BMCR 2004.03.20

Alexander the Great. A Reader

, Alexander the Great : a reader. London/New York: Routledge, 2003. xvi, 332 pages : maps ; 25 cm. ISBN 0415291860. $31.95 (pb).

Ian Worthington (hereafter W.), has produced a very practical, interesting and unconventional reader on the history of Alexander the Great, which is intended as a guide book for undergraduate students. His aim is a compilation of the most relevant ‘primary’ sources on Alexander’s life and achievements along with extracts of some significant contributions of modern scholarship. W. has written repeatedly on the history of Alexander and is the author of a recent monograph on this subject.

The book under review is divided into eleven theme chapters, listed below. W. has limited his choice to primary sources, i.e. authors who wrote during Alexander’s lifetime or the in the generation afterwards, and to inscriptions. The problem of the ‘primary’ literary sources on Alexander is well known: all of them are only known from fragments found mostly in the ‘secondary’ sources, i.e. writers who wrote on the king centuries after his death, like Strabo, Curtius Rufus, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, Arrian and Justin. A number of literary sources are taken from F. Jacoby’s ‘Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker’ (FGrH).1 Source No. 27 (p. 72) is from Harprocration’s Lexicon. Nine inscriptions are cited, eight of which are from M.N. Tod’s, Greek Historical Inscriptions, vol. 2 nos. 183-203, while one is from σιγ no. 312).

The majority of the selected extracts from twenty-three modern works are reprinted from monographs and articles written between 1980 and 2000; four contributions date from the 1960’s, while the oldest extracts are from W.W Tarn’s major work on Alexander published in 1948.2 For the choice of modern writers W. used two criteria: first, authors who deal with the problems of the ancient sources, and second, those who give different interpretations on the same topic. This selection should make it evident, that a single approach to Alexander is not possible: it is up to the reader “to reach his/her own conclusions” based “on his/her critical evaluation of the ancient sources and arguments of the modern scholars” (p. viii). The author is aware that his choice of sources and modern writings may not please everyone and hopes that his critics may see the rationale for what he included, since there will never be an agreement on what a reader on Alexander should include; in fact, this topic could fill numerous volumes.

Each chapter starts with an ‘Introduction’ where W. explains the sources and sometimes even gives cross-references to sources in other chapters. This is followed by the selected ‘Ancient Sources’ which are numbered consecutively from 1 to 108 throughout the book. At the end of each citation the full source reference (with the secondary source data if necessary) is given in brackets; e.g., Aristobulus, FGrH 139 F 11 = Plut. Alex. 21. 7-9. (The primary sources are listed in an index on pp. 326-327, along with their respective numbers in FGrH, Tod etc., but without the secondary source information.) The sources are followed by the extracts from ‘Modern works’, each preceded by a brief statement about their writers, subjects, and full bibliographical references as well as a list of ‘Additional reading’. The notes have been left as in the original texts, and abbreviations have not been standardized; individual ‘references’ are listed after each extract. Chapter 1. ‘The sources’ (pp. 1-16). Here W. gives a general introduction to the available source material on Alexander and presents the primary authors. The selections (nos. 1-13) thus reflect the shortcomings of those ancient writers, who sometimes had to deal with conflicting information in the sources, as well as the varying information available to later writers such as Plutarch or Arrian. An extract from A.B. Bosworth deals with the primary literary sources.

Chapter 2. ‘Alexander’s background’ (pp. 17-41): Three sources on Alexander’s birth and youth (nos. 14-16) from Hegesias, the Ephermides, and Onesicritus are included here. These are followed by two articles from N.G.L. Hammond on the language of the Macedonians and the institution of the King of Macedonia, as well as an excerpt from A.B. Bosworth on the legacy of Philip.

Chapter 3. ‘Alexander’s aims’ (pp. 42-64; sources nos. 16-19). Articles by P.A. Brunt on Alexander’s intentions and E.A. Fredericksmeyer on the final aims of Philip II are included here. While Brunt sees Alexander’s invasion of Persia merely as something inherited from Philip and his advance further east as the result of his military success and religiosity, Fredericksmeyer goes further in his assessment and states that Philip had far more ambitious plans, which included the replacing the Great King and establishing an absolute monarchy over his former realm, as well as deification for himself.

Chapter 4. ‘Alexander and the Greeks’ (pp. 65-105; sources nos. 20-32 [20 to 26 are inscriptions]). Some of the inscriptions cited here deal with the return of exiles or the formation of democratic governments (nos. 22-25). On this subjected W. has added extracts from monographs by T.T.B. Ryder on ‘Macedonian domination: The peace of 338/337 and after’, and N.G.L. Hammond and F.W. Walbank on Alexander’s relation with the Greek States, as well as his own paper on ‘The Harpalus Affair and the Greek Response to the Macedonian Hegemony’.3

Chapter 5. ‘Alexander and Asia’ (pp. 106-147). The sources (nos. 33-58 [33 to 34 are inscriptions]) in this chapter reflect Alexander’s campaign in Asia, ranging from topographical descriptions of Asia to the wealth and the customs of the Persian kings, the event at Gordium, extensive reports on the battles at the Granicus, at Issos and Gaugamela, the conquest of Tyre, as well as the Bessus and Cleitus affairs. Papers by M.M. Austin (‘Alexander and the Macedonian invasion of Asia’) and N.G.L. Hammond (‘The kingdom of Asia and the Persian Throne’) supplement this part of the book.

