‘All those who write about Alexander,” grumbled the Roman geographer Strabo, “prefer the marvelous to the true.” Such a criticism was not entirely accurate even when he made it 2,000 years ago, and it is certainly not fair now. We live in an age of groundbreaking classical scholar ship, when historians of the ancient world have only to get the sniff of a myth to set about busting it. Yet Alexander, more even than Cleopatra or Julius Caesar, has stood insouciant proof against every attempt at revisionism. No amount of cheese-paring by classicists can dim the brilliance of his luster. He remains what he has ever been: the epitome of youthful, world-conquering, terrifying glamour.
We are, perhaps, more squeamish about the collateral damage inflicted by his ascent to greatness, and less prone to celebrate it, than earlier ages. “Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?” Christopher Marlowe demanded in “Tamburlaine,” his blood-sodden drama about a megalomaniacal one-time shepherd who had swaggered and slaughtered his way to a vast Asiatic empire in the 14th century. In point of boring historical fact, the mention of Persepolis in his hero’s vaunt is a serious anachronism. The city had been burnt to the ground long before the time of Tamburlaine, all the way back in 330 B.C. Marlowe, however, was a playwright, not a historian—and he could recognize a poetic truth when he saw one.
The man responsible for destroying Persepolis had been none other than Alexander: the feat that broadcast his triumph more blazingly than all his many others, since the city had served, for almost two centuries, as the capital of Asia. The Achaemenids, a Persian dynasty whose rule had stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, had demonstrated in unprecedented fashion just how vast an empire might be. Alexander, by defeating them, had wrested from them their claim to global rule. Such was the heritage—of looting, bloodshed and unabashed imperialism—to which Tamburlaine in turn had laid devastating claim. No wonder, then, in Marlowe’s rendering of his protagonist’s career, that he should instinctively have alluded to the greatest conqueror of them all.
Alexander the Great By Philip Freeman, Simon & Schuster, 391 pages
Yet it is precisely the measure of Alexander’s charisma and celebrity that a general whose entire career was devoted to securing regime change in the Middle East should be a hero as well to a man as liberal in his sympathies as Oliver Stone. “I think all young people should see something in him because there’s an idealism there,” Mr. Stone explained in an interview to promote his 2004 biopic, “Alexander”—a movie in which the hero, as well as killing a lot of Persians, is cast as an enthusiast for a brotherhood of man. “He had a desire for change, to shake up the world, a desire to be famous,” Mr. Stone explained. If this makes Alexander sound like a 1960s rock star, it is perhaps not entirely coincidental: Mr. Stone did, after all, direct a movie about the Doors. More significantly, however, the movie attests to the abiding influence, almost 40 years after it was first published, of Robin Lane Fox’s “Alexander the Great” (1973). In this biography, Alexander is a hero sprung from the “Iliad”: a figure quite as golden, as deadly and as tragic as Achilles.
Alexander the Great and His Empire: A Short Introduction By Pierre Briant, Princeton, 216 pages
Formidable historian though Mr. Lane Fox is, there has always been something of the romantic in him as well, and it is this sensibility that gives his portrait of Alexander a hauntingly close affinity with those of the ancient biographers. To the Greeks, the world of Homer was the inexhaustible point of reference— especially so when describing the career of a hero who had claimed descent from a god, penetrated to the very limits of the world and died young. Alexander lived a life more soaringly worthy of his own propaganda than any other conqueror in history and did not even have to die before becoming a figure of myth.
In this sense, Mr. Stone’s ability to cast Alexander as an avatar of Jim Morrison is just one of the infinite number of ways in which, over the course of the millennia, people have seen in the blaze of the conqueror’s flame a vision of their own deepest ambitions and desires. In “Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend” (2008), Richard Stoneman demonstrated, with formidable learning and not a little wit, just how exotic these visions had actually been. In some of them, Alexander fights with dragons; in others he flies through the air on a chariot; in still others he descends to the bottom of the ocean in a diving bell. Alexander even appears in the Quran; he stops on reaching “the setting of the sun” to have a chat with Allah. Set against exploits of this order, global conquest seems almost a minor feat.
