Bonkers about Boys
- Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction edited by A.B. Bosworth and E.J. Baynham
Oxford, 370 pp, £35.00, September 2000, ISBN 0 19 815287 6
For those suffering from millennial panic about the current state of history – all those Postmodernists on the non-fiction bestseller lists, all those fact-deniers occupying important professorial chairs, all those poor students who know what Marie Antoinette had for breakfast but not how she died – classics departments all over the country are offering courses of therapy: Alexander the Great.
In Alexanderland scholarship remains largely untouched by the influences which have transformed history and classics since 1945. Some great beasts, having wandered in, can still be found here decades later, well beyond reach of the forces of evolution. Secluded behind the high, impassable peaks of prosopography, military history and, above all, Quellenforschung, Alexander historians do what Alexander historians have done for more than a hundred years: try to discover the facts about Alexander the Great between his accession to the throne of Macedon in October 336 and his death in Babylon on the evening of 10 June 323 BC; what really happened on the expedition, what really happened during the three big battles against the Persians, what really happened during the march into India and back again, what happened to Alexander, what happened at Court.
Unfortunately, the facts come, in A.B. Bosworth’s words, from ‘derivative writings from the Roman period which draw upon the lost histories of Alexander’. These derivative writings are carefully ranked. In first position is Arrian, clear, sober and self-assured, who wrote in the reign of Hadrian, over 450 years after Alexander’s death (aa). Over the past century there have been periodic attempts to challenge the ‘Arriankult’; none has succeeded in knocking him off the perch on which he was placed in the 19th century. Despite ritual acknowledgments of his fallibility, and the occasional quixotic assault on the whole idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sources, the history of Alexander is essentially Arrian’s version, with supplements and variations drawn from the rest.
Among the rest, the next most utilised, probably, is Plutarch (c.400 years aa), who is pretty useless as a historian, but cites sources. Jostling him for second position are Diodorus of Sicily (c.300 aa), liable to get a bit confused, and Quintus Curtius Rufus (c.350 aa probably), stylish and rhetorical. Bringing up the rear is the so-called Alexander Romance, a novelistic account of Alexander’s exploits found in several different versions, each more fantastical than the last, of which the earliest probably dates back to around 600 years aa; fabulous and implausible, it has been described by one scholar as Cecil B. De Mille’s Gospel of Alexander.
Behind the frontmen of the Roman era lies a rich and various corpus of lost texts written by men who lived in the time of Alexander or knew someone who had. Soon after the King’s death, little tracts appeared. In ‘The Last Days of Alexander and Hephaestion’, Ephippus described the drunken excesses of Alexander and his ‘best friend’ on their return from India, how Alexander liked to dress up as a god, wearing the ram’s horns of Ammon, the lionskin of Heracles, winged sandals like Hermes and, on many more than one occasion, the costume of Artemis the virgin huntress.
There was also a document called ‘The Royal Diary’, which described in plausibly banal detail the parties the King attended and how long he was unconscious for the day after, and the day after that. There were also collections of letters, including a lengthy correspondence with the King of Persia whom Alexander was trying to overthrow, with the regent Antipater whom he had left in charge of Greece, and with his mother. Plutarch cites a couple in which Alexander replies to agents, indignantly rejecting offers to send him the most beautiful prostitutes (male) from the coast. Plutarch didn’t question their authenticity, but he did wonder that a busy man like Alexander found the time to write so much and so often to his family and friends.
The first full-scale narrative histories were quick to appear on the shelves. There was an official expedition historian, Callisthenes, a pupil of Aristotle, who was enough of a sycophant to claim the sea made obeisance to Alexander as he passed, but was not sycophantic enough to make the same gesture himself. He never finished his history, but was stoned to death – or placed under arrest until he died of some parasitical infection of a shameful nature. The expedition seems to have provoked in Callisthenes, a historian of some repute, a certain grandiloquence of expression more characteristic of the tragic muse. The astute, anonymous literary critic who wrote the treatise ‘On Height’ singled him out as an example of how not to do it: ‘so lofty he is positively airborne’; and more military-minded men found his battle descriptions in particular hard to believe.
