Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.49

Ian Worthington (ed.), Alexander the Great: a Reader. Second edition (first edition published 2003).   London; New York:  Routledge, 2011.  Pp. xxviii, 420.  ISBN 9780415667432.  $44.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Robin Waterfield (

The first edition of this book was published in 2003, and quickly established itself as a sourcebook for courses on Alexander the Great at universities throughout the English-speaking world, as the only up-to-date ‘reader’, or collection of reprinted primary and secondary sources. Waldemar Heckel and J.C. Yardley’s Alexander the Great (Blackwell, 2004) arguably rules the roost for ‘historical sources in translation’ (as their subtitle has it); Worthington’s reader contains fewer and shorter primary sources, but also, unlike Heckel/Yardley, many worthwhile recent scholarly essays. Meanwhile, Waldemar Heckel’s and Lawrence Tritle’s 2009 Alexander the Great: A New History is an excellent collection of newly written essays, not reprinted ones, with the limitation that it necessarily provides only one essay per topic, rather than a selection. As a reader, Worthington’s collection still stands alone.

When a book has found this degree of acceptance, and then comes out in a new edition, readers will want to know straight away what the differences are, and whether they are such as to make them need to buy the new one. The short answer is that, although the book broadly has the same architecture, it has been thoroughly revamped; you and your students do need to replace your old copies with this second edition. The second edition has the same format, but a different cover image and about fifty more pages than the first. To be precise, there are twelve sections or chapters, rather than the eleven of the first edition, as follows:

1. The sources
2. Alexander’s influences and the Macedonian background
3. Alexander’s aims
4. Alexander’s battles and generalship
5. Alexander and the Greeks
6. Alexander and the Persian empire
7. Alexander, India and the Gedrosian desert
8. From mass marriage to death
9. Alexander and the ‘unity of mankind’
10. Alexander and deification
11. Alexander and conspiracies
12. Alexander: the ‘Great’?

There are trivial changes here – a couple of titles are different; chapter 4 was chapter 7 in the first edition. More substantially, the first edition’s chapter 6 on ‘Alexander, India and the final years’ has been broken up into two chapters, the present 7 and 8. So much for titles; what of the actual content? All the extras – bibliographies (both general and specific to each chapter), timeline, ‘Alexander in Quotes’, maps, notes, and indexes (sources, proper names) – have naturally been updated if they needed it. Otherwise, major changes have taken place between the first and second editions. Let’s start with the secondary literature Worthington has included.

1. The sources: no change. The chapter still contains one essay, an extract from Bosworth’s From Arrian to Alexander.

2. The background: none of the three essays included in the first edition are now included. Instead we have ‘The Question of Macedonian Ethnicity’ from Worthington’s own 2008 book Philip II of Macedonia, and King’s and Sawada’s essays from the 2010 Blackwell Companion to Ancient Macedonia, edited by Worthington and Roisman.

3. Alexander’s aims: Brunt’s 1965 ‘The Aims of Alexander’ rightly keeps its place, but Fredricksmeyer’s essay has been replaced by Heckel’s ‘Alexander the Great and the “Limits of the Civilised World”’, from his and Tritle’s 2003 Crossroads of History.

4. Alexander’s generalship: no change. The chapter still consists only of Fuller’s famous essay on ‘Alexander’s Generalship’ from The Generalship of Alexander the Great.

5. Alexander and the Greeks: the section from Hammond and Walbank’s A History of Macedonia remains, but Ryder’s and Worthington’s essays have gone, and in their stead is just one: Poddighe’s (translated) essay on the Corinthian League, from Heckel and Tritle’s Alexander the Great: A New History.

6. ‘Alexander and the Persian empire’ completely replaces the former ‘Alexander and Asia’. Instead of Austin’s and Hammond’s essays, we have Heckel’s chapter on ‘The Empire of Darius III’ from his and Tritle’s Alexander the Great: A New History; Holt’s 1986 paper on ‘Alexander’s Settlements in Central Asia’; and Worthinton’s 2010 ‘Alexander the Great, Nation Building, and the Creation and Maintenance of Empire (from V.D. Hanson’s edited collection Makers of Ancient Strategy).

7. Alexander, India and the Gedrosian desert: contains the same two essays by Narain and Bosworth as the first edition’s chapter 6 entitled ‘Alexander, India and the Final Years’.

8. From mass marriage to death: a new section, designed to incorporate Bosworth’s essential 1971 paper ‘The Death of Alexander the Great: Rumour and Propaganda’.

