The Great Alexander

The Great Alexander he Book of Alexander the Great; 9781848852945

The first of these (Legends of Alexander the Great; 9781848857858) is a revised version of a 1994 original, the second (The Book of Alexander the Great; 9781848852945) brand new. Both are paperback publications by the versatile firm of I.B. Tauris, to which Stoneman happens to be Consulting Editor for Classics. These, along with his cognate The Greek Alexander Romance (1991) and Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend (2007), cement Stoneman’s reputation as World Number One in this exotic field.

It was appropriate that I began drafting this review on the day Ray Bradbury died and The Avengers opened here in Calgary. A good deal of the various Alexander romances is unabashed science fiction, strange landscapes and stranger monsters, where devotees of Dr Who, Star Trek/Wars, and Fortean Times would be quite at home. Speaking of this last, its eponymous hero Charles Fort described his notional Super-Sargasso Sea (Move over, Jean Rhys) thus:

Derelicts, rubbish, old cargoes from inter-planetary wrecks; things cast out into what is called space by convulsions of other planets, things from the times of the Alexanders, Caesars and Napoleons of Mars and Jupiter and Neptune; things raised by this earth’s cyclones... treasure troves for the palaeontologists and for the archaeologists – accumulations of centuries – cyclones of Egypt, Greece and Assyria.

Alexander has much mutated from his own day to modern entertainment. In film, he was played by Richard Burton (suitably, in that both became alcoholics) in 1956 and Colin Farrell in 2004 under the direction of Oliver Stone, perhaps a logical retrogression after Platoon. A more oblique compliment came from the 2010 Malaysian movie Alexander the Great, an Asiatic take on Rain Man with Alexander playing no part.

For one not altogether flattering example of many from his literary Nachleben (devotees of historical novels cherish Mary Renault’s trilogy), take this 1973 Anthony Burgess delineation (reproduced in a New Yorker article, May 11, 2012, pp.69-76) of his anti-hero in Clockwork Orange:

Alex is a comic reduction of Alexander the Great, slashing his way through the world and conquering it.

Not an unreasonable equation -hard though it might be to visualise him as a Droog – given the Macedonian’s later military aggressions, a theme prevalent in some of the romances, played down in others. Burgess being Burgess, Alex also comports a bilingual pun: A-Lex = Lawless. The Greek name Alexandros (Protector of Men) went back to Homer, where it is Paris’ alternative divine moniker. As The Book of Alexander the Great dimly remembers, Homer played a big role in Alexander’s life, enriching his fantasies of being a new Achilles. He kept a copy of the Iliad under his pillow, along with a dagger - a striking symbiosis of escapism and realism.

Alexander became a legend in his own time. Plutarch in his Life (17.6) gibes at the “many historians” who came up with wondrous rubbish. The historian Callisthenes, on whom the Ur-text of Alexander romances was fathered, accompanying the great leader on his campaigns, declared the Cilician Sea drew back and prostrated itself before the conqueror. This permits us two kinds of smile over this lick-spittle’s subsequent execution for refusing to bow the knee in formal Oriental style. After Alexander’s demise, another travelling historian, Onescritus, claimed his boss had trysted with Thalestris, Queen of the Amazons. Last word on this twaddle goes to Alexander’s general Lysimachus who (says Plutarch, 46) on hearing Onescritus read this passage aloud quipped, “I wonder where I was at the time?”

It’s often said that Julius Caesar and Roman emperors such as Augustus and Trajan took Alexander as their model, incorporating his name into their personal propaganda. Much of this was long ago demolished by Peter Green in an article (American Journal of Ancient History, 1978) ‘Caesar and Alexander: aemulatio, imitatio, comparatio,’ reprinted in his Classical Bearings (1989), concluding that the evidence for this is “surprisingly little.” More to this point was actually Caesar’s rival Pompey, who gave himself the title ‘Great’, thereby attracting much contemporary derision. Indeed, it was not until Longinus (On the Sublime, 4. 2) in (probably - his date is disputed) the first century AD that any surviving Greek text dubs Alexander ‘Great’. By and large, his name cut little ice with the Romans down to Caesar’s time. Their first extant mention of him occurs around 200 BC in Plautus’ comedy Mostellaria (The Little Ghost) where (vv.775-77) a slave remarks with striking casualness “They say Alexander the Great and Agathocles were a pair who did really big things. How about me as number three? Look at the immortal feats I pull off without any help.”

