BMCR 2001.05.21

In the Absence of Alexander: Harpalus and the Failure of Macedonian Authority

, In the absence of Alexander : Harpalus and the failure of of Macedonian authority. Lang classical studies, v. 12. New York: Peter Lang, 1999. 185 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0820439878.

Christopher W. Blackwell, In the Absence of Alexander: Harpalus and the Failure of Macedonian Authority. Peter Lang, New York etc. 1999. 185pp. ISBN 0-8204-3987-8.

Christopher Ehrhardt University of Waikato, P.O. Box 3105 Hamilton, New Zealand The author (henceforth B.) has written a clear and useful account of a strange episode of the reign of Alexander: the flight of his treasurer, Harpalus, with an army of 6000 men and a war-chest of, allegedly, 5000 talents, from Babylon to Athens in mid-summer 324 B.C., and the re-actions this provoked in Athens and among the Macedonian authorities on the western fringe of Alexander’s empire. The outlines of the story, and most of its details, are clear and undisputed; they can easily be found in Berve, under the names of the characters involved—Harpalus himself, Antipater, Olympias, and Philoxenus on the Macedonian side, Demosthenes, Hypereides, and Dinarchus on the Athenian,1 and have recently been treated, in German, by Siegfried Jaschinski.2 Besides the obvious usefulness, for the linguistically challenged, of having this episode discussed in English, what does B.’s book offer?

In B.’s own opinion, the important novelty is that he looks at the events in the light supposedly shed on the concepts of ‘authority’, ‘hegemony’, and ‘power’ by modern theorists, including Paul Veyne and (almost inevitably) Michel Foucault, and thus is enabled to explain why the Athenians declined to surrender Harpalus, or his money, to any of the Macedonian potentates who demanded him, despite the obvious dangers of defying the representatives of an empire which stretched from the borders of Attica to the Punjab. This reviewer must candidly admit that the theorising about concepts provided him with little illumination and that it was a relief when B. returned to the real if dim and often inadequate light given by the historical sources and the tricks and illusions presented by Attic orators.

B. does, however, focus on a real problem: the Macedonian empire in 324 B.C. was incomparably more powerful than any Greek state; even the resources of the Macedonian viceroy in Macedonia and Greece, Antipater, were too great for any single state to defy successfully—as the fate of Sparta, seven years earlier, had proved. There was no power in the known world which could support a Greek state against the Macedonians so that even if a Greek state, or a coalition of them, could successfully defy Antipater, their resistance would last only for as long as it took the imperial forces to arrive from Asia (the course of the ‘Lamian’ (or, in the Greeks’ terminology, ‘Hellenic’) War shows what would happen). Yet when the Athenians received three separate requests—from the regent Antipater, from Alexander’s mother Olympias, and from Philoxenus, who held, it seems, a general oversight over the finances and also over the Greek cities of Asia Minor3—to hand over Harpalus, they did not accede to any of them. How is this apparently reckless defiance of Macedonian power to be explained?

Rather than looking for theorists of ‘power’ and ‘authority’, B. might have found more illumination by consulting a work on the closing years of another self-willed and irresponsible despot, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler.4 Trevor-Roper wrote (pp. 2-3),

In truth, irresponsible absolutism is incompatible with totalitarian administration; for in the uncertainty of politics, the danger of arbitrary change, and the fear of personal revenge, every man5 whose position makes him either strong or vulnerable must protect himself against surprise by reserving from the common pool whatever power he has managed to acquire.

This was the position of Alexander’s leading subordinates on the king’s return from India, as Harpalus obviously knew.6 Antipater knew it too—already some five years earlier he had said, ‘If Parmenio plotted against Alexander, who is to be trusted? And if he did not, what is to be done?’7 Harpalus represented the only power centre which was not under Alexander’s direct control, and he was (of course) surrounded by enemies, who could hope to profit from his downfall. Therefore, a force of 6000 mercenaries and a substantial treasure would be welcome strengthening of his position; it would be equally unwelcome to Olympias, and to his other enemies. So if the Athenians surrendered Harpalus and his forces to Antipater—who, as the king’s representative in Macedonia and Greece and his lieutenant on the ‘Common Council’ of the Greek alliance (the ‘League of Corinth’), had arguably the strongest claim to obedience—they were certain to offend the king’s mother, Olympias, and the king’s viceroy in western Asia, Philoxenus, and very possibly the king himself—if he heard of and believed the rumours of Antipater’s discussions with the Aetolians8 and other Greek states.