The most popular of the early historians, Clitarchus, scored even higher on the Beaufort scale, ‘blowing full blast on his little penny whistle’. One particularly notorious example described the Hyrcanian wasp in the style of Homer – ‘it descends upon the mountain lands and flits inside the hollow oaks’ – ‘“descends upon”! . . . it’s as if he is talking about some wild buffalo or the Erymanthian boar, not a bee.’
Hegesias of Magnesia, however, outblew even Clitarchus. Widely recognised as high priest of the rich, concentrated ‘Asian’ style, he was chief target when it went out of fashion. Fond of alliteration and antithesis, repetition and rhyme, he was condemned by later writers as ‘cheap, vulgar and effeminate’. ‘Women and degenerates might talk like that, but even they would only do it for a laugh, not seriously,’ claimed Dionysius in his essay ‘On Putting Words Together’. ‘Such men as these may think themselves possessed by the divine, but they are not inspired, just playing games,’ says the author of ‘On Height’. Citations come almost entirely from hostile critics and tell us little of the contents of Hegesias’ history. We know he explained the burning of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus by observing that the goddess was distracted from her role of temple guardian, attending as she was to the birth of Alexander. He could have put out the fire himself with that piece of frigid nonsense, Plutarch says, showing he, too, had a tongue on him.
But the ‘Asian’ style was not to be used merely for adulation. Horror, too, could be inspiring. Indeed Hegesias was a bit of an ambulance-chaser and the reign of Alexander provided him with plenty of ambulances to chase. Some fragments appear to be drawn from his account of the aftermath of the obliteration of ancient Thebes, Alexander’s parting gift to the mainland before he left for Iran. Deeply implicated in the uprising and now shitting themselves, the Athenians sent their most complaisant orator to plead their case, Demades, a man renowned for his ability to flatter off-the-cuff with wit and style. Apparently, he told Alexander that Greece without Thebes was like a man with one eye; destroying Athens would leave the country blind. Hegesias needed no more encouragement. Razing Thebes was like cutting an eye out of its socket or Zeus tossing the moon from heaven.
The longest fragment describes a horrific episode outside the prosperous city of Gaza. The Iranian garrison, supported by Arab mercenaries, had put up strong resistance; one man in particular, feigning surrender, had made an attempt on Alexander’s life. The Macedonians were furious at this impertinence and exacted a brutal revenge. They killed six thousand people, but spared Baitis, the Persian governor of the city, who was brought to Alexander by his lieutenants.
When Alexander saw him, fat and huge and coarse-faced (for he was dark in colour, too), he took an instant dislike to him, hating him both for the way he had plotted and the way he looked. He ordered them to thread his feet with a bronze bit and drag him around in a circle, naked. Jolting miserably over the rough terrain, he began to wail. This – the thing I describe – drew a crowd. For his plight grew worse, yet his shouts were in a foreign language, desperately begging his ‘master’s mercy’. His funny way of talking made them laugh. His bodily contours, his fat suggested something alien, animal, Babylonian, gross. So the mob made merry, barracking the enemy barracks-style, so clumsy in manner, so inimical to the eye.
Very pertinently, Dionysius puts this alongside Homer’s description of Achilles dragging the dead Hector’s body round Troy. Is there any comparison? he asks, rhetorically. Yet, qua corpse, Hector suffered less.
The reaction against Asianism was extreme and enduring. Dionysius was relieved that three hundred years of degenerate literature starting with the death of Alexander was now finally at an end. Suddenly, everyone was writing like Xenophon again, or Julius Caesar. Consequently, apart from the citations by literary critics and a remarkable late inscription erected by the ruler of Commagene at Nemrut Dagh in Turkey, which makes even Hegesias seem pedestrian, next to nothing of this singular literary phenomenon survives. Certainly, there is little sign of such richness in the derivative histories of Alexander. Transmitted through Diodorus, Clitarchus’ bluster is reduced to the merest breeze. The Hyrcanian wasp still ‘spreads over the mountainland’, but no one reading Diodorus is likely to conjure up images of the Erymanthian Boar.