No wonder, then, that modern historians, confronted by such a quagmire of myth and romance, should repeatedly have sought to drain it. The fantasies that they confront are not, of course, those that cast Alexander as an aeronaut or an interlocutor of gods but the far subtler ones of our best—and indeed almost our only—sources: the classical historians. These sources, although they convey an immense amount of information, are a good deal more treacherous than they might at first sight appear.
It is unsettling enough that Alexander, as image-conscious as any contemporary celebrity, made sure to appoint his own tame historian, a nephew of Aristotle’s by the name of Callisthenes, to provide the authorized version. That this choice hardly made for an objective record of the great man’s career goes without saying—and indeed, it is a measure of just how dangerous it might be to get on the wrong side of Alexander that Callisthenes would end up being put to death for treason. Quite how and why he was executed, however, is unclear: We have no less than five different versions of his end.
That this should be so hints at a further, and even more disconcerting, problem with the sources. Neither the works Callisthenes nor those of any other contemporary historian have been preserved as more than snippets. The few biographies that have survived from antiquity all date from centuries after their subject’s death. The full implications of this sorry state of affairs have been spelled out brutally by Paul Cartledge. “The attempt to reconstruct the historical Alexander,” he has argued, “is almost as problematic as trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus.”
The Landmark Arrian Edited by James Romm and Robert B. Strassler, Pantheon, 503 pages
Mr. Cartledge offers this sobering reflection in his introduction to a sumptuously annotated and lavishly illustrated new edition of “The Campaigns of Alexander” by the Roman historian Arrian. Despite the fact that Arrian lived nearly a half-millennia after the events described in his history (he served as consul under the philhellenic Roman emperor Hadrian), he is by far our best and most reliable source for the events that he describes. He makes a point in his introduction of citing biographies by two contemporary biographies of Alexander—Callisthenes pointedly not being one of them—and of explaining how and why he has sought to square the contradictions. It is this painstaking reliance upon primary sources that makes his Alexander surely the closest of all Alexanders to the original. “Any readers who are surprised that it would have occurred to me to write this history,” he declares with a winning lack of modesty, “after so many others have written theirs, should read the other accounts and then mine—and then let them say they are surprised.”
Almost 2,000 years further on, however, and still the biographies come, with all the remorseless inexorability of a Macedonian phalanx advancing through the dust of Mesopotamia. Many of these are works of the highest quality, combining impeccable scholarship with what is, by the standards of professorial prose, immense readability. Callisthenes may have been a shoddy historian, but Alexander has been blessed in the caliber of his modern biographers: classicists of the order of Peter Green (1970), Brian Bosworth (1988) and Mr. Cartledge (2004) himself have all joined Mr. Lane Fox in writing studies of the great conqueror’s career.
Should there be any enthusiasts for Alexander with an appetite for more, they could do worse than turn to Philip Freeman’s study: one written, it is true, by yet another classics professor, but quite as racy and pacey as any novel. Here, in vivid and exciting detail, are all the familiar highlights of Alexander’s career: the battles, the tempestuous relationships, the dazzling ambitions, the mysterious death in Babylon. Mr. Freeman’s ambition, he tells us in his introduction, was “to write a biography of Alexander that is first and foremost a story.” It is one he splendidly fulfills.
