Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.01.42

W. Heckel, Who's Who in the Age of Alexander the Great.   Oxford:  Blackwell, 2006.  Pp. xxv, 389.  ISBN 1-4051-1210-7.  £50.00.  

Reviewed by Ian Worthington, University of Missouri-Columbia (

Table of Contents

Another book about Alexander the Great? After the avalanche of books about him in the past few years (we won't mention a certain movie that inter alia adds to the Alexander Romance), do we need another one? The answer is we don't need another biography, or companion, or introduction to, or anything like that. But what about something that details the people who came into contact with Alexander and vice versa so as to help us come to know them better and illuminate that period further (even, potentially, to help us to understand Alexander better)? Until now, we have had to use H. Berve's magisterial two-volume Das Alexanderreich auf prosopographischer Grundlage (Munich 1926), the first volume of which deals with the military and administrative aspects of Alexander's empire and army, and the second of which is a catalogue of individuals. But that work is beyond the reach of those without German, and besides it is now over eighty years old. Enter Heckel's (hereafter H.) Who's Who, a book that is needed, and which is a very useful addition to the Alexander stable.

As the title indicates, this is a prosopographical history of those individuals (some major, others minor) mentioned in the sources who came into any sort of contact with Alexander. A lot of people did, as the entries (running into the thousands by my estimation) show. After preliminary pages that include introduction, lists of abbreviations for ancient and modern works, a detailed chronological table and a general map of Alexander's campaigns (pp. vi-xxv), come the subject entries that form the bulk of the book (pp. 1-273), set out in two columns per page. This is followed by a section on anonymous people who H. believes were historical figures -- 59 women from Persia, Bactria-Sogdiana, Macedonia, India, and others (pp. 274-278) and 79 men from Persia, India, Macedonia Greece, other "barbarians," and others (pp. 279-284), also set out two columns per page. 755 notes to the entries follow (pp. 285-344). The final 40-odd pages are taken up with an Appendix, Glossary, Concordance of spellings of proper names, Bibliography, and some excellent Stemmata (pp. 377-389).

H. has already gone some way towards updating Berve in his The Marshals of Alexander's Empire (London 1992), which as its title indicated focused more on the military personnel. In Who's Who, H. builds on the work he did in his Marshals (some of the entries from that book appear with the same wording in this book) to include just about everyone who had legitimate contact with Alexander -- legitimate, as I call it, in the sense that they appear in the more credible historical and literary accounts. That means individuals who appear in less credible sources like the Alexander Romance, and/or whose identities are doubtful or whose actions unknown, are excluded. This is a sensible approach as there is enough unhistorical material making the rounds about Alexander as it is without highlighting more. While the chronological parameters of the book are obviously Alexander's life, H. does take the exploits of those individuals who rose to prominence under the king and went on to play key roles in the wars of the successors down to the 321 Triparadeisus settlement (which H. dates to 320: p. vii).

H. follows Berve's style in his catalogue: each entry's discussion of its subject has embedded in it references to, and at times discussion of, the ancient sources, and each entry is followed by brief references to further reading. The notes contain further references and elaboration of material that might not immediately fit in the entry. Depending on the individuals concerned, some of the entries are necessarily short and others long. I confess I have not read all of them, but I did read a lot. H. has been working on this sort of prosopographical study for three decades, and it shows in the compilation of entries. I can report the attention to detail that characterizes each one, while the more meaty entries have the sort of in-depth discussion and are the mines of information that one can expect from a scholar like H. Although he often makes statements with which one disagrees (I frowned more than a few times in the Alexander III entry alone), such disagreements stem from matters of interpretation of sources or of events.

As H. says (p. viii), comparisons will inevitably be made between his Who's Who and Berve, but he makes it clear that his book is not meant to replace Berve, nor can it. It does of course have several obvious advantages over Berve, including that it is written in English, that references to modern works are more up-to-date, and that H. includes entries on Philip II (pp. 208-211) and Alexander the Great (pp. 10-18), which he sensibly limits to a sketch of their reigns rather than getting bogged down in discussion of the controversies. Moreover, H. has not written a stolid, scholarly book, but has attempted to reach a wider audience including the enigmatic "general reader." I think he will succeed here, because another of the book's strengths is its style. Prosopography can be as dry as dust, but H. writes in a way that makes his subjects come alive, so the scholarly merits of all his entries are on a par with how interesting and absorbing they are to read.

Is there anything to criticise about the book? H. expects that both layman and scholar will have some complaints (p. viii), and since I have no wish to disappoint him I do have a couple of criticisms. The first is more important than the second. It concerns the references given to further reading, or rather the more recent works that are not given. Take, for example, the entry on Agis III (pp. 7-8), in which H. refers the reader to Badian's article on Agis in Hermes 1967. However, that article was superseded by Badian's essay in my edited Ventures into Greek History (Oxford 1994), in which the author says that the essay is a supplement to his earlier article and reconsiders its earlier weaknesses. H. knows about this book as he cites it elsewhere. In the case of Harpalus (pp. 129-131), Badian's article in JHS 1961 is cited, but this is dated by now; while I am not going to lose sleep over the lack of reference to my various works on Harpalus, I draw attention to the even more recent work of C.W. Blackwell, In the Absence of Alexander. Harpalus and the Failure of Macedonian Authority (New York 1998). Of course it is impossible to give a comprehensive bibliography in every entry, but the omission of an entire book devoted to Harpalus is startling. (This book is cited elsewhere; e.g., under the entry for Demosthenes.) The same is true for Demades, where there is no mention of P. Brun, L'orateur Démade. Essai d'histoire et d'historiographie (Bordeaux 2000). The argument cannot be made that because it is in a foreign language it could not be included, as H. frequently cites Berve and Kirchner, or that it appeared too late for inclusion, for H. cites works also published in 2000 (e.g., Badian's HSCPh article on Darius III in the entry for that king). While those of us who teach the subject can inform our students of more recent publications, their omission in H.'s book is frustrating. Second, the old chestnut of endnotes. There are 755 of these, and although they are all numbered consecutively and the pages to which they refer are given in their headers, it is no easy task to jump from text to note and back again. It is common to blame publishers here, but I cannot help wondering whether some of the notes could be collapsed into the text of the entries, which would involve minimal rewriting, and the remainder be set as foot notes (Blackwell can be an accommodating publisher in this matter as I am finding).

These are minor quibbles that are not meant to detract from the merits of this book, which are many, not least being it brings together almost all of the characters that had dealings with Alexander within one set of covers. As such it is a valuable resource for students and scholars of Alexander, and will remain so for quite some time. This is one of those times when the laudatory endorsements on a book's cover ring true, and hence another book about Alexander is justified.

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