BMCR 2000.02.04

Alexander the Great. The Unique History of Quintus Curtius

, Alexander the Great : the unique history of Quintus Curtius. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998. xiv, 237 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 0472108581 $39.50.

Because of the problems with evidence for the life and times of Alexander the Great, Alexander studies by necessity must almost be more concerned with the sources that talk about the man and his deeds than with Alexander himself. Consequently, with greater understanding of the Alexander histories has come the awareness that the texts of the Alexander historians must be treated not just as ‘quarries’ which can carefully and critically be mined for information (even those thought to be ‘most reliable’), but as literary works on their own terms. In this way much has been done recently with, for example, Arrian’s Anabasis, as there has been a growing understanding of his literary and historiographical agendas, which shaped the way he told his story to bring out the themes and concerns of interest to him and his audience.

Nevertheless, Quintus Curtius, an important representative of the so-called ‘vulgate’ tradition, has usually received bad press, both as a source for Alexander and as a writer of history, and consequently has suffered not only from the derision of modern scholars but also from neglect and carelessness in the understanding of his intentions and the artistry of his work. In this important new monograph, Elizabeth Baynham sets out to remedy these deficiencies and, with sensitivity and erudition, to locate Quintus Curtius within both the Latin literary tradition and the Alexander historiographical tradition.

In the first chapter, B. explains the problems that have hampered the study of the text of Quintus Curtius, and the reasons why he has been treated with such hostility by modern scholars. Dating him in the first century AD (although she delays the argument for this dating until an Appendix at the end of the monograph), she sets the scene for the rest of the book and makes preliminary comments about the implications for the biographical nature of the work. She also discusses the rhetorical and philosophical environment in which the Histories was written, as well as the structure of the work, and the major themes of fortuna and regnum which bind the whole together.

In chapter 2, B. places Curtius in a Roman historiographical context and considers the influences of other writers of the period on his work. She concludes that, although there are significant thematic and structural similarities with Sallust’s Jugurtha and the contemporary rhetorical and philosophical writings, the most important influence on Curtius was Livy — Livy’s first pentad in particular —, finding correspondences between their respective treatments of regnum (although one may quibble about how aware Livy was that he was writing these early books under the principate). She also points out the similarities with a contemporary Alexander historian, Pompeius Trogus, but shows that, although at points the texts converge, the differences in purpose of both (Trogus was writing a Universal History) meant that the emphases in the two accounts often lay in different directions, affecting the selection and arrangement of material. B. then goes on to discuss the structure of Curtius’ texts and shows how, although the text is badly mutilated, by analysing the rhythms in the arrangement of episodes one can still detect a pentadic structure. This chapter concludes by considering the speeches in the History, and B. explains Curtius’ lack of interest in what was actually said, arguing instead that even when Curtius is close to his source, who may or (more probably) may not be interested himself in reproducing an ‘accurate’ text, he uses speeches for his own purposes and to bring out his particular themes.

The third chapter deals with Curtius’ methodology as a biographer of Alexander and discusses his relationship to other works on the Macedonian king. The guiding idea behind this chapter is the ‘Alexander Schlauch‘, ‘the bottle that can be filled with any new wine’. Using this metaphor, B. explores how every historian, both ancient and modern, of Alexander reads him in a different way and has a different understanding of who he was and why he acted the way that he did. This is no less true for Curtius than for William Tarn, and B. draws on three episodes from Curtius which also appear in other sources — the story of the Gordion knot, the siege of Ariamazes’ rock, and the burning of Persepolis — to illustrate how Curtius uses them to present his Alexander, as opposed to the Alexander of other historians. Thus, B. argues, for Curtius Alexander is the man of vis and self-confidence, whom fortune favours, who is ambitious and acts foremost in the interests of expediency, but who was ultimately corrupted by his own fate.

This then leads, in the second half of the book, to a more detailed exploration of the themes of fortuna and regnum and how the fortune which always works in Alexander’s favour, allowing him to be at first a great king, comes to work against him so that he becomes a tyrannus rather than rex and dux. In chapter 4, B. looks at the development and intricacies of the concept of fortuna, and shows the ambivalence of the concept for the working of good or evil. Alexander may have had fortuna, but this was finally to have a negative impact on his regnum, just as initially it ensured that nothing could go wrong. In chapters 5 and 6, B. considers the theme of regnum itself, showing how Curtius uses comparisons with Darius to show not only Alexander’s greatness, but also the seeds of his downfall. It was the ‘unkingly’ regnum of Darius, which had no respect for fides, pietas or libertas, which provides the contrast for, but at the same time prefigures, Alexander’s regnum. Nevertheless, B. argues, even before the end of the first pentad, there are hints of what is to come. In Curtius’ description of Alexander’s visit to Siwah, tensions are evident in Alexander’s relationship with his men, and the potential for a threat to their libertas is already apparent. In the final chapter, B. demonstrates how much this is a work of its time, reflecting, in a way reminiscent of Tacitus, while exploring on its own terms, themes of regnum, libertas and tyrannus, themes which were of vital concern to those living under the Roman emperors. As B. shows, for Curtius, Alexander’s superbia and ira worked on his fortuna so that his regnum was corrupted, and libertas for his Macedonians was lost. Alexander had become another Darius — a truly Asian king.

Through its subtle and wide-ranging treatment, this monograph represents an important contribution to Alexander studies and to Roman historiography as B. moves knowledgeably and effortlessly through the problems and pitfalls of Alexander source-criticism, as well as Roman historical writing of the end of the republic and beginning of the imperial period. Beautifully produced, there is little evidence of the origins of this monograph in a PhD dissertation (except, perhaps, in chapter 3, where there is more explanation than is needed of the historiographical proclivities of historians ancient and modern). Nevertheless, the unity of the book might have been helped by a final chapter, or at least a strong conclusion, which made explicit the implications of this kind of study for historians concerned with Alexander and his reign.

This book will probably be of principal interest to Alexander historians, despite its emphasis on Curtius as text rather than history. Since most of the Latin is translated (although there are some omissions), language should not prove a bar to ancient historians whose access to the original language is limited. Yet there is little ‘history’ in this monograph, although it is subtly underpinned by a deep understanding of the historical problems. This, however, does not undermine its importance to ancient historians since, before one can come to any understanding of Alexander, it is important to come to an understanding of the texts that describe him. In this monograph, B. not only has shown Curtius as a text worth reading for its own sake and for the place it holds in the discussion of fortuna and regnum in imperial Rome, but also B. has provided the tools for ancient historians to start to unpick Curtius’ text since, by understanding how Curtius constructs his Alexander, one can have a better understanding of how to use him as a source for the historical Alexander himself.

If anything, this monograph moves the historical Alexander further from view, as it shows Curtius’ Alexander for what he is — another illusion. For Curtius, Alexander is a vehicle for another story, and a story perhaps more relevant to imperial Rome than the dog-end of the fourth century BC. Yet for Alexander historians this is an important understanding to reach. Only by understanding what Alexander historians wanted the ‘great’ man to be, can we come to any understanding at all of what he was.