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Book Reviews: Modern Views of Ancient Texts


Arrian (English trans. A. de Selincourt; introduction J.R. Hamilton). "The Campaigns of Alexander", Penguin Books, 1982 (pp.480)
Reviewer: Nick Welman
If you would be invited to my home at any given moment, chances are 100% guaranteed that you would accidentally stumble upon my copy of Arrian somewhere in the house: next to the couch, next to the toilet seat - or next to the bed. Probably not on the bookshelf. It is permanently in use in some way or another. I think it was back in 1985 - when my interests in Alexander were slowly fading - that I noticed the Penguin translation of Arrian in a bookshop next to the Dutch Ministry of Home Affairs where I was employed at that time. When I left the ministry one year later, I requested that Arrian should be my obligatory goodbye present. And so it was. If any book has succeeded in keeping my fascination with Alexander alive, this should be it. Therefore it has a value to me unsurpassed by any other work that I have read. All right, I have become aware of its limitations and I have learned to read between the lines. But Arrian has written one of the most coherent ancient historical works. Just like Green and Bosworth will take our surviving major sources and compare them in order to compose their version of Alexander's history, so did Arrian. He figured that Ptolemy and Aristobulus - eye-witness accounts that we sadly have lost but that were still available to him - were the two most reliable and authoritative sources. Arrian explicitly states that whenever their accounts matched, he assumed that they were telling the truth. When Ptolemy and Aristobulus differed, he took the most plausible or interesting version to be true. So, little has changed. This is what modern historians still do. Arrian was part of the Greek population of what is now north-western Turkey. He was born around 90 A.D. and the Roman emperor Hadrian trusted his capabilities so much that Arrian became consul of Cappadocia - that is central Turkey - around 130 A.D. He commanded the armies that drove the invading Alans out of the empire. After his retirement he lived in Athens and devoted his life to writing. Our history of Alexander was composed in Athens sometime after 138 A.D. If one classical author has contributed to our popular image of Alexander as the heroic ideal, it would be Arrian. This is the Tarn of Antiquity. Arrian is known to have been a master of omission. Whatever he could not justify within his concept of an overall favorable picture of the Macedonian conqueror, he refers to with a subtle hint only - enough for the educated reader - and he usually avoids treating scandals and controversies with a suggestive discussion. But as far as our knowledge of the factual sequence of events goes, Arrian is generally considered to be our best source. Some readers have remarked that they think Arrian is dry stuff. I personally have never felt that way. He is very readable and rather compact, describing ten full years of campaigning within some 360 short pocket book pages. His story is fast and swift. What he may lack is humor and irony. But if you like to marvel at the inhuman achievements of the Macedonian army, chances are you will swallow Arrian. For those who tend to treat Alexander's history as an soap or a sitcom however, there is to little to get excited about. Also beware that Arrian's main focus is on Alexander's personal exploits, on the military and on the geography of some conquered regions. Once I became more intrigued with the background of his Persian enemy, I began to see Arrian's limitations. Arrian has this stereotype Greek chauvinistic approach of "barbarians". King Darius III never comes to life as a character. Darius and his Persians are just dismissed as "feeble and incompetent", and that is just about it. Still, it was Arrian who inspired me to read Justin, Plutarch, Diodorus and Curtius too. The sole fact that we can access texts two thousand years old, is still a great joy to me.

The History of Alexander, Quintus Curtius Rufus (English trans. J. Yardley; introduction and notes  W. Heckel), Penguin Books, 1984 (pp.334).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Curtius may be the most prominent surviving exponent of the so-called "vulgate" tradition. "Vulgate" is the term used to denote the broad stream of classical historical literature that represents Alexander as a young king who quickly became corrupted by good fortune. The entire "vulgate" probably derives from the account of Cleitarchus of Alexandria (who wrote around 310 B.C.). Diodorus, Justin and to a lesser extent Plutarch are considered part of the vulgate too. (Arrian intentionally avoided using Cleitarchus.) Both in his TV-series and in his book Michael Wood did not make a secret of his love for Curtius. I remember that scene in a Turkish overnight express traveling down to Adana in which Wood explained that Curtius has this admirable "journalistic" approach with his sharp eye for controversy and scandals. We could say Curtius represents the "paparazzi" of Antiquity. He has been a source of inspiration for those authors - both historical and most notably in fiction - who have based the plot of their works on the demise of Alexander. This definitely implies that Curtius has written a thoroughly interesting account of Alexander's reign. It becomes more intriguing every time you re-read a certain passage. The more you get to know about Alexander, the more you develop your interest in certain details or episodes of his history, the more truly revealing Curtius' work becomes. When I started out in December 2001 to examine Alexander's conquests from the Persian viewpoint - especially looking for anecdotes and details about Darius III - I was amazed by the richness of Curtius, noticing passages and sentences that had escaped my attention before. Quintus Curtius Rufus is considered to have been born in an humble environment (it has been suggested he was the son of a gladiator) but he rose to a important position in the Roman empire. When he died in 53 A.D. he was proconsul of Africa (Tunisia). He had been governor of Upper Germania before that and he had received triumphal insignia. He is believed to have composed his History of Alexander during a brief lull in his political career, probably around 40 A.D. Of the ten books that form his history, the first and second have been lost. Large gaps lurk in books 5, 6 and 10. (It has always reminded me of incomplete masterworks works like Gogol's "Dead Souls".) No matter what your interest in Alexander is, Curtius should be one of the first classic accounts you should read. His eagerness to reveal court disputes, character flaws and interpersonal tensions makes his history highly enjoyable - but you must be able to appreciate that this classic Roman author is not writing in the style you might have gotten used to reading modern bestsellers. Curtius' Penguin edition comes with some huge bonuses. Waldemar Heckel's extensive alphabetic list of personalities is a wonderful tool of reference. I could not do without it anymore. Curtius is one of the most intriguing ancient works that enables you to dig deeper in the darker vaults of history. Happy reading.

