Alexander the Greatest

Mary Renault

  • The Search for Alexander by Robin Lane Fox
    Allen Lane, 439 pp, £12.95, February 1981, ISBN 0 7139 1395 9
  • Alexander the Great by N.G.L. Hammond
    Chatto, 358 pp, £14.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 7011 2565 9

Ever since his death in mid-career, Alexander has been projecting from his undiscovered tomb the powerful presence he exercised in life. To those around him, his magnetism was not mysterious: it was a natural phenomenon with which they lived. Once his contemporaries were dead, it became a legend: something transcending his recorded acts, and a receptacle for every kind of fantasy. He was adopted and adapted by every civilisation he contacted in his lifetime, and by later ones of whose existence he never dreamed: he was taken up by medieval romances as a parfit gentil knight, by Renaissance painters as a grandiose operatic soprano, by William Woodthorpe Tarn as an English gentleman. More recently, he has offered a banquet to fashionable reductionists, who know by instinct that anyone widely admired and honoured must be rotten at the core, and has been presented as a kind of catch-all fascist by committed thinkers who can believe without trouble that Jesus Christ was a freedom-fighting guerrilla. Some of these trials have recalled irresistibly ‘Rex v. Knave of Hearts’ in Alice: ‘Sentence first, verdict afterwards.’ We have here, however, two jurors who have considered their verdict.

It is rare, if not unique, for two Alexander biographies to appear in the same season, both by authors who have personally surveyed his route. Robin Lane Fox has covered the whole itinerary, in this surpassing the redoubtable Sir Aurel Stein, who had to wait till he was in his eighties for permission to enter Afghanistan, and, setting out undaunted, died amid the rigours of the promised land. Professor Hammond served as a lieutenant-colonel, winning a DSO, in Greece, Crete and Syria during the last war. The direction of his study is therefore natural, and its results correspondingly valuable. This book is no doubt by way of a parenthesis to his impressive History of Macedonia, which ends with the death of Philip and could hardly be continued over the next dozen years without prior treatment of the country’s absent king. His account of the Succession Wars will be something to look forward to. Meanwhile, he has studied Alexander’s strategy on the battle-grounds over which he has himself campaigned, and added a survey of the chief remaining ones, with workmanlike black-and-white snapshots of the sites and some admirably lucid diagrams of each battle in its significant stages. To all this, as well as to the crucial Alexander questions, he has applied his own observations of what commanding in the field entails. It is unlikely that a better or more informed assessment of Alexander as a military leader will be made.

His consideration of the sources includes a startling theory about Ptolemy: that along with Alexander’s body, whose funeral car he diverted to Alexandria on its way to Macedon, he received the Royal Journals, which had been despatched in the cortège with Alexander’s other possessions. If this were so, Ptolemy would be not simply the most dependable of the contemporary sources, as Arrian considered him after reading all the others, but the definitive one, having the entire day-to-day records of the reign at his elbow when he wrote. This would certainly dispose of any doubts about the reliability of Ptolemy’s 80-year-old memory (though Lane Fox points out that Caesar did not wait to retire before he wrote his Commentaries, and Ptolemy might well have written in his early forties). But could Ptolemy really have obtained the Journals in this, or indeed in any way? In his account of the funeral car, Diodorus mentions no possessions of Alexander going with it, except his panoply of arms, which, of course, would be buried with him. All the huge treasure available for grave-goods had been expended on the solid gold sarcophagus and magnificent gold-sheathed bier: this, too, would presumably have been walled up in his tumulus – in the unlikely event of its not being stolen by Cassander. More important, for the Journals to have been sent, Perdiccas would have had to part with them. He was at that time lawful custodian of both the Kings, the simpleton Philip III and the infant child of Roxane; moreover, he was soon to reveal ambitions for the regency of Macedon and probably for the throne. These documents, with their priceless military and political value, he would surely have held onto if he could – and he had the supreme command in Asia. In the course of his disastrous Egyptian campaign against Ptolemy, he was murdered by his staff-officers, who proceeded to offer Ptolemy the Asian regency and the Kings. He declined all three, but might have got possession of the Journals then, always assuming that Perdiccas had brought all the back numbers as well as the current year’s on campaign with him – which is rather a bold assumption. Strangely, neither of these historians has examined the possibility that Ptolemy may have kept a journal of his own. He was a literate man, even if not an admired stylist – his books probably formed the nucleus of the Library of Alexandria founded by his son – and there seems no reason why he should not have written up his diary within weeks, often days, of the events. During the leisure of his retirement, the working-up of his notes into a continuous history may have been an occupation long looked forward to.

Soldiers with experience of command invariably seem to think well of Alexander: they know the difficulties he faced, and appreciate his unique rapport with his men. To Professor Hammond, he is so completely the happy warrior every man in arms would wish to be that even the manslaughter of Cleitus is explained in terms of Alexander’s momentary impression that his life was threatened by an assassin. One would like very much to believe this, but Alexander’s abyss of shame afterwards seems more characteristic of a man who, though admittedly much provoked, knows he lost all control of himself and finds the humiliation unbearable.

