A talk on Arrian and Alexander the Great

Allan Vorda conducted an interview with James Romm, Associate Professor of Classics at Bard College, who edited The Landmark Arrian, probably the definitive ancient text on Alexander the Great. What follows is an interesting talk on Arrian and various aspects of the life and career of the famed Macedonian commander and conqueror.

Allan Vorda: How did you get involved in this massive undertaking of editing Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandrou? What type of research was done and how long did this enterprise take to complete under the title of The Landmark Arrian?

James Romm: It took about five years, but the last year was the equivalent of three normal ones. The research involved goes back even further, as I have been studying Alexander for at least a decade.

AV: Arrian states (p. 77) the war against the Persians was “not sprung from enmity but was a lawful struggle for the sovereignty of Asia.” Isn’t this statement somewhat incongruous as far as it being lawful and that there was enmity due to previous wars with Persia?

JR: I have to correct you and point out that the statement is Alexander’s, not Arrian’s. But yes, it’s a hard statement to understand. Alexander seems to be making a distinction between a purely political struggle, where normal rules of engagement apply, and a grudge match where anything goes. But he elsewhere does express hatred of Darius and a sense of personal grievance. So there’s some inconsistency.

AV: Upon the defeat of the Persians at Issus, Darius’s mother prostrates herself in front of Hephaistion – as he appeared the taller – thinking he is Alexander. When she learns of her mistake, she apologizes whereupon Alexander tells her (p. 77) there is no error as “Hephaistion, too, is Alexander.” What do you make of this scene and Alexander’s comment?

JR: I don’t understand this comment, and I don’t think anyone does. Maybe Arrian himself did not understand it.

AV: You state (p. 78, note #2.12.8b) that some historians believe Darius’ wife bore Alexander a child in 331 BC. What can you add to this rumour and that Alexander later married the queen’s daughter?

JR: We have the testimony of one source that the queen died in childbirth. Whose child was she bearing? It could have been Alexander’s, but there’s no hard evidence. I don’t think it would have bothered Alexander to be involved first with the mother and later with the daughter.

AV: You mention (p. 79, note 2.13.7b) the defection of the Phoenicians and their navy from the Persians to Alexander. How critical was this in the war?

JR: Extremely critical, in the Battle for Tyre in particular. The mole which Alexander constructed to reach Tyre from land did not allow him to bring his siege weapons to bear against the walls. The defection of the Phoenician ships gave him control of the sea and allowed him to bring ship-mounted engines right up to the walls. That was the turning point in the seven-month siege.

AV: Arrian states in the battle of Tyre that 8,000 Tyrians were killed and 30,000 captured and sold. Other reports (p. 94, note 2.24a) state Alexander crucified 2,000 males. What do you make of this and Alexander’s cruelty?

JR: I think Arrian omitted mention of an episode that showed Alexander in a poor light. He does this on numerous occasions. We cannot be certain the crucifixions occurred, but it seems likely that some of the episodes Arrian omits were factual, and this may be one of them. Certainly Alexander was capable of cruelty and acts of collective punishment when his will was thwarted.

AV: Arrian’s list of Darius’s troops (p. 112 and p. 119) at Gaugamela includes 1,000,000 soldiers, 40,000 cavalry, 200 scythe-bearing chariots, and fifteen elephants. The Macedonians have 75,000 troops and yet win at Gaugamela. Surely, this must be a gross exaggeration.

JR: All troop counts of Alexander’s enemies in the Anabasis are exaggerated, but the fault lies more with Arrian’s sources than with Arrian. That said, the Persians were capable of putting huge numbers of troops in the field. They outnumbered the Macedonians at Gaugamela several times over, but many of their infantry lacked adequate training and equipment.

AV: It seems Arrian glorifies Alexander and the Macedonians (p. 114, note 3.10.2a) “in heroic poses.” This constant glorification runs counter to Homer’s Iliad that showcased many Persians [This should be Asiatics in general. –Ed.] as noble and brave. Why didn’t Arrian temper his comments to be more realistic?