The Many Lives of Alexander the Great Legends of Alexander the Great Edited by Richard Stoneman (1994): A compilation of some of the more extravagant tall stories told over the centuries about Alexander. He battles with monsters, becomes a Jew and visits Paradise.Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault (1969): A dazzling fictionalization of Alexander’s childhood and youth. He has rarely been made to seem more hauntingly and erotically god-like.Alexander the Great by Peter Green (1970): Beautifully written and sombre in its conclusions, it foreshadowed the darkening of Alexander’s reputation that has occurred over the past few decades. A revision, the authorial equivalent of a director’s cut and retitled ‘Alexander of Macedon,’ was published in 1991.The Persian Boy by Mary Renault (1972): A loose sequel to ‘Fire From Heaven,’ this novel describes the relationship between Alexander and the Persian boy of the title, a eunuch by the name of Bagoas. Rare is the man who can read the description of Bagoas’s castration without involuntarily crossing his legs.Alexander the Greatby Robin Lane Fox (1973): Vast erudition is combined with a sense of epic sweep in this celebrated biography. Alexander himself would surely have enjoyed it. Oliver Stone certainly did.Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth (1988): The most authoritative scholar currently at work on Alexander, he is also the bleakest and most unsparing in his conclusions. Great conquerors, he serves to remind us, are inevitably killers of many men.
Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallionsby Frank L. Holt (2003): As close to a Sherlock Holmes story as a work of ancient history gets, this is a gripping account of how a medallion discovered in Afghanistan was found to provide us with something thrilling: a contemporary image of Alexander. Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge (2004): Less a straight biography than a hunt through the sources for clues as to the real Alexander, it allows the reader to see just how complex and fascinating the practice of ancient history can be. But the book is also something more than a rollicking read. Mr. Freeman’s biography is interesting as well for what it tells us about the vagaries of academic opinion—which are, of course, no less subject to fashion than anything else. For several decades now, in reaction to Mr. Lane Fox’s vision of Alexander as an idealist who dreamed of forging a new and better world, classicists have tended to swing to the opposite extreme. “For large areas of Asia,” Mr. Bosworth put it flatly in a book published a decade ago on Alexander’s legacy, “the advent of Alexander meant carnage and starvation.” This vision of a proto-Tamburlaine has had an increased saliency in the wake of Western involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan—regions where Alexander did indeed spill a good deal of blood.
Perhaps, then, there is the hint of a new trend in the fact that another recent book is a robust dismissal of the terms of this debate. Pierre Briant’s “Alexander the Great and His Empire” may be short, but it is of a wholly different order of seriousness from that of Mr. Freeman: an analysis less of Alexander himself than of his record as a state-builder and in particular of the debt that he owed to his Achaemenid predecessors.
Mr. Briant is one of the most brilliant historians of antiquity at work today, a scholar whose corpus of researches into the Persian Empire has enabled us to understand its overthrow from the perspective of the defeated as well as the victor. Alexander, Mr. Briant declares, was neither a visionary multiculturalist nor a deranged killer: “Simply, he governed like a statesman, using the administrative traditions previously adopted and adapted by the Achaemenids, as well as introducing some Graeco- Macedonian innovations.” Dazzling his career may have been—and yet Alexander, for all that, ended up very much in the mainstream of Near Eastern history.
Mr. Briant’s book is certainly not easy reading. The material is often self- consciously dry and the tone throughout one of sonorous hauteur: The scholar quoted most approvingly and repeatedly by Mr. Briant is Pierre Briant. Nevertheless, for anyone stirred by reading Arrian’s history and Mr. Freeman’s spirited narrative, “Alexander the Great and His Empire” offers an invaluable corrective to the classical sources and to the nagging sense, reading them, that the Persians only ever existed to be mown down in their thousands. That it serves to make the great conqueror seem a good deal less glamorous than he normally does is undeniable. Yet, in the final reckoning, the shade of Alexander is not likely to care. Neither French professors, nor Hollywood turkeys, nor even the pacifist spirit of the age can ever dim his awesome and incomparable mystique. “No one was like him.” So wrote Robert Lowell:
Terrible were his crimes—
but if you wish to blackguard the
think how mean, obscure and dull
your labors lowly and your
Mr. Holland is the author of “Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West.”