Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 3


Interested in Alexander the Great? Join us for:

– Weekly dialogue between historians Paul Cartledge and James Romm See below (and check back here each week)

Arrian’s Alexander the Great – In a New Voice Free evening conference/reception in New York City at the NYU Center for Ancient Studies Thursday, Feb 10, 2011 at 6pm. Cohosted by the Reading Odyssey, Inc. Free info and registration here:

Arrian’s Alexander the Great reading group Free web/phone-based reading group beginning April 2011 run by the Reading Odyssey. Free info and registration here:


Paul Cartledge:  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).

Jamie Romm 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 campaigning 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

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

PC Your concerns are entirely justified. Whereas the so-called
‘Vulgate’ tradition of Alexander-historiography that ste
ms 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?

(The Alexander Series will now take a hiatus for the winter holidays.
Happy New Year to all!)

20. December 2010 by Arrian
Categories: Arrian-Alexander, Lecture | Tags: , | Comments Off on Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 3