Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 25.

Waldemar Heckel and Lawrence A. Tritle (edd.), Alexander the Great: A new History. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Pp. xix + 366, incl. map, and 20 plates. ISBN 978-1-4051-3082-0. UK£19.99.

John Atkinson,
School of Languages and Literatures, University of Cape Town, South Africa

For a fraction less than twenty pounds sterling you get a worthwhile collection of essays that is not quite a Companion, nor a Reader, nor yet a collection of Symposium papers.[[1]] Insofar as these genres are distinct, this volume has the merits of each, and provides strong competition because of the calibre of this international team of contributors, the quality of the contributions, and the comprehensive range of aspects covered.

With the plethora of cooperative publications in this field there is naturally, and defensibly, some measure of overlap and recycling between volumes, and this is duly acknowledged by Heckel with regard to his narrative chapter, ‘Alexander’s Conquest of Asia’ (pp. 26-52), which is, as he says, a reworking of his chapter in Kinzl (2006).[[2]] In this volume it provides an excellent contextualising introduction to the more narrowly focused chapters that follow. Of value is his solid prosopographical approach, but a family tree or two, or additional notes might help to explicate the detail, for example, at pp. 26f. on Perdiccas and Amyntas (angled brackets denote my insertions). He distances himself from Badian’s dark presentation of Alexander, for example on Alexander’s treatment of the Lyncestian Alexander (p. 44) and ‘the reign of terror’ that followed the Gedrosian disaster (p. 51); and he comes close to shifting onto Nicanor blame for the Exiles’ Decree (p. 52). His chapter on ‘A King and his Army’ (pp. 69-82) supplements his chapter in Roisman (2003: 197-225),[[3]] but in this version he focuses only on overt opposition to Alexander, as at the Hyphasis and at Opis, and on less public clashes (notably with Cleitus), and alleged conspiracies. With his two chapters in this book Heckel leads from the front in accentuating the positive, and contesting the more cynical interpretations of Alexander’s actions.

The positive approach can be seen, for example, in Elizabeth Carney’s treatment of ‘Alexander and his “Terrible Mother”’ (pp. 189-202), as she finds that Alexander ‘achieved supreme excellence by the standards of his society’, not least because of the influence of Olympias, who was a good mother (p. 189), though by the same token his parents could be held accountable for some of his negative character traits as well as his qualities. Olympias played out her role as was expected of a mother of a son of a polygamous king. Similarly, Daniel Ogden, on ‘Alexander’s Sex Life’ (pp. 203-17) comes ‘close to . . . Tarnism’ (p. 217) in finding that Alexander’s record in both the heterosexual and the homosexual categories was respectably in harmony with the pattern established by Philip and other Macedonian kings. Then Elisabetta Poddighe, ‘Alexander and the Greeks: the Corinthian League’ (pp. 99-120), finds consistency in Alexander’s respect for the provisions of the League, though after Gaugamela he redefined the campaign for the freedom of the Greeks, giving that principle greater weight than the guarantee of autonomy (p. 116). Thus with the Exiles’ Decree of 324, Alexander adapted the ‘juridical instrument’ provided by the League, as ‘violating or ignoring its charter was neither useful nor necessary’ (p. 117). Pierre Briant, as interesting and challenging as ever, opens his chapter, ‘The Empire of Darius III’ (pp. 141-70), with a call for a more informed evaluation of Darius’ role in the development of the Persian empire, stating that ‘the historian’s task should not be to “rehabilitate” Darius, nor to summon Alexander before an international court of justice to charge him with his “crimes”’ (p.142). An apologist might welcome Michael Zahrnt’s line that Alexander inherited from Philip a commitment to a war against ‘the Persian Empire’ (pp. 21- 25, passim), by which he seems to mean a war for conquest. In support of his case he might have drawn in reference to Bloedow (2003: 261-74), and Heckel (2003: 147-74).[[4]] While Zahrnt cites for Philip’s aims Ellis (1976) and Cawkwell (1978),[[5]] they were, according to these writers (in my view rightly), less expansive and referred rather to Anatolia and the western satrapies. In any case Zahrnt, in this introductory chapter on ‘The Macedonian background’ (pp. 7-25), is more focused on Philip, and concludes with the line that when Alexander ‘began to be called “the Great”, it was overlooked that he was the son of an even greater man.’(p. 25)

