Ancient History & Civilisation



In 51 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had reluctantly left his desk in Rome to become military governor of the province of Cilicia in southern Turkey, scored a minor victory against some local insurgents. As we know from his surviving letters, he was conscious that he was treading in the footsteps of a famous predecessor: ‘For a few days,’ he wrote to his friend Atticus, ‘we were encamped in exactly the same place that Alexander occupied when he was fighting Darius at Issus’ – hastily conceding that Alexander was in fact ‘a rather better general than you or I.’

Whatever the irony in Cicero’s remarks, almost any Roman, given the command of a brigade of troops and a glimpse of lands to the East, would soon dream of becoming Alexander the Great. In their fantasies at least, they stepped into the shoes of the young king of Macedon who, between 334 and 323 BC, had crossed into Asia, conquered the Persian Empire under King Darius III, and taken his army as far as the Punjab, some three thousand miles from home – before dying, on the return journey, in the city of Babylon, at the age of thirty-two, whether (as the official version had it) from a deadly fever or (as others insinuated) from poisoning or some alcohol-related condition.

Other Romans had a much better claim to be ‘new Alexanders’ than the normally desk-bound Cicero; and they made even more of the connection, with less sense of irony. Cicero’s contemporary, Cnaeus Pompeius, has been eclipsed in the modern imagination by his rival Julius Caesar, but as a young man he had achieved even more decisive victories over even more glamorous enemies than Caesar ever did. After conquests in Africa in the 80s BC, he returned to Rome to be hailed ‘Magnus’ (or ‘Pompey the Great,’ as he is still known), in direct imitation of Alexander. And as if to drive the point home, in his most famous surviving portrait statue (now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen), Pompeius is shown aping Alexander’s distinctive hairstyle, with a rising ‘quiff’ (oranastole as the Greeks called it) brushed back from the centre of his forehead.


2. Pompey the Great, the Roman Alexander – with his quiff.

Julius Caesar was not to be entirely outdone. When he visited Alexandria, where Alexander’s body had finally ended up (hijacked in its hearse on the way back from Babylon to Macedon and claimed for Egypt by one of Alexander’s ‘successors’), he made sure to make a pilgrimage to the tomb: one demented despot paying homage to another, as the Roman poet Lucan derided the stunt.

There were, nonetheless, divergent views on Alexander at Rome (as Lucan’s sour account of the tomb visit hints). In one of the first known attempts at counterfactual history, Livy raised the question of who would have won if Alexander had decided to invade Italy. Predictably, Livy concluded that the Roman Empire would have proved as invincible against Alexander as it had against its other enemies. True, Alexander was a great general, but Rome at that period had many great generals and they were made of sterner stuff than the Persian king, with his ‘women and eunuchs in tow,’ who was by any reckoning ‘an easy prey’.

Besides, from early on, Alexander showed signs of fatal weaknesses: witness the vanity, the obeisance he demanded from his followers, the vicious cruelty (he had a record of murdering erstwhile friends around his dinner table), and the infamous drinking. An invasion of Italy would have been a tougher test than the invasion of India, which ‘he strolled through on a drunken revel with an intoxicated army.’

Even Cicero, in his more hard-headed moments, could see the problems in Alexander’s career. In a now fragmentary passage of his treatise On the State, he seems to have quoted an anecdote that would turn up again, almost five hundred years later, in the pages of Saint Augustine. The story was that a petty pirate had been captured and brought before Alexander. What drove him, Alexander asked, to terrorise the seas with his pirate ship? ‘The same thing as drives you to terrorise the whole world,’ the man sharply replied. There were plenty of acts of terror he could have cited: the total massacres of the male population after the sieges at Tyre and Gaza; the mass killing of the local population in the Punjab; the razing of the royal palace at Persepolis, after (so it was said) one of Alexander’s inebriated dinner parties.

The ambivalence of Alexander’s Roman image is nicely captured in the well-known ‘Alexander Mosaic,’ a masterpiece composed of literally millions of tiny tesserae, which once decorated a floor in the ‘House of the Faun’, the grandest house in ancient Pompeii (and now in the Naples Archaeological Museum). Depicting a battle between an instantly recognisable Alexander (his hair is arranged with the characteristic quiff) and King Darius in his chariot, it has almost always been taken to be a Roman mosaic copy of an earlier Greek painting – on the basis of no good evidence, but on the old assumption that Roman artists tended to be derivative copyists rather than original creators.