JR: The Iliad is a more compelling story because it’s a fight between two noble adversaries. But few storytellers are as talented as Homer. The superhero narrative, which focuses on the glory and virtue of one leader at the expense of the other, is easier on both the author and the audience. Also, the Roman world in which Arrian lived was more unipolar than that of Alexander. His attitudes toward the barbarian world, and the East, were partly the product of his times.

AV: Discuss what is referred to as the “profound economic impact” (p. 130, note 3.18.10a and appendix F) of the wealth that Alexander obtained from two centuries of Persian taxation. What happened to all of this wealth after Alexander’s death?

JR: Much of it was drawn on by his successors to fund their wars against one another. The wastage was terrible. This story is told in more detail in a forthcoming book of mine, Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire, appearing about a year from now.

AV: During various encounters of the Macedonians with foreign troops who had different languages, there is no mention of how they were able to communicate during meetings, surrenders, and truces. What do you know about how the Macedonians were able to communicate with their enemies or these “barbarians” as Arrian refers to them?

JR: Arrian does refer at various points to the need for interpreters. No Macedonians learned the language of their subjects except Peukestas, who taught himself Persian. Alexander had Greek taught to the Persians he expected to become part of his imperial regime.

AV: Arrian does not refer to vulgate sources about thirteen days of sexual congress that Alexander allegedly had with an Amazon queen named Thalestris (p. 141, 3.25.1a) who wanted to have his child. Plutrach rejects this as a fiction. What do you think?

JR: I agree with Plutarch. Arrian was quite sensible to omit this story.

AV: During Alexander’s campaign which lasted approximately ten years, there had to be a sizeable number of troops killed or severely wounded. How did Alexander replenish his troops?

JR: Alexander sent back home for reinforcements on several occasions. But his losses in battle were very small compared to the other drain on his manpower, the posting of garrison forces to retain conquered territory.

AV: There is mention of Alexander’s barbarous treatment of Bessos who betrayed Darius. Reportedly, Alexander had Bessos’ nose and the tips of his ears cut off before being executed. Please comment on another example of Alexander’s cruelty and how factual it is.

JR: Even Arrian records this mutilation, so there is no reason to doubt it. As I said above, Alexander was capable of great cruelty against those who resisted him with determination.

AV: During the episode of Bessos, it appears that Alexander’s drinking was getting out of hand. Shortly thereafter, Alexander kills Kleitos – whose sister nursed Alexander as a boy – in a drunken rage. What are your thoughts on this episode in which Arrian deplores Kleitos’ behavior and ultimately praises Alexander for his subsequent grief?

JR: Arrian wants to exculpate Alexander wherever possible. He obviously can’t excuse the murder of Kleitos, but he manages to assign equal blame to Kleitos and to Alexander, and then to praise Alexander for his remorse. It’s a pretty generous treatment, but he does ultimately chalk the episode as a black mark against Alexander, not least because the king was drinking to excess.

AV: After Alexander defeats the Sogdians and their leader, Oxyartes, he marries (p. 178) the beautiful Rhoxane. She is the virgin daughter of Oxyartes and considered the most beautiful woman, other than Darius’ wife, in Asia. Tell us about Rhoxane, the child she bore Alexander, and her ultimate fate.

JR: This is another story that is told in detail in my forthcoming Ghost on the Throne. It’s a tragic tale. Rhoxane was in her early teens when Alexander married her, perhaps about twenty when he died and pregnant with his only legitimate child. Eventually she gave birth to a boy, Alexander IV, who immediately became one of two crowned heads of state, sharing the kingship with his uncle, Philip III. For thirteen years thereafter Rhoxane and her son were pawns in the power struggle for control of the empire, controlled by no fewer than five of the Successors at various times. Eventually mother and son became prisoners of Kassandros, who kept them in seclusion for six years before having them secretly assassinated. None of the Successors at that point wanted a legitimate monarch to assume power.

AV: Arrian (p. 197) states: “Of course, one must not examine ancient tales about the divine too minutely. For stories that strike a listener as incredible because they violate our sense of what is probable begin to seem credible when an element of the divine is added.” Despite the allusion to Alexander’s divinity, this statement could easily apply to Arrian’s over-the-top tributes to Alexander’s greatness as violating the reader’s sense as to what is actually credible.

