BMCR 2004.02.13

Alexander the Great. Historical Sources in Translation. Blackwell Sourcebooks in Ancient History.

, , Alexander the Great : historical sources in translation. Blackwell sourcebooks in ancient history. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. xxx, 342 pages : maps ; 26 cm.. ISBN 0631228209 $64.95.

A review has to answer one simple question: is it advisable to buy this book? This time, the answer is an unqualified yes. Heckel and Yardley (H & Y) have collected many sources on the reign of Alexander and offer admirable translations and fine explanations. Among the texts are long fragments from well-known authors like Arrian, Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch, but the reader will also find interesting, lesser-known sources, like the Itinerary of Alexander, the Metz Epitome, and several important inscriptions.

However, the first pages of the book appear to be carelessly edited,1 and there are several minor mistakes,2 which can easily be corrected when the book is reprinted. Personally, I would not have devoted an entire chapter to ‘Alexander and the Romans’; instead, ‘Alexander and the Barbarians’ would have received more attention, because in my view, Alexander’s reign is extremely relevant to the current debate on transcultural leadership. But this is merely a matter of emphasis and personal opinion. I have learned a lot from this book.

Consequently, I have only one single point of serious criticism: the book is incomplete. It wants to offer ‘the raw material of ancient history’ (page ii), but contains, as is indicated in the title, only written sources. Archaeological discoveries are virtually ignored, even though they have greatly improved our understanding of, for example, the sack of Persepolis. We now know that the Macedonians placed seats on the eastern platform wall to watch the destruction of the palaces.3 It is also to be regretted that H & Y barely use numismatic evidence (although their book contains three pictures of ancient coins).

Even accepting H & Y’s decision to restrict the raw material of ancient history to written sources, the book is incomplete, as it contains only Greek and Latin texts. Egyptian sources are absent. Somtutefnakht is not mentioned, although his autobiography, the Naples stela, illustrates the panic after the battle of Issus. But the real weakness of the book is the fact that not a single Babylonian text has been included, even though the Astronomical Diaries, the Dynastic Prophecy and the Babylonian chronicles are contemporary sources that offer useful information.

Many scholars have already studied the Babylonian texts.4 In the remainder of this review I will try to show that H & Y should have included these sources in their book. They certainly could have done this, because all relevant Babylonian sources have been accessible in fine translations for at least a decade and a half. I will also offer some new interpretations. Some of them have, to the best of my knowledge, not been published before.

I will start with the dynastic crisis in the Persian empire in 338-336, which led to the accession of Darius III. On page 54, H & Y state that Artaxerxes III Ochus was murdered by his chamberlain Bagoas, who placed Arses on the throne. This is the story as given by Diodorus Siculus, and H & Y continue with a translation of 17.5.3-6.2, where we can read that Bagoas was also responsible for the assassination of Arses, and was in turn killed by Darius.

We know more about these events. The history of Babylonian and Persian kings known as the Dynastic Prophecy (first published in 1975) suggests that Arses was killed after an open revolt, not by a palace coup. It confirms that Bagoas murdered the king but also allows the interpretation that he acted as an agent of Darius. This suggests that, when the Macedonians invaded Asia, the Persian empire was involved in nothing less than a civil war. Even when H & Y disagree with this suggestion, they could have pointed out that our sources contradict each other.

The most interesting parts of the Astronomical Diaries were already known before their first edition in 1988. These cuneiform texts offer two kinds of information: astronomical observations during a certain month, and contemporary events in Babylonia. They are the data that the astrologers of Babylonia, the famous Chaldaeans, included in the handbooks they used to predict future events. According to these handbooks, the lunar eclipse of 20 September 331 BC (eleven nights before the battle of Gaugamela) indicated the death of a king. The section of the moon that was first darkened proved that Babylonia and Persia would suffer and the visibility of Saturn meant that the effects were intensified. If Jupiter had been visible, the omen might have been neutralized, but this planet had set at the beginning of the eclipse.

Several people at Gaugamela must have felt that Darius was bound to be defeated, because Chaldaean science was no secret.5 The Diaries also describe what happened during the battle: ‘The army abandoned Darius and returned to the cities’ (AD -330; obv.17). After an evil omen, leaving a doomed king was a sensible thing to do.

There is a problem here. The Babylonian text contradicts the Greek source that is often accepted as the best, Arrian. He says that Darius was the first to turn and run, after which the other Persians followed suit ( Anabasis 3.14.3). One way to harmonize these conflicting pieces of information is to render ‘The army abandoned Darius’ as ‘Darius abandoned his army’.6 Suspending the rules of grammar, however, will not solve the problem. We must accept that either Arrian or the Diary is wrong, and in this case we must prefer the Babylonian source, which was written two weeks after the battle. In my opinion, H & Y should have included the text of the Diary in their book and could have ignored Arrian, who misrepresented the crucial stage of the battle.