Alexander’s emotional life is rather briskly treated, with an open mind about Hephaestion and a tendency (shared by Tarn) to consign Bagoas to legend and agitprop. Both authors accept Alexander’s paternity of the claimant Herakles by Barsine. Yet there is a great deal against it, primarily his unaccountable consignment of the boy to total obscurity. At an expedient point in the Succession Wars the boy was conjured from nowhere, unchronicled till he was 17, and was disposed of as soon as expediency dictated. One would like to know the real life-story of this sad pretender.

Robin Lane Fox’s The Search for Alexander has been sponsored by the organisers of the eponymous exhibition: this has no doubt helped to make possible its magnificent photographs, which alone are worth the price of the publication; they must owe a good deal to the author’s first-hand knowledge of the route – some of them are, in fact, his own. Among the most beautiful of the landscapes are those of the terrifying Gedrosian coast and of the rock-fanged desert through which the army marched beside the fleet. (Hammond makes the very good point that Alexander was committed to this dangerous route by his responsibility to provision the fleet, undertaken before his supplies broke down.) There are good photographs of little-reproduced groups on the Alexander sarcophagus at Istanbul. The book, though inevitably compressed to make room for the pictures, is much more than an epitome of its predecessor, Alexander the Great. The years between have brought some fruitful reconsiderations of crucial events: for instance, Callisthenes is accepted as inspiring, even if not organising, the Pages’ Plot – the beating of Hermolaus being the catalyst. There is much of value about recent, important archaeological finds of the Greek cities Alexander planted in the wilderness along important caravan-trails, particularly Ai Kanum on the Oxus, which bears witness, with its fine stonework and civilised amenities, to Alexander’s high standards as founding father, and to the quality of the craftsmen he brought with him.

Lane Fox is more concerned than Hammond with Alexander’s emotional life, which was certainly of deep concern to Alexander: his self-image was at the core of his achievement. His conclusions on this matter (including those about the Ammon oracle) seem, in the light of all the evidence, to be essentially true. Like Hammond, he disposes crisply of the untenable theory that Alexander was an alcoholic: an obvious nonsense, given his capacity for physical action and endurance of harsh conditions for extended periods. The water of the Asiatic plains was unsafe without wine to purify it: the drink which most nearly cost Alexander his life was straight water, drunk in the heat of the Oxus campaign. Social drinking, with the occasional heavy night, was the Macedonian norm, and Alexander was a gregarious, social man. The clinical pattern of the alcoholic is so well-known that it is amazing such a theory could have been taken seriously for a moment, even by journalists. Lane Fox is certainly also right to dismiss theories that Alexander died by poisoning: a poisoner would have made much shorter work of it, and no poison was then known which could, even if desired, produce such a protracted death.

He gives due value, as Hammond does, to Alexander’s remarkably advanced views – for his day, entirely original – about the administration of his conquests, and his refusal, so much resented by the more xenophobic of his followers, to rule like a mere conqueror, or to regard the conquered simply as an exploitable source of wealth. He was not a man with a liberal ideology to be theoretically applied: the Persians and the rest were human beings whom he got to know and value as individuals, and whom he did not patronise with a lower standard of expectation. The heroic legends which were his memorial among his former enemies are unique in history.

The book does make one or two remarkably blithe assumptions: for example, that Alexander rode into the frightful monsoon battle of the Hydaspes on poor 30-year-old Bucephalas, a pensioned Rosinante who, Arrian expressly tells us, was then dying of old age. Alexander, who was already nursing his old favourite at Gaugamela five years before, was kinder to his friends than this. If it really was the young favourite Bagoas who captained a processional trireme on the Indus, and not a Persian nobleman with this rather common name, this would surely have been much resented by high-ranking Persians denied the privilege, and that this young dancer, with no maritime experience whatever, could afterwards be entrusted with a real, operational trierarchy on the gruelling Gedrosian voyage under Nearchus strains all credibility. If the group in the gable of the Istanbul sarcophagus does represent the murder of Perdiccas – an interesting suggestion in itself – it is hard to know why the bearded assassin on the right should be identified with Ptolemy, who was not there when the deed was done, and whose rugged, clean-shaven profile is the best-known face, after Alexander’s, on the coinage of the Hellenistic era.

Both Lane Fox and Hammond think that the royal tomb lately unearthed at Vergina is almost certainly that of Philip II, and point out the respect for his father shown by Alexander in arranging this rich burial (especially in view of his need for money to prosecute the coming war). Professor Phyllis Lehmann of Princeton has recently made out an interesting case for the tomb’s being that of the murdered Philip III and his ambitious wife Eurydice, but among Philip’s disabilities we hear nothing of lameness. His father’s lameness from an old wound is well-known, and it is hard to explain away those uneven greaves.