Historiography Essay

Examination of Two Centuries of Trends in Alexandrology

By Philip Godin

Alexander the Great is figure who has received much attention in the twenty-three hundred years since his death. His accomplishments have been thoroughly explored and recreated in extraordinary detail by historians and studied in the context of many other academic vocations. The body of work that encompasses the (in)famous leader is extensive and has evolved in many ways since his legacy was founded. Carol describes the quantity of work accessible in investigating the study of Alexander, “…Questia’s list of books on Alexander numbered 4,897; a count of articles would surely quadruple that figure.”.[1] This leaves any histography attempting to gauge the scope and patterns of studies associated with Alexander with considerable omissions and this one will not differ in that regard. I have, therefor, restricted much of my investigation to the last two centuries and examined the themes of various articles and the course of studies concerning Alexander. Three main themes have presented themselves as progressing over this period. The first is regarding the creation of definitive site locations for the various cities, towns, villages, river crossings, and battle sites described by the ancient sources that make up the body of information that current historians have generally accepted as source material; I have focused my investigation of these arguments to several investigations regarding landscape descriptions irregularities between descriptions in source materials and the geographic locations that exist in modernity. The second is the examination of the study of Alexanders deification. The third I will examine, is regarding the motivational factors involved in driving the great leader to campaign and establish the political policies he did during his reign.

Before I continue, I believe that it is important to preface these arguments with the facts that are commonly understood by most of the modern historians who study Alexander and his accomplishments. There is a profuse lack of primary evidence or accounts dating to the period of Alexanders reign. The earliest “primary” account of Alexander’s historical accomplishments is written three centuries after the events took place, and is one of forty books written as a universal history of “world” events to that date attributed to the historian Diodorus(c. 80-20 BCE); the other four essential texts are from Arrian, Plutarch, Quintus Curtis Rufus, and Justin respectively and their values as resources are a point of contention, though most point to Arrian as the foremost source of accuracy.[2] [3] Most true primary resources exist within these works, believed to be incorporated unaltered, or at least critically examined; most of these documents, original or dating to the Alexandrian period, have otherwise been lost, such as the account of a sea voyage by Alexanders boyhood friend Nearchus or the accounts of senior staff in Alexanders army used to create Arrian’s Anabasis in the second century CE.[4] The last point of note regarding the quality of information associated with the study of Alexander is the use of the Alexander Romance, a body of fictional works that use Alexander as a protagonist, as a historical resource; some of these date as early as the 3rd century BCE and reference materials lost to the modern historian, and I favor the opinion of Richard Stoneman that though it contains this material, it should be not be used as historical evidence.[5] Since most of these resources are embedded in other works contemporary to their time period, one of the main difficulties that has plagued the study of Alexander is the inability of historians, ancient to modern, to examine with impartiality and extract factual evidence without the political and propaganda biases of the era’s they are written.[6] This will not factor as prevalently in the first part of my examination, but will become thoroughly evident in the second half of this paper.

Debates and Arguments regarding Geographic Location

            The cartography of Alexander’s campaign is an important facet of the study of Alexander. His tactical capability and success is one of the few uncontended aspects regarding his history. He is regarded among the greatest military leaders of history because of this. The route he took during his extended military campaign was extensive. It passed through Persia, Arabia, and ended in Asia. Because of the breadth of his travels and the chronological distance of the source materials from his actions, there are contentions on the true route and locations of landmarks including cities and rivers. This is mostly due to the discrepancies between, vagaries within, and descriptions incompatible with the geography of the regions describe in these accounts.