It is a more puzzling composition than it might seem. Alexander is charging in on horseback from the left, and has just impaled an unfortunate Persian on his long spear (the famous Macedonian sarissa); Darius meanwhile, facing across from the right, is just about to flee the scene, and indeed his charioteer has already wheeled the horses around, ready to gallop off. We can be in no doubt about who the victor is. But our attention is focused not so much on Alexander but on Darius, who towers above the battle, his arm outstretched in the direction of Alexander. Whoever was responsible for this composition wanted certainly to draw our attention to the victim in this famous struggle between the waning power of Persia and the rising power of Macedon – even to elicit sympathy for the losing side.


3. The face of the loser. In this detail from the Alexander Mosaic, Darius looks across at his opponent, before turning in flight.

These debates have continued through the centuries. To be sure, new themes come and go. Recently there has been some highly charged political controversy focused on Alexander’s ‘Greekness’. Was he, as the government of the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia (FYROM) would have it, a Slav (and so an appropriate symbol of the Slavic FYROM, and a good name for Skopje airport)? Or was he a bona fide Greek (and so had nothing to do with the FYROM at all)?

The fruitlessness of this dispute is obvious: ancient national identity is a slippery concept; and the ethnic identity of the Macedonians is almost completely shrouded in myth. But that did not prevent several hundred academics, mostly classicists, from writing a letter to President Obama in 2009, in which they declared that Alexander was ‘thoroughly and indisputably Greek’ and asked him to intervene to ‘clean up’ the FYROM’s historical errors. Obama’s reply is not recorded. More recently, this controversy flared up once more when a huge kitschy thirty-ton statue, almost fifty feet tall, on top of a thirty-foot pedestal, was erected in the central square in Skopje. Judiciously called merely ‘Warrior on Horseback’, it is strikingly similar to the standard image of Alexander – with that quiff again.

And from time to time, some new evidence surfaces to stir the popular imagination. In the 1880s this came in the shape of the ‘Alexander Sarcophagus’ found in Lebanon, now in the Archaeology Museums in Istanbul. Dating to the end of the fourth century BC, and almost certainly the marble coffin of a junior monarch installed by Alexander himself, it depicts scenes of battles and hunting from Alexander’s life – and it was made closer in date to his lifetime than any other detailed image of him that we now have. (All the surviving large-scale ‘portraits’ of him were made after his death, often long after, even if they were based on contemporary works, now lost.)

Still more impressive have been the discoveries since the 1970s at Vergina, near the royal palace of Macedon itself: in particular, the series of fourth-century-BC tombs, found largely undisturbed, and loaded with precious jewellery, gold and silver vessels, elaborate furniture, and wall paintings. Undermining any impression that the Macedonians were a ‘barbarian’ people in the popular sense of that word, they are very likely the tombs of members of the Macedonian royal house: not Alexander himself, of course, but perhaps of his father Phillip II (assassinated in 336 BC) and various other relatives who met equally nasty ends in the power struggles after his death. Even if he himself is missing, the objects these tombs contain take us about as close to Alexander as we are ever likely to get.

But, for the most part, the debates about Alexander, and the evidence on which they are based, have not changed very much over two millennia: the basic dilemma – for writers, film-makers, artists, and statesmen – is still whether Alexander is to be admired or deplored. For many, he has remained a positive example of a ‘great general’, heroically leading his army to victory in increasingly distant terrain. Napoleon was a famous admirer, and a striking relic of his admiration survives in a precious table he commissioned, which ended up in Buckingham Palace. Made of porcelain and gilded bronze, it features the head of Alexander at the centre of the tabletop, surrounded by a supporting cast of other military giants of the ancient world. For Alexander, the message was, read Napoleon.

Philip Freeman, to judge from his biography Alexander the Great, is another admirer, albeit a more guarded one. In his summing up, he concedes that we might not approve of ‘Alexander’s often brutal tactics,’ but, he continues, ‘every reasonable student of history must agree that he was one of the greatest military minds of all time.’ The final sentence of the book insists that ‘we can’t help but admire a man who dared such great deeds.’

