BMCR 1997.04.07

1997.4.7, Bosworth, Historical Commentary on Arrian’s Hist. Alex. II

, A historical commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980-1995. volumes 1-2 : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780198148289.

Reviewed by Waldemar Heckel, University of Calgary.

Word Count: 2,369.

According to agents Mulder and Scully, “the truth is out there”. For the historian trained in the “Classics”, it is in the text. Determining what Arrian wrote and meant is thus an important beginning. Ascertaining what sources he used (see now my review of N. G. L. Hammond, Sources for Alexander the Great, Cambridge 1993, BMCR forthcoming), is perhaps easier, though it often leads no closer to the truth; for unlike the student of pre-modern or modern history, who has the luxury of going back to intact primary accounts, Alexander scholars must be content with fragments. But scrutiny of the sources is task that needs to be undertaken, if the truth is to be found, and it is equally important to remember that the most fanciful modern accounts of Alexander the Great were written when no commentaries on the extant sources had yet been published.

Bosworth’s exegesis on the first three books of Arrian’s History of Alexander, published in 1980 by O.U.P., constituted an important step in the progress of Alexander scholarship. By coincidence, that year also saw the production of the first volume of J. E. Atkinson’s commentary on Quintus Curtius Rufus. Atkinson’s second volume appeared in 1994, and now B. keeps pace with the second of his three volumes on Arrian. This one covers Books 4 and 5, the period from Alexander’s arrival at the Iaxartes (Syr Darya) to the army’s return to the Hydaspes (Jhelum) after its refusal to go on at the Hyphasis (Beas). It is a period as rich in adventure and court intrigue as it is in chronological, historiographical and political problems. The three campaigning seasons that preceded the Makedonian invasion of India also offer the greatest divergences of detail in the extant sources, and occurred in areas—Afghanistan and Turkestan (formerly part of the Soviet Union)—that have never been easy to access or examine closely. 1 The heart of Book 4 (7.4-14.4; the very centre of the work as P. Stadter, Arrian of Nicomedia 1980: 83, recognised) treats some of the most controversial episodes in Alexander’s career: the murder of Kleitos, the experiment with proskynesis, the conspiracy of Hermolaos and the problem of Kallisthenes. These three are grouped together by Arrian, out of historical context, for literary and moralising effect (“The whole digression serves the function of a sermon on the evils of intemperance…”, 8). Interestingly, they are soon followed by Arrian’s comments on Alexander’s marriage to Rhoxane (19. 4). Book 5, in addition to the battle of the Hydaspes and the Hyphasis mutiny, offers ample material on Indian geography and Greek mythological tradition about India and the ‘expeditions’ of Herakles and Dionysos, as well as an announcement of the proposed Indike of the author. Hence a wide range of topics to daunt the spirits of all but the most erudite and perceptive commentator. But that is precisely what Brian Bosworth is, and the results of his labours do not disappoint.

The Introduction (pp. 1-11) is concise and suitably brief. Much of the material on Arrian as writer and the primary sources for Alexander is treated in the introduction to volume I and supplemented by B.’s thought-provoking study, From Arrian to Alexander (Oxford 1989). In volume 2, B. provides a brief overview of Arrian’s career—taking into consideration the work of Sir Ronald Syme and, among others, Philip Stadter—and his approach to his work. This is followed by a short introduction to Books 4 and 5 specifically. From here we plunge straight into the commentary and, although B. asserts that he has “avoided long excursuses and kept my discussion firmly anchored to the text” (vi), there are numerous extended treatments of important problems that give the work a readability that commentaries generally lack on account of their fragmented and compressed nature. One does not generally read a commentary from cover to cover—at least, I have never done so, except in the case of my own, and that was before it had covers—and it is pointless to approach a review in that way. I have opted, instead to look more closely at selected discussions of interesting points.

B.’s treatment of the Kleitos episode will undoubtedly be consulted frequently. B. wisely rejects the modern scholarly preference for Plutarch’s account (based on Chares of Mytilene), adding that ‘all sources have something to contribute and each perspective has its value’ (52). We have at long last stopped classifying sources as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Why not recognise that even a particular account can be termed both ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’? All three major sources on Kleitos (Plutarch, Curtius and Arrian) contain a mixture of stories from a variety of sources. Even Arrian, at this point, uses at least one source in addition to Aristoboulos and Ptolemy, the latter often assumed not to have discussed the incident.