Chapter 6. ‘Alexander, India and the final years’ (pp. 148-177): The last three years in Alexander’s life are covered here, along with the greatest number of sources (nos. 59-84 — ten pages in all). Two brief papers by A.K. Narain on ‘Alexander in India’ and A.B. Bosworth on the Indian satrapies constitute the modern evaluation of this theme.

Chapter 7. ‘Alexander as general’ (pp. 178-197): Two fragments of Chares (transmitted by Plutarch) are quoted here (nos. 85-86) along with an evaluation of Alexander as a strategist from J.F. Fuller’s 1960 book ‘The generalship of Alexander the Great’.

Chapter 8. ‘Alexander and the “Unity of Mankind”‘ (pp. 198-235; sources nos. 87-91). W. points out that certain events in Alexander’s reign involving non-Macedonians have been interpreted ‘as something akin to a ‘policy’ of the fusion of races or brotherhood of mankind’ (p. 198). Three events can been singled out on this matter: the introduction of proskynesis in 327 at Bactra (sources 87-88), the mass wedding at Susa in 324 where Alexander and 91 high-ranking Macedonians married Persian noblewomen (sources 90-91), and the banquet of reconciliation after Opis in 324, which included a prayer for concord among the races (cf. Arr. 7.11.9). The thesis of a ‘unity of mankind’ goes back to Tarn, from whom extracts on the Susa Wedding, the Mutiny at Opis, and the policy of fusion are added. Tarn’s ideas were opposed by Badian,4 as W. points out. A more objective approach on this theme is intended by A.B. Bosworth in a paper reprinted here from the JHS.5

Chapter 9. ‘Alexander and deification’ (pp. 236-272). Most of the sources (nos. 92-100; esp. no. 92-97, 99) cover Alexander’s visit to the oracle of Ammon at Siwa Oasis in the Libyan desert and his association with this divinity. Three contributions from the modern literature are added: an excerpt from Tarn’s biography covering the year 324 BC; a paper by E. Badian dealing with “Alexander the Great between two Thrones and Heaven”; and a note by G.L. Caldwell on Alexander’s deification, which argues that Alexander communicated no desire to be recognized as a God by the Greeks.

Chapter 10. ‘Alexander and conspiracies’ (pp. 273-295). Eight sources cover various conspiracies against the king (nos. 101-108) such as the Philotas affair, the Pages conspiracy and the death of Callisthenes. A modern summarization on this subject is given by E. Badian.

Chapter 11. ‘Alexander: the ‘Great’?’ (pp. 296-325). Regarding the assessment of Alexander’s achievements in modern scholarship the editor has chosen three contributions. The first is by N.G.L. Hammond, who praises the king’s accomplishments and gives, as W. observes, “the image that most people have of Alexander today” (p. 298). This is followed by W.’s own very critical essay ‘How “Great” was Alexander?’ which appeared in the Ancient Historical Bulletin,6 and the vigorous response to that by F.L. Holt in the same journal soon after.7

In addition to the features mentioned above, W.’s book includes a separate bibliography on ancient sources and modern books (p. ix-x), a brief chart on Alexander’s reign (p. xi), a map of his empire (p. xii-xiii), a list of special notes and abbreviations (p. xiv), and two pages of quotations about Alexander from ancient to modern times. p. xv-xvi). A general index concludes the book (p. 328-332). I find little if any fault with W.’s book. The chosen sources will introduce the students to some of the most relevant fragments on Alexander from the primary sources and some of the more modern interpretations of them, before they start reading Strabo, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch, Arrian and Justin. A separate index, however, which lists all the twenty-three modern works might have been useful. The exact choice of these selected items may be debated by some experts, but the editor makes it clear that “the absurdly high reprint fees” prevented him from including more modern works (p. viii). The rather unconventional approach based on primary sources makes W.’s reader highly recommendable.


1. Amyntas (122), Anonymous History of Alexander (151), Archelaus (123), Aristobulus of Cassandria (139), Aristus (143), Baeton (119), Callisthenes of Olynthus (124), Chares of Mytilene (125), Cleitarchus of Alexandria (137), Ephemerides (117), Ephippus (126), Hegesias (142), Marsyas (135), Nearchus of Crete (133), Nicoboule (127), Onesicritus of Astypalea (134), Polycleitus (128), and Ptolemy, son of Lagus (138).

2. W.W. Tarn, Alexander the Great, 2 vols., Cambridge 1948. I will refrain here from giving the exact bibliography for most of the cited works as they are easily found under the heading “Modern works” throughout W.’s book.

3. I. Worthington, ‘The Harpalus Affair and the Greek Response to the Macedonian Hegemony’, in: I. Worthington (ed.), Ventures into Greek History: Essays in Honor of N.G.L. Hammond, Oxford 1994, 307-330.

4. E. Badian ‘Alexander the Great and the Unity of Mankind’, Historia 7 (1958), 425-444 (not reprinted, but referred to by the editor).

5. A.B. Bosworth, ‘Alexander and the Iranians’, JHS 100 (1980), 1-21.

6. I. Worthington, ‘How “Great” was Alexander?’, AHB 13.2 (1999) 39-55.

7. F.L. Holt, ‘Alexander the Great Today: In the Interests of Historical Accuracy?’, AHB 13.3 (1999)111-117.