Two Great Historians Talk Alexander The Great, Part 4

Fourth 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.)

In this episode, Romm and Cartledge try to answer the question: What was the Greek attitude toward Alexander?

JAMES ROMM Paul, the attitude of the Greeks toward Alexander seems to me to have been conflicted in the extreme. I’ll cite the example of the city I know best, Athens. When Alexander first took the throne in 336, Athens rejected him as regional hegemon and celebrated the death of his father, Philip; but then as soon as Alexander approached with his army, they sent envoys to hail him as leader and heap honors on him. The same pattern recurs at several points over the next decades, either under Alexander or his successors. Were the Athenians simply cowed by shows of force? Or should we think more in terms of a divided citizenry, with pro- and anti-Alexander factions getting the upper hand by turns? Can one even speak of a Greek attitude toward Alexander, or was the Hellenic world too fragmented and diverse to have a consensus view?

PAUL CARTLEDGE You are absolutely right, Jamie – contemporary Greek attitudes to ‘our hero’ (well, he’s mine anyhow) were indeed massively conflicted, and nowhere more so than at Athens. Part of the trouble was that his father Philip had been in a way too damned nice to the Athenians: even after they’d organised a major revolt against him, and been totally defeated in battle (Chaeronea, 338 BCE), he courteously sent back the dead Athenians’ ashes to their home city for burial under a royal escort led by none other than the 18-year-old Alexander (the only time he ever set foot in Athens, saw the Parthenon, etc etc). You are also right, I think, to talk of pro- and anti-Alexander (standing for Macedon) factions at Athens. The irony was that the Greek culture Alexander embraced and spread through the middle east was very largely Athenian Greek high culture.

For fans of historical novels (I confess I am) I can highly recommend Nick Nicastro’s Empire of Ashes, which cleverly and excitingly reviews Alexander’s entire career from an Athenian perspective by way of a characteristically Athenian (and perhaps also American…) democratic device – a lawsuit.

JR: Well I look forward to reading that novel! So then, if it seems we can’t get far trying to follow all the twists and turns of sentiment at Athens, maybe we can talk more usefully about the Greeks who were in Alexander’s entourage. Lawrence Tritle has made a very useful list of them in an article in the recent volume “Alexander the Great: A New History,” co-edited by Tritle and Waldemar Heckel, and they’re a rather impressive lot — thinkers, writers, dancers, poets, and musicians, as well as (of course) soldiers and sailors. To my knowledge all of them thought well of Alexander, with the sole exception of Callisthenes, Aristotle’ kinsman and student. This man, who went with Alexander as a kind of court historian, was a great supporter and cheerleader for six years until turning into a critic, rather suddenly, over the issue of whether Alexander ought to be greeted with a low bow, the way Persian monarchs were greeted. In Arrian’s history, Callisthenes receives a starring role, in that he delivers a long and impassioned speech against Alexander’s Asianized forms of court ritual. Arrian may have invented the speech and inflated Callisthenes’ contrarianism, of course. Do you find it significant that so many educated Greeks followed Alexander admiringly? Or that Callisthenes finally stopped doing so?

PC: Alexander did indeed intrigue Greek intellectuals, either as a case-study in absolute power corrupting absolutely, or conversely as a philosopher-king (or perhaps we should say as the man they hoped would turn out to be a philosopher king in accordance with their own political philosophy!). It would be nice to know what Aristotle really thought of his pupil: what we do know is that Alexander did not buy or practice all Aristotle’s most cherished doctrines, by any means – such as the natural slavishness of all barbarians. We assume Aristotle had a say in recommending his relative (nephew or great-nephew) Callisthenes to Alexander; he’d already collaborated with Callisthenes on compiling a list of all the known victors at the Pythian Games held every four years at Delphi since 582. But Callisthenes may well not have realised quite what he was letting himself in for. Actually there was no precedent in all Greek history for an ‘official’ historian appointment such as his, a sort of ‘Minister of Propaganda’ really. But for many years as you say he seems to have been content to try to sell Alexander to those many Greeks who were out of sympathy with his master’s aims and methods. And Arrian would surely not have invented from whole cloth a Callisthenes who fell out with Alexander over the issue broadly of ‘orientalization’ and specifically of Alexander’s requirement that all his courtiers conform to the Persian court ritual of obeisance in the king’s presence. It seems that even intelligent Greeks failed to realise this was a secular not a religious ritual and interpreted it as hubris: treating a mortal man as if he were a god. Callisthenes paid the price of his life for his opposition, and Arrian clearly sympathised with his stand.

JR Yes, and unfortunately we don’t quite know whether Alexander had Callisthenes summarily executed — a very-non-philosophic use of power — or merely imprisoned him for a later trial, after which Callisthenes contracted illness in confinement and died from that. Either way Alexander is responsible, but the latter scenario — that depicted by some sources — would be much more palatable to us Alexander fans. But I think this has to be counted as one of several insoluble problems in the Alexander record — or what is your opinion?

PC I agree with you, Jamie, that it’s a formally insoluble conundrum, but I have to confess that, fan of the great Alexander though I am, I’m one of those who think that Ptolemy’s brutally unadorned account of Callisthenes’s death – or murder, if you like – conveys the (indeed) unpalatable truth: that Alexander had his own official historian summarily executed for what he considered to be high treason. Alexander – painful as it is to contemplate – didn’t get where he got by being nice to courtiers who he believed had betrayed him, especially on an issue that was one not merely of personal loyalty but of high imperial policy. But then again, if Alexander hadn’t got where he did get, then he couldn’t have made the world-historical impact he did, I guess…

Originally Posted @ Archaeology News

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