9. Alexander and the ‘unity of mankind’: this chapter contains the same essays by Tarn and Bosworth as the first edition’s chapter 8, but the new edition adds Borza’s 1991 ‘Ethnicity and Cultural Policy at Alexander’s Court’.

10. Alexander and deification: one essay, that of Tarn, is the same, but Badian’s and Cawkwell’s papers have been replaced by a section of Worthington’s 2004 biography of Alexander, and by Fredricksmeyer’s essay on ‘Alexander’s Religion and Divinity’ from Roisman’s Brill Companion to Alexander the Great.

11. Alexander and conspiracies: the single essay of Badian’s has been replaced by three pieces: Badian’s ‘Alexander the Great and the Loneliness of Power’ (1964); Heckel’s ‘The Conspiracy against Philotas’ (1977), and Borza’s ‘Anaxarchus and Callisthenes’ (1981).

12. Alexander the ‘Great’?: the section of Hammond’s Alexander the Great has been retained, but the other two essays have gone, replaced by a paper of Worthington’s, ‘Worldwide Empire vs Glorious Enterprise’, from the 2010 OUP Carney and Ogden collection.

As I said, then, this second edition constitutes a thorough revamp. Many of the newly included essays were simply written too late for the first edition; but Worthington has done much more than just take account of excellent new work, because several of the newly included essays predate the first edition. In other words, he has rethought the entire project. The new edition is so different from the first that many readers will probably want to hang on to the old one, just as a still-useful collection.

As in the first edition, the sequence of every chapter of the book is as follows: a general introduction by Worthington to the topic of the chapter is followed by bibliography and notes, then the relevant ancient sources in translation, and then the secondary sources listed above (each with its own notes and bibliography, of course). In the first edition, the contents page gave notice that each chapter contained a selection of ancient sources, but this notice has been dropped. This is perhaps regrettable, not in that it makes the book harder to use in any way, but in that it might have been helpful to make it clearer to potential buyers, beyond a note on the back-cover blurb, that the book contains ancient sources as well as recent scholarship. The selection of ancient sources translated for each chapter has also been thought through and thoroughly reworked. For instance, the thirteen ancient sources translated in chapter 1 of the first edition have become twelve, with reordering, and with about half the entries new substitutions. More or less the same goes for all the other chapters (there were 112 extracts in the first edition, 119 in the second). Most usefully, the extracts from ancient sources are now introduced with a subheading, rather than constituting a solid block as in the first edition. Students can now see at a glance to what area of Alexander’s life each extract pertains.

In many ways, then, this is a completely new book. Does it successfully replace the first edition? Yes, and not least just because it contains some excellent work that was not available for the first edition, and appears more user- friendly for students. Is it successful in its own right, not just by comparison with the first edition? This reviewer gives an unqualified affirmative answer to this question. In Alexander studies it is always going to be impossible to please everyone, but Worthington has been careful not simply to promulgate one particular point of view on any topic. Both the ancient sources and the reprinted essays are designed to encourage students to see for themselves that the evidence is rarely straightforward, and is liable to varying interpretations. Thus, for instance, the first of the two essays in chapter 12 on the ‘greatness’ of Alexander, the essay by Hammond, gives us a truly and straightforwardly great Alexander, and then Worthington’s own essay casts nuanced doubt on that position. Of course, many issues have more facets than can be covered by two or three essays, however excellent; but on all topics a sufficient introduction will be achieved.

It goes without saying that modern essays and ancient extracts have been omitted that others might have liked to have seen included, but that is a personal judgement. The point of a book like this is to act as a thorough introduction for students to Alexander studies, and it would be hard for anyone to maintain that it falls short. Perhaps more inscriptional material might have been included (the number of inscriptions included in the book has gone down in the second edition from nine to five) – but as soon as one writes such an assertion its irrelevance becomes plain. Any such complaint is a scholarly one, and therefore misses the point that this book is designed primarily for students. Scholars have Heisserer’s 1980 Alexander the Great and the Greeks: The Epigraphic Evidence. One should criticize the book if it fails to be useful to students, and if there are major omissions. I have already argued that it is useful for students. As for omissions, the only two areas of Alexander studies that, as it seems to me, might have been covered are court dynamics, and his reception in Rome and beyond (even Hollywood) – but, again, I would maintain that these are peripheral to core Alexander studies, and that therefore Worthington did not do wrong to omit them. Like its predecessor, the second edition is a great success and an indispensable teaching tool.

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