BMCR 2003.06.29

The Roman Alexander. Reading a Cultural Myth

, The Roman Alexander : readings a cultural myth. Exeter studies in history. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. xxiv, 277 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0859896773. $26.95 (pb).

As everybody knows, Alexander the Great did not actually go to Rome. Nevertheless, his importance in the Roman world is an impressive one, and “Roman engagement with Alexander” [p. xiv] is worth attention. The power of Alexander’s legend still puzzles both historic inquiries and modern fictions, so that a book on this subject may always claim relevance in challenging a cultural icon.1

Spencer’s book is mainly concerned with the Roman tradition about Alexander, as witnessed especially in literary and historiographical texts, but also has a brief evaluation of “its continuing impact on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries” [p. xiv]. After an introduction, which presents the content and the aim of the book, Spencer organizes her materials into five sections: chapters 2 to 5 are based upon an anthology of Latin texts concerning Alexander. The chronological span goes from Plautus’ Bacchides, the first mention of the Macedonian king in the extant corpus of Roman literature, to the 2nd century AD.

Chapter 1 considers some preliminary and general items. First the problem of naming Alexander as “the Macedonian” or “the Great”: this hints at the political interpretation of Alexander’s fame in Rome. The main hypothesis is that the use of “Macedonian” tends to convey a derogatory dismissal of A’s greatness, as stressing the king’s unimpressive birthplace; on the other hand, the use of “Great” underlines the isolation of Alexander from the context of his historical experience. The second problem is the “official control of information and media” on Alexander’s part [p. 5], introducing a brief reflexion on the historiographic tradition. This leads to the role of Alexander as the central subject in the dialectic between East and West, whatever West be chosen: Greece/Persia, Rome/Hellenistic world. Therefore, the Roman (r)evolution in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. is stressed as a moment of political and cultural transformation: here the theme or the image of Alexander worked as a mirror for self-definition. The Rome of the principes had to cope with the archetype of principes : this was an unescapable task, notably starting from the Augustan era.

The readings are arranged according to theme; Latin texts follow the translations. Rightly, Livius’ digression on Alexander in the 9th book opens Chapter 2; the analysis of this “amazing and utterly unexpected passage” [p. 43] is deeply rooted in the dynamics of the Augustan age, suggesting that the son of Caesar is a sort of “subtext”. Then follows a selection from Cicero’s letters and works, and some lines from the Senecas and from Curtius are discussed. Spencer’s aim is to show how Roman writers focussed mainly on the “relation between ruler and subject” [p. 67]; so the traditional items about Alexander’s life, such as heavy drinking in banquets or a fit of rage or a friend’s murder, are strictly linked with the author’s historical situation, as allusions or caveats about the problem of supreme power, highly significant for the contemporary audience. Spencer is aware of the largely topical nature of the material, peculiarly evident in the pages by Curtius and Seneca. In her opinion, this does not challenge the political meaning of Alexander: “That this moralizing imagery is a commonplace of Alexander-literature … does not diminish its force … Alexander is a key character in the philosophical war against bad government” [p. 100].

This may be true, but the transition from philosophical to political interpretation sometimes seems weak. From the Hellenistic epoch onwards, ancient intellectuals faced the problem of linking kingship and philosophy. The literature Peri Basileias, the “King’s Mirrors” treatises, discussed the limits of power by proposing selected exempla of good and evil taken from past history. In some respect, the case of Alexander was a-chronic, a simple exemplum open to free reuse and reshaping. The formalized language of rhetoric hinders too direct interpretation of anecdotes as allegories, nor is Spencer’s reference to “alternative reading” or “implicit commenting” enough (108f). When Seneca’s De clementia [1.25.1] discusses cruelty and quotes proverbial episodes in Alexander’s saga, Nero is more than evoked “implicitly” [p. 111], he is the target of the whole discussion.

Peculiar attention is devoted to the beginning of Lucan’s 10th book, dealing with Caesar’s visit to Alexander’s grave in Alexandria [pp. 114ff]: a violent and biased declamation, which presents the Macedonian king as a worldwide pirate. Discussed at length is the very first line of the section, where Alexander is called “the insane son of Pellean Philip”. This is a derogatory use, in Spencer’s opinion, since it diminishes Alexander “by forcing him not just back to Macedon, but to the city of his birth” [p. 114]. Now somewhere in Seneca Alexander is called “master of a despised corner of the earth” [ ep. 119.8], but in Lucan Pellaeus is actually Philip, not Alexander. The point is rather that Lucan rebukes ironically the legend of the king’s divine origin. He was not the son of Ammon, but of Philip: again a philosophical, more than political, theme, as in Lucian dialog. mort. 13. On the other hand, any inference about the allusive meaning of Pellaeus in Lucan should not overlook the author’s usus scribendi,2 and a conclusion that “Lucan combined literature, politics and insurrection” [p. 117] seems exaggerated.

Although recognizing that “there is no one stable and internally consistent figure who can be defined ‘the Roman Alexander'” [p. 119, cf. 167], Spencer discusses in chapter 4 further aspects of the Alexander image as a model for political reflection. The famous passage in Cicero’s pro Archia is analyzed as an example of “media manipulation” of great historical personalities, as in the case of Achilles/Homer, Alexander/Cherilus, Cicero/Lucceius. Cultural models and political ambition run together in the late Roman republic. But as Horace’s Ars 232ff shows, there was also an aesthetic problem: Alexander’s experience itself proved the artistic inadequacy of encomiastic epic in the style of Hellenistic poetry.

