Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.12.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.12.40

Pierre Briant, Alexandre: exégèse des lieux communs. Folio Histoire, 259.   Paris:  Éditions Gallimard, 2016.  Pp. 660; 8 p. of plates.  ISBN 9782070793761.  €11.90 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jeremy Trevett, York University, Canada (

This remarkable volume, inexpensively published in a series directed towards the general reader, offers a survey of the rich ‘afterlife’ of Alexander III of Macedon (Briant rightly rejects the traditional question-begging soubriquet ‘the Great’). It covers some of the same ground as his 2012 book Alexandre des lumières, of which a revised English translation, re-titled The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, appeared earlier this year.1 But this accessibly-written book ranges much more widely, from antiquity to the present day, and from popular culture to academic debates. In addition, it advances an important thesis. As his subtitle suggests, Briant is concerned above all with the persistence and pervasiveness of a number of topoi about Alexander, many of which, he argues, have a very long history indeed. These are not restricted to the depiction of Alexander in popular culture, since it and ‘l’Alexandrologie savante’ are cut from the same cloth (p. 18).

The first chapter (‘Les images du prince’) considers different views of Alexander as ruler. It ranges from Hellenistic Greece and Rome, via various medieval and early modern ducal, royal and papal courts, to the early 19th century. Over more than two millennia Alexander has proved ‘good to think with’ both for rulers and for those who advised them. Divergent assessments of Alexander’s kingship existed in antiquity and continued into the medieval period and beyond. For example, at the Burgundian court of Philip the Good Jehen Wauquelin depicted Alexander as a model ruler, whereas the Portuguese writer Vasque de Lucène, translator of Curtius Rufus, saw his example as one to be avoided. By the early modern period Alexander’s dealings with the Persians came to be seen as relevant to the policies of European rulers towards the Ottoman empire. Various kings and princes, regarding him as an exemplary role-model, created Alexander-themed rooms in their palaces. Paintings, such as those by Charles Le Brun for Louis XIV, were commissioned and later copied into other media: tapestries, engravings, cameos, as well as pottery (a majolica platter depicting Alexander nobly covering the body of his defeated enemy Darius is illustrated in one of the volume’s colour plates). Napoleon, on the other hand, whilst certainly interested in Alexander, judged that he took too many risks and therefore should not be considered—unlike himself—a great general.

The second chapter (‘D’Orient et d’Occident’) surveys the different ways in which Alexander was viewed, from late antiquity onwards, in the context of relations between ‘the west’ and ‘the east’. In Europe, Alexander’s conquest of the Persian empire made him a straightforward role model for dealing with the Muslim Other. Thus Walter of Châtillon in his 12th-century poem ‘Alexandreis’ depicted him as a proto-crusader; Michael the Brave of Romania in his wars with the Ottomans saw himself as a second Alexander; and 18th-century Greek nationalists invoked Alexander in their struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule. Views of Alexander in Iran and in the Ottoman empire were more complex, since he was not only the impious destroyer of the Persian empire, but also (as Iskender) the hero of local versions of the Alexander Romance, in which he is commonly represented as Muslim. Thus Mehmed II, successful besieger of Byzantium, is depicted in Ottoman sources as a second Iskender. In British-ruled India, by contrast, Alexander’s opponent Porus was viewed as a victorious national hero.

In the third chapter (‘Le héros colonial’) Briant examines Alexander as conqueror and colonizer. As late as the first half of the 20th century his example was used to justify French imperialism in North Africa, his policies towards the Persians being regarded as a model for France’s ostensibly paternalistic system of protectorates. Briant pays particular attention to the long-lasting — and wholly misleading — influence of Plutarch’s claim, in his On the Fortune of Alexander, that Alexander brought civilization to Asia. He rejects outright the picture of Alexander as liberator from Persian oppression: local elites, in Babylonia and elsewhere, naturally sought accommodation with the new regime, but Alexander ‘était comme ses prédécesseurs perses un roi étrangère’ (p. 243). He also casts a skeptical eye over such claims as that Alexander sought to bring economic improvements to the lives of the peoples he conquered; that he opened up or was the first to survey the Persian empire (he used existing roads; the Persians also measured distances); that he was motivated to any significant degree by scientific curiosity; or that he aimed to stimulate the economy of his new empire by putting Persian royal gold and silver reserves into circulation (weighed silver was already important as a means of exchange; the main result of his looting of the Persian treasuries was short-term inflation).

The fourth chapter (‘Médias et médiatisation’) examines four aspects of the representation of Alexander in popular culture. Somewhat unexpectedly, Briant starts with a well-informed analysis of the lyrics of a number of songs about Alexander by heavy metal bands, including Iron Maiden (‘Alexander the Great’) and Greece’s Sacred Blood, whose 2012 album ‘Alexandros’ glories in Alexander as a proudly Greek conqueror.2 From there he turns to the French Arabist — and former Vichy minister — Jacques Benoist-Méchin, whose 1976 work of popular history Alexandre le grand: le rêve dépassé offered an influential vision (it is still in print in France) of Alexander as idealistic dreamer. A third section on Hollywood films compares Robert Rossen’s swords-and-sandals era Alexander the Great (1956) with Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004). The former is faulted for its complete lack of interest in the Persian side, the latter for the clichéd orientalism of its depiction of Darius. Lastly, Briant considers the plethora of recent Alexander-themed exhibitions, which he sees as serving the interests both of museum directors, who wish to put on blockbuster shows, and of the Greek government. In many cases, Alexander is included in the exhibition’s title to add glamour to material that has little if any direct connection with him.

