Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.06.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.06.03

Pat Wheatley, Elizabeth Baynham (ed.), East and West in the World Empire of Alexander: Essays in Honour of Brian Bosworth.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2015.  Pp. xvii, 372.  ISBN 9780199693429.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Rolf Strootman, Utrecht University (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

This collection of essays originated in a conference held in 2007 in honor of Brian Bosworth’s retirement from the University of Western Australia, Sydney. It is a rich and varied volume. To the original nine papers offered at the Sydney conference, six further contributions were added. Bosworth was one of the leading figures in Alexander scholarship of the past decades, perhaps the leading figure. His critical and sober work is hampered neither by the Alexander adoration nor the gratuitous Alexander bashing that pervades much academic writing on Alexander. His 1988 monograph Conquest and Empire stands out as the only comprehensive study of the Macedonian king’s reign that is not entitled Alexander the Great; it also stands out as perhaps the best of its kind.1 True to its title, Conquest and Empire is a work of History; it does not focus on Alexander’s person or perceived personality. It discusses conquest and empire. Sadly, Professor Bosworth passed away prior to the completion of the book under review.

Before turning to the individual papers, a few words about the volume in its entirety. The title, East and West in the World Empire of Alexander, beautifully evokes Conquest and Empire, and moreover suggests affinity with the Imperial Turn in recent historical research. The subject "East and West" (note the word order) suggests a strong focus on Babylonia, Iran and Central Asia. The title, however, is misleading. None of the essays is concerned with the theme of (universal) empire, and only a few offer non-Greek viewpoints or dare to challenge the unfortunate East-West dichotomy that underlies both the text-based "Classical" approach to the Macedonian expansion and the postcolonial "Orient"-centric reaction to that approach.2 In fact, only three contributions venture beyond the westernmost edge of Alexander’s Empire: Anson’s paper on Alexander in India (based however on western narrative sources only), Cohen's discussion of Hellenistic settlements in the Middle East, and Wheatley’s excellent discussion of Babylonian and Aramaic chronographic evidence. All others remain safely within viewing distance of the Mediterranean. Absent furthermore are contributions by scholars from continental Europe, and some papers are handicapped by lack of references to recent scholarship in French and German.

The volume opens with a brief “Appreciation" of A.B. Bosworth as scholar, teacher, and friend by Pat Wheatley, followed by a chronological list of Bosworth's many publications. The first essay deals with Achilles as Alexander's model. The author, Judith Maitland, passed away in 2012 and the volume is dedicated to her memory. Maitland shows that the association of Alexander with the Homeric hero is a fabrication of a later date, perhaps the early third century BCE. She draws attention to the simultaneous existence of two distinct historiographical traditions, giving a positive and a negative slant respectively to comparisons to Achilles in narrative constructions of Alexander's outbursts of anger. Next, Waldemar Heckel approaches the Greco-Roman sources even more ruthlessly in showing that there is no indication that Achilles was a model for Alexander during his own lifetime, or that the Homeric hero figured otherwise in contemporaneous royal representation. Only the use of Herakles as a monarchical emblem is genuine. Lara O'Sullivan continues with Herakles as she traces the image of Alexander as "Invincible God" (Aniketos) to the court historian Kallisthenes, and thus to Alexander's self- presentation. This is a rewarding read. I particularly liked O'Sullivan's argument that Plutarch's account of Alexander's visit to Delphi, and his manipulation of the Oracle (Alex. 14.4), was built around a kernel of truth, viz., derives from genuine Argead propaganda.