Diodorus Siculus (English trans. C.B. Welles), Books XVI.66-XVII, Loeb Classical Library (Diodorus Siculus VIII), 1983 (486 pages; Greek and English text).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Diodorus wrote an opus of forty books which he entitled his Library of History - or Universal History - of which book XVII is exclusively dealing with Alexander. His approach is annalistic: he sums up events year by year, accompanied by the statement that during that year mister Whoever was consul in Rome while mister Whocares was archon in Athens. Diodorus is not interested in telling an entertaining account. He is interested in placing events in their proper place and sequence, in order to pass the chronology of his era through to posterity. He has been invaluable to historians; much of what we know about Philip II or Alexander's successors has come to us through Diodorus. To the dedicated reader Diodorus might simply be not coherent enough. The structure of his work implies that he is lacking a plot or some satisfactory 'catharsis' to end an episode. So most people interested in Alexander will be far more pleased with Plutarch, Arrian and Curtius. If you want to possess the complete collection of ancient sources, Diodorus must be included. Otherwise, you might give this one a miss. Diodorus lived on Sicily from 80 B.C. to 20 B.C. and wrote his works after 50 B.C. He is the oldest remaining source we have on Alexander. His work has many parallels with Curtius, as they are assumed to have both based their stories on the common source of the "vulgate" tradition (Cleitarchus). Diodorus is notorious for being inaccurate. His chronology - although the major aim of his work - is sometimes confused. Especially concerning the later years of Alexander's reign it is erratic. The historical value of Diodorus is that he at least used reliable original sources himself and that we have virtually no alternatives to turn to for certain periods of Antiquity. In spite of everything I have said above, I love Diodorus. When I wrote a quick overview of Alexander's divinity for, I found more colorful and mysterious details in Diodorus than in any of the other works. When I tried to figure out the personality of Darius III, I was stunned by what I read in Diodorus. He presented me with an entirely different picture of Darius III as an energetic, courageous and clever ruler. It was a world apart from Arrian's insults (with Curtius being somewhere in the middle). So Diodorus' Book XVII is not something you want to read from start to finish. But it is remarkably refreshing when you look for additional details about many events of Alexander's lifetime.

The Age of Alexander, Plutarch (English trans. I. Scott-Kilvert; introduction G.T. Griffith), Penguin Books, 1988 (pp.443; "Alexander" pp.252-334; other key figures from the time of Alexander appear in this volume).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
The classical Greek and Roman books about Alexander that were written twenty centuries ago, are not so very different from studies and works by modern scholars. The Greek historian Plutarch has left us many of his "lives": short biographies on famous ancient personalities like Caesar, Demosthenes and - of course - Alexander. Plutarch is not extremely interested in recording the sequence of events itself. He is focused on analysing the drives and motives of those outstanding individuals who had shaped the world as he knew it. His book is a character study. In that respect his "Life of Alexander" can be regarded as the grandfather of Renault's "The Nature of Alexander" and even O'Brien's "The Invisible Enemy". Plutarch was born in central Greece around 46 A.D. He became a philosopher and rose to the rank of governor under Roman administration. His "lives" are actually "parallel lives". He wrote his biographies in pairs, comparing one similar personality with another. The life of Alexander is mirrored in the life of Julius Caesar: the two most successful conquerors of (western) Antiquity. That concept would still be lucrative today: compare Roosevelt and Churchill, compare Reagan and Thatcher, compare Jagger and Elvis... Get the picture? If your interest in Alexander is primarily targeted at his character and his personality, Plutarch might be the first ancient author you should read. Sometimes Plutarch mixes up chronology, sacrificing some historical accuracy in order to score his points and to emphasize on his conclusions. Some details about Alexander's life are found in Plutarch an nowhere else. The story of the "casket" - said to have been the most valuable possession of Darius III - in which Alexander decided to keep his personal copy of Homer's Iliad, is found only in Plutarch. It is remarkable how easy it is to read Plutarch and how closely related we still are to his world of thought. My favorite quote of Plutarch comes from his life of Demosthenes - part of the same Penguin edition as Alexander's life. "I found that it was not so much through words that I was enabled to grasp the meaning of things, but rather that it was knowledge of things which helped me to understand the words that denoted them." This has been the story of my life too. During my academic years I never fully understood any book about management or cultures or organizations, until I my growing personal experience enabled me to grasp what I was reading. It has always struck me as bizarre that someone living two thousand years ago expressed exactly the same feeling. We should remember that the difference between history and prehistory is based on the simple fact that we possess written records about the events that we refer to "historical". Pottery, jewelry or images that we excavate only provide circumstantial clues on which we could base hypotheses about what has actually happened. But - to give just one example - the discussion about Alexander's sexual attitude has more or less been inspired by a single passage in Plutarch. "'These Persian women are a torment for our eyes.' He was determined to make a show of his chastity and self-control [...] ." Words like these have been interpreted, re-interpreted and discussed until scholars have reached some consensus about their meaning and implications. For the dedicated reader every page of Plutarch is a source of inspiration for debate and contemplation. "The Age of Alexander" has been one of the more popular Penguin publications of ancient texts. It is easy to buy a copy anywhere. Above that, Plutarch's lives are readily accessible through the web and you should be able to find a translation of his biographies within a matter of minutes. Once you have read some of the more popular modern studies - once you have acquainted yourself with the overall picture and you want to dig deeper - reading Plutarch is a delight. This book enables you to go straight to a major source of our knowledge and to begin drawing conclusions and assumptions for yourself, regardless of what guys like Green, Hammond or Lane Fox have to say. Included in Penguin are the lives of men like Agesilaus, Demosthenes and Pyrrhus too.