The same cuneiform tablet offers an interesting account of Alexander’s diplomatic moves before entering Babylon. We read about his offer to rebuild the temple of Marduk and learn how he announced that the houses of the Babylonians would not be looted. These negotiations are not mentioned by Curtius Rufus and Arrian, who state that the Macedonians prepared for battle when they approached Babylon ( History of Alexander 5.1.19 and Anabasis 3.16.3). More intriguingly, the Diary makes it clear that Alexander did not send Macedonian envoys, but Greeks. Did he consider it unsafe to send the very soldiers who had recently fought against the Babylonian cavalry?

The Astronomical Diaries offer further useful information. They may help us find the hitherto unknown date of the battle near Issus. Diary -332 B rev.10 mentions a solar eclipse that was ‘omitted’, which means that a predicted evil omen did not occur, so that there was no reason to fear the future. In this case, the omitted dangerous period would have started with the eclipse of 27 October 333 and the portended disaster would have befallen Darius within 100 days. According to the astronomical advisers in the Persian army, the great king could safely set out from Sochi and attack the Macedonians in Cilicia. Assuming that Darius left immediately after he had received his astronomer’ s green light, and accepting normal marching distances for the next days, Darius must have reached Issus between 3 and 6 November. The battle took place on the next day.7

The Diaries also offer information about Babylonian food prices, and we are lucky to have tablets for two occasions when an army was staying in Babylon. In the summer of 333, when Darius assembled the army that was to be defeated near Issus, the prices were normal. On the other hand, in 323, when Alexander’s army was in Babylon, the prices were higher than after an ordinary crop failure. In my view, there are two possible explanations: (1) Darius assembled his army not in Babylon, but somewhere else; (2) the king of Asia was less interested in the well-being of the populace of Babylon than of the king of kings.

Finally, it is interesting to take a look at the spelling of Alexander’s name in the cuneiform texts. The correct rendering of Alexandros would have been A-lek-sa-an-dar-ru-su, but until now, no tablet has been discovered that uses this Greek name. Instead, after some first attempts to render the conqueror’s name, the Babylonian scribes settled upon A-lek-sa-an-dar. Probably, this only shows that the scribes found it difficult to render a foreign name. On the other hand, it can not be excluded that Alexandar is the Macedonian name by which the conqueror of Asia was known to his courtiers. Cuneiform renderings of Seleucus ( Si-lu-uk-ku) and other names may also offer clues for linguists studying the Macedonian language.

I am not claiming that the Babylonian sources are better than the classical texts, but I hope to have shown that they can offer useful information. Van der Spek’s edition of Chronicle 8 has probably shown the name of a hitherto unknown satrap, a possible reference to Bessus, and something that looks like the execution of the famous astronomer Kidinnu. There is a lot more to be expected from Babylonia and I hope to have convinced the readers of this review that a scholar studying Alexander can no longer ignore the cuneiform texts.

As I already pointed out, these sources have been accessible for more than a decade and a half, and I assume that H & Y, both excellent scholars, are aware of the importance of the sources they have left undiscussed. Yet, although I think H & Y’s selection of sources is old-fashioned, their book is to be recommended to anyone studying the reign of Alexander.


1. The first stemma calls Adea-Eurydice ‘Philip III’ (instead of her husband Arrhidaeus). On the map on page xii-xiii, Tyre has moved to Haifa; Pella, Issus, Maracanda, and the Iaxartes are called Bella, Issis, Marcanda, and Laxartes; ultrazionists may appreciate that the word ‘Palestine’ is placed in Jordan.

2. Alexander’s date of birth, 6 Loos, is identified with 20 July (although we cannot, to the best of my knowledge, convert dates from the Macedonian to the Gregorian calendar), whereas the day of Alexander’s death, which we know beyond reasonable doubt (11 June 323) is ignored. Cf. Leo Depuydt, ‘The Time of Death of Alexander the Great’ in Welt des Orients 28 (1997) 117-135, an article not mentioned in H & Y’s otherwise complete bibliography.

3. A. Shapur Shahbazi, ‘Iranians and Alexander’, American Journal of Ancient History n.s. 2 (2003), 5-38, note 71.

4. Recently, these sources have been collected, re-edited, re-translated, and commented upon by R.J. van der Spek in a useful article — ‘Darius III, Alexander the Great and Babylonian scholarship’ in Achaemenid History 13 (2003) 289-346 — that appeared too late for H & Y to take into account.

5. At least one Jew was educated as a Chaldaean: Talmud Babli, Baba Metziah 85b, mentions a rabbi Samuel, educated as ‘astrologer and physician’ — an exact translation of one of the Chaldaean titles. To be fair, this happened several centuries after Alexander.

6. Michael Wood, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (1997 Berkeley), p.90.

7. This date can also be deduced from the lunar phase. The battle started late in the afternoon and must have lasted until after sunset. If it took place after 7 November, the moon rose too late to illuminate the battlefield. On the other hand, before 4 November, the moon’s disk was too small.