Elizabeth Baynham presents widely diverging examples of "military display" — ranging from Homer to Augustus and present-day Australia. This is an important topic. But as neither the Achaemenids and the pre-Hellenistic dynasties of the Aegean nor the Seleukids or Ptolemies are discussed, and the Argeads hardly, the examples quoted seem not even indirectly connected to Alexander or his "World Empire". Lacking a foundation in the theory of ritual and monarchical representation, the conclusion that military display would not work without affirmative military action regretfully remains a truism that may not even be true. Edward Anson takes an opposite approach to monarchical ritual and ideology, arguing — against views expressed by Spann and Heckel, among others — that the army mutiny at the river Beas (Hyphasis) that allegedly forced Alexander to return to the West, really took place. The story obviously is propagandistic, and readers should judge for themselves if Anson's argument that there is a kernel of truth is convincing. I was not convinced, if only for the fact that the Macedonians are said to have established cults on the Beas, as they also did at the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) and the Danube, thus making the Beas a symbolic border of the (civilized) world and thus of empire.3 The next paper, written by Ian Worthington, is intriguingly entitled "From East to West". This turns out to be no more than a pun on the volume's title. The article is concerned with the so-called Exile's Decree of 324 BCE by which King Alexander seems to have ordered the Aegean poleis to accept returning exiles. It is a problematic document for various reasons. Worthington's take on the problem is to assume that the returning exiles were disenfranchised Greek troops, and to suggest that Alexander was motivated by the necessity to dispose of them, and replace them by Iranian recruits (the so- called epigonoi). Traveling from Babylonia back to the Aegean, these alleged "mercenaries" can thus be said to have migrated from east to west.

David Whitehead's article on "mechanici" is concerned with developments in siege warfare in the reigns of Philip and Alexander. Whitehead presents a dense but well-organized tableau of military technicians working for the two Argead kings and the various siege engines created by them. This is an important topic. Not pitched battle but siege warfare was central to Hellenistic warfare, and rapid innovations of attack machinery and defensive systems characterize the military history of the period. Timothy Howe's contribution begins with the question why Philip II's last bride, Kleopatra, and her father Attalos, were not executed by Alexander after the death of Philip. The answer may be, Howe suggests, that Alexander planned to marry her to ally himself with Attalos' powerful family. Howe also searches for Kleopatra's own agency as a royal woman in the context of factional rivalry in the troubled first years of Alexander's reign. Olympias however executed Kleopatra against Alexander's wish. Norman Ashton follows the career of Krateros between the death of Alexander in 323 and his own death in battle in 321, revisiting his idea that of all Alexander's friends, Krateros was most disadvantaged by the king's sudden death. Krateros, moreover, had the misfortune of being absent when Alexander's friends divided among themselves the principal court and army offices. (Krateros’ greatest misfortune, of course, was his being killed shortly thereafter.) Elizabeth Carney examines how dynastic loyalty was obtained in Macedon after the Argeads. She rightly emphasizes the importance of participation in religious ritual but perhaps underestimates the importance of military success and the ability to distribute gifts among military leaders that was directly connected to military success.

Daniel Ogden focuses on snake imagery in the birth myth in the Greek Alexander Romance, specifically the seduction of Olympias by the anguiform Nektanebo. This narrative is placed in the context of Hellenic serpent cults and "serpent- affiliated" deities such as Amphiaraos or Zeus Meilichios. This is fascinating material, and even without really making a point the discussion offers new perspectives on a well-known story. The latter cannot be said of Robin Lane Fox's lengthy compilation of facts about Ptolemy I. The recurrent juxtaposition of "Greek" and "Egyptian" as bounded cultural categories does little justice to the complexity and fluidity of transcultural exchanges in the early Hellenistic Levant. Part general introduction, part literature review, this dense text has much to offer but presents no new perspectives or insights. Kenneth Sheedy and Boyo Ockinga discuss Egyptian imagery on early Ptolemaic coinage, in particular the appearance on some coins of Ptolemy I of a horned ram's head wearing a crown topped by a solar disk, an image to be associated with Amun-Re (and perhaps with the ram's horns associated with Alexander). This is one of the more important contributions. The commonplace conclusion that Alexander and Ptolemy used such images simply to express their "respect" for the obligations of the pharaoh, however, is disappointing, obscuring rather than illuminating the reality of imperial interactions by presenting Egypt as a socio-political unity, and Egyptian culture as "traditional" and static.

Getzel Cohen examines the significance of the phrase polis Hellenis, used by, among others, Strabo and Isidore of Charax to describe settlements in Syria, Mesopotamia and Iran. The term seems to emphasize the presence of polis institutions or to suggest a population claiming Hellenic ethnicity. Cohen however concludes that the term cannot be used for determining the societal organization of a community.4 David Kennedy explores the ancient land routes connecting the Orontes Valley and North Syrian coast to the Euphrates, with a specific focus on the transportation of Syrian timber to Mesopotamia. Pat Wheatley, in a well-researched contribution on Diadoch-period chronography, synchronizes Diodoros' account with cuneiform evidence from Babylon, taking also into account dated coinage from Phoenicia as well as chronographic data on newly published Aramaic ostraca from the southern Levant.