Justin - Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Volume I Books 11-12: Alexander the Great, J.C. Yardley (trans.) and W. Heckel (commentary), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997 (360 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Now this one is a beauty. Justin is one of our five major sources on Alexander, but unlike Plutarch, Diodorus, Arrian and Curtius he never made it into an English translation until this publication by Yardley and Heckel. Justin's account is brief: a mere 25 pages in print. But what makes this book a gem is the superb commentary by Waldemar Heckel. The 'commentary' makes up the bulk of the book, some 230 pages, and Heckel discusses about every topic imaginable. Almost each word, each sentence of Justin's account is placed in its proper context, compared with other sources and discussed in detail. If Justin writes about a "banquet on a feast day", Heckel will explain which feast this actually was. If Justin mentions "a prisoner", Heckel will discuss who he might have been. If Justin says Alexander "set up altars", Heckel will inform you to which specific gods. I have used this book very many times as an extremely reliable reference. I consider it an absolute must-have for everyone sincerely interested in Alexander - provided you can deal with reading some academic commentary.

The Greek Alexander Romance, R. Stoneman (trans.), Penguin Books, 1991 (196 pages).
Reviewer: Nick Welman
It is wonderful to have an English translation of this Pseudo-Callisthenes, the base text on which probably all legends about Alexander from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages were inspired. You can read about dog-headed men, men without heads, men with six hands and others with bull's heads. The Romance was probably composed - at least fragments - in Alexandria in the third century B.C., so within a few decades after Alexander's death. The Romance began a life of its own. It remained one of the most read, most copied works in literature for ages. The translation of Richard Stoneman is based on surviving manuscripts, the oldest dating from the third century A.D. However, do not expect to plunge into a Tolkien-like, enchanting world of exciting adventures. If this Alexander Romance makes something clear, it is that the truth is far more interesting than the legend. The Romance simply lacks a good plot, a cohesive structure, a well-balanced sequence of events. Just like with the Medieval Arthurian legends by Chretién de Troyes, the modern reader is far more pleased with a present day adaptation of the stories than with the longish originals. If you expect to be absorbed by the "magic" of the Alexander legend, chances are that you will close the book after a few pages, thinking that what you have read is just unsatisfactory and boring. We have simply lost the ability to believe and be amazed by the tales presented. Richard Stoneman has done a great job and has given us a valuable book - for those who want to study or discuss the folklore about Alexander. I am superbly happy I possess this edition and always treat it like a precious little artifact. But if you are eager to read something exciting, then try Ludlum, Clive Barker or John Irving.

Historical Sources in Translation: Alexander the Great, Waldemar Heckel & J.C. Yardley, Blackwell Publishing, 2004 (342 pages)
Reviewer: Nick Welman
Another high standard, highly enjoyable piece of work by Heckel and Yardley. The book is divided by topics (Alexander's divinity, Gaugamela, Alexander's character, etcetera) and then produces translations of the extisting sources on this topic, including the well-known as well as the obscure. So at last you can read proper English translations of the Metz Epitome, Aelian and Athenaeus - and what they have to say about Alexander. The downside is: 75% of the included translations are again from Arrian, Curtius, Diodoros and Plutarch - and so you might have read those passages a dozen times before. I kept searching for the really interesting, new material that isn't available elsewhere - like the Liber de Morte. It is there, for sure, but Heckel and Yardley give us no clue if their collection of 'other sources' is truly complete and exhaustive. So I kept wondering: is this all there is? As far as I am concerned, I would have liked a new edition of the full Metz Epitome far better than this random (?) collection of quotes. Still, when nothing else is available to satisfy your taste for going back to the originals - this book is a fair buy and something probably not to be missed when you possess the bulk of the other sources already.