In Nero’s reign (AD 54-68), Lucan in his poem on the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey tirades (10. 18-48) against Alexander as “a lucky bandit, crazed offspring of Philip,” and other choice insults. Stoneman sees this as a piece of Stoic horror at the slaughter caused by his wars, influenced by his philosopher-uncle Seneca, both victims of Nero. He might have added that, according to Suetonius’ Life (19.2), Nero himself went in for a bit of Alexander imitation, thereby adding contemporary point to Lucan’s lines.

As to Trajan, Stoneman claims “it is no accident” that Arrian’s favourable history of Alexander was composed in his reign. In point of fact, as suggested by Peter Brunt in his Loeb edition of the work (1976), this could have been written several decades later: we simply do not know. This was also an age in which Alexander’s divine pretensions and other traits were being mocked in the lively Greek prose satires of Lucian. Stoneman also needed to consider why the younger Pliny’s hyper-flattering Panegyric on Trajan (delivered to the emperor in, as modernly estimated, a five-hour marathon – shades of Fidel Castro or Enver Hoxha) takes none of his many opportunities for Alexander comparisons. On the matter of long-winded oratory, one recalls the rejoinder attributed (among others) to Churchill when rebuked for excessive length: “I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”

As that grand old song The British Grenadiers kicks off: “Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules, of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.” Not a far cry from Chaucer in his Monk’s Tale: “The storie of Alisaundre is so commune/ That every wight that has discrecioun/ Hathe heard somewhere or al of his fortune.” Alexander Romances burgeoned into a world-wide industry. Stoneman surveys much of this with his usual crisp erudition; available supplements include Thomas Banchich’s review-article on his original Legends (Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.08.06 - online) and - they are not all to be despised - the Wikipedia notice thereof. Multifarious Western and Eastern versions converge and diverge. More might have been said about the Byzantine contribution; cf. the unmentioned H.J. Gleixner’s Das Alexanderbild der Byzantiner (Munich, 1961), also relevant entries in the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991). It is here worth noticing how the romances develop in tandem with historiographical and other literary allusions to the real Alexander. One case in point is the anonymous 12th-century Lucianic satire Timarion (see my annotated translation, Detroit, 1984), where the Cynic Diogenes boasts about his respectful reception by Alexander, “the man who enslaved all of Asia.” A strand of this tradition surfaces in the largely fictional Athenian scenes in The Book of Alexander.

Stoneman’s reference to the interplay between the romances and Qur’an (18: 60-65) - which which? as Lenin might have put it - could have been enriched by pointing to the discussion by John D’Urso and others in the online Islamic Awareness magazine (1999, updated 2005). Likewise with N. Gopala Pillai’s analysis of the Indian tradition in Skanda: The Alexander Romance in India, electronically reproduced from the Proceedings of the All-India Oriental Conference 9 (1937).

For the British reader, Stoneman is especially intriguing on the English and Scottish romances from Chaucer on. In the Book of Alexander (68-69), Alexander makes a rest-stop in our green and pleasant land (I here think of the Star Trek episode ‘Shore-leave’), where he orders the “rulers of England” (unspecified: when this yarn was first published in 1670, Charles II was on the throne) to rush out 12.000 new vessels - what a boon that would be for our modern cash-strapped ship-building industry!

At least there was a lively England to go to. According to Plutarch, one reason Caesar went there was to confirm the existence of a place often dismissed as a poetic invention. The early Byzantine historian Procopius declared it was a “country of the dead, inhabited only by ghosts.” Tacitus was the first to comment on its gloomy climate. At least one Roman poet described it as “unfriendly to strangers”, a description with which many modern tourists might still agree.

I’d subjoin one further branch of the industry, with the same incorporation of fact and fiction. Namely, the Albanian national hero George Kastrioti Skanderbeg (1405-1468), his last name deriving from Turkish Iskander Bey (Lord or Leader Alexander). His first biography (Rome, 1508) was penned (in Latin) by Albanian historian Marin Barletti. Though not attributing to him the kind of exotic adventures that abound in the Alexander romances, Barleti does in the manner of the latter invent letters between him and fellow-rulers such as Turkish Mehmet II (the 1453 conqueror of Constantinople) and Wallachian Vladislav II. Praised for his generalship and leadership by the likes of Gibbon, Voltaire, Sir William Temple, and General Wolfe, Skanderbeg inspired a trio of operas, the first a lost one by Vivaldi; three 18th-century English tragic dramas; poems and poetic salutes from (e.g.) Ronsard, Samuel Johnson (Irene), Byron, and Longfellow. In a just-discovered Venetian cache of Albanian-related documents (information from the weekly magazine Java (April 21, 2012, 12-13), the 1770 Albanian lord of the village Margëllici is said to have been particularly devoted to biographies of Alexander and Julius Caesar.