JR: Arrian speaks here of tales that rely on the divine as an explanation, and, to his credit, he mostly avoids this in his own narrative. He does believe that the gods were somehow involved in Alexander’s success, but never attributes any historical event to their influence. The closest he comes is the statement that some god induced Darius to change his ground before the battle of Issos, because it had been foretold that Persia would fall. But even here Arrian says “perhaps.” He’s no Thucydides, but within the context of ancient historiography, he’s fairly rigorous about excluding supernatural factors.

AV: Koinos makes an impassioned speech to Alexander that the troops are tired and want to go home to which Alexander eventually agrees. What was the state of Alexander’s army at this point in time as they had already reached the Hyphasis River in India?

JR: Both their gear and their morale were in pretty bad shape. They had marched for months through monsoon rains and tropical heat. One of our sources reports that, when they received new armor and clothing in India, they burned the ones they had. But the biggest factor motivating the mutiny was their fear of war elephants; they knew that if they went on eastward toward the Ganges, they would have to fight a lot more of these.

AV: Shortly after this episode, Koinos (p. 238) “died of a disease.” Is there any knowledge of Koinos’ age or the disease from which he died? This seems highly suspicious.

JR: Some modern scholars have speculated that Koinos was poisoned, but we have no evidence of this. No ancient source suspects foul play, even the ones that want to believe the worst about Alexander.

AV: During the battle with the Mallois at the Hydraotes River, Alexander jumps into the Indian citadel and single-handedly fights the Indians. Alexander is severely wounded (p. 245) by an arrow: “While his blood remained warm, Alexander defended himself, though he was in a bad way; but when a huge rush of blood gushed from the wound along with a hiss of air, he was overcome with vertigo and faintness and collapsed.” His life is saved by a handful of his men including Peukestas who covers him with his shield. Please recount your thoughts on this battle, Alexander’s rashness to fight alone, and the wound he received.

JR: The episode at the Malloi town is one of the hardest to understand, in terms of Alexander’s thoughts and motivations. There are different versions of it and it’s hard to know exactly what happened. My best guess is that Alexander meant to shame his troops, who were fighting less vigorously than he wanted, by going first or even alone into combat. He expected in this case that they would immediately follow him up the wall and into the town, but the scaling ladders broke under their weight, causing a lengthy delay in which he was left virtually unaided. Alexander would not have jumped into the town had he known he would be stranded there for more than a minute or two. He was not delusional.

AV: An Indian sage (p. 274) supposedly foretells Alexander’s death: “King Alexander, each man can have only so much land as this on which we are standing. You are human like the rest of us, except in your restlessness and arrogance you travel so far from home, making trouble for yourself and others. Well, you will soon be dead and will have as much land as will suffice to bury your corpse.” Do you think this really happened or just Arrian introducing the foreshadowing element of the Fates into the story?

JR: This is one of several episodes in the ancient sources where Indian sages express their dismay at Alexander and his whole value system. It is the kind of scene the ancient world loved to elaborate on and fictionalize, but there is probably some kernel of truth in it. Strabo, another important source for Alexander’s invasion of India, preserves a fairly credible report by Onesikritos, a Greek officer, of his visit to an Indian religious academy, and it contains exchanges very much like the one you mention.

AV: Alexander declares (p. 287) himself a god. Is this a true description by Arrian and, if so, what do you make of this?

JR: I think you have misinterpreted the speech Alexander makes here. He tells his rebellious troops that they ought to just go home and abandon him and tell their countrymen they did so, and then says sarcastically that “such a report will be holy in the sight of god.” He doesn’t refer to himself when he says “god,” and never, in Arrian’s account, makes claims to his own divinity.

AV: Alexander’s life-long friend and companion, Hephaistion, dies at an early age at Ecbatana, probably due to malaria. Alexander is devastated by his death. Please comment on their relationship, which some have speculated was homosexual at some point, and his abilities as a soldier since Alexander had given him the title of chiliarch.