Others have not found it difficult to curb their admiration. Dante found a place for ‘Alexander’ (we assume he meant ‘the Great’) in the Seventh Circle of Hell, screaming in pain, up to his eyebrows in a river of boiling blood, spending eternity alongside such monsters as Attila the Hun and Dionysius the tyrant of Sicily. Many modern writers have followed him. A. B. Bosworth, for example, another doyen among historians of Alexander, once summarised Alexander’s career bleakly: ‘He spent much of his time killing and directing killing, and, arguably, killing was what he did best’. And I myself, more flippantly, once described him as a ‘drunken juvenile thug’ whom it was difficult to imagine chosen by any modern country as its national symbol.

These critiques are dismissed as anachronistic value judgements by Freeman and by Pierre Briant, in his Alexander the Great and His Empire: Bosworth’s is ‘a sweeping judgement in harmony with our current values but not with those of Alexander’s time’ observes Briant; my own quip is ‘much too simplistic,’ notes Freeman. ‘He was a man of his own violent times, no better or worse in his actions than Caesar or Hannibal.’ It is, of course, a general rule that historians accuse each other of making anachronistic value judgements only when they do not share the judgement concerned. But in this case, as we have seen, it is hardly anachronistic at all. Already in the time of Caesar, some Romans could paint Alexander as no better than a pirate on a grand scale.

Closely related to the basic issue of how far we can admire Alexander’s career is the question of what he was attempting to do. If we feel uneasy about his methods, then what about his aims? Here again we find wildly diverging views. The old idea, fitting neatly with some of the slogans of British nineteenth-century imperialism, was that Alexander had a ‘civilising mission,’ a high-minded project to bring the lofty ideals of Hellenic culture to the benighted East. In fact, this was not so far from the underlying theme of Oliver Stone’s disastrous 2004 movie Alexander (for which Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox was historical consultant and, notoriously, an ‘extra’ in the cavalry charge); Stone’s Alexander was a dreamy, sexually troubled visionary – but a visionary nonetheless.

Others too have seen all kinds of psychological underpinnings. One strand of scholarship stresses his compulsive and unsatisfiable ‘yearning’ or ‘desire’ (or pothos, to use the Greek term of Arrian – a Roman senator of Greek extraction – writing a history of theCampaigns of Alexander, in the mid second century AD). Another strand suggests a rather more literary sense of identification with the heroes of Homer’s Iliad. On this reconstruction, Alexander is said to have seen himself as the new Achilles and, along with his friend Hephaestion as the new Patroclus, to have been replaying the Trojan War (on one occasion cruelly reworking the scene in the Iliad in which Achilles drags the body of the dead Hector from his chariot around the walls of Troy – though in Alexander’s case the victim was, for a little while at least, still alive).

A rather more down-to-earth view would see him starting out as simply a follower of his father, who at the time of his assassination had already launched a limited series of military operations in Asia Minor; success went to Alexander’s head and he simply didn’t know where to stop. Or, to follow Ian Worthington’s theory in Philip II of Macedonia, after modest beginnings, Alexander was driven to continue in his campaign of conquest right up to the Punjab specifically to outdo his father in every possible way (more psychology here: Worthington writes that Alexander suffered from a ‘paranoia that grew from his feelings of marginalisation in the later years of Philip’s reign’).

Modern historians of Alexander find plenty to disagree about; but their arguments appear more intense than they really are, because – underneath all the superficial divergence and the conflicting value judgements – they are mostly trying to answer the same traditional range of questions, on the basis of the same approach to the same evidence. This point was powerfully made more than a decade ago in the London Review of Books by James Davidson, reviewing a collection of essays on Alexander edited by Bosworth and E. J. Baynham. It is a review that has become famous among ancient historians for calling attention to the very sorry state of the professional ‘Alexander industry.’ While most fields of classical studies, Davidson noted, had engaged with the new theoretical developments of the second half of the twentieth century, from narratology to gender studies, ‘in Alexanderland scholarship remains largely untouched by the influences which have transformed history and classics since 1945.’

Specialists in this tiny period of ancient history (the campaigns lasted just over ten years) were still committed to reconstructing ‘what really happened’, on the basis of the vivid but deeply unreliable literary sources that have survived (Arrian’s seven books are usually considered the ‘best’ evidence, but there is plenty of material also in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, to name just two). This project, Davidson argued, was even more flawed than other attempts to reconstruct ‘how it really was’ in the ancient world, because of the particular nature of the surviving evidence. All the narrative accounts of Alexander’s conquests that we have were written hundreds of years after his death, and the historian’s project has usually been to identify the passages within them that might derive from some reliable, but lost, contemporary account – whether the Journals of Alexander’s secretary, which were supposed to have given an account of his final ‘illness’, or the history of the period written by Ptolemy, the man who was responsible for hijacking Alexander’s corpse and installing it in the capital of his own realm, Alexandria.