Now to specifics and the nit-pickings reviewers must indulge in to show they have actually read the book in question - not always the case, it sometimes seems. In Legends, Stoneman handles the multifarious texts with - subject to reservations noted above - his customary aplomb. Manuscript traditions and the content, context, and purpose of the individual texts are lucidly presented. Stoneman writes clearly, eschewing academic bafflegab. A certain breeziness and some humorous seasonings (nice joke about Callisthenes on p. ix) add to the pleasure. His translations are accurate and readable. Terse notes convey a wealth of information, though sometimes more information might have been offered. One cannot document everything in texts of this kind, but (for easy examples) a few words on the fates of Alexander’s sisters (all murdered) and the allegations of his own poisoning would not have come amiss. The Index is serviceable, bibliographies to primary and secondary sources direct readers to most of the right places, albeit valuable work (mainly articles) by Boyle, Chasseur, Gero, Gosman, and Selden is passed over, as is the useful electronic Medieval Alexander Project.

In The Book, Stoneman (as in the famous Star Trek slogan, boldly going where no man has gone before) provides a pioneering English translation of a Greek text first published in 1680 at Venice. He might have mentioned that in modern Greek the titular word Phyllada means ‘pamphlet’ (he translates it as ‘little book’). Could this suggest it was originally put out as a kind of gospel-cum-rallying call? There was also more to be said on the subsequent use of Alexander’s name, possibly thanks to this romance, in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. As Peter Green (p. 155), quoting Nicolas Yalouris (Director of Greek Antiquities) writes: “Alexander was virtually the only figure from antiquity to survive, however mythicised, in the folk-consciousness of medieval and modern Greece. He became the symbol that embodied the desire for a national uprising...Rhigas Pheraios, the revolutionary Greek poet later shot by the Turks, and a passionate promoter of ‘The Great Idea’, featured the bust of Alexander on the clandestine broadsheet that he circulated in 1797.” These supplements apart, there is nothing to add to Stoneman’s introductory cornucopia of crisply-expressed learning, except I think he somewhat (p. xxiv) underrates the author’s classical knowledge. No space here for all the fine print, but I was left with the impression that, as well as Homer, the author knew his Arrian and Herodotus, plus such Byzantine chroniclers as John Malalas. Still, I can readily endorse what Stoneman well calls the “elegant” conclusion of Kariofilis Mitsakis: “ Alexander was born an antique pagan, but died a Byzantine Christian.”

All the compliments paid to Legends can be repeated here. Reservations, too. The Phyllada’s error about Pella (capital of Macedon, not an ancient name for the country) might have been noted, likewise Plutarch on Alexander’s supposed meeting with the Amazons. Alexander Demandt’s Alexander der grosse: Leben und Legende (Munich, 2009) may be added to the Bibliography, also the various articles of Liam Gallagher, e.g. the one on manuscript illustrations in Thesaurismata 16 (1979), 179-205. Homer nods once in the notes (p.167): Diogenes is not the only genuine philosopher in the author’s list; Antisthenes is equally authentic. Likewise, Philon (p, xxv) may not be the “puzzle” Stoneman thinks, being named by Plutarch as one of Alexander’s historians. There are a couple of spots where I offer tentative suggestions. The Daphnaion said to have murdered Xerxes is branded “unidentifiable” by Stoneman. True enough. Possibly, it is a confusion with the Daphnaion that was a shrine of Apollo? Or, given that Ctesias has the spelling ‘Dariaios’, the author’s word may indicate ‘followers of Darius’. In the finale, where Alexander is poisoned (this has remained an open question from his own time), Stoneman is floored by the sentence “ Philip split a living mule, and hustled Alexander inside.” I wonder if this is a confused version of Arrian’s statement (7.27) that the poison was brought in a mule’s hoof? Alternatively, that there is a notion of a mule being cut up either as a sacrifice for Alexander’s recovery or in a desperate search for some presumed remedy? But, I do not wish to make an ass of myself.

Overall, full marks to Stoneman yet again for these fresh ventures into the ever-fascinating world of Alexander Romances – also kudos to I.B. Tauris for their elegant and accurate production. I hope that, as Alexander (and as Mrs Thatcher aspired in 1987) he will go on and on. Despite some resemblances, these fictional Alexanders knock hell out of John Carter.

-- Barry Baldwin (29/06/2012)

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