BMCR 2011.05.58

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander

, , The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (a new translation by Pamela Mensch). New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. l, 503. ISBN 9780375423468 $40.00.

Table of Contents

[The reviewer apologizes for lateness of this review.]

Waiting for the final volume of A. B. Bosworth’s A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander,1 scholars interested in Alexander the Great and his best (as it is commonly assumed) historian, have been given a new publication which certainly will win the favor of the experts and obtain the status of a ‘classic’.

It is the fourth volume published by Pantheon Books in the Landmark series. It was preceded by the editions of Thucydides in 1996, Herodotus (2007), and Xenophon’s Hellenika in 2009. The idea initiated by the Series Editor, Robert B. Strassler, has proved to be a great success. The same can be said of this edition – the new translation by Pamela Mensch deserves high praise and there is no doubt that for students interested in Alexander’s expedition, The Landmark Arrian will become an indispensable tool. The great merit of the book lies in a successful reconciling of two goals: while addressed to the general reader, it remains simultaneously interesting for specialists, as it touches upon several detailed topics (e.g. the mystery of Alexander’ death – Appendices O, pp. 404-406; and P, pp. 407-410).

The book follows the scheme known from the previous Landmark editions. It begins with the Introduction (which should be read together with Appendix R, by J. Romm, pp. 417-420), by Professor P. Cartledge (pp. xiii-xxviii), and then the two Prefaces (by the Editor, pp. xxix-xxxiv; and by the Series Editor, pp. xxxv-xl) come, although one may wonder if such dispositio – Introduction and the Prefaces – should be not the reverse. Next, the chronological outline of the events is attached (pp. xliii – xlix) and, as usual, it is a fine idea, enabling the reader to get visual clarity of the events: here a historical date, a place, the relevant passage in the Arrian text and a short description of the event are put together in one line. To adduce the first historical record (p. xliii): Autumn 336 – MACEDONIA – 1.1.1-3 – Philip II is assassinated, Alexander becomes king. This scheme of presenting the events is repeated in the translation: the running heads at the top of each page inform the reader when and where the action takes place, enabling one to get the fullest possible orientation.

The new translation of the Anabasis (pp. 2-315, based on the Greek text in P. A. Brunt’s Loeb edition, with some changes) is the core of the edition. As usual, it is accompanied by side notes (another exceptionally useful feature), often a one-sentence summaries of Arrian’s narrative. Additionally, the editor, James Romm, takes care to enrich Mensch’s translation with footnotes: concise as they are, they remain nevertheless outstandingly lucid, thoughtful and informative, including also references to the maps, conceived as an integral part of the translation (these, located before each of the books of the Anabasis, indicate the degrees of elevation by shaded relief). The same can be said of the battle diagrams and the photos of sites, coins and other monuments – the photos are of excellent quality and the decision of the Editors to put them alongside the text in order “to enhance the reader’s sense of the historicity of the text” (Strassler, p. xxxix) can only be welcomed. In addition to an Epilogue, written by the Editor (pp. 317-324), the translation is followed by 18 Appendices: five by Romm (D: pp. 343-351; K: pp. 380-387; M: pp. 393-398; N: pp. 399-403; R, see above), four by E. Borza (B: pp. 333-336; H: pp. 367-370; O: pp. 404-406; Q: pp. 411-416) four by R. Stoneman (C: pp. 337-342; G: pp. 361-366; J: pp. 375-379; L: pp. 388-392); in addition, F. L. Holt (F: pp. 358-360; I: pp. 371-374), E. Baynham (A: pp. 325-332), A. B. Bosworth (P: pp. 407-410), and W. Heckel (E: pp. 352-357, with Romm). After the list of the ancient sources cited in this edition and the very short, general bibliography (pp. 421-426; it must be noted, however, that several further studies are cited in the footnotes to the Appendices), there is a highly useful, outstanding Index (pp. 427-488), rightly called by the Series Editor (p. xxxix) “the most thorough and complete”. It will probably replace the index in P. Brunt’s vol. II of the Loeb Arrian (pp. 573-585).2 The book ends with the Directory to the reference maps, where the reader can find all the sites mentioned by Arrian. Besides the maps printed in the relevant places of the translation, ten others are gathered in the separate section: Reference Maps (pp. 491-503).

The great care the editors take with the maps and other tools that help us to ‘see’ the campaigns of Alexander is unusual and deserves high praise: these distinguish this edition from other books on Alexander, as the Series Editor rightly reminds (p. xxxv) and the Editor proudly states too (p. xxxi). Indeed, to add to their acknowledgements, congratulations must be expressed to the collaborators responsible for the visual side of this edition: the book designer K. Llewellyn, and the specialists in mapmaking J. Wyss and K. Sandefer, whose contribution was also important. As the Editors confess (pp. xxxiii and xxxviii), in their efforts to make the Alexander story more familiar by embedding it in its geographical setting, they followed the path established by the authors of Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World,3 which should be treated as ‘a reference tool’. This is also especially true in the spelling of names and places.

Thus, to some extent, we take can ‘watch’ the route of Alexander’s campaigns, as if progressing step by step with his army – from Europe, through Asia to India and back to Babylon. It may be observed that all the tools used here evoke the ancients’ vividness, ἐνάργεια,4 and this virtue of presentation works well in this book, making it a great editorial achievement.