The problem is, Davidson insisted, that – even if we could hope to identify which surviving sections came from which lost source – we cannot assume (as classicists like to do) that what is lost was necessarily reliable. Some of the writing was almost certainly forgery (the Journals are a good candidate for being at least a pastiche); some of it, so far as we can tell from critics in the ancient world itself, was simply very bad history. (‘The lost histories … weren’t mislaid,’ as Davidson rightly points out, ‘they were consigned to oblivion.’) The result is that the historical edifice we know as ‘Alexander’s career’ is extremely flimsy and modern scholars have been attempting to squeeze it for answers to questions that it could never deliver – not only what motivated him, but did he really love his wife Roxane, or believe that he was the son of the god Amun? This is not a game of history, but of smoke and mirrors.

Briant, in an appendix on the state of scholarship on Alexander, generously acknowledges that some of Davidson’s points ‘have hit home’. But if so, these books show only a faint trace of it. Freeman’s Alexander the Great is a workmanlike biography of the traditional type, sometimes enjoyable, sometimes a bit too breezy (‘Events in the field were looking up for the Macedonians’). It is full of remarks on feelings, emotions and character that are guesswork at best (‘Alexander could not believe his luck’; ‘One might wonder why he suddenly decided to marry a Bactrian woman at this point in his life. The answer is probably a mixture of politics and passion’). And it reminds us, with its impenetrable battle strategies and complex cast of characters (there are too many people with the same name), just how messy and difficult the Alexander story is, even in its simplified semi-fictional version.

Sometimes modern historians think we can get further by taking a sideways look at the career of Alexander. Worthington focuses on Philip II, attempting to see how far the achievement of the more famous son was already presaged by that of his father. It is a learned account, but (perhaps inevitably) rather too full of armchair generalship to make an easy read. Like many scholars, Worthington stands in awe of Philip’s invention of the sarissa, his supposedly devastating new piece of military hardware. But it was only an extra-long spear, so it is hard to see why Philip’s enemies didn’t just copy it. And you would never guess from his detailed description, complete with map, of Philip’s battle tactics in 338 BC against a Greek coalition at Chaeronea (‘Phase II: Philip retreats, his centre and left advancing; Athenians, Centre and Boeotians advance to left front,’ etc.) that this was all based on just a few confusing, and not wholly, compatible lines in a handful of much later sources.

James Romm, in Ghost on the Throne, moves in the other chronological direction, to examine the aftermath of the death of Alexander, and the conflicts between his various generals that led to the carve-up of the Greek world and the creation of the different Hellenistic dynasties (the Ptolemies, Antigonids, Seleucids, etc.), which in turn fell to the Romans. Romm is certainly right to see this period as more crucial, in geopolitical effects, than the conquests of Alexander. But despite some nice turns of phrase, he struggles to make the story particularly engaging – with its complex power-brokering among the rival generals, the series of dynastic murders in the family of Alexander, and the fickle manoeuvring among the unappealing leaders of Athens’s expiring democracy, who were looking for a chance to reclaim some influence.

Potentially the most significant book is Briant’s Alexander the Great, because Briant is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. The promise of this book is that we might be able to see Alexander differently if we included the Persian evidence. Insights there are, but less significant ones than you would hope. There are two main problems. First, Briant writes from the professorial pulpit, slightly hectoring in tone about what historians should or should not do, and telegraphic in style (there are only 144 small pages of large print, so it is ‘a short introduction’ as the subtitle says); and he makes few concessions to anyone who, for example, may not already know the duties of a ‘satrap’. On several occasions he refers to documents that are supposed to be particularly ‘important’ or ‘useful’, but he rarely explains to the outsider what the documents are and what impact exactly their content has on the history of the period.

