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Alexander the Grating

From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

Polarities do neaten up a narrative, and the messier your narrative, the more tempting they become. If your business took shape when wide-shouldered goons crowbarred open the shipping crates of your competitors and dumped the contents (and sometimes the competitors) into the Gowanus Canal, ten to one you’ll feel the urge to spotlight a starry-eyed struggling team of plucky entrepreneurs, fighting valiantly against the Great Depression, or the Turks, or an asteroid, or whatever. The guys who cooked up the Christian mythos were, shall we say, inspired – they had the Lord of the Universe get Himself born in a manger to a pair of nobodies (although they hedged their bets a bit by adding a drop or two of House of David royal blood to the proud parents), because parthenogenesis is sloppy enough as it is – choirs of angels are practically de rigeur.

The great power of Rome had squalling, God-awful beginnings, as the men and women who later cleaned it up knew quite well. A loose confederacy of malarial villages cobbled together as many strongmen as they could and began preying upon as many weaker villages as they could conveniently reach. Heads were bashed, babies spiked, and a century or two later, with a great deal of luck, Rome began to cohere into a national identity and started to slather pancake makeup over everything in sight. The ruthlessly displaced Etruscans became the ethereally withdrawing Etruscans; the effective, hardheaded Tarquin line of rulers became the corrupt Tarquin tyrants who had to be overthrown in order for destiny to breathe deep.

In reality, Rome very early perfected the subjugation of sloppy individuality to an increasingly lockstep march toward the Big Goal, and that approach hadn’t really been seen in the Western world before on such a relentlessly expanding scale. City-states, nations, economies, and especially armies melted before this approach as Rome perfected it – there were defeats, certainly, setbacks, but even at the early stage, the oncoming waves seemed inevitable – more Roman frigates, longer Roman roads, taller Roman aqueducts penetrating deeper and deeper into hinterlands, and most of all more Roman soldiers, a perpetual march of bodies in armor; wearing down the stubborn made the subtle shift to warring down the proud once Virgil got his poet’s hands on it.

The one-sidedness of that narrative starts to look decidedly unheroic – most certainly in need of polarities to perk things up. Romans not only invented fascism as we understand it today, they also invented fascism’s handmaidens, propaganda and historical fiction. They looked back upon the brutish, ugly story of their beginnings and invented repressive monarchs, virtuous virgins, lone warriors against numberless hordes, and benign goddesses overlooking peoples’ nuptials. The war with rival empire Carthage, already formidably large-scale, became epic, and writers found a Heaven-sent dichotomy in contrasting solitary, charismatic, tactically brilliant Hannibal with the plodding, circumspect, monochrome gallery of Roman legionaries and their cost-cutting, risk-avoiding commanders. Hannibal was actually one Carthaginian commander among many, and there are strong arguments to be made that he wasn’t often as insightful as his fellow generals. But for the Romans (as indeed for all of history’s big winners), it wasn’t enough that they eventually won all three Punic Wars – they had to control the story too. As Hannibal’s solitary genius and tactical brilliance was subtly amplified by storytellers, the steadfast endurance and humble perseverance of the Romans who eventually beat him got amplified right along with it (the Federal government during the American Civil War would do the same thing with Robert E. Lee and achieve the same effect with Ulysses S. Grant).

But once they start controlling things, controllers aren’t happy until they control everything, and surely this as much as anything explains why the Romans latched so tightly onto the story of Alexander the Great. There was no story from the past the Romans couldn’t finesse to the advantage of their self-regard, but in this case, there was no story – because unlike Hannibal (and the Tarquins, and the Etruscans, and everybody else), Alexander looked west to the fledgling little nationality forming on the banks of the Tiber and calmly decided it wasn’t worth his time. Roman historians (our old friend Livy foremost among them) were convinced that this was a narrow escape for Rome: against the might of Alexander’s army (and the magic of his luck), the Rome of 325 B.C. would have been defenseless.

‘Defenseless’ was intolerable to the Romans, who set about right away fitting this world-conqueror with feet of clay heavy enough to sink him in, well, the Gowanus Canal. We have only a handful of ancient literary sources for Alexander’s life. None of the dozens of contemporary lives survive, except as tantalizing echoes in later works – and the vast majority of those later works, major and minor, are Roman. When we think of Alexander, the figure we’re thinking of is a Roman construct, tailored to Roman tastes and suited to Roman needs. The most critically respected of these accounts is by Flavius Arrianus (who wrote under the rule of Hadrian, for a Roman reading public), the most widely read is by Plutarch (who wrote under the rule of Hadrian, for a Roman reading public), and the most Roman is by Quintus Curtius Rufus, whose full-length biography of Alexander is the only one to come down to us from antiquity even remotely intact.

