Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.04.19 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.04.19

Kenneth Royce Moore (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Reception of Alexander the Great. Brill's companions to classical reception, volume 14.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2018.  Pp. 856.  ISBN 9789004285071.  €189,00.  

Reviewed by Christian Thrue Djurslev, Aarhus University (

Table of Contents

[I offer my sincere apologies for the tardiness of this review.]

This is the third time that Brill has graced us with a companion to Alexander. The first volume focused on the historical character (Roisman in 2002), whereas the second explored Alexander’s reception in medieval literature (Zuwiyya in 2011). The book under review has a more ambitious scope in collating ‘receptions’ from the ancient world to the present day. Print book readers and bookshelves alike will feel the weight of this endeavour; the number of pages is higher than that of its predecessors combined. The scholarly community has long anticipated the volume. I personally heard rumours about it at Alexander-related conferences as early as 2013, but one chapter refers to its own inception in 2011. The book has arrived at an opportune time. University courses, publications, and conference activity continue to confirm the increasing interest in different receptions of Alexander. For example, reception became a major theme at a 2018-conference in Edmonton, organised by Frances Pownall (University of Alberta). The present volume will no doubt help researchers and students in search of new horizons for Alexander’s ‘superlative legacy’ (p. xi).

The wide array of content is presented in thirty-three chapters of varying length, with bibliographies appended to each. No house style has been imposed. A short index of topics concludes the volume. The contributions are generally of high standard, and the editor is to be commended for gathering a diverse group of scholars (pp. xiv-xxiii). Moore has organised the book into three major parts, of which the longest concerns ‘Ancient Greek, Roman and Persian receptions’ (Part I). One may always discuss the coherence and inclusions/exclusions in such edited volumes, but I consider it a wise decision to devote less attention to the Middle Ages, considering the previous Brill volume on the market, as well as the grand French project on Mythalexandre.

Perhaps more problematic is the lack of description regarding the principles behind the selection. On several occasions, we read that ‘each person has his own Alexander’ (Moore; Gilley citing Ulrich Wilcken); that ‘each period has its own Alexander’ (Klęczar citing Stoneman); and that ‘each city has its own Alexander’ (Wallace). The only real justification of the contents is a couple of prefatory paragraphs, offering something for everybody, but mainly what had interested the editor and his students in class. What comes next is a stand-alone ‘framing of the debate’, which addresses the issues of looking for the historical Alexander as an exercise in another kind of reception for scholars. Unfortunately, only one other contribution pays any sort of attention to such familiar issues (Squillace). The rest departs into realms of reception studies in which cultural context comes first. Reading the book cover-to-cover, I felt that a stronger guiding principle would help readers appreciate the breadth of the whole volume and make the papers come together. As it stands, several contributors overlap in terms of discussing content (e.g. Holton discusses a Hellenistic poem that Erickson quotes the pertinent part of; Livy’s Alexander digression appears four times across the volume), and the first cross-reference between chapters occurs on page 420, n. 34.

In my view, the volume’s best example of a new approach to (ancient) Alexander receptions is Wallace’s contribution, Metalalexandron, pp. 162-96. Based on a range of sources, including civic inscriptions, Wallace articulates the themes of the primary evidence under three headings: ‘inventing’, ‘localizing’, and ‘worshipping’ Alexander. The three themes allow Wallace to rethink material often studied in isolation, such as Alexander’s adventus into Jerusalem, which he juxtaposes with other invented tales from Xanthus and the Bahariya Oasis (166-7). Wallace’s sightseeing tour of the monuments and manifestations of Alexander sidesteps the emperor-oriented receptions at Rome by revealing how prevalent the conqueror still was at ground level in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. Wallace’s result prompts future scholarship to move beyond the basic paradigm of positive and negative receptions, because we now know that much more was at stake in terms of self-presentation whenever people appropriated Alexander.

The remaining papers hold much of interest. Koulakiotis offers an updated version of his work on the Attic Orators in English translation. Müller surveys an immense amount of Philip’s reception, which is strangely not the first paper in the volume. (There is no chapter on Olympias.) Holton provides an excellent analysis of the key themes in Ptolemaic royal ideology through the prism of Theocritus Idyll 17. Squillace returns to disagreements between Aristobulus and Ptolemy in an attempt to uncover the historical Alexander’s propaganda. I am not as optimistic as Squillace that we can get back to Alexander’s version of the truth. Palagia marshals much of her earlier work in a survey of the iconography in Hellenistic art, arguing that Athens may have been a place of origin, which works well with Koulakiotis’ paper. Nabel covers important points of convergence and discrepancies between Roman and Persian receptions, commanding an impressive range of texts and languages. He shows that much of Alexander’s reception at Rome is worth thinking about in a Persian context. Mullen then proceeds ‘beyond Persianisation’, but his chapter ends abruptly before a full argument is developed. Erickson singles out some important aspects of late Ptolemaic receptions by looking at Alexander’s role in the conflict between Octavian and Antony and Cleopatra.

In the latter section of Part I, Muccioli also brings the Greek side of Rome into the discourse with a focus on Alexander as a model for foreign monarchs and Greek rhetoric. Gilley picks up the mantle and surveys Latin authors with certain points of comparison. Celotto turns to compositions in Latin with a philosophical dimension (Seneca and Lucan), offering some close readings of prose and poetry. It is my impression, however, that the material under scrutiny in these three chapters is fairly well-known from other scholarship, and I find that some of the central authors, such as Cicero and Valerius Maximus, are conspicuous by their absence. Some observations on exemplum literature at Rome would also have helped to bring out what was going on at the literary level.