The lost histories of Alexander weren’t mislaid, therefore, they were consigned to oblivion. When purple went out of fashion, their fate was sealed. The later authors went through the rococo palaces erected by the Hellenistic historians and gave them a complete makeover, systematically removing the extravagant metaphors and the cheap conceits, untying the absurd antitheses, toning down the gaudy lexicon, adding weight to the petty rhythms, painting everything white. The replacement of the early histories by ones written centuries after the events was not so much an exercise in historiographical recension as an act of translation. At all costs, Great Alexander had to be rescued from the trivial indecencies of Alexandrian style: Hellenistic Alexander must be classicised.
We need to bear all this in mind when reading the main source, Arrian. It was his avowed intention to be the Alexander historian, and he succeeded only too well. Clear, factual and plain, his virtues have been read back into his originals, primarily Ptolemy and Aristobulus, as if Arrian alone had been able to see the solid gold in the gilded corpus of Alexander histories which the glittery taste of the Hellenistic age had allowed to be neglected. Not likely.
Ptolemy, the self-same Ptolemy who seized Egypt after Alexander’s death and founded the dynasty which ended with Cleopatra, was indeed neglected by later writers, to such an extent that there is almost no independent comment on the character of his history. Some have assumed that as a man of action he must have written in a bare, masculine style, which is reflected in the virile quality of Arrian, but when Arrian tells us what he found in his source a very different kind of history emerges. In Ptolemy’s description of the second big battle at Issus in Turkey, over the border from Lebanon, the reader was told of a ravine so full of dead bodies that horses could ride over it, and his account of Alexander’s visit to the oracle of Ammon in the Fayum included a pair of talking snakes acting as tourist guides. These are unlikely to have been isolated examples and they belong in a history more like that of Hegesias than that of Thucydides, which is to say that Ptolemy’s history was as Hellenistic as he was; if his book wasn’t jumping off the shelves of the Library at Alexandria it’s not because he wasn’t colourful enough, just not, perhaps, very good, and, of course, as founder of the dynasty and a divinity, quite beyond literary criticism.
Another problem, in all likelihood, was that the document was transparently hagiographic. As ruler of Egypt, Ptolemy invested a lot in the image of Alexander. Daringly, he had diverted Alexander’s funeral cortège to Egypt and had shored up his legitimacy by building a shrine to his former boss as founder-hero of Alexandria and as god. He issued coins showing Alexander with the attributes of Dionysus, ram-headed Ammon-Ra and Zeus. Later, he put his own face on the other side. He made the priesthood of Alexander the highest in this land of priests and the name of the office-holder was used after the King’s to date documents in Greek, demotic and hieroglyphics. The importance of the cult was underlined when Ptolemy repeatedly appointed his own brother to the post. Alexander was nothing less than Ptolemy’s state-god.
From an early date, then, Ptolemy’s authority and power were intimately bound up with the dead Alexander’s. Although the evidence for the eulogistic character of his history is largely circumstantial it is never contradicted by the fragments and occasionally, as we’ve seen, confirmed. It fell into a well-attested programme of glorification and it would be amazing if it had failed to exalt his former monarch, although Curtius notes that Ptolemy was not slow to sing his own praises, too.
Arrian’s other named source was Aristobulus. Never rivalling Clitarchus or Callisthenes on the bestseller lists, he was read more widely than Ptolemy and occasionally even admired. His description of the island fortress of Tyre, sacked by Alexander in late summer of 332, was held up as a model of its kind. Unfortunately critics also singled him out for the sycophantic character of his writing, quite an achievement in such a strong field. The problem was not, it seems, Hegesianic conceits, but outrageous alterations of fact. In his essay ‘The Way to Write History’, Lucian told a story about Aristobulus reading to Alexander himself a passage from his history, in which he described how Alexander defeated Porus, the Indian King, single-handedly, and felled an elephant with a single blow. The episode seems to have been the target of contemporary satire: ‘And it was only a light punch’; ‘Indeed it was, by Jove; if you hadn’t held back, your arm would have smashed right through the animal’s hide, bones and guts.’ Alexander was disgusted, Lucian says, with Aristobulus’ fabrications and threw the volume in the river, suggesting the author might join it.
