Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.02

Bogdan Burliga, Arrian's Anabasis: An Intellectual and Cultural Story. Akanthina, 6.   Gdańsk:  Foundation for the Development of University of Gdańsk, for the Department of Mediterranean Archaeology, University of Gdańsk, 2013.  Pp. vi, 167.  ISBN 9788375312317.  £35.00​.  

Reviewed by Timothy Howe, St. Olaf College (

In Arrian's Anabasis: An Intellectual and Cultural Story, Bogdan Burlinga offers a welcome new approach to the study of the Second Sophistic historiographer and philosopher Flavius Arrianus and his most famous work, the Anabasis Alexandrou. Thus far, scholars have centred on Arrian as an historiographer when examining his narrative of Alexander the Great’s campaigns (and his related study of military tactics),1 and have paid little attention to his philosophical interests.2 In reaction to this dichotomy, Burliga seeks to reframe the discussion on Anabasis Alexandrou by combining the "intellectual" (as he terms the philosophical elements of the text) and the "cultural" to create a more balanced understanding of ways in which Arrian wove together historiography and Stoic philosophy. By combining this historiographic and philosophic, Burlinga seeks to move beyond the traditional interpretation of the Anabasis a "best source" for Alexander scholars and instead to offer a framework for receiving Anabasis as an intellectual work in its own right.3 Taking a topical rather than biographical approach, Burlinga examines the work and not the author, in order to disembed the intellectual and cultural context of the Anabasis Alexandrou. Throughout, Burlinga returns again and again to the main hypothesis that Arrian’s re-envisioning of the Alexander story (a story that was very much an intellectual discussion among Arrian’s peers) was fundamentally Stoic. For Burlinga, the background of the Second Sophistic and its Stoic orientation play a pivotal role in Arrian’s constructions of "Alexander. "

Chapters 1-3 ground the argument in previous Anabasis scholarship and set the theoretical approach for the study as a whole. Here, Burlinga analyses in detail the Stoic intellectual background and Anabasis’ (and to a lesser extent, Arrian’s) place therein. In chapter 4, Burlinga wades into the murky waters of the dating of the creation of Anabasis. And even though he is conscious of the uncertainty that surrounds the debate, and is sensitive to the lack of hard evidence, Burlinga convincingly argues for adopting a contextual date. According to this reading of on references within the text, Burlinga suggests that we should place the composition of the Anabasis in the period shortly after Trajan’s Parthian campaign of 113 CE. Chapter 5 uses sections of the Anabasis, such as the well-studied "Second Preface," to demonstrate that the work is an epic, Homeric-type, narrative in which a valiant king (Alexander) grapples with the good and evil in his world and in his own persona. Focusing on Arrian’s Alexander, chapter 5 explores the ways in which Alexander might prompt the reader to reflect on the qualities of rule and in so doing contemplate the idealised Stoic ruler. Consequently, Alexander is neither "good" nor "bad," but instead as a perspicacious ruler who suffers and tries (and mostly succeeds) in doing what is right. In the sixth and final chapter, Burlinga examines the historicity of events offered by Anabasis and argues that Arrian’s Stoic goals often work at cross purposes to undermine his historical accuracy. And while this conclusion is not new, Burlinga’s argument that this tension works to Arrian’s advantage is. Burlinga suggests that the Anabasis’ main goal is to create tension in the reader to parallel the tension in Alexander, thereby offer a deeper understanding of Alexander’s character: "There is a deep pessimism pervading the whole work, and it is in this context that the personality of Alexander, and his war against Achaemenid Persiand, and the whole unconquered world, was evaluated in the Anabasis" (130).

In the end, Burlinga is to be praised for his analysis of the contemporary influences on Arrian’s creation of his "Alexander." His work is insightful and well-researched and will have much to offer those interested in both historiography and philosophy beyond the confines of Alexander the Great and his military campaigns. Nonetheless, the two unequal halves of the work, the philosophical and the historiographical, are not as well joined as they might be. At least this reader was left wanting a longer concluding section (it is a scant two pages) to weave the two discourses together and to tie together many of the arguments in a more systematic fashion. In addition, one could have wished for more analysis of Arrian’s own sources and their intellectual and cultural contexts, especially those two on whom Arrian claims in the preface to rely, Aristobulus and Ptolemy. It would have been useful to explore the ways in which their own biases and perspectives, both "intellectual" and "cultural," as Burlinga would put it, might have influenced and shaped Arrian’s composition.


1.   Such as P. A. Stadter, (1978) "The Ars Tactica of Arrian: tradition and originality," CP:73, 117-28; A.B. Bosworth, (1980) A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Vol I: Books I-IV, Oxford; (1995) A Historical Commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander, Vol. 2: Books IV-V, Oxford; (2000) From Arrian to Alexander: Studies in Historical Interpretation, Oxford; N.G.L. Hammond (1983), Sources for Alexander the Great: An Analysis of Plutarch's 'Life' and Arrian's 'Anabasis Alexandrou', Cambridge.
2.   Notable exceptions have been A.B. Bosworth (1972), "Arrian’s Literary Development, " CQ 22, 163-85; (1994) "Arrian and Rome: the Minor Works," Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt 2.34.1, 226-275; P. A. Stadter (1980), Arrian of Nicomedia, Chapel Hill; R. Syme, "The Career of Arrian, " HSCP 86, 181-211. Nonetheless, even these works tend to prioritise Arrian’s role as historiographer rather than philosopher. Cf. J. Rufus Fears (1974), "The Stoic Views of the Career and Character of Alexander the Great," Philologus 118, 117-30.
3.   Burlinga is not unique in his call to see Arrian as a stylist and scholar in his own right. See J. L. Moles (1985), "The Interpretation of the 'Second Preface' in Arrian’s Anabasis," JHS 105, 162-168; J. M. Marincola (1989), "Some Suggestions on the Proem and 'Second Preface' of Arrian’s Anabasis, "JHS 109, 186-89; V. J. Gray (1990), "The Moral Interpretation of the 'Second Preface' to Arrian’s Anabasis, " JHS 110, 180-186. For a wider view of Arrian as an historian in his own right see, e.g., S. Müller (2014), Alexander, Makedonien und Persien Berlin. ​

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