Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.43

Martin Thomas R., Christopher Blackwell, Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xiv, 193 p..  ISBN 9780521148443.  $24.99.  

Reviewed by David W. Madsen, Seattle University (


The fascination with the life and legacy of Alexander the Great continues unabated—this time marked by a relatively short biography from Thomas Martin and Christopher Blackwell. They themselves note that it is a "brief biography for non-specialists… [standing] on the assumption that the opinions of the ancients must be given great weight." They do this by "diverging from the approach of some prominent modern scholarship…[and paying] special attention to the ancient Greek literature that Alexander treasured…especially Homer and Euripides." Their biography aims to show that Alexander "viewed proper character as grounded in the hard values of performance, respect, honor, and loyalty" (xi and xii). Most important—and key to appreciating the book and its place in Alexander scholarship—is their promise to eschew moral judgment which they consider arrogant and self-righteous. This last declaration has two immediate consequences: the biography is, in fact, not simply for non-specialists; students of Alexander who wish to see how he himself may have justified his actions or how those actions might have been viewed by contemporaries should at least consider this apologia for his actions. Moreover—and as the authors themselves acknowledge—their approach necessarily puts them at odds with a good deal of recent Alexander scholarship. While they do not adopt the rose-colored glasses of W.W. Tarn, they categorically reject the indictments of Ernst Badian and A.B. Bosworth, both called on the carpet by name.

After this brief but important introduction, there follow ten chapters of biography and Nachleben. Chapter one examines the world of Alexander and his youth to the 340s. In this chapter, as elsewhere throughout the text, inserts (on gray background) offer brief introductions to Alexander’s ancient biographers and a curious array of special topics (e.g. competition between fathers and sons, warships, battlefield surgery, alcoholic drinks, and war elephants). Chapters two and three include his years as a student of Aristotle, the battle at Chaeronea, Philip’s marriage to Cleopatra, the Pixodarus episode, and Philip’s assassination. These early chapters are liberally sprinkled with interesting anecdotes and historical/cultural commentary—a hallmark of the entire biography. Unfortunately the reader gets no assistance in tracking down the origins of these stories; the book somewhat maddeningly, but uniformly, lacks references to the ancient sources. Readers will have to track down the sources on their own.

Chapters four through six follow Alexander’s campaign from his dramatic arrival at Troy to the surrender of Bessus to Ptolemy. In the course of this campaign Alexander had opportunities to forgive or punish cities that opposed him. Martin and Blackwell argue that Miletus was spared because Alexander admired the courage of the besieged; pages later Tyre falls and they conclude that "As always with those who rejected Alexander’s appeals and found themselves defeated, it was too late to repent." (71) The distinction between the different responses, however, is not readily apparent, and one wonders whether the ancients might not have had the same reaction. The generalship of Alexander, especially in the face of logistical or topographic challenges, receives ample and deserved praise, as does his generosity towards those who served him loyally and well. The destruction of Persepolis gives the authors the opportunity to discuss Alexander’s drinking, which, they argue, was part and parcel of life in the Macedonian court. And while they include Aristotle’s warnings about the danger of anger and alcohol, they suggest that Alexander’s youthful habit was not the "invisible enemy" that John Maxwell O’Brien saw. The Bagoas episode, in similar fashion, gives the authors the occasion to discuss another of our contemporary preoccupations—Alexander’s sexuality. They rightly argue that our labels can scarcely be applied to his world and note that, when in pursuit of a goal, nothing—sexual desire included—deterred Alexander. However, they also acknowledge that Alexander could and did act the Dionysian when circumstances allowed.

As the campaign continued and Alexander grew more demanding and judgmental of his army and his opponents, Martin and Blackwell’s promise to avoid moral judgments becomes somewhat more problematic. The treatment of Darius’ Greek mercenaries and Satibarzanes’ rebellion afford them the opportunity to highlight Alexander’s demands for complete, unquestioning loyalty: just as he was utterly committed to his goals so he expected those who had signed on to the campaign to share the same dedication. These episodes in turn serve as the prelude to the Philotas episode which, they acknowledge, was a murky and complicated affair—except for the death of Parmenion. While perhaps unjustified in the eyes of moderns, "The justification came from the violent reality of power politics among the Macedonian elite and Alexander’s willingness to act in accordance with those norms whenever he suspected any possible disloyalty, any threat at all to his superiority. In that choice, he was a man of his time and place driven by his internal vision of being literally unique in the world." (105) Finally one more example of disloyalty punished: on the northern side of the Oxus, the fifth century émigrés from Miletus are put to the sword by his decree. Despite the inability of the Milesians in his own army to agree what to do with them, Alexander had no doubts and "no one expected it to be any other way." (111)