In his fifth chapter (‘Galerie d’experts’) Briant surveys in chronological order eight historians of Alexander, from the 18th century to the present day. As in his Alexandre des lumières, he argues that serious study of Alexander did not start with Droysen; consequently, his group of historians includes both Montesquieu and the Baron de Sainte-Croix. His assessment of the two most recent of the eight, Ernst Badian and Brian Bosworth, is broadly positive, though he faults the former for his failure to engage adequately with Achaemenid material, and points out that several of the main arguments of the latter’s explicitly postcolonial Alexander and the East (1996) had been anticipated by much earlier writers. This chapter, selective as it is, offers a very useful account of the main trends in the historiography of Alexander.

The next chapter (‘Juger Alexandre?’) also ranges widely, from the sub-genre of counterfactual history (what would have happened if Alexander had lived?) to the age-old debate, started by the Romans and still going strong, about how Alexander should be evaluated. A section on Alexander and Nazism discusses two important historians not covered in the previous chapter: Fritz Schachermeyr and Helmut Berve, the latter of whom argued that Alexander sought to create a joint Macedonian and Persian Aryan elite. Meanwhile the English classicist Adela M. Adam delivered a paper to the Cambridge Philological Society in 1940 entitled ‘Philip alias Hitler’. After the Second World War the favourable picture of Alexander advanced by Droysen and later Tarn was demolished by the revisionist scholarship of Badian, himself a refugee from Nazi Austria, whose much darker Alexander was surely influenced by his experiences of totalitarianism and dictatorship. At the same time, growing criticism of the legacy of European colonialism has led to a markedly more critical view of Alexander’s conquests.

Briant’s seventh chapter (‘Au péril de l’histoire immédiate’) looks at how the example of Alexander continues to be invoked for political ends. His first case study is the use of Alexander’s campaign in Bactria in connection with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) in 2001. He regards those who would see parallels between the two as misguided. Books such as Frank Holt’s Into the Valley of Bones, anachronistically subtitled Alexander the Great in Afghanistan, do not in his view escape the trap of presentism. His second topic is the rival claims of Greece and the Republic of Macedonia to ‘ownership’ of Alexander. Ever since the late 18th century Alexander has been seen in Greece, with few exceptions, as a national hero. But the star of Vergina (i.e., the star or sun-burst on the gold casket from Tomb II at Vergina in northern Greece) is also claimed as a national emblem by the Republic of Macedonia. Against the massive equestrian statue of Alexander in Thessaloniki now stands the even larger statue of a mounted ancient warrior—officially unnamed but clearly intended to evoke Alexander— erected in the main square of Skopje, depicted on the cover of the book.

In his final chapter (‘Que faire?’) Briant turns to the problem of finding anything new to say about Alexander, when from antiquity to the present day the same stock of words, images and judgments has been endlessly recycled. As he puts it — and it is hard to disagree — ‘plus on lit d’ouvrages intitulés Alexandre le Grand, plus on a le sentiment de lire le même livre’ (p. 557). His solution to this impasse is that the study of Alexander needs not new arguments but new evidence. Such evidence, he insists, exists in the form both of Macedonian epigraphic and archaeological material and, above all, of material from the Achaemenid empire. Failure to use the latter continues to result in a one-sided and defective historiography of Alexander. Briant demands that historians do more than take the views of the conquered into account; what is needed is a new history of the transition from Achaemenid to Macedonian rule, conceived of as global history, whose focus should extend beyond the thirteen-year reign of Alexander to cover the entire second half of the 4th century, and in which the Persians and their subjects are ‘acteurs de plein droit’ (p. 567).

In its chronological, geographic and thematic range, its mastery of a vast amount of information, the lively curiosity with which it investigates so many aspects of Alexander’s reception, and its combination of sharp argumentation and accessible presentation, this book is a tour de force.3 It is, quite simply, one of the most important and interesting works on Alexander to have appeared in recent years. Briant not only suggests (not for the first time) a more productive approach to the study of Alexander’s reign, but also builds on his own earlier Alexandre des lumières to open up the reception of Alexander as a subject of vast scholarly potential. It is a book that deserves to be very widely read. To that end it is to be hoped that, as with Briant’s other recent books, an English translation will in due course appear.


1.   It is unclear (to me) how this book relates to the similar-sounding work of synthesis announced as forthcoming in the preface of The First European (p. viii n. 6) under the title Alexandre le Grand au passé et au présent.
2.   My thanks to Oliver Trevett for his knowledgeable advice on this section.
3.   The few errors I have noticed are trivial. The legend on the 3rd-century AD coins of the Macedonian koinon is Alexandrou not Alexandrous (p. 40); ‘Georges Boas’ (p. 202) should be Georges Bohas (correctly in the bibliography); and, as far as I can see, in Tajikistan it is not ‘la ville de Khodjend’ but the district of Nau that was renamed Spitamen, after the Sogdian noble Spitamenes who led a campaign of military resistance to Alexander (p. 505).

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