There were no talking snakes in Aristobulus, but evidence for a certain prudishness about sex and alcohol, as well as lots of valuable data about geography, flora and fauna, monuments, gurus and distances. Citations do nothing to contradict the ancient assessment of the work’s character, however. He it was who claimed that Callisthenes was not stoned to death but died of disease, that when Alexander killed one of his officers in a drunken rage, he wholly deserved it (and Alexander wasn’t drunk anyway), that the massive draught of wine that sent Alexander to his deathbed was not the result of a dare, but of a fever that had made him thirsty. Alexander only ever drank to be sociable, Aristobulus insisted. How many other facts did he change?
He seems to have presented the sack of Thebes as a defensive measure to nip Theban imperialism in the bud and to have claimed that the wholesale massacre of the population was contrary to Alexander’s orders. He also included a digression about a Theban woman who was raped – ‘invited to his bed’ – by a Macedonian, ‘who shared Alexander’s name, but not his character’. She tricked him into going down a well and then buried him under a pile of rocks and stones. A clement Alexander pardoned her and all her relatives.
If Arrian chose the two most favourable historians as his sources it was because his avowed aim was to magnify the Great One in a history no less great, playing Homer to Alexander’s Achilles. For the Greeks of the Roman period, Alexander was a hero to be proud of; there was no market for an objective assessment of his reign. Of course, Arrian may sincerely have believed that only the most benign Alexander could possibly be authentic, but he also made moves to hide the more outrageous examples of flattery he found in his sources, without always acknowledging their existence.
There’s no mention of the story of the Theban woman nor of single combat with Porus. Episodes which Aristobulus treated at greater length, such as the King’s generous treatment of Athens following embassies of supplication – cue long flattering speech outdoing Demades? – are, in Arrian, curiously cut short. And what has happened to the famous description of Tyre? It would be nice to know, at any rate, what was so distasteful about the inscription that Alexander wrote on the ship he dedicated to Heracles after the conquest, ‘either his own composition or someone else’s, but not worth recording. That is the reason I myself didn’t bother to write it down.’
On the other hand, Arrian protests much and often about the reliability of his authors. Ingenuously, he argues that since they published after Alexander’s death, they had nothing to gain from flattery. To those unfamiliar with the ways of ancient historians it may seem rather paradoxical that he cites objectivity as the reason for his choice of a source famous for the lack of it. But this trope, inserting a tendentious claim without acknowledging its tendentiousness, he learned from his hero Xenophon, who often forgets to preface his most controversial statements with an ‘although everyone believes the contrary, in fact . . .’, and it reveals that Arrian was well aware of the notoriety of Aristobulus in particular. But he was anxious not to let the more blatant omissions detract from the credibility of his own account, sometimes observing that although his sources make no mention of a particular outrageous episode, nevertheless ‘there is a story, which is hard to credit’ that Alexander travelled through southern Iran, say, on a platform fitted out for non-stop drunken revelry (and then snogged the Persian King’s former boyfriend, a eunuch, in public). Arrian knew the received Alexander well enough to judge what silences would have been noted by wary readers, and what, on the other hand, he could get away with.
The source who provides modern historians with most of their facts, therefore, was himself dependent on one source which ancient writers thought Alexander would have thrown away in disgust and on another which is attached to an official programme of exaltation. It’s not simply that modern historians have been taken in by Arrian’s plain-talking rhetorical strategy – although it’s hard even for the most wary to get rid of the mental brackets that creep in around events introduced with a ‘some say’ or an ‘it is said’. Nor is it simply a question of prejudice about the greater reliability of histories written by manly men-of-action. More than any other ancient author Arrian seems to approach his subject in a modern way. He says what texts he is using, why he chose them and how they will be used. Every now and again he compares them with each other and with what he has found elsewhere.
This modernity is an illusion. It is not hard to see that Arrian’s unusual carefulness derives from unusual anxiety about the charge of extreme bias which might be laid against his chosen authorities. His methodological transparency is the mark of a partisan defensive about the charge of partisanship, not a precocious scientific historian, working with meticulous care. Arrian’s high reputation was earned by omitting the most egregious examples of fawning he found in his sources, supplementing from other sources their most egregious omissions, and being noisily defensive about the charge of bias. For students of Quellenforschung, who learned their trade trying to see behind the more opaque texts of Homer and the Bible, he was a gift from heaven. He seemed to have done all the work for them and even at times to have indulged in a little Quellenkritik. It seems inevitable in retrospect that this most nervous of historians would find highest honour in the age of source analysis.
