Ancient Ancient History

By Hanson, Victor Davis | New Criterion, March 2011 | Go to article overview
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Ancient Ancient History


Hanson, Victor Davis, New Criterion


James Romm, editor

JPamela Mensch, translator

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander. Pantheon, 560 pages, $40

Sometime in the mid-second century A.D., Lucius Flavius Arrianus--a Greek-speaking prominent Roman citizen from Nicomedia, in northwest Asia Minor near the Bosporus--wrote a history of Alexander the Great's eleven-year-long "march up country" that began with the invasion of Persian Ionia and ended some 3,000 miles distant at the Indus River. The well-connected and well-read Arrian tried to emulate formal classical Greek prose of a distant age, and he probably modeled his history of Alexander after Xenophon's more famous Anabasis, which chronicled a far earlier Western march of the mercenary Greek "Ten Thousand," who in 401 B.C. fought their way home from Babylon after the death of their boss, the Persian would-be royal usurper Cyrus the Younger.

Nearly five hundred years after the death of Alexander, in the age of the emperor Trajan, the creator of the Hellenistic world still held the popular imagination. Arrian wrote a largely favorable account of Alexander in hopes of enlightening his Roman audience about the truth of the legendary conqueror "for the benefit of mankind." That he fought under Trajan and held responsibilities for eastern frontier defense no doubt made Arrian sensitive to the sort of cultural, military, and political challenges that Alexander had once faced in Asia. Arrian was a military thinker as well: he wrote a Tactica, an extant abstract work on the nature and organization of the Macedonian phalanx and cavalry that drew heavily on mostly lost Hellenistic tacticians--and which was not always relevant to the conditions of battle on the Roman frontier. As both a scholar and veteran, Arrian saw himself as uniquely qualified in making Alexander's military accomplishments known to an eastern Roman audience.

The result is that his Anabasis is considered the most complete and reliable extant source of Alexander's conquest. Arrian drew carefully on the lost contemporary accounts of Ptolemy and Aristoboulos, and wrote after and sometimes learned from the other extant Romanera sources of Alexander: Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch. While Arrian was dearly impressed by the achievement of Alexander, whose empire was divided by his successor generals and later annexed in part into the Roman empire, his portrait is not quite a whitewash of a Great Man. Many of the details of Alexander's dirty war in Bactria and murderous rampage against his own intimates are known fully only from Arrian, whose general theme is that such larger-than-life geniuses do what the rest of us cannot, both bad and good.

As a result, scholars know far more about Alexander the Great than earlier great captains such as Epaminondas the Theban or Alexander's own father, Philip II. Yet historians still cannot quite figure out what to make of Alexander's short life that ended in exhaustion, debauchery, and frequent illness at thirty-three. To Peter Green, a youthful and mostly immature Alexander and his cronies should not be taken too seriously in what they professed amid their drinking, whoring, plundering, and gratuitous cruelty. For Ernst Badian, Alexander was a shrewd conniver whose savagery was essential rather than incidental, to his megalomaniac visions. Few of today's more skeptical age still adhere to W. W. Tarn's romantic view of Alexander as a veritable nineteenth-century British colonialist--part Field Marshal Kitchener, part Cecil Rhodes, intent, in idealistic fashion, on carrying the white man's burden of civilizing to the more savage East.

The enigma arises partly because all contemporary written accounts of Alexander's miraculous career are lost, and partly because he deliberately cloaked his brutal conquest of the Persian Empire with a showy veneer of East-West ecumenicalism that he passed off as the "brotherhood of man." In his brief fifteen years of warring following the death of his father, Alexander posed as the emissary of a civilizing Hellenism as he killed more Greeks--whether besieged Thebans or mercenaries in the service of Darins III--than had perished in the earlier invasions of Darius I and Xerxes combined.

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