BMCR 2001.09.32

Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction

, , , Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. viii + 370. $60.00.

In July 1997 a symposium on Alexander the Great was held at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia, whose purpose was to encourage greater collaboration and cooperation among researchers. A selection of ten essays presented at the symposium and an introduction comprise the volume. The purpose of the papers, according to the editor, is to stimulate scholarship on the Alexander period. Whether further stimulation in that area of research is needed, however, might be argued.

In the Introduction (pp. 1-22), B. Bosworth identifies the aim of the papers to identify distortion and myth-making in the inevitable and continuous re-telling of Alexander the Great’s story. He places this attempt against the background of the ever-increasing popularization of Alexander the Great in the media of television and the Internet. On the face of it, this attempt is hobbled by the all too familiar problem of the lack of sources for Alexander. Bosworth summarizes these historiographical problems and strikes a note of optimism in outlining the achievements of the volume’s contributors. The essays have been placed in a sequence beginning with political analyses, followed by historical interpretations of iconography and literary propaganda, and ending with those dealing with historiographical issues.

The first essay, “A Tale of Two Empires: Hernán Cortés and Alexander the Great” (pp. 23-49), by B. Bosworth, presents an interpretative model by contrasting the early sixteenth century conquest of Mexico by Cortés to Alexander’s conquests in the far east. He argues that the historical tradition of Cortés illuminates Alexander’s actions. Imperial ideology with attitudes toward the subjugated and justification of conquest are discussed and a conclusion reached that imperialism in any age has uniformity in its process.

Next, E. Badian, in “Conspiracies” (pp. 50-95), examines in detail conspiracies at the Macedonian and Persian courts. Conflicting source material is analyzed on the basis of cumulative probability with a pattern emerging of Alexander systematically exploiting court intrigues and tensions in order to suppress opposition.

M. Flower, in “Alexander the Great and Panhellenism” (pp. 96-135), examines the political impact of panhellenism in the Greek city-states uniting to face the Persian threat. Panhellenism is adopted as a policy by Alexander and is seen as the justification for the burning of Persepolis and was an issue throughout Alexander’s reign.

E. Fredricksmeyer, in “Alexander the Great and the Kingship of Asia” (pp.136-166), analyzes Alexander’s concept of kingship. He argues that Alexander did not assume the Persian kingship but rather a kingship of his own creation. In his view, Alexander had ecumenical aims for a kingdom of Asia that transcended the boundaries of the Old Persian Empire. Alexander evolved this concept as early as 332 by promoting himself as King of all Asia. The destruction of Persepolis was a clear signal that the Persian Empire was extinct. In order for the Persians to feel affinity with the new regime, Alexander adopted oriental dress and custom. O. Palagia, in “Hephaestion’s Pyre and the Royal Hunt of Alexander” (pp. 167-206), combines iconographic analysis with historical interpretation to argue for a late dating, after the eastern campaigns of Alexander, of the hunting fresco on Tomb II at Vergina, which essentially demolishes the long-held opinion of its excavator, Manolis Andronikos, that the tomb is that of Alexander’s father, Philip II. Accepting the authenticity of Diodoros’ description of Hephaistion’s funeral pyre, she compares it to a Macedonian monument of the late fourth century excavated at Salamis on Cyprus. The description of the animal hunt frieze in Diodorus is the first in a discussion of hunting scenes in early Hellenistic art. These scenes of lion hunts are not attested in Greek art before Alexander, and Palagia argues that they were inspired by the hunts that Alexander staged in the Persian game reserves. In her view the hunting scene on Tomb II at Vergina, which is a Royal hunt connected with Asia because of its lion hunt theme, dates the tomb to the reign of Alexander, most likely containing the remains of Philip III Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea Eurydice, who were reburied in 316 B.C. by Cassander.

B. Bosworth and E. Baynham both write on the Liber de Morte, an extensive account of Alexander’s last days that is the final episode in all versions of the Alexander Romance. Both contributors examine the premise that the propaganda resulting in the Liber de Morte originated in Ptolemy’s court about 309 B.C. Ptolemy’s aim was to present himself as a champion of Alexander and his family, and to cast aspersions on his enemies, Antigonos and Cassander, thereby emphasizing his legitimacy as the true heir to Alexander.

In his essay “Ptolemy and the Will of Alexander” (pp. 207-241), B. Bosworth accepts a date of 309/8 for the document, which resolves conflicts within it that have resulted when one attempts to date it to 321 or 317 B.C, as often posited. In 309/8 Ptolemy was courting Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra, and championing the liberty of the Greeks against Cassander and Antigonos. Ptolemy is represented as the true heir of Alexander, a natural successor after the murder of Alexander’s son. The propaganda in the document promotes Ptolemy’s political aspirations.

E. Baynham, in “A Baleful Birth in Babylon: The Significance of the Prodigy in the Liber de Morte —An Investigation of Genre” (pp. 242-262), demonstrates that the dramatic opening of the Liber de Morte, a gruesome portent of Alexander’s death, long thought to be a late interpolation, does make sense if seen in the period after the death of Alexander IV. The portent fits with the tradition of the omens of Alexander’s death and shows knowledge of Babylonian mantic procedure. The anonymous author of the Liber de Morte wrote a political novel akin to Xenophon’s historical romance, the Cyropedia, an historical fiction designed to flatter the intended audience, the Rhodians, and further the political ambitions of Ptolemy.

E. Carney, in “Artifice and Alexander History” (pp.263-285), tackles the historicity of two recurrent themes: the series of exchanges between Alexander and his general Parmenio, and the episodes of exclusion of the king from the troops. In the first instance, Carney concludes that the hostile exchange between Alexander and Parmenio is probably not historical but rather originates in the propagandist history of Callisthenes which treated Parmenio as an opposition figure. On the other hand, the relationship between Alexander and his troops recorded in the sources had a lot to do with Alexander’s use of an explicit connection to Homer. The accounts by the historians of the episodes of exclusion were undoubtedly affected by the literary model of the Iliad and by a deliberate comparison of Alexander to Achilles sulking in his tent.

R. Billows, in “Polybius and Alexander Historiography” (pp. 286-306), analyzes the references to Alexander in Polybius. He finds that in addition to five incidental references to Alexander, there are fourteen passages of more substance relevant to the king. He argues that Polybius drew upon Hieronymus of Cardia and Demetrios of Phaleron, historians of the decades immediately following the death of Alexander. Polybius presents an account that is evenhanded, presenting atrocities such as the sack of Thebes at the same time as generally presenting Alexander in a favorable light, especially his military prowess and his character. The opinion of Alexander as favored by fortune may go back to Demetrios of Phaleron, and some of the historical detail could be ascribed to Hieronymos of Cardia, whose monumental history of the successors extended back to the reign of Alexander.

In the final essay, “Originality and its Limits in the Alexander Sources of the Early Empire” (pp. 307-325), J. Atkinson concentrates on the concerns of the primary historians. He traces the way that each of the authors of the primary sources was impacted by his own period. For example, Curtius’ description of the roles of Philip Arrhidaeus and Perdiccas at Babylon is influenced by his own experience of political intrigue and murder in the early Roman empire. History then becomes a means for contemporary commentary and reflection.

A bibliography including most of the recent Alexander literature and a useful index complete the book. This is a necessary volume for anyone interested in the continuing and growing mountain of modern scholarship on Alexander, the Macedonians, and the Hellenistic period.