Unfortunately, it is an age which hasn’t yet passed. Alexander scholarship still consists, for the most part, in arguments over which bit of which surviving text derives from which earlier lost source, whether it is a solid piece of information and how, in that case, it can be squared with something someone else says elsewhere. Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction claims to represent ‘the most advanced writing in the field’. But in default of methodological progress, Alexander historians can be said to advance only in the way that stonemasons advance, by increasing mastery of ever more difficult and unmanageable materials. ‘Advanced writing’, therefore, means advanced reading, with a coded message to students at an elementary or intermediate level: ‘Don’t try this at home.’
John Atkinson tries to discover the impact on Alexander’s historians of the end of the Roman Republic, looking for development between Diodorus and Curtius by way of Timagenes of Alexandria. I confess I had not paid much attention in the past to Timagenes, an Egyptian, son of a money-lender by appointment to the Ptolemies, captured by Pompey and sold as a slave at Rome: ‘he started as a cook, then became a sedan-bearer, and finally joined Augustus’ circle of friends.’ Apparently, Augustus told him to watch his mouth. None of Timagenes’ many books survives, but he may have influenced Trogus, who was epitomised by Justin, who does. At any rate, fragment 11 of Timagenes, taken from Strabo 4.1, 13, concerning the Tectosagi, ‘matches Justin 32.3, 9-11. It is indeed possible that where Curtius and Diodorus agree on an episode in the Alexander story, and both differ from Justin, their source was Cleitarchus, and Trogus followed Timagenes.’
Two articles try to squeeze some history out of the Romance, arguing that the most ancient part is the brief account of Alexander’s will, since it is a piece of Ptolemaic propaganda which fits only one brief historical moment: 309/8 BC. This is also possible. Richard Billows, on the other hand, tries to discover the sources for the scattered references to Alexander in Polybius. It used to be thought Polybius got his information from Callisthenes, whom he quotes at length, but Billows settles on Demetrius of Phalerum via Hieronymus of Cardia. This, too, is possible.
To be sure, since knowledge of Alexander is derived overwhelmingly from derivative texts, we need to know everything we can about them and their sources. Moreover, there is an old-fashioned charm to this kind of fact-oriented text-combing: phenomenal erudition, lack of circumspection, proper engagement with the work of older scholars, clarity of exposition, and a satisfying bluntness in critical asides – some nice examples here, typically, from Ernst Badian in an article on conspiracies. And one wouldn’t wish on any subject the type of Lacanian analysis, rhetorics of gender and queer theory, which afflict other areas of ancient history. But there are surely more useful things to do with Alexander in the 21st century than Quellenforschung.
Most of the secure facts about which author used what when were pinned down years ago, and although possible new connections have proliferated, cogency is rare – everything anyone needs to know can be found conveniently in P.A. Brunt’s notes and appendices to the Loeb edition of Arrian. Moreover, for most of the derivative authors, the whole idea of neat genealogies is more convenient than plausible. No historian of Alexander came to the subject a virgin. Not only was he the most important figure from the Greek past but it is unlikely that any writer of the Roman period managed to get through his education without a knowledge of some of the more notorious passages of Hegesias, Callisthenes and Clitarchus; as prime examples of how not to write history, or simply how not to write, they were too useful to be ignored. There must have been promiscuous cross-fertilisation of sources over a long period, making a Gordian knot of the lines of transmission. The idea that the bit about the death and the will in the novelistic tradition remained intacta for well over a thousand years, when all that comes before is heavily interpolated, will be received with a particular pinch of salt.
The one author who does show his methods, on the other hand, Arrian, seems deliberately to have selected the most hagiographical version and then disguised its excesses. But Arrian’s bad choices cannot now be corrected. No amount of source criticism can make him more objective.
