BMCR 2011.01.21

Alexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction. Translated by Amélie Kuhrt

, Alexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction. Translated by Amélie Kuhrt. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xxi, 192. ISBN 9780691141947 $26.95.


Since its initial publication in 1974, Pierre Briant’s Alexandre le Grand has seen six editions—the latest in 2002—and been translated into numerous European languages, Chinese, and Japanese, making it perhaps the world’s most accessible book on Alexander. It is odd, then, that it appears now for the first time in English.1 Perhaps the reason is that it never was and is not now a biography of Alexander, a genre for which a broad readership seems to possess an insatiable appetite. Nor, despite the subtitle of this translation, is it as much a “short introduction” to Alexander’s empire as it is a compact exposition of some of the fruits of Briant’s quest to create a new context for the study of the fourth century B.C. through the abolition of divisions between modern scholarship on Achaemenid, Macedonian, Hellenic, and Hellenistic history—a revised interpretative framework that renders some previously marginal matters central, some formerly fundamental concerns marginal. (Of course, it does not follow, nor would Briant maintain, that in consequence all older hermeneutic boundaries themselves have been rendered redundant.)

The bare-bones narrative of Alexander’s reign that comprises Briant’s Introduction and initial chapter—about fifteen pages of actual text—reflects his agenda: Alexander’s generalship, for instance, goes all but unnoticed. Apart from the inclusion of notes devoted mostly to references to relevant primary literary sources and to the standard English-language commentaries on them, from the unwise excision of the 2002 French edition’s parenthetical cross-references to subsequent material, and from the translation of États européens (p. 9) as “Greek communities” (p. 4), most of these sections closely mirror their model.

Chapter II, a consideration of Alexander’s motivation and goals, rejects psychological explanations as well as the notion that Alexander ever thought of his campaign as a “war of reprisal.” With respect to the so-called Mutiny on the Hyphasis, Briant modifies his earlier views ( Alexandre, p. 36) and maintains that Alexander did not wish to extend the eastern limits of his conquests beyond the Indus, that is, beyond the easternmost boundary of the Persian realm. In light of this, Briant also rejects the tradition that a conquest of the western Mediterranean—equally outside Achaemenid territory—was a key component of Alexander’s “Last Plans.”

Chapter III contains some important excisions and revisions, not all of them conducive to the maintenance of the continuity of Alexandre. Briant introduces the view advanced in his Darius dans l’ombre d’Alexandre,2 that Darius’ withdrawal from Issus and the abandonment of his family reflects the king’s devotion to his empire and his willingness to place its wellbeing above all else. Briant doubts that there existed in Bactria and Sogdiana any national resistance—indeed, it seems impossible to view the entertainment of the very notion of such a thing in the first place as anything other than an exercise in anachronism—but he does discern unremitting outbreaks of discrete uprisings, most of which had their own distinct objectives. He advances important arguments against the view of a policy of ruthless slaughter in the east instigated by “an enraged and crazed (or drunken) megalomaniac, who orders massacres simply to calm his internal demons” (p. 62). Rather, here as elsewhere, Alexander was a pragmatist, slaughter being one, but only one, option at his disposal, and not necessarily that most preferred or employed.

New material comprises about a third of Chapter IV. Therein Briant has thoroughly revised and much expanded his treatment of Alexander’s coinage, largely in light of Georges Le Rider’s Alexandre le Grand: Monnaie, finances et politique.3 Interesting reflections on Montesquieu, Droysen, and Wilcken that had concluded the corresponding chapter of Alexandre, he now integrates into his broader exposition. Flexibility characterizes Alexander’s approach to administration, which means, of course, that personnel decisions and disbursement of powers rest with him rather than in any set system. One implication is that perceptions of sinister hypocrisy based on variations in Alexander’s treatment of officials or affairs may exist only in the minds of critics and scholars. Yet, Briant maintains, this case-by-case approach, each subjectively addressed and resolved, was the Achilles’ heal of Alexander’s empire, for “the unity of the empire was a notion linked more or less directly to the royal person” (p. 74). As for Macedonian problems with natives, these often mirrored relationships that had previously prevailed under the Achaemenids. All things considered, to label Alexander a builder or a predator is to become ensnared in an “epistemological trap” (p. 86) that has more to do with the dispositions and prejudices of modern Alexander historians that with Alexander himself. For Alexander, as for the Achaemenids, “unity and diversity went hand in hand” (p. 100).

A pragmatic Alexander emerges again in Chapter V, this time in his dealings with Macedonians, Greeks, and Iranians. Briant views the burning of Persepolis, when placed in a Persian context, as Alexander’s demonstration to the Persians that he was in control and that resistance to his new order should cease (pp. 109-111, cf. Alexandre, p. 92). Alexander’s marriage to Roxanne is celebrated in Macedonian fashion, and Macedonian and Greek military training is the model to which the Epigonoi are expected to conform (pp. 116-117). These and other measures bear witness to Alexander’s wish to create from Macedonians and Iranians a new ruling elite, though one defined in certain of its facets more by the former that the latter in order to “preserve the preferential status of the victors” (p. 119). Alexander was not the last of the Achaemenids, i.e., Great King: he did, however, come to view his Macedonian and Iranian companions as equal in status (p. 125), and he meant the weddings at Susa to facilitate this leveling. Yet, to the very end of his life, Alexander tended carefully to the religious functions of a basileus of the Macedonians. With respect to the question of Alexander’s deification, Briant rejects assertions of the existence of a ruler cult of Philip II and his son in Macedon. As for Persian reaction to recognition of Alexander’s divine status by some Greeks, Briant has excised without comment his observation in Alexandre (p. 117) that “l’idée d’un roi-dieu était hérétique aux yeux des Perses.”

