BMCR 2020.08.35

Alexander the Great in Arrian’s Anabasis: A Literary Portrait

, Alexander the Great in Arrian's 'Anabasis': A Literary Portrait. Trends in classics. Supplementary volumes, volume 78. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. xi, 284 p.. ISBN 9783110658798 €99,95.


Joining De Gruyter’s Trends in Classics series, Vasileios Liotsakis’ second monograph is a welcome addition to the study of the Greco-Roman literary tradition on Alexander the Great. While Arrian’s Anabasis has enjoyed a supposed superiority over our other extant sources on Alexander, scholarship tends to focus on its historical value rather than taking into full consideration the literary and narrative qualities of the work. The rhetorical flourish and modification of material found in other ancient sources (especially authors of the so-called Vulgate tradition such as Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin) is heavily criticised, yet scholars have for the most part avoided in-depth investigations into Arrian’s literary style.

Despite an underlying interest in this theme reflected in short papers and book chapters, to date there has been no monograph-length study dedicated to Arrian’s narrative technique. This volume therefore seeks to fill this gap in the scholarship. Ultimately, the key purpose of this book is to present a narrative analysis of Arrian’s Anabasis. In particular, Liotsakis aims to move away from the scholarship’s traditional focus on the Anabasis’ historicity and encomiastic dimension. He instead wishes to shed light on certain aspects of Arrian’s style of writing, arguing that he used varied narrative techniques to present an intentionally dynamic portrait of Alexander. To achieve these aims, four key features of Arrian’s narrative style are emphasised: 1) the use of narrative structuring to express disapproval of Alexander’s character, 2) march-narratives, 3) time and chronology, and 4) Homeric aspects of the text. Each of the book’s chapters constitutes an in-depth study of each feature.

The book’s key thesis is laid out in Chapter 1 (‘Overall Design: From Praise to Criticism’). Liotsakis argues that Arrian’s portrayal of Alexander in the first three books of the Anabasis is overwhelmingly positive. Alexander eventually began to succumb to the corrupting forces of success and power, however. This, in conjunction with his campaigns in Asia, allegedly triggered a gradual corrosion of Alexander’s character, and Arrian’s personal opinion of Alexander declined in direct proportion. Consequently, from the start of Book IV we begin to see a distinct shift in the way Arrian treated and presented his source material.

Far from the Anabasis being a sober historical account, Liotsakis argues that Arrian instead made deliberate and distinctive compositional choices to impose his own views on Alexander’s character and actions. To support this claim, Chapter 1 lays out instances in which Arrian includes siege episodes or descriptions of groups of peoples encountered by Alexander and his army. By comparing examples from before and after the so-called ‘pivotal digression’ (IV.8-14), Liotsakis convincingly posits that variances in Arrian’s narrative approach across the text as a whole were not accidental by-products of the writing process. Rather, they demonstrate an intentional shift in the ‘representation of historical reality’ (77) by means of which Arrian manipulated his audience to either support or oppose Alexander’s actions, in line with his own personal views.

Chapter 2 (‘March-Narrative and Characterization’) moves to focus on Arrian’s use of march-narratives in the Anabasis. Building on the theoretical foundations built in the opening chapter, Liotsakis argues that march-narratives contribute to the delineation of Alexander’s multifaceted character. A notable feature of this chapter is Liotsakis’ challenge to the traditional view that military elements of the Anabasis were encomia of Alexander’s achievements. Arrian’s reputation as a military historian who wished to highlight Alexander’s tactical prowess is partly responsible for the scholarly neglect of his narrative style. As such, the analysis of his compositional creativity in the face of ‘dry reports’ of the Macedonian army’s movements and routes is a fascinating contribution to the field.

Chapter 3 (‘Atemporality and Characterization’) adopts an approach similar to that of the preceding discussion; it closely examines examples of Arrian’s use (or misuse) of chronology to intentionally fashion a portrait of Alexander that is informed by his own opinion. Liotsakis argues that rather than accidentally muddling the timing of certain events, Arrian intentionally disrupted the historical chronology to emphasise first positive and then negative aspects of Alexander’s character.

By the end of his first three chapters, Liotsakis has made a convincing case for Arrian’s deliberate use of compositional choices throughout the Anabasis. His many and various examples demonstrate how Arrian was better able to intensify his criticisms against Alexander from Book IV onwards.

Now taking a slightly different approach to the source material, Chapter 4 (‘Arrian Homericus: Alexander, the Epic Hero’) turns to consider Homeric elements of the Anabasis. Alexander’s emulation of Achilles has been acknowledged by modern scholarship, but Liotsakis’ offering is a novel, and broader, approach to the topic. Rather than focusing on Alexander’s characterisation alone, this chapter instead explores linguistic and stylistic parallels between the Iliad and the Anabasis, a literary feature which is seldom acknowledged in recent scholarship.

Each chapter is rounded off with a solid conclusion and summary of arguments. Chapter 5 (‘General Conclusions’) is therefore left to tie together each of these arguments to support the broader discussion of Arrian’s originality of style and judgement. Despite modern scholarship criticising the narrative embellishment found in other ancient sources on Alexander (especially the so-called Vulgate tradition), Liotsakis’ analysis here does not undermine the usefulness of the Anabasis as a source on Alexander. Rather than focusing on the historicity of Arrian’s account – an easy stance to fall back on, given the current state of scholarship – this concluding chapter instead emphasises the originality of Arrian’s style and judgement of Alexander. To this end, Liotsakis is unflinching in acknowledging the literary (rather than solely historical) value of the Anabasis.

In the introduction to this volume Liotsakis proposed to explore the ways in which Arrian contributed to the ‘literary production’ of Alexander’s reputation in terms of both style and interpretation. Indeed, this is one of this book’s major contributions. To date, a great deal of the scholarship on Arrian has focused on identifying the original sources for certain episodes and other exercises in Quellenforschung. Liotsakis takes a step away from this approach and disrupts the common assumption that blindly accepted the Anabasis as the ‘best’ of the available sources on Alexander and his campaigns. Instead, Liotsakis convincingly demonstrates that the Alexander we see in the Anabasis is just as much a reflection of Arrian’s own opinion as it was a reflection of historical material contained in earlier sources.

Overall, this volume is well-written and generally easy to follow. Happily, Liotsakis has provided English translations for all Greek passages and terms, making the text accessible to a range of audiences. While some might find the frequent inclusion of raw source material a hindrance to readability, I suggest instead that it makes following Liotsakis’ argument far easier than if only book and line references were included, requiring us to flick back and forth between translations. This volume provides many novel insights for the understanding of Arrian’s Anabasis and his individual portrait of Alexander. Seasoned philologists, ancient historians in training, and the casual Alexander-enthusiast will all therefore benefit from reading it: Liotsakis has pitched his writing an appropriate level for all. In a popular and well-trodden field, this is an original and very welcome contribution which one hopes will generate further interest in narrative analysis of Arrian’s works and the Alexander histories more generally.