Tue Jul 21 18:18:05 2009
In looking at Greek history before Alexander we are often working from a very limited number of primary sources, frequently limited to single accounts by Herodotus, Thucydides & Xenophon—occasionally supplemented with Plutarch and other later writers. But when we reach the time of Alexander the surviving sources are plentiful and varied. It is quite a challenge to sort out the tangled web of influence and borrowing, let alone all their possible bias and motivation.
Alexander appears so much larger than life and seems to have had a good propaganda machine working for him. Sometimes I’m not sure I can believe any of it. (Not unlike Peter Green’s appendix on Granicus in his biography of Alexander, which is worth a look if you’ve missed it.) There is so much that sounds like calculated propaganda. We are told that Alexander was inspired by Xenophon’s Anabasis and Homer’s Iliad. From the Anabasis you learn reality–that the Persians have serious weaknesses and that you don’t risk the King’s death in battle. From the Iliad you learn mythology–and try to sell the genius of Philip/Alexander (yawn) by turning it into the wrath of Achilles (hooray!). I doubt that Alexander was nearly as involved or at risk as the accounts make it sound.
Arrian and Plutarch are usually our better sources but their description of Granicus reads like an action-adventure story and Diodorus offers us something that sounds more like a sensible strategy.
Waiting until dawn to cross the river sounds is a well-thought out strategy that could have contributed to the victory at Granicus. Alexander impulsively rushing across the river to fight the Persians with only the support of thirteen horsemen (even the number sounds suspicious) sounds like the kind of mythologizing you get in movies and propaganda. It sounds stupid, unbelievable, and a good way to get killed—although very bold, heroic and even god-like.
This is similar to other differences in the accounts. The death of Darius comes in a sensible/rational version and a mythical/politically expedient version as does the battle of Gaugamela to name just a few. Of course it is impossible to say what really happened—but much of it is so easy to see through that I have to put my money on the less heroic and extravagant stories.