This study aims to uncover patterns in the conflicts between Alexander the Great and his nobles. In the book — originally a dissertation at the University of Giessen — Müller (henceforth M.) discusses the shifting power relations at Alexander’s court. In particular, she examines the measures taken by Alexander to secure and expand his authority vis-a-vis the Macedonian elite.
M. argues that throughout his reign Alexander’s authority was far from secure. In a short review of the old debate about the Macedonian ‘constitution’ at the beginning of the book, M. takes a middle position: the Macedonian state was neither a (constitutionally or traditionally) limited monarchy, nor an outright absolutist monarchy with an all-powerful king. Instead, she sensibly states that although the monarchy was presented as autocratic and absolutist, the authority of the king was in reality limited by the power and influence of various aristocratic factions. Alexander’s pursuit of a more autocratic and personal rule led to conflict with the established powers at the Macedonian court. Such a conflict not only characterizes Alexander’s court, but numerous courts in world history. Therefore M. opens her introduction by referring to Norbert Elias, the founder of the modern study of the court.
The main part of the book consists of a detailed, chronologically ordered account of the development of the conflict. The nine central chapters of the book are devoted to infamous events such as the Philotas affair, the fall of Parmenion, the death of Kleitos, and the execution of Kallisthenes. The book’s foremost merit is that it shows that these individual incidents were part of a wider conflict. M. thus gives a more plausible explanation for them than the old romantic view that Alexander gradually became a deranged megalomaniac, who murdered his ‘friends’ in drunken frenzy or paranoid delusion. Although this notion is not new,1 this is the first time that it is given comprehensive treatment. ‘The actions that Alexander took to secure his authority can only be understood’, M. says, ‘by acknowledging the fact that his political control was not so unlimited as has always been assumed’ (p. 10). Alexander’s principal opponents are identified as the families and factions led by Attalos, Antipatros and Parmenion.
After a brief historiographical introduction in chapter 1 (7-16), the aim of the study is described as finding out what measures Alexander took to secure his rule against political opposition, if he did so structurally and systematically, and if these measures were ultimately successful (11). A second question is whether Alexander’s freedom of movement was also limited by the need to appear as a lawful ruler and to avert the accusation that he behaved like an oriental despot. This is the subject of the second chapter (17-26), in which M. discusses the evidence for an unwritten Macedonian
Chapter 3 (27-54) is concerned with factions at the court of Philip II and the bloodshed accompanying Alexander’s accession to the throne. Discussed in particular are the Pixodaros affair, the conflict between Alexander and Attalos, father of Philip’s last bride Kleopatra, and the elimination of possible claimants to the throne after Philip’s death.
Chapter 4 (55-80) discusses the gradual removal of Parmenion. The problem with Parmenion, M. explains, is that his image in the sources as a distinguished but erroneous advisor is a literary topos rather than a reflection of historical reality. The eventual elimination of Parmenion’s faction is discussed in chapter 5 (81-112), which is devoted to the trial of Philotas and the subsequent murder of Parmenion himself. The condemnation of Philotas for alleged treason before the army assembly was necessary to appease the common soldiers.
Chapter 6 (113-134) places the death of Kleitos the Black — presented in the sources as homicide during a drunken brawl — also in the context of the systematic elimination of political opponents. Although M. brings up the possibility that the death of Kleitos had been decided upon in advance and that his murder was carefully staged, she has to admit that it is impossible to say whether or not Kleitos’ death really was a set-up.
In chapter 7, ‘The Kallisthenes Affair’ (135-168), M. argues that Alexander really believed that the Greek historian was the ringleader of the resistance to the introduction of aspects of Persian court ceremonial. Alexander’s main concern, M. argues, was to avoid his attempts to reorganize the court being used by the opposition to accuse him of being an ‘oriental’ despot. Kallisthenes was provoked into openly criticizing
Chapter 8 (169-179) discusses the continuity of Achaemenid institutions and political ideas under Alexander. The main topics are Alexander’s association with Kyros the Great and his efforts to be accepted by the Persian nobility as the legitimate successor of Darius III. I found this the least inspiring part. The chapter is a kind of ‘Fremdkörper’, which distracts attention from the main theme of the book. Moreover, M. approaches this subject exclusively from a ‘western’ perspective, relying on ancient Greek views of Persian culture and using hardly any recent scholarship about the Achaemenid Empire and the continuity of Achaemenid practices in the Hellenistic period.2
Chapters 9 (181-216) and 10 (217-38) are about conflicts during the Indian campaign and afterwards. The most notable episodes discussed here are the mutiny at Opis and the flight of Harpalos. Although Alexander was relatively successful in eliminating aristocratic opposition (Antipatros excepted), at the end of his reign his authority was again weakened due to conflicts with the army.