More consistent is the analysis of early imperial texts, like Curtius or the Elder Seneca: here too, rhetorical features and topic themes are discussed by Spencer as carrying heavy political allusiveness. Interesting and less expected sources are found here, for example, Statius’ Silvae 1 and 4, or Juvenal 10.133, the latter with an illuminating judgement: “Juvenal is not parodying declamations, he is writing a parody declamation, recycling the rhetorical clichés and caricatures” [p. 158]. With some differences, this recycling is true of most part of the examined texts.

Throughout the book the reader meets some schemes of analysis which do raise some doubts. This is the case of Africa, a region which Spencer treats as a unity, speaking both of Alexandria and of Carthage, as forming a topic threat area against Rome. A dangerous connection between Macedonia and Carthage actually took place during the Second Punic War, with involvement of Philip V, not of Pyrrhus [p. 157]. The link between Alexander and Hannibal, however, was not due to an allegedly common African nature [p. 159, cf. 11, 185]. The traditional topic linked Hannibal with fides Punica, which was different from oriental and Alexandrian tryphê. The concurrent menace of Carthage and Macedonia, to be sure, was exploited, but in a different way, by Hellenistic propaganda.3 Again, the textualization of Alexander needs study on a larger dimension than Roman literary texts. The same is true for Silius’ Punica 13.762, where Alexander is hailed by Scipio for “undoubtedly real descent from Lybian Ammon”, patently reversing Lucan’s scorn for Alexander’s divine birth.

The “Roman Alexander complex” is the subject of chapter 5, where the shifting power of Alexander’s fame in Roman culture and politics is further analyzed, showing the typical range of greatness and debauchery which the tradition had attached to Alexander. Again one must note that the reshaping and rewriting of Alexander’s deeds should be considered a complicated mixture of fictional history, topic moralism, and political hint. Isolating one of these paths as more significant causes serious distortion.

The strength of fictional recreation is discussed in chapter 6 on “Alexander after Alexander,” with a short appendix on “Modern Alexanders”. Here a rapid and selective discussion is to be found, about Medieval and Renaissance texts, pictures of Alexander, popular movies and contemporary novels. Again the reader meets useful material and reasonable judgements mixed with more hasty statements. Such is the case for the place of Alexander in the Christian perspective of world history [pp. 206ff]: a wider analysis of Augustine, civ. 18.42, or Orosius 3, would had been helpful. On the other hand, the unsystematic approach to the iconographic tradition makes the sections devoted to European painting largely unsatisfactory. This can be seen in the short descriptions attached to the figures in the text. One may doubt whether Veronese’s “The family of Darius before Alexander” aimed to “deconstruct the mythical charisma” of the king since he was not immediately recognized by Sisygambis [p. 84]. Equally uncertain is the claim that Alexander’s gaze in Le Brun’s “Entry into Babylonia” [p. 120] means something about “Alexander’s problematic translation from miltary genius to mighty emperor”.

Although not free from faults, Spencer’s book is rich and lively. The disposition of the material, neither by chronology nor by author, sometimes splits the thematic and textual unity in different sections, with slight overlappings and some loss. A more serious challenge is the separation of anthologized texts from their context. This is probably unavoidable in such collections; nevertheless it has sometimes relevant consequences. Spencer’s treatment of Roman texts on Alexander as key-texts is not always aware of the differentiated and complicated nature of the evidence. The effort of digging out the political aspects embedded or simply alluded to in texts causes a sort of disregard for stylistic matters, dismissing the highly formalized nature of many if not all the discussed texts.

The consistent political interpretation in Spencer’s analysis often faces the danger of overinterpretation. Her modernizing approach introduces some linguistic expressions like “media control” (5 and elsewhere), or “new world order” (146, cf. 207). But in spite of such carefulness in detecting hidden allusions, some aspects remain unnoticed, such as Livy’s reference to the levissimi ex Graecis, which is of high importance in understanding the digression on Alexander.4 This is perhaps connected to the general structure of this book, whose Roman focalization gives the theme broader emphasis but largely omits the Greek roots of the matter. The Roman Alexander was created by writers, largely using and experiencing two libraries, two languages, two worlds, not only the Latin one. The marginalization here of Plutarch, not to say of Dio Chrysostomus or Arrian, is not without consequence. Nothing to do with Rome? The same may be true of the use and abuse of Alexander in late antique culture, which, however, lies beyond the chronological limit of this work.

The book’s editing and printing are good, except for some small inaccuracies [Nevius never wrote Punica, p.12] and a not too careful presentation of Latin texts [pp. 106, 150, 151].


1. In fact, research on Alexander is still going on, as recent books demonstrate: see for example I. Worthington (ed.) Alexander the Great. A Reader (London/New York, 2002), or C. Jouanno, Naissance et métamorphoses du Roman d’Alexandre (Paris, 2002).

2. Alexander is called Macedon at 8.694.

3. C. G. Leidl, Historie und Fiktion. Zum Hannibalbrief (P. Hamb. 129), in C. Schubert, K. Brodersen (eds.), Roma und das griechische Osten. Festschrift Hatto Schmidt, Stuttgart 1995, 151-169, with further literature.

4. As Piero Treves demostrated fifty years ago: Il Mito di Alessandro e la Roma di Augusto (Milan, 1953).