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Studying Alexander

This article was co-written by Sikander, Halil and Nick. It tackles the question: "How can we ever know what really happened?"

1. Sources

Ancient history is the study of events which may or may not have been recorded accurately. Many of the documents were actually written numerous years - if not centuries - later. Some authors may have had a specific agenda in writing a text.

For the history of Alexander the oldest surviving account is that of Diodorus of Sicily, written around 50 BC. That is three centuries after the life of Alexander. The four other major sources of our knowledge are the accounts of Quintus Curtius Rufus (written around 40 AD, four centuries after Alexander), Plutarch (written around 100 AD), Arrian (written around 140 AD, five centuries after Alexander) and Justin (written around 200 AD).

The earliest account of Diodorus is, sadly, also one of the most confused. Arrian, Plutarch and Curtius Rufus are considered the more reliable sources, but as their accounts were composed four to five hundred years after Alexander's reign they are a far cry from an eye-witness account. They are also biased. Arrian paints an overall favorable portrait of Alexander the Great, as does Plutarch - while Curtius Rufus seems rather more obsessed with the negative aspects of Alexander's personality.

2. Male & Female

History is gender-biased. We tend to interpret history through male perspectives, discounting the contributions of women to cultures, events and revolutions.

Just one look at the list of sources on Alexander makes this point clear. From Diodorus to Justin the sources are all male. In fact, we have to wait more than two thousands years before the first woman - Mary Renault's novel 'Fire from Heaven' in 1969 - presents us with a female perspective on Alexander's history.

Curtius Rufus' accounts about the Persian Queen-Mother Sisigambis, especially her 'lobby' with Alexander the Great in late 331 BC, indicates that the influence of women on history is probably much bigger than most history books suggest (Curtius Rufus, 5.2 & 5.3).

3. Winners & Losers

History is written by the victors and by those who came into power. Thus, we often find ethnic bias, religious bias and cultural bias in historical writings. It can be argued that history is the on-going story of about 50 percent of the facts.

In the case of Alexander this is very much the same. The Roman and Greek sources about Alexander's campaigns are the basis of our knowledge. There is no contemporary Persian account to balance our point of view. The oldest surviving Oriental books on Alexander (by Firdowsi or Nizam Nizami) date from 1200 AD when history and legend were already unseparatebly mixed.

4. Major & Minor

In every event there are 'major characters' as well as 'minor characters'. The minor players often have had a greater influence and impact than we at first realize. But as written history tends to concentrate on the lives of the celebrities, we know only very little about the 'minors'.

In Alexander's case we might consider the deep impact of the decision made by the Persian commanders Pharnabazus and Autophradates. They met with the Spartan King Agis III in 333 BC. King Agis revealed his plans to start a war in mainland Greece and the Persians decided to support the Spartans with a mere 30 talents and some ships - a tip rather than substantial support. In comparison: Alexander sent 3000 talents to Macedon to support the war against Agis.

This is just one example where actions of 'minor players' made all the difference. Had Pharnabazus and Autophradates decided to raise substantial funds for King Agis, the outcome of Alexander's wars might have been entirely different. There are hundreds of minor characters involved and in general we know little about their roles and motives. This will always blur our vision of what really happened.

5. Religion

The religions in dominance at the time of the event must be viewed from a past perspective, not a modern one. Religious texts and beliefs are the results of centuries of revision. Many are interpreted erroneously from a completely modern perspective. Current 'new age' spirituality clouds the issues further by incorporating myth and folktales as reality.

Alexander was raised in a polytheistic culture which for many people today is just impossible to understand. The monotheistic beliefs of the modern Western world - developed from Jewish and Christian origins - have provided us with a rather harsh concept of what religion ought to be: there is one single true God. Reverance of any other gods is pagan and should be avoided. There might be tolerance towards other religions, but there can not be fusion.

This concept was totally alien to Alexander and his contemporaries. In the ancient world the flexibility of the pantheon of gods made them interchangable with foreign gods. The religious beliefs of Alexander's time can never be fully understood through modern eyes. Our concept of religion prevents us from grasping what it meant to Alexander to promote himself as divine.

6. Cultures

The cultures of today are not necessarily the cultures of yesterday. The peoples inhabiting a region today do not need to represent the inhabitants of the past. Over the centuries trade routes, wars and expanding or declining empires and religions tend to impact on an area and change the cultural context of a country - or even of an entire continent. What you see today is not what existed in the past. The past can seldom be analysed through modern observations.

The world that Alexander conquered stretched from Egypt to the Indus. In our time this entire area - though inhabited by peoples as different as Turks, Iranians and Arabs - is united culturally by the shared religion of Islam. It might be considered a cultural unity in that respect. But this shared identity was not at all present in Alexander's days. Western Asia was far more diverse and varied than the present situation suggests.

Which cultural, social and political factors were at work in Alexander's days we can only guess at based on our sketchy knowledge. Also surrounding cultures, with their own unique elements, must be studied in order to understand the whole picture.

7. Mythology

Mythology builds from age to age. Folk traditions based on true events tend to become distorted and corrupted through time.

In the case of Alexander we have to deal with a personality whose life has been the inspiration of myths and legends for over twenty centuries. It is even inconceivable to decide which statements from the original sources are based on fact and which were already 'polluted' by the legends that were forming around his person.

Both Arrian and Curtius Rufus - considered the more reliable sources on Alexander's history - record the meeting between Alexander and the Queen of the Amazons, the legendary female warrior race. In their accounts this meeting features as an historical event. Plutarch dismisses the story as a legend. So the border between facts and mythology already becomes blurred in the earliest accounts that we possess.

8. Conclusion

As we can never completely verify our sources anything we claim to know about ancient history is 'assumed' rather than 'confirmed'. The facts which we assume to be true are only part of the entire picture as they tend to focus on male persons, on the victors and major players only. Our interpretation of the assumed facts is further troubled by our current context: our present day concepts of religion and cultures and myths that have built up over the centuries.

To study ancient history the best we can do is to read the oldest available manuscripts, to access and compare multiple sources and tend not to make pronouncements of 'facts' - but rather of 'possibilities'. Even then, there remain too many peripheral and random factors we need to know - but will never know.

We can extrapolate possibilities from available data. We can surmise how people may have felt, reasoned or reacted. But this requires a thorough understanding of our own values and beliefs in order to avoid projection of our modern standards on the peoples of a distant past. We can not expect this will lead us to the truth of history.


Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History Book XVII (written around 50 BC), published in Loeb Classical Library No. 422 (1983). Buy from or

Quintus Curtius Rufus, The History of Alexander (written around 40 AD), published in Penguin Classics (1984). Buy from or

Plutarch, Alexander (from 'Parallel Lives'; written around 100 AD), published in Penguin Classics 'The Age of Alexander' (1988). Buy from or

Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander (written around 140 AD), published in Penguin Classics (1982). Buy from or

Justin, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Books 11 & 12: Alexander the Great (written around 200 AD), published in Clarendon Ancient History Series (1997). Buy from or

Written by nick

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