BMCR 2010.06.20

Alexander der Grosse: Leben und Legende

Alexander Demandt, Alexander der Grosse: Leben und Legende. München: C. H. Beck, 2009. xiii, 655; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 9783406590856 €29.90.

Table of Contents

Alexander the Great has never gone out of fashion. The modern literature on the Macedonian king is vast and has continued to increase immensely since Oliver Stone’s movie in 2004. The bibliography in Alexander Demandt’s new and path-breaking Alexander der Grosse: Leben und Legende runs to eleven pages (pp. 603-613), but Demandt has no intention of making a survey of the scholarship on the Macedonian king: “Die Liste umfasst nur die mehrfach zitierten oder konsultierten Arbeiten” (p. 603). The notes cover almost one hundred pages (pp. 485-574), and they are mostly references to ancient literature and sources illustrating the myth of Alexander the Great. Demandt has thus reduced the discussion of recent scholarly contributions to a minimum in order to write a stimulating synthesis based on a deep knowledge of the ancient evidence and the later tradition.

Demandt’s response to the important question of how to write a biography of Alexander the Great in the 21st century is both traditional and innovative. The composition is conventional and strictly chronological. The first chapter (pp. 1-32) of Alexander der Grosse: Leben und Legende presents the sources for the life of Alexander, including the often overlooked Islamic and medieval Christian authors. In the following two chapters, attention is focused on the Persian Empire (pp. 33-54) and Philip II (pp. 55-80) in order to give an adequate background to the life and achievements of Alexander. The following nine chapters (pp. 81-352) are a chronologically organized biography from his taming of the black horse Bucephalas at the age of twelve to his premature death in Babylon at the age of thirty-three. The administration of the Macedonian empire and the Hellenistic World is treated briefly before the two concluding chapters on the representations of Alexander in later epochs (pp. 405-456) and the recurring question of how ‘great’ Alexander was (pp. 457-483). The book also includes a chronological table (pp. 575-579) up to 2007 CE when the airport in Skopje was named ‘Alexander the Great’, three maps, five genealogical tables and a very useful index.

If the composition can be characterized as mainstream, the contents are unusual. The author does not restrict himself to the ancient sources, but constantly draws the myths and legends into the narrative. The famous Gordian Knot episode illustrates very well Demandt’s intention of putting well-known facts into new perspectives. He not only discusses the different versions of how Alexander unloosed the knot (sword or untying) and its political significance in the claim of being king of Asia. Demandt also describes in detail the popularity of the Gordian Knot theme in Renaissance and Baroque painting (with colour illustrations) and in later literature from the sophist Zenobios in the second century CE to Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Jünger in the twentieth century. The discussion of the burning of Perspeolis includes both Alexander’s behaviour and motive and also Händel’s choral work ‘Alexander’s Feast’ (1736) based on John Dryden’s ode from 1697.

It is the constantly combined discussion of Alexander’s life and the later tradition that separates Demandt’s book from other modern biographies of Alexander the Great. The book may be characterized as a kind of a cultural history, and the author’s horizon is impressive. Demandt published his first analysis of the political use of the Macedonian king in modern times almost thirty years ago and other related studies have appeared during the last decade.1 Demandt writes an elegant German, but the book is not easy reading. It is taken for granted that the reader is familiar with the old European liberal education. Many names are unexplained, and some passages are close to name-dropping. One example will suffice. On p. 459 we find besides Alexander the Great in following order Arrian, Plutarch, Caesar, Alesia, Ilerda, Napoleon Bonaparte, Arcoli, Jean-Antoine Gros, Versailles, Georgi Plechanow, (André) Masséna, (Pierre) Augereau, Austerlitz, Tilsit, Moscow, Hephaestion, Crateros, Corsica and Heracles.

Demandt begins his book by quoting Arrian, who wrote the most completely preserved account of Alexander the Great. Like Arrian, in the middle of his work Demandt breaks off the chronological sequence and relates some independent episodes that illustrate the morals, or perhaps better the moral decay of the Macedonian king, including the murder of Cleitus, the Pages’ conspiracy and his relations with women. Demandt argues several times that greatness is an ‘ästheische Kategorie”, and we are very far from the superhuman Alexander of W.W. Tarn and F. Schachermeyr. Demandt tries instead to compare the Macedonian king to other famous generals and statesmen, and this is another merit of the book that will be consulted regularly.

The combination of a source-based account with a thorough historiographical analysis is a characteristic of many of Demandt’s previous works, of which the best known perhaps are the publication and reconstructions of Theodor Mommsen’s missing fourth volume on Imperial Rome and the two magisterial surveys of Late Antiquity.2 But Demandt was also one of the first professional historians seriously to explore counterfactuals in history, and there are traces of such an approach in his Alexander biography. Most obviously in the last section of the book — ‘Alexander als Integrationsfigur’ (pp. 480-483) — where the point of departure is a supposition of the often ignored historian Arnold J. Toynbee (1899-1975), who today is perhaps best known for his Hannibal’s Legacy I-II (Oxford 1965) and A Study of History I-XII (Oxford 1934-1961). Yet, Toynbee also wrote an essay in which he imagined what would have happened if Alexander the Great had survived his illness in Babylonia and instead died as an old man in Alexandria in 287 BCE after having consolidated and expanded his empire. According to Toynbee, the world would in that case have been Hellenized and more peaceful today.3 Demandt uses Toynbee’s ideas to stress the importance of Alexander as a role model in the last two sentences: “So gigantisch wie Alexanders Kriegszug war sein Friedensplan. Ihn zu verwirklichen, ist noch immer das höchste Ziel aller politischen Kultur — wenn auch mit anderen Mitteln” (p. 483).


1. A. Demandt, Politische Aspekte im Alexanderbild der Neuzeit, Archiv für Kulturgeschichte 54 (1972), 325-363; Alexander im Islam, in M. Schuol et al. (eds.), Grenzüberschreitungen. Formen des Kontakts zwischen Orient und Okzident im Altertum, Stuttgart 2002, 11-22; Alexander in der Welt der Bilder, in Modelli eroici dall’antichità alla cultura Europea, Rome 2003, 363-374.

2. A. Demandt, Der Fall Roms. Die Auflösung des römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt, München 1984. Die Spätantike. Das Römische Reich von Diocletian bis Justinian, 284-565 n. Chr, München 1989 (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft III.6). B. & A. Demandt (eds.), Theodor Mommsen. Römische Kaisergeschichte nach den Vorlesungs-Mitschriften von Sebastian und Paul Hensel 1882/86, München 1992.

3. See A. J. Toynbee, Some Problems in Greek History, Oxford 1969, 441-486 (“If Alexander the Great had Lived on”); see also pp. 421-440 (“If Ochus and Philip had Lived on”).