Briant’s Conclusion says nothing about the precise circumstances of Alexander’s death. He opts instead to warn against a “new extreme orthodoxy” of Alexander Studies that has emerged partly in reaction against Tarn’s idealized Alexander, partly due to an association of Alexander, his aims, and methods with Hitler and Stalin, and partly in consequence of a strand of post-colonial historiography—”victims history”—that emphasizes the most brutal aspects of the fates of native peoples under foreign domination. He also attempts to answer the charge that Alexander was unconcerned with the future of his realm, against which he adduces the Exiles Decree and Alexander’s attentiveness to the matter of succession in the persons of the son of Barsine (Artabazus’ daughter) and Alexander, of the child posthumously born to Alexander by Roxanne, and of Alexander’s half-brother Arrhidaeus, who was in Babylon at the time of the king’s death. Much of the ferment characteristic of the era of the Diadochoi Briant thinks is best understood as a continuation of tendencies and tensions already in existence in the empire of the Achaemenids. In contrast to the closing sentence of Alexandre — “… Alexandre a ainsi introduit les ferments qui allaient conduire au démembrement et à la disparition de l’empire patiemment construit depuis Cyrus” (p. 121)—, Alexander concludes: “the end of the story was no longer [Alexander’s] responsibility” (p. 144).

A brief bibliography and an appendix on the contemporary state of “the History of Alexander” follow. Of the former, the sections devoted to epigraphic, numismatic, and iconographic sources and to sources from Achaemenid territory will be of particular value to mainstream Alexander scholars, less so to a more general readership. On the other hand, both groups should find something of interest in the latter, whether it be Briant’s review of important but generally overlooked pre-Droysen (1833) treatments of Alexander, his notice of the marginalization in anglophone Alexander studies of publications not in English and his inference that this contributes to a stagnant rehearsal of the same material, his appreciation of the impact—realized and potential—of Macedonian and Achaemenid Studies on our understanding of the fourth century, or his description of a range of examples of numismatic and documentary evidence and the interpretative challenges each presents. Among the items discussed are Babylonian cuneiform tablets—some that shed a dim light on the local elite’s attitude towards Alexander, others concerned with hydrology, a subject long dear to Briant’s heart,4 that furnish a context for and points of comparison with Alexander’s attention to Babylonian rivers and canals—; papyrological, sillographic, and numismatic evidence from near Jericho that may have some link to anti-Macedonian activity in 331; controversial Aramaic documentary evidence from Idumaea and Bactria; a problematic Lydian inscription; what could be a coin of Darius’ and later Alexander’s satrap Mazaeus that postdates the Battle of Issus; and the infamous Elephant Medallion allegedly from Mir Zakah.

Between the introduction of and conclusion to Alexander are about twenty-five pages of new or substantially revised material. There are eleven illustrations—each representing some important piece of primary evidence examined in the text—and three maps. Of these, the combination of dates and routes on the maps of Bactria and Sogdiana (pp. 18-19) obscure rather than clarify Alexander’s movements. The indices omit some important modern locations and the names of several scholars to whom Briant devotes extended attention. On p. xvii, n. 12, bmer should be bmcr; there is a superfluous “at” on p. 14; on p. 28, the transliterated ἀρχή has become archè; on p. 33, “reprisals” should be “reprisal”; on p. 101, the transliteration edemagogese has become edemamagogese, and on pp. 150-151, part of the bibliographic entry—”Decadence and Renewal”—of the title of Briant’s contribution to Heckel and Tritle’s Alexander the Great is incorrect (see n. 1 below). There are rare instances when Kuhrt’s translation seems to overstate the sense and message of Briant’s French: e.g., p. 41 “fool’s enterprise” for entreprise impossible; p. 45, “unmitigated brutality” for conduite sauvage; p. 132, “cheek by jowl” for intimement. The last sentence of p. 41 badly obscures the clarity of the French ( Alexandre, p. 38). An opaque citation (p. xvi, n. 8) mistakenly makes Arrian rather than Strattis of Olynthus the subject of N. G. L. Hammond’s “A Papyrus Commentary on Alexander’s Balkan Campaign,” GRBS 28 (1987), pp. 331-47.


1. 2009 was a good year for Briant in English. Cf. his “Alexander the Great,” The Oxford Handbook of Hellenic Studies, edited by George Boys-Stones, Phiroze Vasunia, and Barbara Graziosi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 77-85, and “The Empire of Darius III in Perspective,” and “Alexander and the Persian Empire, between ‘Decline’ and ‘Renovation’,” Alexander the Great: A New History, edited by Waldemar Heckel and Lawrence Tritle (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), pp. 141-170 and 171-188, respectively.

2. (Paris: Fayard, 2003). Reviewed by Jan P. Stronk BMCR 2004.03.10.

3. (Paris: PUF, 2003) = Alexander the Great: Coinage, Finances, and Policy, translated by W. E. Higgins (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2007).

4. See, for example, Irrigation et drainage dans l’Antiquité (Paris: Thotm editions, 2001), reviewed by Philip Kaplan BMCR 2002.05.34.