JR: There is no doubt that they had a very close friendship and that Alexander trusted Hephaistion more fully than his other officers. He promoted Hephaistion to high commands despite the man’s shortcomings as a soldier, which created considerable ill will among his more soldierly officers. But there is simply no evidence of a sexual relationship. There may have been one, and Alexander almost certainly had sexual intimacy with other males, but the relationship portrayed in Oliver Stone’s movie is based on pure speculation.

AV: Alexander dies a few months after Hephaistion at the age of 32 in Babylon. There has been much speculation for the cause of his death. Some claim it was poison or malaria, but it is suggested (appendix O) it was due to typhoid fever. Please extrapolate why there has been so much controversy over his death.

JR: Appendix O is the work of Eugene Borza, based on a medical panel he attended some years ago that examined the evidence presented by Arrian. There are various questions that other scholars might ask to complicate the issue. Is Arrian’s account credible? Should it be relied on for a medical diagnosis? Might it have been falsified by those who had a vested interest in portraying Alexander’s death as natural, rather than the result of poisoning? These are very knotty issues, and, to many historians, insoluble. The second appendix that addresses the death of Alexander, by Brian Bosworth, raises some of these problems and poses a kind of counterweight to Borza’s view.

AV: Arrian speculates about Alexander’s early death (p. 298) that “perhaps it was better for him to depart at the high point of his fame.” What do you think would have happened if Alexander had lived for another 30 years? Do you think he would have gone on to conquer Libya, Carthage, and perhaps early Rome?

JR: He certainly intended to take on Carthage, and quite likely would have succeeded. After that, the rest of the Mediterranean, including Rome, would have been easy pickings. The face of the world would have been entirely different had Alexander survived to carry out the plans he had at the time of his death.

AV: Arrian’s primary sources for writing about Alexander were Ptolemy and Aristoboulos. Based on these sources and the fact that Arrian was writing about Alexander 400 years after his death, then how credible and objective can Arrian’s work be?

JR: The narratives of Ptolemy and Aristoboulos were lost after Arrian read and used them, but we can judge by his history that they were fairly good eyewitness accounts, though tending strongly toward a positive view of Alexander. The alternative source used by other historians – Kleitarkhos – was not as reliable and may not have been an eyewitness; but Kleitarkhos also does not have a vested interest in making Alexander look good. Any responsible investigation must use all the available sources, but Arrian is the best of these. He is certainly not objective, but he does not go so far in the direction of eulogy as to lose our trust.

AV: Finally, what is your overall opinion of Arrian’s writing and the life of Alexander?

JR: Alexander’s story is the ultimate case of truth stranger than fiction. The circumstances that put such an incredibly talented, ambitious and charismatic man in control of an immensely powerful army, at a moment in history when world supremacy was up for grabs, seems like the premise of a myth or a fantasy novel, not a historical narrative. The more I learn about the era, the more I am awestruck at the immensity of change over a very short period of time. Possibly the world has never before or since seen such rapid and far-reaching transformations.

Arrian’s writing is imbued with the same sense of awe that I am describing, but it is focused on the single figure of Alexander rather than the larger era of which he was a part. A more responsible historian would have said more about Alexander’s father, Philip, who set the stage for his conquests; about Alexander’s adversary, Darius III; and about the Greek city-states, still powerful enough during the Macedonian invasion of Asia to bring it to a halt, had they acted in concert. Arrian is a biographer as much as a historian, and prefers to keep his eye on Alexander at all times. The result is a compelling story of an individual, but one misses the sense of the wider world that was in the throes of cataclysmic change.

Our thanks go to Allan Vorda and James Romm.

One thought on “A talk on Arrian and Alexander the Great”

  • ashimbabbar

    Regarding Bessos: this punishment was a standard Persian punishment for rebels, and Bessos had murdered king Darius III. At this moment Alexander was trying to present himself to the Persians as they new legitimate king, so it made perfect sense.

    ( Most Persians declined to acknowledge him as their legitimate ruler, so he burned Persepolis to teach them )

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