The problem with Quellenforschung is that it falls between the study of texts and the study of history, inhibiting the one and distracting from the other. Finding a way through the maze of authorities has come to be a substitute for understanding Alexander’s reign, as if the two projects were identical, while a proper understanding of how the secondary or primary texts worked as texts is limited by the use of them as sources of fact. The energy with which Alexander historians search for truth combined with the cheerfulness with which they concede they will never find it has led one young whipper-snapper to compare his colleagues to Mulder and Scully.
The distraction is apparent in one of Bosworth’s three contributions to the collection, which puts Alexander alongside Cortés. The idea is promising. The Greeks and Macedonians had been intimately involved with Persians as friends and enemies, subjects and allies, for two centuries. Alexander’s expedition was constructed in the light of that ancient relationship as payback for past wrongs; Macedonia, indeed, had once been a province of the Persian Empire. There is a relevant Aztec analogy in the people of Tlaxcala, the Mexica’s traditional rivals. The Spaniards, on the other hand, were in new territory.
A critical comparison of the expeditions of Alexander and Cortés, therefore, might have led to a better understanding of the difference in treatment, representation and incorporation, of the alien as constructed and the alien as chanced on, the foreigner of self-definition and the foreigner of the beyond, the familiar and the unfamiliar Other; there might even be room, come to think of it, for a bit of Lacan. But Bosworth is diverted by another project, the desire to reconstruct from Indian accounts of the Conquistadors some idea of the violence and terror which might have been found in native accounts of Alexander’s expedition had they been recorded – ‘there must have been scenes of slaughter which made Alvorado’s massacre at Tenochtitlán look tame.’ As a result, instead of being critically compared, the expeditions of Alexander and of Cortés are treated as analogous, so that the one can fill in the gaps of the other, encouraging the dangerous myth that Alexander’s war with Darius somehow prefigures early modern encounters of Europeans with the New World, as if the Macedonians were discovering the Persia they had actually grown up with.
Then again, the fact-finding mentality separates style from substance. With his histories went also part of Alexander’s cultural context. The devastation that was wrought by the anti-Asian movement is a problem for historians as well as a loss for students of literature, because it is difficult to understand any monarch without a feeling for the style of their age. Imagine trying to make sense of Louis Quatorze without the context provided by Lully and Lebrun, Boileau and Racine. Alexander’s winged boots are harder to believe when recounted in Xenophontian prose. The over-the-top cruelty of the scene at Gaza needs the cultural context provided by Hegesias to become believable.
Artefacts, however, can supply some of this lost cultural background, and here there have been earth-shattering new finds. In 1887, the royal necropolis of Sidon was discovered. Among the sarcophaguses was a magnificent work of art in Greek style, which is now the pride of Istanbul’s archaeological museum. Around the sides were scenes of hunting and fighting. Some of the figures were well wrapped up in Persian costume; their opponents were mostly heroic nudes. In the battle-scene, rearing stage left is a man on a horse wearing a lion’s head. It is King Alexander wearing the attribute of Heracles, his ancestor, as, according to Ephippus, was his wont. Unlike Tyre, Sidon had submitted quickly to the Macedonians and it is a reasonable guess that the sarcophagus belonged to the man Alexander installed to rule it, celebrating the connection on which his power was based.
The sarcophagus reveals the way in which contemporaries refigured war in heroic terms. In particular, the beauty of the naked Macedonians provides a context for the emphasis on the ugliness of the naked Baitis in Hegesias’ description of the scene at Gaza, further down the coast. In by far the most interesting article in the collection, Olga Palagia focuses on the hunt which decorates the other side. This also features an Alexander riding in from the left, adopting the same pose as on the famous Alexander Mosaic discovered at Pompeii in 1831 – clearly his image was carefully controlled. Palagia demonstrates that hunts, modelled on Persian practice and imported into Macedonia some decades earlier, were staged events of great symbolic significance. Lions were released from cages, priority was given to the King, and woe betide anyone who shot their bolt before him. It is hardly surprising then that scenes of hunting in fresco and mosaic were important features of the interior decoration of the Macedonian palaces of Pella and the royal tombs discovered at Vergina in the 1970s. Palagia notes that these finds still await scholarly publication.