Maiden focuses on Alexander’s route through Affghanistan(sic) after reading a peer’s conclusions in Classical Museum which denounced the contemporary theories of Grote, an established authority on Alexander during the period that this piece comes from who is no longer held in esteem, and disagreed with his peer’s alternate facts while agreeing with the overall thesis.[7] This seems to be a theme of the articles written in this period. After explaining his disdain for the sources other than Arrian, he uses the measurements available in Anabasis to refute the arguments of his peer and develop his own thesis on the actual path Alexander took by combining the writings of Arrian, weather patterns based on seasonal norms, and “common sense” conclusions that he believes validify his arguments; in his conclusion relates that his idea are only supposition and need further proof.[8] De Bode’s arguments regarding the location of the Uxian city in his appendix are similar in that the conclusions are not that of a certainty regarding events, but rather a extrapolation based on geographical inconsistencies and denunciation of the descriptions in source materials based on those inconstancies.[9] These inconclusive theoretical arguments are serial in the investigations of this topic throughout history, and are not the fault of the historians who present them. Peter Green, a modern historian who focuses on determining which Alexandria’s were founded by Alexander, which were attributed to him fictitiously through the Alexandrian Romances or local legends, and their potential locations, addresses this fact in his preface by discussing the fact that the modern contentions on this subject are ultimately inconclusive.[10] A definitive cartographical map of Alexander’s path during his march will continue to face contention. We can only postulate on where Macedonian boots marched during Alexander’s campaigns and it will continue to dominate studies of the man and his legacy.

 

Alexander’s Divinity

There is no doubt of the fact that Alexander was deified after his death. Greeks celebrated his death as a tyrant and Egyptians worshipped him in death as they had in life. Cults sprung up around his legacy. The historic evidence of these truths is no longer contended. His deification continued into the Roman era. He had become a God. The aspect of this that is in argument is whether Alexander believed himself a God while he was alive. There seems to be two distinct opinions on this; the first is that he was absorbed by the divine aspects of his heritage while he was young and as he met with oracles and fulfilled prophecies he began to believe in his own divinity, the second is that he weaponized religion as a propaganda engine to inspire his troops, pacify conquered populations, and cement his right to rule out of necessity.

Since little to no direct evidence of personal correspondence or personal writings of the great king remain for scholars to evaluate and at most we have second or third hand accounts of conversations, speeches, and personal interactions filtered by time and secondary authors to consider, it is obvious why this contention exists. As I examine the sources related to this topic I am struck by a correlation between the two perspectives and the opinions/conclusions of the authors. Hammond does not ascribe to view that Alexander believed in his own divinity in “The Genius of Alexander the Great”; his focus is on the military aspect of the history and only mentions the politics that Alexander faced when they are directly linked to the military movements of the king. Instead he describes Alexander relationship to the gods as one of extreme faith and gratitude for accomplishments that they allowed him to obtain, even attributing the lack of his establishing a governing structure in the case that he should die during his extended illness to his deeply ingrained belief in the Greek gods.[11] Peter Green also supports the philosophy of propaganda; he ascribes the use of religious actions, completion of prophecy, political manipulations, and the incorporation of Persian cultural practices as practical tools that Alexander employed to an obsessive requirement for accomplishment instilled in him as a youth by his Macedonian upbringing and comparison of accomplishments to his father’s.[12] Historians on this side of the issue, in the modern texts examined here, do a good job of presenting their interpretations.

The argument that Alexander was convinced of his own divinity has been received by the historian community with much contention. Many works in the 18th century determined this idea to be the historical reality, some apologetically other doctrinally.[13] This view has persisted since its inception and is often supported on the same set of evidence that was criticized in the past including drawing from the Alexandrian Romance.[14] [15] Ian Worthington is a modern advocate of this interpretation; I cannot recommend his work as historical, however, as he takes liberties with the source material, derives definite conclusions without proper evidence, is disrespectful to peers who have contrary opinions, and reads like a opinion piece belonging to a biased political news outlet.[16] I think perusing the personal intentions of Alexander is ultimately fruitless as no sure conclusions can be made, however, examining Macedonia and the state of the political realities that had immediate ramifications on the young king as he took possession of his kingdom.

