Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mary Beard has a wonderful review of new books about Alexander in this week's NY Review of Books. She thinks that we need to view the life of Alexander as a creation of Roman historians.  She says:

the debates about Alexander, and the evidence on which they are based, have not changed very much over two millennia: the basic dilemma—for writers, filmmakers, artists, and statesmen—is still whether Alexander is to be admired or deplored.

Specialists in this tiny period of ancient history (the campaigns lasted just over ten years) were still committed to reconstructing “what really happened,” on the basis of the vivid but deeply unreliable literary sources that have survived (Arrian’s seven books are usually considered the “best” evidence, but there is plenty of material also in Plutarch’s Life of Alexander and Diodorus Siculus’ Library of History, to name just two).

The result is that the historical edifice we know as “Alexander’s career” is extremely flimsy and modern scholars have been attempting to squeeze it for answers to questions that it could never deliver—not only what motivated him, but did he really love his wife Roxane, or believe that he was the son of the god Amun? This is not a game of history, but of smoke and mirrors.

Potentially the most significant book is Briant’s Alexander the Great, because Briant is one of the world’s leading authorities on the Persian (Achaemenid) Empire. The promise of this book is that we might be able to see Alexander differently if we included the Persian evidence. Insights there are, but less significant ones than you would hope. There are two main problems. First, Briant writes from the professorial pulpit, slightly hectoring in tone about what historians should or should not do, and telegraphic in style (there are only 144 small pages of large print, so it is “a short introduction” as the subtitle says); and he makes few concessions to anyone who, for example, may not already know the duties of a “satrap.” On several occasions he refers to documents that are supposed to be particularly “important” or “useful,” but he rarely explains to the outsider what the documents are and what impact exactly their content has on the history of the period.

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