It lacks, among other things, its first two chapters (‘books’), so not only is Curtius’ account of Alexander’s boyhood and youth missing, but so too is Curtius’ presumably florid introduction and dedication – and this is more bothersome than you might think, because it makes dating the work a suddenly tangled proposition, and it makes identifying Curtius even more tangled. Lacking a dedicatory epistle dating the work somewhere specific, scholars for centuries have had to comb through the text itself for clues as to when it was written. The best of these clues comes in Book 10, when Curtius digresses from talking about Alexander long enough to praise the emperor – the princeps who has just recently rescued the Romans from “a night we might well have thought our last” and restored order to the discordia membra of the state. Since Curtius has already named the princeps in his dedication, he doesn’t bother to name him here, but the clues are ample enough to sustain several guesses – Augustus, solidifying peace after decades of civil war? Claudius, taking the reins after the assassination of Caligula? Vespasian, rescuing the country from another bout of civil war and the “Year of the Four Emperors”? It turns out there’s a Curtius Rufus in the historical record at every potential period of composition, so none of these possibilities (and there are others) can be ruled out until those missing first two chapters come to light.

In the meantime, we can glean certain things about our Quintus Curtius Rufus just from the way he writes (zealously partisan classicists – a redundancy if ever there was one – maintain they can glean the exact day to the hour he composed his book from the way he writes, but their arguments only convince – and fail to convince – other rabid classicists and need not detain us here). He’s got a certain world-weary fish-eye for governmental administration – he’s usually very good at conveying the operational feeling of the impromptu empire the young conqueror and his men were building as they went along. And he’s not nearly as credulous as he pretends to be – everywhere in what we have of his book, there’s a wry light flickering behind even his most wide-eyed anecdotes. And most of all, this Quintus Curtius Rufus was given extensive training in formal rhetoric: his book is chock-full of beautiful invented speeches, perfectly counterbalanced figuratives, and self-consciously ornate literary gimmicks. All through his work, there are echoes of Livy – not just in the fanciful oratory (and, alas, the often slipshod technical accuracy), but in the consistent making of a point.

The Family of Darius before Alexander
by Veronese, 1565-7. National Gallery, London

Which brings us back to polarities, since Quintus Curtius Rufus’ point always involves fortuna – the concept that Alexander’s reckless audacity (temeritas) was his besetting vice, and that as his self-discipline gave way to it more and more, he tempted fate by literally tempting the Fates to remove or reverse his fortuna, that unbeatable luck that had allowed him to conquer the world. In making this point, QCR might be channeling a Greek idea (even high school kids have heard of hubris), but he’s doing it to give a quintessentially Roman kind of comfort: we might be plodders, but we’d have beaten Alexander because unlike him, we never get too full of ourselves (anyone who’s ever seen an Italian mother wallop her adult son up the side of his head will know the deep roots of this comfort) – and even if we hadn’t been able to beat him, he’d have beaten himself in good time. QCR makes this point explicitly in Book Three, right after the famous scene in which Alexander isn’t miffed at all that King Darius’ captured mother mistakes Alexander’s friend Hephaiston for Alexander:

Had he been able to maintain this degree of moderation to the end of his life, I would certainly consider him to have enjoyed more good fortune than appeared to be his during his drunkenly victorious march through all the nations of the world from the Hellespont to the Ocean. For then he would surely have overcome the defects he failed to overcome, his pride and his temper; he would have stopped short of killing his friends at dinner, and he would have been reluctant to execute without trial men who had distinguished themselves in battle and had conquered so many nations along with him. But good fortune had not as yet overwhelmed him: while it was on the increase, he bore it with self-control and reserve, but when it eventually peaked, he failed to control it.

This is the Roman Alexander in miniature: a great conqueror, gradually undone by sycophancy, decadence, and over-indulgence. It’s a familiar arc, certainly, but QCR tweaks it for his Roman audience by underscoring the essential effeminacy of Alexander’s Eastern conversion, the increasingly despotic way he treats his former boon companions. QCR never misses an opportunity to make or at least hint at this pattern. His Alexander – and again, his Alexander is the archetypical Roman Alexander, which is our Alexander for good or ill – starts out well, remembering the sacrifices of his mighty father Philip of Macedon, honoring his native gods, treating his loyal Macedonian soldiers and officers with respect, presuming on nothing. But gradually he becomes drunk on his own successes (QCR observes that since his outrageous gambles almost always worked, nobody could get anywhere calling him rash) and sought more than fortuna was prepared to allow him. At one point Alexander consults some Scythian savants on the fate of his rule, and QCR makes a point of telling us that what follows is only his transcription of what they said – uncouth as their phrasings might appear to us now, he says, this is the most accurate version his researches were able to uncover:

“Had the gods willed that your might match your mania, there would be no stopping you. You would touch the east with one hand and the west with the other, and reaching the west you’d look first for where the Almighty’s sun was hidden. Even as it is, you covet things beyond your reach. From Europe you head for Asia; from Asia you cross to Europe. Then, if you defeat the whole human race, you will be ready to make war on woods, on snow, on rivers, on wild animals. Big trees take many years to grow, but it only takes an hour to uproot them – don’t you know this? It’s a stupid man who looks only at their fruit and doesn’t measure their height. Beware that, while striving to reach the top, you don’t fall down right along with the branches you’re climbing. The lion, too, is sometimes the carrion of tiny birds, and iron is eaten by rust. Nothing is so strong that it’s beyond attack, even by the weak. After all, what do we have to do with you? We’ve never set foot in your country. May we not live in our deep forests entirely ignorant of who you are and where you come from? We will not be slaves to anyone and likewise seek no mastery.”