The Political, Environmental, and Economical Motivations Regarding Alexanders Campaign

This is the aspect of Alexander’s history that can be argued to have advance considerably in the last two centuries. Considerable amounts of new information on the prehistory, administration, events during Philip (Alexander’s father), and Persian/Oriental records have been uncovered through archeology and studied by historians lending new insights to this aspect of the study of Alexander.[17] Interdisciplinary studies are also shedding light on the political, environmental, and economical factors that not only drove Alexander to campaign, but lent themselves to his numerous successes and illuminate factors that could have influenced the many decisions that Alexander made and how they succeeded when considered irregular by contemporary logical thinking.[18] Carol provides a good example of how these interdisciplinary studies combine to affect the tactics used by Alexander:

“I began with geography and Macedonia, the part of the world where Alexander              was born and raised, the physical conditions of which determine the nature of life    within it… it is defined by two great river systems, numerous mountains, and           layers of plains… These same qualities defined the region as a “hard” rather than             a “soft” country. And its inhabitants were likely to become strong rather than weak          in moving flocks, contending with wild animals, farming the land, and digging for minerals… To make use of the natural resources and to create and then maintain an independent state meant command of mountainous terrain and the abundant waters         of long rivers, both of which tended to divide the region into smaller units. An ability     to turn these features into assets was essential to the emergence of an effective state… Alexander would have gained familiarity with the nature of Macedonia and      neighboring regions by first-hand experience… He was prepared as a result for the    major battles fought and won by the Macedonians under Alexander’s command,       many if which took place at rivers.”[19]

This is an effective course of evaluation of how Alexander managed to win several battles that took place with his army assaulting across rivers, traditionally viewed as a position of weakness,  how his Macedonians could retain efficacy in such maneuvers, and provides an interesting insight that could otherwise be overlooked by historians. Disciplinary comparisons are also providing insights in this aspect of studies regarding Alexander. Samuel provides an interesting insight through the comparison of Macedonian politics and economics to those of the Germanic tribes and the states they formed after the fall of Rome and concluding that, “If we see him(Alexander) more like a Viking king than a settled Oriental despot, his impulse to conquer further makes sense, as do some of the events that particularly troubled his ancient biographies.”.[20] This is the most innovative section of studies that I have evaluated in this paper and the one I believe is the most likely to continue to progress.

Conclusion

            Peter Green summarizes the state of the historical climate of the study of Alexander concisely, “After all, in the broadest sense (however we may quibble over the details) the facts of Alexander’s life are not really in dispute.” It is, ultimately, our interpretation of them that matters.”.[21] There are inconsistencies in the facts, and the study of Alexanders campaign route is evidence of this. As archeology provides us with more details of landmarks and cities in the areas of contention this will likely either become more contentious or definitively solved. Unfortunately, the passage of time has been the greatest obstacle in this field of study, both by the change of terrain to the loss of primary materials. There is still room for this facet of study to flourish and it may be beneficial to Archeologists and Historians alike to peruse the breadth of material on this subject to help identify potential locations of interest in this endeavor.

Green’s comment is much more impactful for the deification debate. The seesaw of these opinions can be seen throughout the larger body of work. The fact is that there will be no conclusion of this debate. We cannot diagnose megalomania without the primary evidence that no longer exists and equally cannot identify the exact thoughts of Alexander in any situation. But, even knowing this, this facet of study will continue to be pursued and opinions made. Unless more direct evidence becomes available this will remain a point of contention for in the history of Alexander.

The body information in the study of the impersonal motivations of Alexander is rapidly growing in the modern studies of Alexander. The use of interdisciplinary studies and new information regarding Macedonia and Persian are catalysts in this movement. This is most of the true innovation that is taking place in study of Alexander’s history and seems to be the most prominent and exciting part of Alexander studies today.

Alexander studies have languished in the recent past. The stagnancy of the source information causing limited movement within the historical community and leaving the history subject to the whims of opinionating idealists. The future of this field of study looks promising however, as new evidence in other fields and the potential of recovering new sources of information through archeological and interdisciplinary studies seems likely.

[1] Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 61.

[2]Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, ix.

[3] Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 62.

[4] Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 62.

[5] Stoneman, Richard. 1995. “Naked Philosophers: The Brahmans in the Alexander Historians and the Alexander Romance.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies: 99. (See footnote 1)

[6] Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, ix, 478-487.

[7] Maiden, Henry Elliot. 1880. “Alexander the Great in Affghanistan.” Transactions of The Royal Historical Society 223.

[8] Maiden, Henry Elliot. 1880. “Alexander the Great in Affghanistan.” Transactions of The Royal Historical Society 222-229.