The book ends with an extensive discussion of the results (chapter 11, pp. 239-272) and a short conclusion, followed by a list of sources and a bibliography (but unfortunately no index). In the conclusion, M. agrees with the modern consensus that Alexander failed as an empire-builder: as a result of his efforts to eliminate all opposition, Alexander at the end of his life stood alone. After his death, the empire could not endure without him.
The output of modern literature about Alexander the Great is enormous. M. has succeeded in making an outstanding addition to the discussion by taking up an important and relatively novel issue. The court is perhaps the most rewarding point of view for the study of Alexander at present and in the near future. By revealing the common ground between disparate conflicts at Alexander’s court, M. offers a fresh approach to old topics and makes short work with the image of Alexander as a distrustful alcoholic who murdered more or less coincidentally.
I have some critical remarks as well. These concern M.’s approach of the court as an object of study. M. begins and ends her book by bringing up Norbert Elias’ Die höfische Gesellschaft, published in 1969. However, she makes no use of the abundant literature about the court that has appeared since then. Although some elements of Elias’ approach to the court are still useful, modern scholarship has adjusted or radically abandoned most of his assumptions, and M. seems unaware of this. Moreover, not even Elias himself figures significantly in the discussion. Consequently, M. offers no satisfactory answer to the question why Alexander came into conflict with the principal noble families of Macedonia. Here even Elias’ basic view of the court as an instrument for the development of absolutism in early modern Europe might have led to more profound questions. Instead, M. sees Alexander’s measures as reactions to actions taken by the opposition. The main conclusion, discussed in chapter 11, is that the existence of a real and powerful aristocratic opposition led to what M. designates as Alexander’s ‘Verschwörungsangst’ (fear of conspiracies) and ‘Frondetrauma’ (fear of open rebellion), which in turn explains Alexander’s harsh treatment of his opponents at court. Although I would not disagree with the notion that Alexander was a suspicious and distrustful man, I found this unconvincing as an explanation for the conflicts at Alexander’s court.3
A second, related question that to my mind receives insufficient treatment is the question how Alexander managed (or endeavored) to eliminate principal noble families, apart from simply putting their leaders out of action. The monarchy could not function without the support of the great noblemen of Macedonia because of their ancestral prestige, personal charisma and military power. No king ever ruled alone. If Alexander really attempted to break the power of his principal barons, he could only have done so by replacing them by others and preventing the new men in turn becoming a threat to his authority. Presumably, this was a far more important and arduous task than the mere physical elimination of individual members of the opposition.4
1. M.’s principal reference point is the work of Gerhard Wirth, who showed in the 1980s that Alexander had only limited authority over his nobles when he became king. The court in general, and the atmosphere of discord between Alexander and the Companion aristocracy in particular, has since been the focus of several studies, notably by Elizabeth Carney, Waldemar Heckel and Ian Worthington. See now also J. Roisman ed., Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great (Leiden 2003), which includes an entire section about the court.
2. I counted two references to Kuhrt’s The Ancient Near East (1995) and one to E. Dusinberre, Aspects of Empire in Achaemenid Sardis (2003) in this chapter; but e.g. studies by Pierre Briant, other work of Amélie Kuhrt, and the Achaemenid History series of the late Heleen Sancisi-Weerdenburg et al. are conspicuously absent.
3. See now also W. Heckel, ‘King and “Companions”. Observations on the nature of power in the reign of Alexander’, in: J. Roisman ed., Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great (Leiden 2003) 197-226; H. argues it is striking that there were so few conspiracies against Alexander.
4. This matter is only once hinted at, in chapter 9 where M. suggests that Alexander made Hephaistion a ‘favorite’ in opposition to the established elite.