Asirvatham takes on Plutarch. Her scope is not limited to the Vita Alexandri, but she engages with Alexander’s story across the Plutarchan corpus. This is perhaps a conscious choice by the editor, for we have heard next to nothing about Diodorus Siculus, Pompeius Trogus (or Justin), Curtius Rufus or Arrian. For Plutarch, as most other imperial authors, Alexander was ‘good to think with’, and Asirvatham shows just how special Alexander was compared to other political leaders, even Julius Caesar.

Part II, ‘Later receptions in the Near- and Far East and the Romance tradition’, opens with much-needed studies of religious writers. Klęczar tackles Jewish tradition in an exemplary fashion, whereas Shahar revisits the Jerusalem episode. Nawotka and Wojciechowska quantify evidence from Coptic Egypt over a long period of time. Jouanno is the right person to offer a chapter on the Byzantine corpus, and I was impressed with the paleographical discussion of the (Greek) authors I found missing in Part I. She reminds us that Arrian, Plutarch and Diodorus were read for many other reasons in Byzantium. Peltonen surveys some essential references in early Christian authors, although I am not persuaded by all of his readings. Blythe provides some good summaries of inaccessible material from medieval Italy, which complements and updates Cary’s book on the Medieval Alexander (Cambridge, 1956). Nawotka revisits many important issues regarding the Alexander Romance in Syria and Persia, again with solid summaries of relevant texts. The last paper is the only one that overlaps with content from Zuwiyya’s Brill volume from 2011. 1

Part III, ‘”Modern” and Postmodern Receptions’ begins with Fulińska’s paper on Napoleon, who has previously been something of a neglected topic. This paper will be an excellent first point of contact for researchers, although students may not like that the texts are left untranslated. Mairs presents us with the Alexandromania of British adventures in Afghanistan and India. Being Alexander or finding him (or evidence of his visit) are naturally familiar themes, and the British story has been told elsewhere 2. Nevertheless, Mairs offers something new in her focus on Classics books brought to the east and the career in translation of John Watson McCrindle (1825-1913). Wiesehöfer provides a thorough review of Johann Gustav Droysen’s activities and the editions of his big Alexander book. Baynham and Ryan turn to the reception of the eunuch Bagoas in various writings, primarily Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy, bringing discussions of sexuality into the wider picture.

Bichler takes on the ambitious topic of accounting for images of Alexander in German, Anglo-American and French scholarship from World War I to the Cold War. This chapter provides a most excellent overview of the scholarship and discusses some inaccessible material. Bichler demonstrates a remarkable coherence between the UK, German and French Alexander receptions at this time, despite the political climate. Another pattern emerges from this contribution. All the bestselling books on Alexander were those written by admirers of the king (Droysen; Tarn; Radet). It remains to be seen if this tendency will be true for our time too; perhaps not, in light of the late Bosworth’s work.

Blanshard discusses failed receptions in the form of the Hollywood films on Alexander. Even if Alexander’s life and conquests is a great story, it is notoriously hard to translate successfully to the big picture, and Blanshard contextualizes well what went wrong with Rossen’s Alexander the Great from 1956. Butler brings us back into the footsteps of Alexander, covering some of the same material as Mairs. McAuley returns to the importance of women in Alexander’s reception with a focus on the courtesan Thaϊs through time, a remarkably uniform story until her liberation in the modern era. In a personal piece, Warren takes us back to Afghanistan, this time as an American soldier, and it seems likely that this sort of war-experience literature will spark a new chapter in Alexander receptions. Cohen explores public monuments as reception in various parts of the world, including Steell’s Alexander and Bucephalus (1884) in Edinburgh. Cohen’s ekphrases provide rich detail of monuments not often discussed, and there is much more to do in the field of public art depicting Alexander. Taietti surveys for the first time modern Greek music on Alexander, focusing primarily on how the artists give voice to the political differences over ethnicity. She also provides English translations of the tracks, which is a useful resource. Morris’ forceful argument for social justice feels out of place as the concluding chapter. She argues that the ancient disabled, in this case Philip II and III, have been ignored in scholarship and modern fiction.

Depending on your viewpoint, the coverage provided by this volume may seem even or uneven, but it certainly succeeds in conveying the richness of Alexander’s receptions in world history. Students and researchers will find points of interest in individual papers, especially Bichler’s chapter on past scholarship, so the volume will be useful for teaching purposes. While the price is high, it is lower than that of the two previous volumes and that will, hopefully, make the volume available to a wider audience. Time will tell how durable the book will be but, for now, its appearance makes a welcome addition to the growing field of Alexander reception.


1.   Monferrar-Sala, J. P. 2011. ‘Alexander the Great in the Syriac literary tradition’, in D. Zuwiyya, ed., A Companion to Alexander Literature in the Middle Ages, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 29, Leiden: Brill. 41-72.
2.   Ball, W. 2012. ‘Some talk of Alexander. Myth and politics in the North-west frontier of British India’, in R. Stoneman, I. Netton & K. Erickson, eds., The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East, Ancient Narrative Supplementum 15, Groningen: Barkhuis. 127-58.

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