On the much-debated problem of proskynesis, B. does an excellent job of synthesizing modern arguments and marshalling the ancient evidence. His sympathies appear, however, to be with those who see religious rather than political significance in the attempt to introduce the practice amongst the “Greeks” at court. In B.’s own words: “Whichever alternative one adopts, it remains true that the proskynesis was intended by Alexander as an act of worship as much as court ceremonial, and that is how his courtiers interpreted it” (70). Certainly, ‘that is how his courtiers interpreted it’, but is that proof of Alexander’s intention? And how can intention be proved at all, except by the man’s own admission? The sources present us with two sets of misconceptions: what the primary and extant authors believed proskynesis entailed (i.e., what it was Alexander was ordering his Greeks to do), and the motives that Alexander’s courtiers ascribed to him (i.e., he was asking them to revere him as one would a god, and he was putting them on a footing with the barbarians). Proskynesis, which occurred after the punishment of Bessos (who challenged Alexander’s role as Dareios’ legitimate successor) and after the marriage to Rhoxane (which was accompanied by other mixed marriages, if we can believe Metz Epit. 31; it was also in the lost portion of Diodoros 17), was an early attempt to establish a balance between conquerors and conquered. Also, if we consider that it contributed to the failure of the experiment, it is hard to imagine that anyone but Leonnatos the Bodyguard could have had the audacity to ridicule the practice and the status to withstand the king’s anger. Leonnatos son of Antipatros of Aigai would surely not have lived to become a trierarch at the Hydaspes. Similarly, B.’s inclination to accept the stories concerning Polyperchon’s (possible) and Kassandros’ (probable) ridiculing of proskynesis ignores the fact that it became popular in the Diadochic age for former ‘companions’ of Alexander to claim to have survived the king’s ill-will (or, even, punishment). Hence Lysimachos claimed to have been caged ‘like a lion or a panther’ (in Trogus’ version he was caged ‘with a lion’, Justin 15. 3. 7), and Aelian, VH 14. 47a, has an extensive list of individuals (including Perdikkas, Antigonos the One-eyed, and Antigenes) who had fallen out of favour with the king. Furthermore, such stories were circulated in the propaganda wars of the Successors, and it is likely that the story of the king grabbing the offender (Polyperchon or Kassandros) by the head and smashing him to the ground was intended to discredit the political opponent.

On certain points I would register disagreement, but it is little more than that. The commentator is, at any rate, at a disadvantage because he must give his arguments (and evidence) in a compressed matter and expend only a limited amount of ink attempting to persuade the reader. B. (44) assumes that Bessos’ punishment was unusual (amongst the regicides) and attributes this to the fact that Bessos alone attempted to usurp the kingship. The second point may be true, but of the other known regicides (Barsaentes and Nabarzanes, 3. 21. 1; Satibarzanes at 3. 21. 10 is scribal error, or lapsus memoriae by Arrian himself) were both executed (if Nabarzanes is identical with Barzanes/Brazanes of Arr. 4. 7. 1, which B. denies, p. 39). Furthermore, on p. 48, B. remarks that despite the ‘barbaric’ treatment of Bessos (i.e., the mutilation of his face) the favourite exemplum in later literature was Telesphorus the Rhodian. This is, of course, because he was Greek, and for Bessos’ treatment there is at least some justification in terms of eastern practice, but it is curious that B. does not adduce the example (though probably fictitious) of Kallisthenes’ mutilation reported in Justin 15. 3. 4! B. is probably right (93) that the Pages did not accompany the king into battle; at least, not normally—but we do have the case of those under Peithon son of Sosikles who fought Spitamenes in 328 (Arr. 4. 16. 6), and B. 116 says little about their role in the battle. Clearly, they must have had considerable military training, if little or no actual combat experience (one thinks, e.g., of the cadets of the Virginia Military Academy in 1864, who were thrown into battle, and to their deaths, in the Shenandoah Valley). On p. 112 (cf. 117), B. notes that Krateros ‘appears out of nowhere’, but 4. 16. 1 simply details the phalanx taxeis, that of Gorgias being K’s former brigade, while 4. 17. 1 shows that K., by now a hipparch, was in charge of this detachment; more puzzling is Meleagros’ sudden shift (17. 3), on which B. is silent (see Heckel, Marshals 119, with n. 297). On p. 123, B. flirts with the idea that Stamenes (Curtius’ “Ditamenes”), the successor of Mazaios was Makedonian; the paragraph ends with an afterthought, that “Stamenes might have been an oriental after all”, which is more likely in the light of Apollodoros’ continued presence there as strategos (as B. notes).

