Two Great Historians Talk Alexander the Great Part 3

Third in a series of weekly conversations between historians James Romm [JR] and Paul A. Cartledge [PC], editor and introduction-author, respectively, of the new Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, just published by Pantheon under series editor Robert Strassler. This discussion was created by the Reading Odyssey, a non-profit that aims to reignite curiosity and lifelong learning for adults through lectures, reading groups and webcasts.)

PC: Jamie, I’ve been reading the latest book publication by Pierre Briant, probably the world’s leading ancient Persologist (if there’s such a word) – technically he’s ‘Professor of the History and Civilization of the Achaemenid World and the Empire of Alexander the Great’ at the stellar College de France (founded in 1530 in Paris by Francois I). The book’s called Alexander the Great and his Empire, and has been translated for Princeton University Press by another leading Persologist, emeritus London Professor Amelie Kuhrt. What has struck me most about it is this: Briant is a leading light in the wave of scholarship that over the past 20-30 years has sought to re-place the history of Alexander within the history of the Middle East – to see him from an eastern rather than western perspective. Which is fair enough – provided the sources are there to do it. But actually Briant and those who follow him have a major problem of method – there’s no Persian equivalent of Herodotus, the world’s first historian properly so called, who wrote the history of the Graeco-Persian Wars of 490, 480-479 BCE. The Persian Empire (founded c. 550 by Cyrus the Great) and court produced lots of primary documents – but no historiography.

For the history of Alexander’s conquests, however, those who look at them from a western perspective also have a problem – there’s no Greek equivalent of Herodotus for that, either: i.e., though lots of contemporary Greek writers, including some probably quite good historians, treated the Alexander story, none of those contemporary works, not one, survives intact to this day. So it’s very noticeable that, like any other historian today, Briant for all his brilliance is forced to rely heavily on the history of Alexander’s campaigns written by a much much later Greek writer: Arrian of Nicomedeia (in modern northwest Turkey).

JR: Paul, you’re right to say that we have no Herodotus, and certainly no Thucydides, for the Alexander era — a situation I lamented in my editor’s introduction to the new Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. However I also wrote there that we would be much the poorer if we did not have Arrian either. Granted, Arrian was writing at second hand — using accounts by two of Alexander’s officers that were by his time four centuries old — and granted, he had little of the depth of insight that puts those other two historians in a different league (he fancied himself a new Xenophon rather than a Herodotus or Thucydides, as though admitting he was a soldier with some intelligence and a reasonably good prose style, but not a literary heavyweight). But the picture he gives us of Alexander is clear, compelling and filled with fascinating detail, especially in the military realm. I suppose the central question for all modern readers is, how reliable is that picture? How much does Arrian cover up the faults of Alexander — whom he clearly admires — and highlight only the good points? There are various points of view on this question among modern scholars — What is yours?

PC I belong firmly in the PRO camp, I nail my colours to the mast. One admittedly rather emotive way of putting that would be to say that without him we would have no basically reliable narrative to go on – certainly we couldn’t start from the other surviving narrative sources and build up an account on the basis of theirs, however much colour – or alternatively prejudice – they may add. Because obviously Arrian too was indeed prejudiced: he chose as his two main ‘authorities’, as you say, two of Alexander’s officers (not any of the writers of hostile accounts). One of those was a top-drawer Macedonian who’d been a friend of Alexander’s since boyhood and shared his education by Aristotle, and who, though not royal by birth, went on to become King Ptolemy I of Egypt – Pharaoh Ptolemy, indeed, from the native Egyptians’ point of view. Clearly, Ptolemy’s memoirs will have been to some extent self-serving, in ways that Arrian perhaps didn’t quite fully appreciate; on the other hand, few officers and courtiers had been as intimately associated with Alexander and risen as high in the command of the empire as Ptolemy had, and what Arrian chiefly used him for it seems was the nuts and bolts of military campagning details which he – as a top-level general himself, who also commanded in Asia Minor – found plausible and persuasive.

His other main source of choice was a Greek called Aristoboulus – an architect or engineer by specialization perhaps with a special interest in natural history. Aristoboulus was sometimes over-generous in his estimate of Alexander – and underplayed some of his less attractive qualities, such as excessive alcohol consumption. But the combination of Aristoboulus and Ptolemy was an intelligent and rational choice by Arrian, especially given the alternatives…

JR ….By which I assume you mean mainly Cleitarchus, the shadowy Greek who produced the narrative that underlies most of Diodorus, Quintus Curtius, and Justin, and a handful of even less responsible writers. This alternate tradition dramatized the Alexander story in highly diverting ways, but took far less trouble than Arrian did over accuracy. The gap between them is not as wide perhaps as between modern tabloid and broadsheet newspapers, but the analogy applies, I think.

My main concerns about Arrian arise when he omits an incident altogether that the Vulgate sources report — For example, Alexander’s mass execution of Tyrian civilians after the siege of Tyre. In the Landmark Arrian I mostly noted these divergences without arriving at a verdict. We could spend days discussing them on a case-by-case basis, but let me ask you what your general principles are, before we conclude this segment of our discussion. When the Vulgate sources attribute an atrocity to Alexander and Arrian omits it, whom should we believe?

PC Your concerns are entirely justified. Whereas the so-called ‘Vulgate’ tradition of Alexander-historiography that stems from the contemporary but non-participant Greek Cleitarchus (based in Ptolemy’s Alexandria!) tends to exaggerate the more lurid and negative aspects of Alexander’s career, the ‘official’ tradition represented by Arrian tends to go in the opposite direction, palliating the unpalatable. The example you select is very well chosen indeed.

You call it a ‘mass execution of Tyrian civilians’ – but a source favourable to Alexander could surely have presented it rather as an exemplary massacre, in much the same way as the total destruction of Greek Thebes in 335 could have been presented as exemplary: that is, designed to prevent a repetition of a kind of resistance to his project that Alexander had found both unjustifiable and exceptionally annoying. Why then did Arrian not mention the Tyrian massacre, whereas he had not merely mentioned but given exceptional and quite negative weight to the destruction of Thebes as an unmitigated ‘disaster’? Was it because the Tyrian massacre had not actually happened but was an invention of a tradition hostile to Alexander? Or was it because Arrian too thought it was the not wholly rational action of a man excessively motivated by wounded personal pride and uncontrollable desire for revenge and therefore should be suppressed? (There is an exact parallel here to the accounts of the siege of Gaza that followed soon after that of Tyre: the Vulgate source Quintus Curtius describes a horrific quasi-Homeric revenge that Alexander allegedly took upon Gaza’s pro-Persian Arab commander Batis, whereas Arrian merely says Alexander sold the women and children of Gaza into slavery and repopulated the city as a fortress with nearby tribespeople – no mention of the fate of Batis).

Well, Arrian as mentioned could present Alexander’s behaviour quite negatively in regard to Greek Thebes, and he seems to have shared a widespread view that success went to Alexander’s head leading him into increasingly megalomaniac and irrational actions, so in principle I don’t think Arrian would have had to suppress the alleged massacre at Tyre in order to save (his own view of) Alexander’s good reputation. On the other hand, I myself find the idea of an exemplary massacre of Tyrian civilians quite plausible, as I pointed out in my 2004 book on Alexander. So it’s possible Arrian just didn’t find it worth recording – or (more likely) didn’t find it mentioned in his two main ‘authorities’., Ptolemy and Aristoboulus. A case of biassed reporting, then, but not necessarily the imposition of Arrian’s own direct bias?

Originally Published @ Forbes

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