BMCR 1995.03.14

1995.03.14, Roisman, Alexander the Great

, Alexander the Great : ancient and modern perspectives. Problems in European civilization. Lexington: D.C. Heath, 1995. xxv, 241 pages : illustrations, map ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780669345018

Alexander the Great: Ancient and Modern Perspectives—one of two ancient history titles (the other being The End of the Roman Empire, edited by Donald Kagan) in D. C. Heath’s series “Problems in European Civilization”—is a pedagogic tool rather than a work of critical scholarship. The stated aim of its editor, Joseph Roisman, is to “introduce readers to diverse interpretations and … [to] encourage them to form their own opinions and stimulate class discussion” (p. vii): to these ends he offers a selection of ancient sources and modern interpretations. In light of the nature of this work, a description of its contents, rather than any detailed criticism of its components, and a consideration of the rationale behind their selection and organization, seems the proper way to proceed.

Roisman’s choice of material and the form of its presentation bespeak an awareness of the character of his target audience—undergraduate students at American universities. There are eight sections of sometimes abridged and edited ancient and modern material:

1) “Alexander the Great: Ancient Sources and Modern Studies,” comprised of Strabo 17.1.43 (on Callisthenes), the preface of Book I of Arrian’s Anabasis (on Ptolemy and Aristobulus), Curtius Rufus 3.12.18-20, 7.8.10-11, 9.1.34, 9,5.21, and 10.10.5-6 (on the theme of the gradual corruption of Alexander’s character and on various aspects of Curtius’ approach to Alexander) and Plutarch Alex. 1 (on the biographical method employed therein), along with Eugene Borza’s “Introduction to Alexander Studies” (originally done as an introduction to the Norton edition of Wilcken’s Alexander) and sections from the introduction of P. A. Brunt’s Loeb Arrian;

2) “The Macedonian Background: Macedonia, Philip II, and Alexander,” comprised of Arrian Anabasis 7.9.2-5 (Alexander’s speech at Opis), Diodorus 16.91-95 (on Philip’s assassination), Plutarch Alex. 9-10 (on tensions within the royal family), A. B. Bosworth’s estimation of Philip’s character and accomplishments from Conquest and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Stanley Burstein’s “The Tomb of Philip II and the Succession of Alexander the Great,”Echos du Monde Classique 26 (1982), pp. 141-163, with a diagram of Vergina Tomb II;

3) “Alexander and the Greeks,” comprised of excerpts from Pseudo-Demosthenes Or. 17 (on alleged violations by Alexander of Philip’s treaty agreements with Athens), Arrian Anabasis 1.7-10 (the destruction of Thebes), Diodorus 18.8 (the Exiles Decree), and sections of A. J. Heisserer’s Alexander the Great and the Greeks (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980) and Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire;

4) “Alexander’s Aims,” comprised of Diodorus 17.17 (Alexander’s alleged actions upon landing in Asia) and 18.4 (Alexander’s “last plans”), Arrian Anabasis 2.14 (the epistolary exchange between Alexander and Darius after Issus), and portions of Brunt’s “The Aims of Alexander,”Greece and Rome 12 (1965), pp. 205-215;

5) “Alexander in Battle,” comprised of Arrian Anabasis 2.6-11 (on Issus) and selections with battle map from N. G. L. Hammond’s Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981), on Alexander’s army and Issus;

6) “Alexander and the Macedonian Generals,” comprised of the treatments of the deaths of Philotas and Parmenio in Plutarch Alex. 47-49, Curtius 6.2.1-4, 7-11, and Arrian Anabasis 3.26-27, along with Ernst Badian’s “The Death of Parmenio,”TAPA 91 (1960), pp. 324-338 and Waldemar Heckel’s “The Conspiracy Against Philotas,”Phoenix 31 (1977), pp. 9-21;

7) “Alexander’s Divinity,” comprised of Arrian 3.3-4 and 4.9-19 (on the journey to Siwah and the issue of proskynesis, respectively), Lowell Edmund’s “The Religiosity of Alexander the Great,”GRBS 12 (1971), pp. 363-391, and Badian’s “The Deification of Alexander the Great,”Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson, edited by Harry J. Dell, Hidryma Meletôn Chersonêsou tou Haimou, Vol. 158 (Thessaloniki, 1981), pp. 27-71; and

8) “The Policy of Integration,” comprised of Arrian Anabasis 7.4-6, 8-12 (on the marriages at Susa and mutiny at Opis), Plutarch Moralia 329A-D (on Alexander’s prayer at Opis), the famous conclusion of the initial volume of W. W. Tarn’s Alexander the Great (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), and Bosworth’s “Alexander and the Iranians,”JHS 100 (1980), pp. 1-21.

There are, in addition, a chronology of major events (pp. xiii-xiv), one map of Alexander’s march route (p. xv) and a second of Macedonia, Greece and Western Asia Minor (pp. xvi-xvii), well-selected black-and-white illustrations preceding each chapter, and four pages of “Suggestions for Additional Reading” properly aimed at English-speaking beginners in Alexander studies.