In chapters seven and eight we follow Alexander through Bactria to India; Martin and Blackwell suggest several times that Alexander had been prepared for this world by his reading of Herodotus and his own understanding of its geography. As for its customs, Alexander adopted some (e.g. the treatment of Bessus) and quashed others (e.g. the "Undertaker" dogs of Bactria). Proskunesis provoked continued, serious opposition, especially among the officers. Several pages are devoted to the Cleitus affair, to Aristarchus’ exoneration of his murder, and to Callisthenes, who rejected both Aristarchus’ defense and the whole notion of proskunesis. Alexander’s pothos, throughout attributed to rivalries with his father, his Persian predecessors, Dionysos, and particularly Heracles, could brook no opposition and would not allow him to avoid any challenge. Besides Alexander had now learned that the key to keeping his army loyal, motivated, and disciplined was action. India would now provide that action, an invasion marked shortly by the execution of 7000 Indian mercenaries. Diodorus explains this as treachery on the part of Alexander while Arrian blames the mercenaries. Martin and Blackwell opt for Arrian and explain Alexander’s decision as a "public demonstration of the perils of treachery." (137) Later Porus challenged Alexander and was defeated; reinstatement was his reward. On the campaign down the Indus, however, other Indians defended themselves "with a ferocity matched only by Alexander’s lethal treatment of those who opposed him … Alexander, generous and pitiless by turns, was consistent in his policy." (148)

Chapter nine relates the increasing disillusionment of Alexander—an ill-conceived march through the Gedrosian desert, the corruption of his trusted governors, unrest in Greece, the mutiny at Opis, and the death of Hephaistion. Martin and Blackwell turn again to Alexander’s pothos and his demands for unquestioning loyalty and support to explain his attitude or responses to these setbacks. As for his request to be worshiped as a god, they explain that Alexander did not see himself as an Homeric god but rather "a mixed being, with a mixed nature—and therefore a better, stronger, and more powerful nature, as Aristotle had taught." (160) Future plans, of perhaps world conquest, continued to be inspired by his rivalry with his ancestor Heracles, who looms ever larger in contemporary scholarship as Alexander’s rival. When fate intervened, however, and he lay dying in Babylon, he left his throne to the kratistos, who "had to be the most effective fighter, the most insightful thinker, the best planner, and the most persuasive speaker… [T]hat was Alexander’s ideal." (166)

Chapter ten acknowledges that no one met Alexander’s ideal; that, in turn, explains the admiration for and fascination with him that flourishes to this day. Having reviewed the ancient sources in the course of the biography, Martin and Blackwell here focus upon the rise and spread of the Alexander Romance. Television and film tributes are also reviewed—from Michael Woods’ Footsteps to Kanemori’s anime video Reign: the Conqueror. Finally the authors return to the moral judgments to which they had referred in the introduction and cite Ludwig von Mises, who argued that we cannot call irrational any "purposive human action, that is, action aimed at a goal." (180) Employing that premise they argue that the conclusions of Badian and Bosworth are just as extreme as those of Tarn. Rather, they conclude, "The most insightful characterization of Alexander emerges, fittingly, from the analysis that Aristotle gives of what he calls a ‘Man of Great Soul’ (megalopsuchos) … The Man of Great Soul recognizes his supreme standing among others and has no tolerance for insults. He becomes wildly angry at ungrateful and disloyal people … He is the greatest benefactor of others, and he deserves—and expects to receive—the greatest honor in return." (182 & 183)

The book opens with a small map of the Balkans (with symbols unfortunately unexplained) and another of Alexander’s route as well as a brief timeline. It closes with two pages of briefly annotated suggested readings and a seven-page index. The text between is well edited, but, as noted, the absence of footnotes or references will make classroom use of the text frustrating. That is unfortunate, because the authors have told an interesting tale and one whose argument provides an interesting foil to the bulk of contemporary Alexander scholarship. How persuasive their argument is, however, is another matter. While they dutifully offer explanations for all of Alexander’s decisions or behaviors, it is sometimes difficult to understand why one vanquished enemy was pardoned while another was put to the sword. Moreover, the realities of power ultimately are not an excuse for merciless execution of the innocent, and individuals who see themselves as unique and divine may still be judged megalomaniacal. The great souled should be distinguished by their compassion as well as their vision. Finally the sheer number of actions in need of explanation or justification is at least troublesome. Martin and Blackwell offer us a biography which is "more source-based" and which attempts to judge Alexander by the standards of his world rather than ours (xii). For that we should be grateful. Whether this fully exonerates or explains him, however, remains a moot question.

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