The suggestion (pp. 194-5) that the ‘hypaspist’ commander, Nearchos, who appears with Antiochos at 4. 30. 5 (on which see Badian, YCS 24 (1975) 150-1), is an otherwise unknown Macedonian, is attractive but not compelling: Nearchos (son of Androtimos) was probably the leader of the entire force, which included Agrianes; Antiochos led the hypaspists. For a similar role for Nearchos, in Kossaian territory in 317/6, see Diod. 19. 19. 4-5. But the discussion of hypaspist commanders leads, logically, to the question of three chiliarchies or four, and the relevance of all this to the eight commanders ‘elected’, according to Curtius, by a contest of valour in Sittakene. B. wishes to regard them as eight pentakosiarchs of four hypaspist chiliarchies—a neat solution, but it requires him to reject J. E. Atkinson’s concerns about the manuscript reading novem (‘nine’) in Curt. 5. 2. 5 (see Zu Alexander d. Gr. i. 421-3). Only eleven commanders of regular hypaspists—if it is correct to identify the ‘victors’ in Sittakene as such—are known: one of them, Adaios, fell at Halikarnassos; another, Timandros, is not included in Curtius’ list and may have died or been replaced. That would leave nine, and Antiochos’ name may be the one that dropped out of the list. The first two are well known. Atarrhias and Antigenes. If it was the third name in the list that dropped out (esp. if this can be explained by the proximity of the name “Antigenes”), the first three may represent the chiliarchs, the remainder the six pentakosiarchs of three chiliarchies of hypaspists.

It may sound like carping, but the identification of Sisimithres and Chorienes (suggested already by v. Schwartz, Berve and others) remains to my mind a more plausible solution than B.’s insistence that we distinguish between them. B. refers to my own reconstruction ( Athenaeum 64 (1986) 224-5) as involving “a desperately convoluted confusion in the common source of Curtius and the Metz Epitome)” (135). But this fails to take into account the fact that different sources select and manipulate their primary evidence for different reasons, and when one compares a dramatised account like that of Curtius with what may well be an epitome of an abbreviated history, the disparity is not at all difficult to understand. In Curtius there is certainly a complex relationship of sources involving Kleitarchos, Timagenes and Trogus (he appears to have used them all, though in what form we cannot be sure), and the striking similarities between Curtius and the Metz Epitome cannot be easily discounted. Furthermore, B. (138) accepts that the ‘Oxartes’ of Curt. 8. 2. 25, 27, 31 is non other than ‘Oxyartes’, the father of Rhoxane (the daughter who had taken refuge with Sisimithres and made her ‘social debut’ at Chorienes’ banquet). Chorienes was, quite simply, that ‘official name’ of Sisimithres, just as Taxiles was earlier known as Omphis (Ambhi), to cite but one parallel.

On a more positive note, B.’s discussions of Alexander in India contains some real gems. Four important discussions precede the commentary on the Hydaspes battle: that dealing with Nysa (Arr. 5.1.1-2.7; pp. 197-213) is the most useful treatment in English; the problem of the bridging of the Indus and the advertisement for the Indike (both historical digressions of some consequence; on the latter cf. the Appendix on ‘Arrian’s Use of Nearchus’, 361-5, where B. argues convincingly for Arrian’s use of Nearchos as a third main source for, at least, part of the History; against, most recently, Hammond, Sources 262-4) are dealt with between two discussions of Eratosthenes on myth and geography (213-19, 236-46). The value of these lucid commentaries will be clear to those who have sought enlightenment on these subjects elsewhere: Anspach’s De Alexandri Magni expeditione Indica (Leipzig 1903) is still the standard work; more recently, the appendices (XII, XVI, XVII) to P. A. Brunt’s Loeb Arrian are extremely dense and often hard to follow.

Consulted along with his From Arrian to Alexander, B.’s Commentary serves as an excellent guide to Arrian’s work and sources, in particular, and for the history of Alexander in general. To call it indispensable is to state the obvious. To call it “long overdue” would be unfair to the author. Nevertheless, it is to be hoped that we shall not have to wait another 15 years for the concluding volume.

1. The “modern” studies are still those of Wm. Geiger and v. Schwartz (the second edition of the latter published in 1906). For the difficulties of western travel in the region in the nineteenth century see Peter Hopkirk’s entertaining The Great Game (1990). Sir Aurel Stein’s tour of Swat was a picnic by comparison. Bosworth has dealt with the problems of this area as well as the historian can from the distance in his “A Missing Year in the History of Alexander the Great,”JRS 101 (1981) 17-39.