[9] De Bode, Clement Augustus. 1843. “Appendix to the Two Preceding Papers: On the Probable Site of the Uxian City Besieged by Alexander the Great on His Way from Persis to Susa.” The Journal of The Royal Geographical Society of London 108-112.

[10] Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, vi-vii.

[11] Hammond, N. G. L. 1997. “The Genius of Alexander the Great.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 199-200.

[12] Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 35-65, 109, 161, 182, 223, 235, 289, 446.

[13] Hogarth, D. G. 1887. “The Deification of Alexander the Great.” The English Historical Review no. 6: 317-318.

[14] Hogarth, D. G. 1887. “The Deification of Alexander the Great.” The English Historical Review no. 6: 318-319.

[15] Worthington, Ian. 2004. “Alexander the Great: Man and God.” Oxfordshire, England; New York: Routledge, 88-89, 199(Worthington uses some of the same arguments that are refuted in Hogarth’s article)

[16] Worthington, Ian. 2004. “Alexander the Great: Man and God.” Oxfordshire, England; New York: Routledge, 31, 89, 199, 224, 241. (31&224 – quotes an unrecognized anonymous history and draws a definite conclusion that alexander “… decided he was the son of a god.” 89 – using circumstantial evidence draws a definite and unprovable conclusion. 199 – This event is recognized as a romance built around an actual event, Alexander is never actually purported to have been involved in the actual conversation with these philosophers and this is a work of fiction. See Stoneman, Richard. 1995. “Naked Philosophers: The Brahmans in the Alexander Historians and the Alexander Romance.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies: 113.” 224 His bibliographic essay is filled with dangling, vacant criticisms and obviously insulting allusions that are not appropriate to academic literature.)

[17] Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, xiii.

[18] Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 64-72.

[19] Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 70, 75-76.

[20] Samuel, Alan E.  1988. “Philip and Alexander as Kings: Macedonian Monarchy and Merovingian Parallels.” The American Historical Review no. 5: 1286.

[21] Green, Peter, and Peter Green. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press, xv.

Bibliography

 

 

Carol, Thomas G. 2007. “What You Seek Is Here”” Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Historical Society 7, no. 1: 61-83.

De Bode, Clement Augustus. 1843. “Appendix to the Two Preceding Papers: On the Probable Site of the Uxian City Besieged by Alexander the Great on His Way from Persis to Susa.” The Journal of The Royal Geographical Society of London 108-112.

De Mauriac, Henry M. 1949. “Alexander the Great and the Politics of “Homonoia””. Journal of The History of Ideas, (1), 104-114.

Fraser, P. M. 1996. “Cities of Alexander the Great.”  Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.

Green, Peter. 1991. “Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: a historical biography.” Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hammond, N. G. L. 1997. “The Genius of Alexander the Great.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Hill, G. F. 1923. “Alexander the Great and the Persian Lion-Gryphon.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 156-161.

Hogarth, D. G. 1887. “The Deification of Alexander the Great.” The English Historical Review no. 6: 317-329.

Maiden, Henry Elliot. 1880. “Alexander the Great in Affghanistan.” Transactions of The Royal Historical Society 223-229.

Neujahr, Matthew. 2005. “When Darius Defeated Alexander: Composition and Redact on in the Dynastic Prophecy.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 64, no. 2: 101-107.

Perkins, Justin and Woolsey Theodore D. 1854. “Notice of a Life of Alexander the Great.” Journal of The American Oriental Society: 357-440.

Samuel, Alan E.  1988. “Philip and Alexander as Kings: Macedonian Monarchy and Merovingian Parallels.” The American Historical Review no. 5: 1270-1286.

Stoneman, Richard. 1995. “Naked Philosophers: The Brahmans in the Alexander Historians and the Alexander Romance.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies: 99-114.

Stoneman, Richard. 2008. “Alexander the Great: a life in legend.” New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Vincent A., Smith. 1903. “The Position of the Autonomous Tribes of the Panjāb Conquered by Alexander the Great.” Journal of The Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain And Ireland: 685-702.

Worthington, Ian. 2004. “Alexander the Great: Man and God.” Oxfordshire, England; New York: Routledge.

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