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.

~ by severalfourmany on July 21, 2009.

7 Responses to “Alexprop”

  1. There are indeed many more and varied sources available to us for Alexander than there are for the Greeks themselves. And more and more are available over the internet. This was one of the first things that I used the internet for when I finally got it in Turkey; I haven’t had access to the Loeb volumes for a long time, but the internet makes a pretty good substitute.

    Green’s book is good and the theory that he presents in the appendix about there actually having been two battles (one in the afternoon which wasn’t won and one the following morning which was won) is very intriguing. Notice, however, that in his preface to the reprint, he says that he was flat wrong! (p. xiv) Doesn’t say why he’s wrong, just that he is. Puzzling.

  2. From Peter Green:

    Thanks for your message. As you may well surmise, you’re by no means the first person to have asked this question: I should really sketch out a stock reply. However, it’s got progressively more embarrassing to answer as time went on: what seemed irrefragible arguments unravelled, topographical information proved inaccurate, and (I won’t burden you with the whole odyssey, and now there’s no reason to trail back over all the arguments, though you can find them under the Alexander rubric in successive vols. of L’Année Philologique) in short, over the years I’ve circled back more or less to my original position. It may not be the correct solution; there simply isn’t the evidence to nail the truth for certain; but it’s as plausible, I’ve now come to see, as anything else I’ve analyzed in the interim period, and an encouraging number of scholars now think so too. I’m supposed to be doing a revised second edition, and want to, and will, but other work keeps getting in the way.

    With best regards,

    Peter Green

  3. OK, well done. So Green still believes that there were really two battles, one where Alexander was impetuous and paid for it and another when he was better prepared and actually won.

    So propaganda at work since at this stage, Alexander needed a clear and significant victory.

  4. That’s great. It’s interesting how he has come full circle to return to his original position. I’ll be interested to read his “stock reply” in a revised second edition. I’m having trouble sorting out the truth from the propaganda as well, but this is what historical writing is all about, isn’t it?

  5. What’s really interesting is that all contemporary writers and historians have had the same ancient sources to scrutinize and so many varied theories have come from these. Although we’ll never really know which, if any, is the real truth it is exciting to analyze and evaluate the various theories in coming up with our own beliefs. Maybe someday another ancient source will materialize and shed more light on the subject of Alexander.

  6. Don’t give up so easily. There are almost certainly more sources available but we need to organize, translate and publish them. A cuneiform tablet from the Chaldaean Astronomical Diaries (running form 652-60 BCE) provides a contemporary account of Gaugamela. There are thousands of similar tablets sitting in museums throughtout the world that remain unpublished and untranslated. There are close to 30,000 Persian fortification tablets that might provide information from the Persian perspective, but only a small fraction of these have ever been published.

    Want to write the next great book on Alexander? Learn Babylonian or Persian and start digging.

  7. Actually you’re right, been in the Egyptian museum lately? They have so many uncataloged tablets within their walls that it would take a lifetime to translate them all. Definitely a slow process but well worth it.

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