But Heckel’s co-editor, Lawrence Tritle, began with a more negative view of Alexander, having already diagnosed his record of strange behaviour from about 329 BC, with binge- drinking, paranoia and fits of extreme anger, as consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.[[6]] Thus in his chapter on ‘Alexander and the Greeks’ (pp. 121-40), he shows no illusions about the motives of those who joined him in Asia: some may have been captivated by his charisma, but plenty were there to escape whatever hardship and to get out of it whatever social and economic advantage. As for political leaders in mainland Greece, Tritle rightly rejects the judgemental use of the labels pro- and anti-Macedonian,[[7]] and calls for more appreciation of the pragmatism that was forced on them.

Gregor Weber, ‘The Court of Alexander as Social System’ (pp. 83-98), deals with the progressive formalisation of court rituals, the definition of designated spaces and structures, and the expansion of the tiers of officers, dignitaries and minions; and he paints a grim picture of the tensions and complexities of life in Alexander’s court, in particular after his return from the east. On occasions One could share in symposia with One’s hetaeroi, and, within limits, tolerate freedom of speech, but to make competitiveness work as a guard against disloyalty the general policy had to be to ‘mark the differences in rank and status with merciless punishments’(pp. 94-5).[[8]] Like Tritle, Weber recognises that tension between Alexander and the Macedonians in his army increased significantly after the return from India, nicely illustrated by his reference to Cassander’s imprudent reaction to what he saw upon his arrival in Babylon in 324 of ‘the changes that had taken place at court’ (p. 95, citing Plut. Alex. 74). Alexander Meeus, ‘Alexander’s image in the age of the Successors’ (pp. 235-50), follows this line, but more tentatively,[[9]] and to mark the paradox that the attitude to Alexander after his death swung to blind loyalty, and more generally to affection for the Argead line. The depth of that attachment may be overstated, but Meeus presents a good analysis of how the Successors wrestled with the challenges of using the image of Alexander, Philip and the other Argeads in their propaganda.

Patrick Wheatley, ‘The Diadochoi, or Successors to Alexander’ (pp. 53-68), provides a lucid overview of a highly complex period. The section on the chronology of the Diadoch period (pp. 66-8) is less clear and helpful than the other sections and is not of particular relevance to the study of Alexander, but one appreciates the way he makes sense of previous discussions of why the dates of the assumption, or open use, of the royal title by those who followed the lead of Antigonus and Demetrius in 306, appear to span nearly two years (pp. 61-3). Particularly good, and of certain relevance, is his treatment of early bids for the kingship, perhaps starting with Leonnatus in 322 (p. 60), and what that kingship meant (pp. 60, and 65f.).

In several places significant rival interpretations are regrettably not mentioned. For example, Catie Mihalopoulos follows the standard interpretation of the Alexander Mosaic (pp. 287-8), apparently unaware of Badian (1999: 75-92), who focuses rather on the prominence given to Darius.[[10]] Boris Dreyer’s ‘Heroes, cults, and divinity’ (218-34), lacks reference to Badian (1996: 11-26). Blackwell (1999) is included in the cumulative bibliography, but is not drawn in at potentially relevant points by Carney and Poddighe.[[11]]

If you are at risk of being introduced to a stranger as working in the field of Alexander studies, be prepared for an opening question about Oliver Stone’s film, Alexander. Read very carefully Elizabeth Baynham’s chapter, ‘Power, passion and patrons: Alexander, Charles Le Brun, and Oliver Stone’ (pp. 294-310), and be grateful. The major part of this chapter, however, deals with Le Brun’s Alexander paintings, and the source material and paintings from which Le Brun gained information and ideas. She addresses the key issues of patronage and the pressures on the artist. Like Le Brun Oliver Stone had to strike a balance between creativity and what was required of him, in Stone’s case as set out by his advisers led by Lane Fox. Incidentally, as the author of a monograph on Curtius Rufus (1998), Baynham must be gratified by the high incidence of references to Curtius in this volume.[[12]]