All notes are omitted from the abridged modern works. Translations are from Loeb editions, except those of Curtius and Plutarch’s Alexander, which are taken from Penguins. Ancient texts are often incorrectly cited. On p. 10, Curitus 13.12.18-20 should be 1.12.18-20 and 4.3.21 should be 9.5.21; on p. 127, 6.2.7-11 should be 6.2.1-4, 7-11; and pp. 119-120 should be included in the cross reference to Yardley’s Penguin; Loeb Diodorus volume numbers are off by one throughout: 7 incorrectly for 8, and 8 incorrectly for 9; on p. 53, the Loeb volume number of Demosthenes Or. 17 is given as 3 rather than the correct 1; on p. 123, citation of Plutarch Alexander 47-49 is omitted; and, on p. 188, the significance of the series number 158 in the reference to Ancient Macedonian Studies in Honor of Charles F. Edson needs explanation. More minor errors are incorrect page citations in the Table of Contents for pp. xviii-xxiii, and the heading “Suggestions for Further Reading” (p. 237), which appears one page too soon.

What does this book suggest about the current state of Alexander studies? It is fitting that, while the title of the Heath series in which Alexander the Great is included is “Problems in European Civilization,” the subtitle of the book itself is Ancient and Modern Perspectives (my emphases): for the only real clash of views is that between Bosworth and Tarn, which most scholars today regard as a historiographic curiosity more illuminating of Tarn and the intellectual preoccupations of British gentlemen-scholars of his day than of Alexander and his aims. Otherwise, the “modern perspectives” often represent refinements of particulars within an agreed-upon context. Such, for example, is the relationship between Badian’s “Death of Parmenio” and Heckel’s “Conspiracy Against Philotas.” Alternatively, as is the case with Hammond’s reconstruction of Issus, the “perspective” is primarily an example of extrapolation from and interpretation of an ancient source, or, in the case of Edmund’s contribution, the examination of an important aspect of Alexander’s personality within a broader cultural context.

Although it would be unwise to make broad inferences from a work the format of which is dictated to a great degree by the marketing concerns of D. C. Heath, form and content here reflect the development among English-speaking historians of something approaching consensus about Alexander. As those attuned to the historiography of Alexander studies know well, the late 20s through the mid ’50s, too, marked an era of Anglophone near-consensus, dominated by Tarn, shattered by Badian’s introduction of new issues, methods, concerns—its epitaph the appearance in 1966 of G. T. Griffith’s Alexander the Great: The Main Problems. Subsequent Sturm und Drang soon subsided, symptomatic, in Kuhnian terms, of a paradigm shift within the framework of which a new “normal scholarship” could go about the business of “problem-solving.” Despite their evident weaknesses, works that fit this new paradigm gained an acceptance reflected in their regular appearance as supporting references: so, for example, Badian’s “The Death of Philip II,”Phoenix 17 (1963), pp. 244-250, and J. R. Hamilton’s “Alexander and his so-called Father,”CQ n.s. 3 (1953), pp. 151-157. Despite their evident strengths, works that did not fit the new paradigm were marginalized, minimally visible in the form of dismissive contra references in notes: so, for example, W. E. Higgins’ “Aspects of Alexander’s Imperial Administration,”Athenaeum 58 (1980), pp. 129-152, and Lloyd L. Gunderson’s, “Quintus Curtius Rufus: On His Historical Methods in the Historiae Alexandri,”Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Macedonian Heritage, edited by W. Lindsay Adams and Eugene Borza (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982), pp. 177-196. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire, together with the new edition of the CAH, in many important ways formalize and validate this paradigm 1 while, at the same time, hinting—especially in Bosworth’s attempt to break from biographic, Alexander-centered approach—the shape of things to come. 2

But back to Alexander the Great: Ancient and Modern Perspectives, which, as befits its modest but important goal, is more concerned with the present than future. The pedagogic role it aims to play—to expose undergraduates to some basic ancient and contemporary views of Alexander the Great—is a worthy one. Where there exists the right curricular niche—that is, courses in which something more than passing mention of Alexander is possible but any depth of critical analysis beyond the pale—Roisman’s book should be of service.

  • [1] Compare Bosworth’s handling of Gunderson and Higgins ( Conquest and Empire, p. 99, n. 218, and p. 240, n. 21) to that of Badian ( Conquest and Empire, pp. 25-26, especially p. 26, n. 5) and Hamilton, ( Conquest and Empire, p. 283, where disagreement is implicit; Hamilton’s article, though not cited, appears in Bosworth’s bibliography). Hammond, who, except for topographic and military matters, is himself often lumped by “normal scholarship” with Tarn and rather off-handedly dismissed, offers a long-overdue challenge to Hamilton in “Alexander’s Letter Concerning Samos in Plut. Alex. 28.2,”Historia 42 (1993), pp. 379-382. Roisman’s bibliography makes no mention of Higgins or Gunderson, while listing Badian’s “Death of Philip II” and Hamilton’s Alexander the Great (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973), which, p. 140, depends on Hamilton’s earlier CQ article. [2] Noteworthy, too, is Bosworth’s attention to the fates of various indigenous peoples and native cultures affected by Alexander’s conquests. In general, recent scholarship on the Hellenistic period—e.g., Hellenism and the East, edited by Amelie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987) and Peter Green, Alexander to Actium (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990)—increasingly reflects contemporary debate about “cultural pluralism.”