I was baffled by the ‘extremely important’ Aramaic documents from Bactria, for instance, and how exactly the ‘18 wooden sticks recording debts, all from year 3 of Darius’ throw light on the transition from Achaemenid to Macedonian rule. But second, and more disappointing, when Briant does spell out more clearly the contribution of the Persian documents to our understanding, it often turns out to be surprisingly little. There are, as he concedes, no ‘continuous accounts’ from Persian writers; but even the cuneiform tablets deliver less than he promises. He refers, for example, to a ‘well-known Babylonian tablet’ that ‘gives us a detailed image’ of the period in 331 BC between the Battle of Arbela (or Gaugamela) and Alexander’s entry into Babylon. Detailed image? So far as I can see, it is an astronomical diary that refers in passing to ‘panic breaking out in the camp of Darius’ and to ‘the severe defeat of the Persian troops’ and the ‘king’s troops deserting’, followed by the entry into Babylon of ‘the king of the world’. A precious glimpse into a Persian point of view maybe, but hardly enough to rewrite history.

So what should we do with the Alexander story? Davidson argued that the ‘blind spot’ among modern historians of Alexander was ‘love’, and he urged that we turn our attention to the homoeroticism of the Macedonian court and its cult of the body. I would suggest a more prosaic blind spot: namely, Rome. Roman writers did not merely debate the character of Alexander, they did not merely take him as model, they more or less invented the ‘Alexander’ that we now know – as Diana Spencer came close to arguing in her excellent book The Roman Alexander (2002). In fact, the first attested use of the title ‘Alexander the Great’ is in a Roman comedy by Plautus, in the early second century BC, about 150 years after Alexander’s death. I very much doubt that Plautus himself dreamed up the term, but it may well have been a Roman coinage; there is certainly nothing whatever to suggest that Alexander’s contemporaries or immediate successors in Greece ever called him ‘Alexander ho Megas’. In a sense, ‘Alexander the Great’ is as much a Roman creation as ‘Pompey the Great’ was.

Even more significant is the character and the cultural background of the surviving ancient accounts of Alexander’s life. It is repeatedly said that these accounts were all written much later than the events they described. True; but more to the point is the fact that they were all written under the Roman Empire against the background of Roman imperialism. Diodorus Siculus, whose account is the earliest to survive, was writing in the late first century BC. Arrian, now the most favoured source, was born in the 80s AD in the city of Nicomedia (in modern Turkey), and undertook a Roman political career, becoming consul in the 120s, and later serving as governor of Cappadocia. Of course these Roman authors did not create the story of Alexander; and of course they depended on the writings of Alexander’s contemporaries, however good, or bad, they may have been. But they are bound to have seen this story through a Roman filter, to have interpreted and adjusted what they read in the light of the versions of conquest and imperial expansion that were characteristic of their own political age.

Re-reading Arrian’s Campaigns of Alexander, I was repeatedly struck by its Roman resonances. Occasionally Arrian himself draws an explicit comparison between Roman and Macedonian systems. But more often the implied comparisons do not need spelling out. The anxieties about Alexander’s claim to be a god (or at least son of a god) show obvious similarities with Roman anxieties about the divine or semi-divine status of their own emperors. The stress placed on Alexander’s use of foreign troops and on the ethnic mix of his court recall many aspects of Roman imperial practice (such as the use of provincial auxiliaries in the Roman army or the incorporation of members of the conquered elites – such as Arrian himself – into the imperial administration).

Perhaps the most striking overlap comes with the reaction of Alexander to the death of his friend Hephaestion. ‘Some say’, writes Arrian, ‘that for most of that day … Alexander mourned and wept and refused to leave until his Companions carried him off by force.’ Soon after, he established a cult to Hephaestion as a ‘hero’. This is almost exactly what the Roman Emperor Hadrian (under whom Arrian served) is said to have done at the death of his own favourite, Antinous. Maybe Hadrian was aping Alexander. Much more likely Arrian was modelling his own picture of Alexander on the behaviour of the emperor under whom he served.

I suspect that the change Davidson wanted in ‘Alexanderland’ will come only when we are prepared to realise that it is as much a Roman country as a Greek one. Maybe at the same time, we will at last be able to think of the Alexander mosaic from Pompeii as a proud Roman creation, rather than (as a caption in Romm’s new edition of Arrian’s Campaigns has it) ‘copied from a Greek painting done within a few decades of the battle, perhaps based on eyewitness accounts.’

Review of Philip Freeman, Alexander the Great (Simon and Schuster, 2011); James Romm (ed), translated from the Greek by Pamela Mensch, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (Pantheon, 2010); Pierre Briant, translated from French by Amélie Kuhrt, Alexander the Great and his Empire: A Short Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2010); Ian Worthington, Philip II of Macedonia (Yale University Press, 2008); James Romm, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire (Knopf, 2011)

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