The Alexander sarcophagus highlights what is probably the most significant blindspot among the historians of Alexander: love. For along with the Greek culture of the body goes another characteristic phenomenon, homoeroticism. The sources, most of them early and impeccable, are full of references to homosexuality at the Macedonian Court, and Alexander himself was said to have been ‘bonkers about boys’. While not denying their existence, the Alexander historians have consistently trivialised these relationships, drawing an artificial distinction between the important events of politics and war and the minor events of the body and the heart, between ‘gossipy’ sources who record such things and serious sources who omit them or play them down, as if homosexuality, like drinking, was something the Macedonians did in their spare time. The distinctions, of course, are quite artificial. Love, like drinking, was of enormous significance in the politics and geopolitics of the Macedonian world.
The beardless, naked ephebes who surround the King in the scenes of hunting and war represent the corps of ‘Royal Boys’, not 12-year-olds and above, as Palagia would have it, but meirakia, young adults, sons of noblemen, who slept outside the King’s bedchamber and mediated between him and the world, bringing him his mistresses and horses, sharing his table and his bed, surrounding the King with a cushion of trusted muscle. Their relationship to the monarch is remarkably similar to the relationship between his courtiers and James I, recently analysed by Alan Bray and Michel Rey in an article on ‘The Body of the Friend’, except that in the case of Macedonia the ‘gift of the body’ did not preclude the gift of sex. Holding a near monopoly on intimate relations with the royal personage, they had a near monopoly on assassination attempts too. Alexander himself was almost a victim. He had dishonourably punished a Royal Boy who dared to anticipate him out hunting. The boy formed a conspiracy with his boyfriend and some others. One of the others told his boyfriend who told the boy’s brother who told Ptolemy who told the King.
In an extraordinary passage in Politics, Aristotle lists a whole series of Macedonian monarchs who were assassinated by lovers who felt insulted or betrayed. Alexander’s own father, Philip, was killed in this way. An ex-lover had referred to his replacement in the King’s bed in disparaging terms, calling him a ‘man-woman’ and a whore. The new lover, to prove the true nature of his love, put his body between Philip and a missile and died. The man’s friends arranged for the former lover to be taught a lesson. They gave him a lot to drink and turned him over to some muleteers as if he were a low-class prostitute. When he woke from his drunken stupor and realised what had happened, he complained to Philip but found no satisfaction and so assassinated the King, allowing Alexander to take the throne.
This conspicuous feature of Macedonian Court politics was the subject of an important article some years ago by one of the contributors to this volume, Elizabeth Carney. Badian, however, in his article on conspiracies, barely seems to have noticed. So little have his opinions changed since he first started working on the subject over forty years ago, that he is able to quote his former self approvingly on more than one occasion. These tales of sexual jealousy, broken hearts and wounded egos are a front for the true politics of power, as if, when power was so very personal, and intimacy so very political, they could ever be separated out. Instead of observing that there is something of a pattern here and trying to understand it on its own terms, he prefers to see everything manipulated by a wicked, disembodied Alexander, by turns Machiavellian and paranoid, Hitler and Stalin rolled into one.
If Alexander historians want to understand him better, they will have to shake off their prejudices about what qualifies as a fact, which sources are serious, and when events are meaningful. They should be paying more attention, if not to what Alexander had for breakfast, then at least to whom he had it with.
Bosworth tries to talk up the value of source-speculation for the 21st century. But when the Metz Epitome, a late, partially preserved manuscript in the novelistic tradition, written c.1300 years aa, is hailed as ‘perhaps the single most important contribution to the source criticism of Alexander’s reign’ and Polybius is enthusiastically elevated into the canon of derivative authors on whom source criticism can be performed (‘amazingly for the first time’), one cannot help seeing signs of desperation. The texts are finally running out and Alexander historians are finally running out of excuses for not doing something more interesting with their subject. When Bosworth completes the commentary on the seven books of Arrian that he started in the 1970s, there will be nothing left to comment on. Then, perhaps, this once honourable and successful, but now very tired-looking project will reach a conclusion and a long-running chapter in the history of the Alexander Files can be closed.