If, instead, they acceded to Olympias’ request, that would guarantee Antipater’s hostility, who was close at hand; and to give in to Philoxenus would be even worse—Antipater would be outraged by having a rival’s authority recognised in his own sphere of action, and there is no reason to suppose that Alexander felt towards Philoxenus any of the kindness he felt towards Olympias. Finally, the Athenians probably knew, and could certainly guess, that the king thought their city was too powerful and self-willed, and might be persuaded—by Samian exiles among others—to attack and very possibly destroy them.9 Ever since the defeat at Chaeronea, the Athenians had been strengthening their army and fleet and stock-piling munitions, and by 324 their armed forces, on land and sea, were more powerful and better equipped than ever before in their history—but against Alexander’s empire, they had little hope. For them, too, 6000 more men, and several thousand talents of silver would be welcome, and they had every reason to delay handing them over—provided they did not provoke the Macedonians’ wrath by their delay.

B. is quite right that Alexander had not established a clear chain of command or hierarchy of power among his representatives before he left Europe. This may have been due to the young man’s lack of interest in administrative detail, but it also made it harder for Antipater to establish an unquestioned power-base in Europe, and very possibly the king was ready to sacrifice some efficiency (which would be a problem for Antipater, but not for himself) to achieve greater security. The multiple embassies to Athens, therefore, and the Athenians’ temporising responses to all of them, are—when seen in context—perhaps not as great a problem as B. suggests and as, at first sight, they appear to be.

B. also brings into play the alleged demand by Alexander for deification by the Greeks (pp. 151-55). Well over a century ago, D. G. Hogarth proved the non-existence of this demand,10 and his arguments were repeated and extended by Dacre Balsdon in 1950,11 but this phantom continues to haunt the secondary literature. Brief reflection should suffice to banish it: what sort of a god is it, who has to command humans to worship him? Obviously his attributes, deeds and power are insufficient to persuade or convince. Dionysus, in Euripides’ Bacchae does not command Pentheus or other unbelievers to fall down and adore, he lets them experience his power. In (for Alexander) recent times, the Samian oligarchs did not replace Hera by Lysander because the Spartan commanded it, but because they had experienced his great and efficacious power, while Hera demonstrably had failed to protect them (Plut., Lys. 18. 4). Similarly, Agesilaus did not demand divine honours from the Thasians—they spontaneously (or ‘spontaneously’?) offered them and he declined (Plut., Mor. 210D). The same must be the case with Alexander: his divinity must be manifest and convincing, and recognition of it must come from the prospective worshippers. This was the purpose of the stage-managed introduction of prostration, which Callisthenes ruined (Plutarch, Alexander 54); it was also the purpose of the decrees of the Greek states—passed often after heated debates, as the fragmentary evidence still shows (collected, B. 151-54)—over which Antipater cast a blight, by declaring such recognition blasphemous (Suda, s.v. ‘Antipatros’). But B.’s conclusion (p. 155), ‘By honoring the king as a divinity, the Greeks seem also to have elevated him out of his place in the immediate structure of Macedonian power’, seems bizarre: the Samians’ recognition of Lysander’s ‘divinity’ did not subtract from Lysander’s power in Ionia, it enhanced it.

Altogether, B.’s book is a mixture: a careful and often very good investigation of ‘what actually happened’, interspersed with theorising that seems not closely connected to any historical fact. Generally, his statements are accurate, but he has the strange belief that the Cadmea is not in, but only near Thebes (pp. 75, 111), and that it was the Macedonian garrison there which was the most direct threat to Athens. In fact, Philip had been able to be so ‘lenient’ in his treatment of Athens after Chaeronea because, by annexing the Thracian Chersonese, he controlled the grain supply—the famine which followed Aegospotami was burnt into the Athenians’ collective memory. After the loss of the Chersonese, they tried to secure a new source of grain, outside Macedonian control, by sending an ‘oecist’ with the auspicious name ‘Miltiades’ to found a colony in the Adriatic area and to protect the supply route from Sicily.12

It is irritating that B. consistently attributes the ‘Lives of the Ten Orators’ to ‘Plutarch’, since in fact their author is unknown, and he must be called ‘Ps.-Plutarch’. More serious is that he unquestioningly assumes that the speech ‘On the Treaties with Alexander’ (Ps.-Demosthenes 17) is a genuine oration, delivered about the time of Agis’ war with Antipater, and is unaware that seventeen years ago a good case was made for seeing it as a rhetorical exercise from Hellenistic times.13 Therefore one must now first demonstrate that the speech is indeed a product of the late 330s—or at least that its contents are historically reliable and not wholly or in part the invention of a later rhetor—before using it as evidence.

