Like the television stock analysts who are required to make “full disclosure”, I should begin with the acknowledgement that I am the editor of what might be regarded as a “competing volume”.1 But James Romm’s reader is of a very different sort, as he points out in his introduction (“I have declined to use the synoptic approach of other Alexander guidebooks, which assemble parallel episodes from multiple sources and allow the reader to compare different accounts”, xviii), and it is as such that it must be approached. Certainly any book that introduces the student or the interested reader to the ancient evidence is to be welcomed. And a return to the ancient evidence is even more important today when too many readers have been exposed to some of the rubbish that was published2 to coincide with the appearance of Oliver Stone’s monumental box-office flop, perhaps the single worst thing to happen to Alexander since his Scythian campaign north of the Iaxartes was cut short by a bout of diarrhoea.
The title of Romm’s volume is somewhat misleading. For the most part, this is an abridgement of Arrian’s History of Alexander, preceded by some 16 pages on the youth of Alexander (from Plutarch’s Alexander) and the death of Philip II (from Diodorus, Book 16). The main narrative of Arrian is supplemented in places (e.g. the death of Parmenion, pp. 96-7) by passages from Quintus Curtius Rufus. (There is, as far as I can see, no index of passages translated.) So what we have is an attempt to tell the story of Alexander’s life and exploits in a chronological order and through the words of ancient historians and biographers. The translations from Arrian are by Pamela Mensch, and they are as lively as one can make the work of an author not generally known for his liveliness. Where I have checked the translation against the original text I have found it accurate and eloquent;3 it is, I gather, Mensch’s translation that will be used in the forthcoming Landmark edition of Arrian (see p. 186). Romm does a fine job of bridging the gaps between passages with a clear and informative synopsis of events. My only quibbles are minor ones. On the map (p. xxix), Bactra (modern Balkh near Masar-i-sharif) is on the wrong side of the Oxus River (Amu-darya), and Taxila on the wrong side of the Indus. The capture of the Rock of Sogdiana, mentioned in Arrian after the Hermolaus conspiracy, belongs to an earlier time (not spring 327) — though this is not the place to discuss the chronology of that campaign, on which see A. B. Bosworth, JHS 101 (1981) 17-39, or the timing of Alexander’s marriage to Rhoxane. One of my pet peeves, though I confess to having made the mistake myself, is the use of the adjective “Sogdian” instead of “Sogdianian”; the Sogdians come from Sogdia in India.
As a teaching tool this is a splendid little book. The introduction is succinct and lively, the selection of translated passages appropriate, and the notes genuinely helpful. There is also a glossary, a bibliographic note (where P.A. Brunt is wrongly called “Philip”; nor should students be encouraged to consult the error-ridden and amateurish Macedonian Empire by James R. Ashley), and a comprehensive index. Most important, at a time when textbook publishers are more interested in gouging their captive audiences than in providing a genuine service to learning, Romm and Mensch offer a text that is not only useful but affordable.
1. Waldemar Heckel and J. C. Yardley, Alexander the Great. Historical Texts in Translation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
2. There are, of course, several meritorious works by fine scholars that appeared at the same time. It is superfluous to name them, since all competent Alexander scholars will know them.
3. One passage that happened to catch my eye, since I was working on military matters, involves the description of the Macedonian tactics against the autonomous Thracians. In Arrian’s account (1.1.9) synneusantas should not be translated as “to crouch down” but rather as “pressing together and leaning back”, and this has the support of Polyaenus 4.3.11, where the infinitive ekklinein is used.