Curtius is again much in the frame in Diana Spencer’s ‘Roman Alexander: Epistemology and Identity’ (pp. 251-74), a finely nuanced study of Roman paradigms from Scipio Africanus to Hadrian. It is good to have this chapter as a guide and supplement to her key study of the source passages in her book (2002).[[13]]

All in all this volume is certainly to be welcomed. At an affordable price it offers coverage of a comprehensive range of topics, with the ‘big names’ well represented among the contributors. As the pieces are custom-written there is enough new material here to make this more than a ‘reader’, and there is plenty to challenge the critical mind.[[14]]


[[1]] Such as Joseph Roisman (ed.), Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great (Leiden 2003), Ian Worthington (ed.), Alexander the Great: A Reader (London 2003), Waldemar Heckel and L. Tritle (edd.), Crossroads of History: the Age of Alexander (Claremont, California 2003); W. Heckel, L. Tritle, and P. Wheatley (edd.), Alexander's Empire: Formulation to Decay (Claremont, California 2007).

[[2]] W. Heckel, 'The Conquests of Alexander the Great', in K.H. Kinzl (ed.), A Companion to the Classical Greek World (Malden 2006) 560-88.

[[3]] W. Heckel, ‘King and “Companions”’ in Roisman (ed.), Brill’s Companion to Alexander the Great (2003) 197-225.

[[4]] E. Bloedow, ‘Why did Philip and Alexander launch a war against the Persian Empire?’ AC 72 (2003) 261- 74; W. Heckel, ‘Alexander . . . and the “Limits of the Civilised World”’, in Crossroads of History (Claremont, 2003), 147-74.

[[5]] J. R. Ellis, Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism (1976) and G. L. Cawkwell, Philip of Macedon (London 1978).

[[6]] ‘Alexander and the killing of Cleitus the Black’, in W. Heckel and L.A. Tritle (eds.), Crossroads of history: the age of Alexander (Claremont, California 2005) 127-46. I have picked up on this point in a forthcoming article on the death of Alexander.

[[7]] Cf. my ‘Macedon and Athenian politics in the period 338-323 BC’, ACl 24 (1981) 37-48.

[[8]] This irreverent use of the royal One is not Weber’s: the reviewer, as might be guessed, has just read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007).

[[9]] Thus he appears to refer to the Cleitus episode and the mutiny at Opis as marking low points in Alexander’s relationship with his men, but provides the caveat that the whole issue needs more discussion (p. 236). By contrast, Heckel draws from the Cleitus episode the crucial lesson that ‘the army was quick to excuse Alexander’s conduct’ (p. 78), and on the Opis mutiny Heckel homes in on Curtius’ account of the troops’ contrition once Alexander had re-asserted his authority (p. 81; Curtius 10. 3. 1-3).

[[10]] E. Badian, ‘Note on the “Alexander Mosaic”’, in The Eye Expanded, ed. F.B. Titchener and R.F. Morton (Berkeley, 1999) 75-92. In the same chapter Mihalopoulos might have made it easier to explore further the links between certain artistic representations of Alexander and Achilles by reference to key images of Achilles in LIMC.

[[11]] E. Badian, ‘Alexander the Great between two Thrones and Heaven’, in A. Small (ed.), Subject and Ruler (Ann Arbor 1996) 11-26; C.W. Blackwell, In the Absence of Alexander (Frankfurt-am-Main 1999). Unfortunately, Dreyer’s chapter also includes several source references, where the content is incorrectly rendered.

[[12]] E. J. Baynham, Alexander the Great: the Unique History of Quintus Curtius (Ann Arbor, Michigan 1998).

[[13]] Diana Spencer, The Roman Alexander (Exeter 2002).

[[14]] We can count as typing errors the misspelling of amphictyonic (p. 102), ‘AD 20’ for ‘20 BC’ (p. 261, n. 36), and syngeneia for syggeneia (p. 101).