B. writes clearly and usually correctly, nor are there many misprints either in English or in Greek (I found none in the few Latin quotations); German and French, however, are handled more roughly. The following comments may be made:

p. 122, ‘[he] is careful to distinguish the prior rumours…with(sic) their later fulfillment’; 147, ‘The Exiles’ Decree was a bald-faced command’; 152, first four lines, the computer has written English in Greek letters and Greek in Roman, and in punctuation marks; consistently, in footnotes and bibliography, Bengtson’s Staatsvertra+ge is without its second ‘r’; Kaerst has acquired the initial ‘I.’ (for ‘J’), and in one place (p. 147) Walbank is ‘H.’ (not ‘F.’, as he is elsewhere). In the bibliography, Athen und Alexander is credited to Eduard (not to W.) Will. I would also protest against the use of ‘reticent’ to mean ‘reluctant’ (p. 104), and the phrase ‘levying accusations’ (p. 109). And who would have had the temerity to provide a ‘discernible office or job-description for her’, where ‘her’ refers to the formidable queen-mother, Olympias (p. 85 n. 10)? The date ‘336’ in the penultimate line of p. 117 is presumably simply a misprint for ‘335’.

Some of the translations are inaccurate or inadequate; strangely, after translating Dinarchus I 69 correctly on p. 30, as ‘Would you propose that we fight a war. since you (emphasis added) so successfully managed our previous wars?’, B. then uses the quotation both earlier (p. 29) and later (p. 145) with the mistranslation ‘since we so successfully…’ P. 18 (repeated p. 27), Ps.-Plut. on Demosthenes ( Mor. 846b) does not say ‘[Harpalus] sailed in, bringing a thousand Darics’ (after all, he brought much more!), but ‘after Harpalus sailed in, Demosthenes, on receiving a thousand darics, changed his mind.’ p. 44, Justin 9. 5, non pacem rati, quae non ipsis civitatibus conveniret, sed a victore ferretur, the second clause does not mean ‘which was not beneficial for the states themselves’, but ‘which was not agreed to by the states themselves’.

Spot checks of the commendably full, general index have revealed no faults; I have not checked the literary index locorum, but the index of inscriptions and papyri omits at least ten references, and several inscriptions are not listed at all.

Few would agree with B.’s conclusions that (p. 158) under Cleomenes of Naucratis ‘Egypt had slipped quietly into a new position, in Alexander’s sphere of influence, but no longer in his empire’ and (p. 159) ‘Alexander’s letter containing the Exiles Decree confirmed this impotence [of the Macedonian hegemony] by issuing a threat on behalf of Antipater that Antipater could not hope to have carried out’. But his book is worth reading, since it often contains good observations, and it deals seriously with the evidence. Every institution where Greek history is studied should have it, even though it will not be of much use to most under-graduates, and may even mislead them into underestimating the power of Macedon, of Antipater, and of Alexander.


1. Berve, Helmut, Das Alexanderreich auf prosopographischer Grundlage, 2 vol., Munich 1926, nos. 143, 94, 581, 793, 263, 762, 247.

2. Alexander und Griechenland unter dem Eindruck der Flucht des Harpalus, Bonn 1981.

3. Berve n. 793. B., without explanation, conflates Berve’s nos. 793 and 794; he seems to have used only the first volume of Berve’s work.

4. 5th ed., London 1978.

5. With reference to Olympias, Cleopatra and others, we should add ‘and every woman’.

6. For all this, see Badian, ‘Harpalus’, JHS 81, 1961, 16-43.

7. Plutarch, Mor. 183F, Loeb transl.; sensibly discussed by B., p. 76.

8. Satisfactorily discussed by B., pp. 115-17.

9. SIG 3rd ed., 312, discussed by B. pp. 123-24.

10. English Historical Review 2, 1887. (I regret I do not have the page numbers here; it is not cited in B.’s, very good, bibliography).

11. Historia 1, 1950, 363-88.

12. M.N. Tod, Greek Historical Inscriptions vol. 2 (Oxford 1948, reprinted 1962), no. 200 lines 217-33, not discussed by B.

13. Enrica Culasso Gastaldi, Sul trattato con Alessandro, Padua 1984.