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Classics Reissued: Alexander of Macedon

By (January 7, 2013) No Comment

Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 b. c.: A Historical Biographyalexander of macedon
by Peter Green (foreward by Eugene N. Borza)
University of California Press, 2013 (reprint)


A. E. Housman, of all people, makes a pivotal appearance in Peter Green’s great, much-praised biography of Alexander the Great, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323: A Historical Biography (originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 1970, substantially augmented and published by Pelican Books in ’74, further refined in two or three subsequent editions, and now given a lovely paperback reprint – with a new preface by Eugene Borza – by the University of California Press). Green quotes the poet talking about textual critics who lean “on one manuscript like Hope on her anchor and [trust] to heaven that no harm will come of it.”

Green is at this point talking – as any Alexander biographer must do, often – about sources: “The truth of the matter is that there has never been a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ source tradition concerning Alexander, simply testimonia contaminated to a greater or lesser degree, which invariably need evaluating, whenever possible, by external criteria of probability.” Historians, Green urges, shouldn’t pick one source tradition and swear to it above all others – and neither, by extension, should they pick one Alexander and then tailor their narratives to create him.

No figure in history prompts that kind of retro-fitting like Alexander, and Green is the first to admit this seduction applies to him as well: “Every individual biographer, myself included, inevitably puts as much of himself, his own background and convictions, in that Protean figure as he does of whatever historical truth he can extract from the evidence.” Green was a classics student at Cambridge and a soldier in the Second World War, and for the rest of his life he’s been a Classics professor at such well-lawned places as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Iowa in Iowa City. He’s blisteringly well-read, as entertaining a crafter of English prose as anybody since his quondam mentor, Ernst Badian … and he’s just a bit contentious. This tendency to pick fights with received opinion infects this book root, trunk, and branch – starting with the title: “of Macedon,” not “the Great,” and “a historical biography” – as opposed to the other kind, the flight of romantic fancy. In these pages Alexander, son of the Macedonian warlord Philip II and his exotic wife Olympias, is given no leeway, and the ancient sources are arranged largely as a chorus for his damnation.

Or rather, not damnation but demotion – to the ranks of the merely human. This Alexander almost certainly had a hand in arranging his father’s assassination, so that Olympias could clear his path to the throne (Philip was killed by Pausanias, one of his outraged male lovers, but Green finds the probability of Alexanders’ guilt overwhelming). This Alexander is the product of a brutish, backwater court:

Most Macedonian nobles preferred the more manly pleasures of hunting, carousing, and casual fornication. Sodomy – with young boys or, at a pinch, with each other – they also much enjoyed; but they had no intention of letting it be contaminated with decadent Platonic notions of spiritual uplift.

And it wasn’t just the uplift of ephebophilia they spurned! In Green’s view, these Macedonian bruisers – most certainly including Alexander – also failed to grasp another ideological import from Athens:

… freedom, in the last resort, means the right to determine one’s own future, for good or ill, the right to be stupid, vindictive, dishonest, or faction-ridden if that is the will of the majority. Free men would always rather make a hash of affairs on a public vote than be dragooned into efficiency and success by any dictator, however far-sighted or benevolent. This was the ultimate truth which always escaped Philip, just as it escaped Alexander after him.

This Alexander is foremost a conqueror. He’s a brilliant military strategist, yes, perhaps the single most brilliant in the history of mankind, but his goals are land and money, not the idealistic “Brotherhood of Man” propounded by the great classicist William Tarn and popularized by Mary Renault in a series of novels portraying Alexander as an avatar of pan-national love. Green’s teacher Badian had little patience for such a formulation, and Green has less; as far as he’s concerned, Alexander had no higher or finer motivation than profitable militarism – and along the way, he was all too human. Green reads cynicism into virtually everything the young dreamboat did; at every stage, the ancient authorities are consulted mainly for their darkest readings of events.

This makes for thrilling reading, although it’s mighty frustrating. Take as one example the famous incident in the palace at Maracanda, deep in conquered Persia, when Cleitus, one of Alexander’s most experienced army commanders, began drunkenly berating him at a lavish dinner. Infuriated, Alexander threw an apple at his head, and the two were separated. Then the quarrel resumed, and a maddened Alexander grabbed a spear and ran Cleitus through the heart – or so the consensus has always read. In Green’s version, Alexander isn’t drunk but instead is coldly manipulating a troublesome officer into baiting him publicly beyond endurance. And in Green’s end-note on the point (part of the absolutely vast critical apparatus at the end of the book), he quotes that same quote from Housman and follows it up with a little lecture about historical accountability:

For an episode such as this, where there must have been numerous original eyewitness accounts (with the inevitable complementary details and discrepancies), subsequently contaminated by various sorts of propaganda, exculpation, and special pleading, the historian can only sift every detail of each account on its intrinsic probability. There are no short cuts.

Ever so slightly high-handed, but, like the rest of the book, bracingly so. Green’s account of Alexander wrestles with the ancient evidence, tests and tries it rather than accepting or enhancing it. It’s a performance such as only the very best classicists might pull off, and it’s as invigorating now as it was fifty years ago. It’s nothing less than the prosecution of Alexander the Great, and despite the fact that he’s been dead for three thousand years, you’ll find yourself worrying for the little guy.