summary description of new foundations: origin and status of inhabitants, ethnicity and social structure, dependence on the king, etc. The author suggests that Iranian settlers had formally equal rights with Macedonians and Greeks. This status was the result of Alexander's pro-Iranian policy after 330 B.C.: Iranians' significance was greater after the formation of new phalanx from among themselves. There was also a group of Iranian slaves, who probably worked to support settlers. The colonies' population was also created by families of settlers. Greeks and Mecedonians often had Iranian wives, and their children were raised the Iranian way. Because of these reasons these cities in which the majority of people were Iranians can hardly be similar to Greek poleis.

The last part of Olbrycht's monograph is The iconography of Alexander and Diadochi's epoch towards tradition of Achaemenid's period (pp. 282-326). In the introduction to this part the author describes the royal dress and insignia of Persian kings. Olbrycht argues that Alexander adopted elements of dress and insignia from Persians. He used an Iranian diadem (διάδημα) and probably an upright tiara (τιάρα ὀρθή), which is confirmed by written sources but also by numismatics. However, in the case of the tiara scholars raise some doubts. The king also induced his hetairoi to wear Iranian dress and used a Persian custom of giving robes to his courtiers. It appears that Alexander's coinage also reflected some Achaemenian ideas. In Olbrycht's opinion these coins were also addressed to Iranians and therefore showed some depictions familiar to them. Also the art of this period was connected to Alexander's new ideology. The author analyses ancient descriptions of Hephaestion's pyre and the king's funerary carriage in the Iranian and oriental context. Iranian influence is also clearly seen on the famous Alexander sarcophagus and other objects. Olbrycht concludes that in this period Iranian tradition was intentionally adopted into iconography connected with Alexander's new empire. Some of this trends survived in Hellenistic times as well.

According to Olbrycht, the role of Iranians in Alexander's empire was gradually rising. The policy of its ruler intended to establish a new elite composed of Macedonians and Iranians. Almost all Alexander's activities toward native inhabitants of Iran and Central Asia after 330 B.C. supported this policy. This is quite a daring thesis, especially in comparison to more traditional literature. However, Olbrycht sustains this view with a lot of evidence and detailed analysis. Therefore, this is an important voice in the debate about the history of the Macedonian conquest.

The author enumerates different reasons for such policy: Alexander's quite utopian vision of his own empire and his attempt to strengthen the state by incorporating Iranian people into administration and army. Olbrycht also states that Iranian culture and ethos had a tremendous influence upon Alexander and the people around him.

Olbrycht's book brings up many aspects of Alexander's empire and simultaneously makes wide reference to Achaemenian period. The author feels at home with sources and the enormous secondary literature about Alexander the Great and the Achaemenids, and he is up-to-date with all recent titles. However, some issues are described without explanation of terms or events, requiring some background from the reader. For that reason mainly experts can take advantage of this book. For others this publication can be a fine supplement of any biography of Alexander to uncover an area usually not discussed there.

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