The point of the elaborate disclaimer of accuracy (it’s not common for this author) is to assure the reader that they aren’t being lectured, that our historian is merely showing us all the signs of accumulating bad fortune that Alexander himself might have heeded, had he been in control of his baser desires. That pose, where the writer is the bearer of hard lessons rather than a carping scold, is as old as literature itself (the Biblical prophets, for instance, always said it was God who told them to rain on everybody’s parade) and not exactly unknown in today’s market for reheated polemic, and in QRC’s day (whichever day that was), it was catnip to the Romans.

Perhaps feeling a bit retroactively threatened by this legendary young conqueror from the past, they wanted to read that his mighty efforts fell apart, that he himself was eventually reduced to fortune’s fool. They wanted scenes where even his loyal officers and rank-and-file soldiers ultimately refuse to endorse his ambition, and QRC provides. We don’t know that any of this happened, and we certainly don’t know how it happened; that’s important to remember. Even while he was alive (in fact, the whole time he was alive, even from childhood), Alexander was being used as one or another kind of morality tale by virtually everybody who wrote anything about him – we have as our main sources of his life some of the morality tales woven by the Romans, but all we can view with appropriate suspicion these stories about a headstrong prince become suddenly decadent on Persian flatteries. It’s true that Alexander halted his eastward progression, and the Romans (none more so than QRC) want us to believe this was a moral rather than a logistical thing. Perhaps the sharpest example of this is the so-called Revolt at the Hypasis River, where Alexander for the first time reveals to the army his grand plan of eternal conquest – not a return to Macedon at long last, but a pushing onward, to the great Ocean stream, from which they could all sail home. The great classicist Peter Green, author of the only truly indispensible modern biography of Alexander, summarizes the dynamics of the situation in refreshingly specific terms:

Alexander was not a man to be deterred by mere geographical considerations. If he could lure the army forward one river at a time, with Ocean a glittering goal always just over the next hill, he might yet attain his end. Such a confidence-trick depended entirely on his knowing more than the army about local conditions, and this he usually did. But at the Beas there were no more hills to deceive his men, only a vast expanse of plain stretching away eastward, and beyond that – visible on a fine day from Gurdaspur, where Alexander probably reached the river – the great rampart of the Western Himalayas. No more potent incitement to mutiny could well be imagined. A diplomatic lie had been nailed, once and for all, by the brute facts of geography.

When confronted with that mutiny, QCR’s Alexander throws what in modern parlance would be called a hissy fit:

“I am abandoned, forsaken, delivered up to the enemy. But even alone, I shall press on. Expose me to rivers, to wild animals, the all those barbarian tribes whose very names seem to make you afraid, no matter. I’ll find other men to follow me, though you all desert me. The Scythians and Bactrians will stick with me – recent enemies who are now my friends. Better to die than to be dependent on the whims of others! Go back home! Go ahead and desert me, and do it proudly! I’ll find some way to win the victory you think is impossible – or else I’ll die trying, but die with honor, at least.”

This is the ultimate break, QCR implies, the most fundamental invitation any commander can give to bad fortune – this ungrateful scorning of men who’ve fought and died for their leader (like most Roman historians, QCR forgets that it was the Romans who invented the mind-staggering military punishment of decimation). Small wonder this life of Alexander crowds up with conspiracies and assassination plots the further along it goes; the implication is that once Alexander stopped living decently, decency called for him to stop living. At least, these are the words QCR puts in the mouth of Hermolaus, leader of a plot meant, as he puts it, to kill a corrupt Persian monarch, not a virtuous Macedonian king:

You wanted Macedonians to kneel before you and worship you like a god! You betrayed the memory of your father Philip, and if some fashion elevated a god over Jupiter, you’d despise Jupiter too! We are free men – are you surprised we can’t endure your vanity? What can we hope for from you, if even innocent men must face death, or worse than death?

It’s possible that by this point in his world conquest, Alexander really did fancy the idea of Persian-style absolute monarchy over the hillbilly egalitarianism of his native Macedon. We lack the written records to say for certain, but men have been known to become thus corrupted. But even if such contemporary records survived – even if Alexander’s own copious dispatches and letters survived – our Quintus Curtius Rufus would have been undeterred. His Alexander was a bright paragon brought low by uncontrolled pride – a perfect polarity to present to friends, Romans, and countrymen who might be tempted to disdain their mother’s cooking. And that posing, petulant Alexander is the boy we’re stuck with, until somebody better – and perhaps even less believable – comes along.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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