The last papers offer Roman and Byzantine perspectives. Jane Bellemore discusses the use of Alexander as an example of rulership by Valerius Maximus, showing how Valerius' presentation of Alexander reflects the self-presentation of Augustus. Arthur Pomeroy discusses the presentation of civil strife in Tacitus. John Melville Jones, finally, discusses a gold solidus from the brief reign of Alexander III (912-913 CE), impressed with a rare image of the emperor being crowned by John the Baptist, as Melville Jones convincingly argues (an image of the coin would have been helpful).

This is a rich and varied volume, perhaps somewhat too varied. Several authors are refreshingly critical of the narrative sources (Maitland, Heckel), while others are not. Some successfully discuss new evidence (Wheatley, Sheedy and Ockinga). Baynham, Carney and especially Howe are exceptional in recognizing larger historical issues (monarchical ritual, factional strife, female agency). Only a minority of the contributors use additional archaeological, epigraphic, cuneiform, or numismatic sources, or in their use of literature look beyond the confines of specialized Alexander studies.

Table of Contents

Brian Bosworth: An Appreciation, Pat Wheatley and Elizabeth Baynham
Works by A. B. Bosworth
1. μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ: Alexander the Great and the Anger of Achilles, Judith Maitland
2. Alexander, Achilles, and Heracles: Between Myth and History, Waldemar Heckel
3. Callisthenes and Alexander the Invincible God, Lara O'Sullivan
4. Why the Devil wears Prada: The Politics of Display in Military Kit in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC, Elizabeth Baynham
5. Alexander at the Beas, Edward M. Anson
6. Alexander the Great and the Mechanici, David Whitehead
7. From East to West: Alexander and the Exiles Decree, Ian Worthington
8. Craterus Revisited, Norman G. Ashton
9. Nectanebo's Seduction of Olympias and Benign Anguiform Deities of the Ancient Greek World, Daniel Ogden
10. Cleopatra-Eurydice, Olympias, and a 'Weak' Alexander, Timothy Howe
11. Dynastic Loyalty and Dynastic Collapse in Macedonia, Elizabeth D. Carney
12. King Ptolemy: Centre and Periphery, Robin Lane Fox
13. The Crowned Ram's Head on Coins of Alexander the Great and the Rule of Ptolemy as Satrap of Egypt, Ken Sheedy and Boyo Ockinga
14. Diadoch Chronography after Philip Arrhidaeus: Old and New Evidence, Pat Wheatley
15. Polis Hellenis, Getzel M. Cohen
16. Thapsacus and Zeugma, David Kennedy
17. Valerius Maximus and His Presentation of Alexander the Great, Jane Bellemore
18. Tacitus and the Crises of Empire, Arthur J. Pomeroy
19. Legitimizing an Emperor: The Solidus of Alexander III, John R. Melville-Jones


1.   A.B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great (Cambridge 1988).
2.   Bosworth himself showed a keen interest in the "Eastern" side of Alexander's kingship and empire without jumping into the pitfall of propagating "continuity" (a popular and interesting approach, but also a truism that lacks explicative value as a historiographical tool), and in his later work began using the rare but important cuneiform sources available to the historian, cf. e.g. Alexander and the East (Oxford 1996), and ‘The rise of Seleucus’, in: A.B. Bosworth, The Legacy of Alexander (Oxford 2002) 210-245.
3.   That Alexander is not known to have planned a return to complete the supposedly unfinished conquest of India, is also revealing. On symbolic world borders and empire in the Ancient Near East see this reviewer's various publications on imperial universalism in the Macedonian empires, most of which are available from his homepage at; see now also the excellent treatment by Timothy Howe and Sabine Müller, ‘Mission accomplished: Alexander at the Hyphasis’, Ancient History Bulletin 26 (2012) 21-38, emphasizing that Alexander followed an Achaemenid pattern by following the Indus southward to the Ocean.
4.   Getzel Cohen passed away in 2015 at the age 73; a volume in his honor edited by Roland Oetjen and Frank Ryan, Seleukeia: Studies in Seleucid History, Archaeology and Numismatics, is due to be published in 2017.

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