Even in a book as comprehensive as this, it was impossible to encompass all the problems connected with the Anabasis – in both its historical and literary aspects, and the Editor fairly states this in the Preface (p. xxxii). In effect, in the Appendices selected problems are addressed: they are, however, strictly related to the narrative (e.g. App. A, on the burning of Persepolis, or the two that discuss the enigma of Alexander’s death).

Since every work on the Anabasis must devote some space to its author, the Introduction deals with Arrian himself. Here Cartledge briefly highlights the principal facts of his life and literary career. Arrian’s idea of writing about the king who lived more that 400 years ago is here explained in terms of literary rivalry with Xenophon and his Anabasis (p. xii). Cartledge sees it in a broader context of the literary trend of Greek culture in the second century AD (‘the Second Sophistic’), when the ‘classical’ output was highly esteemed. He points out quite rightly, however, that Arrian was “by no means a slavish follower” of Xenophon (p. xiv). His remark that the Bithynian was fascinated by the Persian Empire is equally revealing. A major part of the Introduction is devoted to Arrian’s sources: they are divided into “Eyewitnesses” (pp. xvi-xvii), “The Vulgate Tradition” (pp. xviii-xix), “Plutarch” (p. xix), “Documents” (pp. xix-xx) and “Visual and Material Sources” (p. xx). Analyzing the problem of the obscurity in Arrian’s battle description (p. xxiv; see also Editor’s Preface, p. xxxi), the main source of it is found in Ptolemy’s history. This is possible but perhaps some space should be devoted to the epic (Homeric) roots of Arrian’s inspiration. One would also expect that in the sections on “Humans and Gods in the Anabasis” (pp. xxii-xxiii) and “Arrian on the Alexander Legend” (pp. xxvii-xxviii) the question of author’s philosophical training and the problem of how his Stoic views influenced his portrait of the king would be addressed. J. Romm’s ‘biographical’ Appendix R carefully restates the main points of Arrian’s curriculum vitae. The most interesting controversy over the dating the Anabasis is mentioned as the old Arrianic question and rather insoluble. Writing about ‘Arrian’s Sources and Reliability’, Elisabeth Baynham (Appendix A) also touches on similar problems. Especially interesting are her remarks (p. 326) on Arrian’s attitude toward the other writers: not only the emulation of epic poetry and the great historians of the classical epoch was important to him but equally a rivalry with his contemporaries, including perhaps Plutarch. On this occasion, the question of the philosophical clues in the text reappears and Professor Baynham’s answer is negative, except at the beginning of the Book VII, where she rightly recognizes Arrian’s moral (Stoic) standpoint, claiming the superiority of the Stoic virtues over the insatiable ambition of the king, whose fate serves as a pedagogical, moralizing memento.5 To the Appendix A, the excellent remarks of Stoneman (in Appendix C) are relevant: he calls attention (p. 338) to Alexander’s imitation of the Homeric Achilles.

Given the flood of the books on the military side of Alexander’s campaigns, some historians may be surprised that the present edition devotes to this only one separate Appendix (D, by the Editor; at p. 343 he aptly observes that it is perhaps the only topic in Alexander studies where no controversy appears: no one doubts the king’s military genius). But such a verdict would be unfair. Regarding the range of the project, it is plain that the Editors did not neglect this aspect, as, e.g., the carefully prepared diagrams prove. Also Appendix F, by Holt, tackles the military aspect, although, according to him (p. 358), the financial side of the expedition “may seem unheroically mundane”. Thematically, warfare is relevant to Appendix E, concerning ‘Alexander’s Inner Circle’, his court and relations with the officers (written by W. Heckel and the Editor).

The Persian aspect of the campaign – fascinating as usual – is analyzed by Stoneman (Appendix G, mainly concerned with the fall of the Achaemenid empire), Romm (Appendix K, dealing inter alia with Persification, p. 381 – the gradual adoption by the king of the Persian customs) and Borza (about the notorious incident at Persepolis, Appendix H). For the sake of comparison, these essays should be read with Romm’s remarks on Alexander’s attitude toward the Greeks (Appendix M) and with Borza’s (Appendix B) on the ethnicity of the Macedonians and the royal burial place (Appendix Q). It will be certainly useful to complete these reports with an account of Alexander’s literary Nachleben as it was repeated preserved in the popular imagination of the next generations (Appendix L, by Stoneman, translator of the Greek Alexander Romance).

In sum, I am sure that this publication will appeal to everyone interested in Alexander. With this path-breaking edition the reader has been equipped with an exceptional inquiry tool. In the Alexander and Arrian studies – a true ktema es aiei.


1. Volume I, Oxford 1980; volume II, Oxford 1995.

2. Arrian II. Anabasis Alexandri, Books V-VII and Indica, Cambridge Mass. – London, 1983.

3. Edited by R. J. Talbert, Princeton – Oxford, 2000.

4. Quintilian, Inst. 4. 2. 63; Cicero, Top. 97.

5. I deal with this topic in a paper ‘Philosophy and the Emptiness of Power: Calanus’ Suicide in Arrian’s Anabasis, 7. 1-3’ (in preparation).