Monday, 13 November 2017

Book Review - Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian

Anabasis of Alexander by Arrian. English translation by P. A. Brunt (in 2 Vols, including Indica)

Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1976

Have you ever had that strange feeling when you drive past the site of a recently demolished building in your neighbourhood and you can't remember what was there? That makes it even more amazing to me that we still know so much about the life of Alexander the Great. The fact that we do so is due to the survivial of this work of Arrian, amongst others.

The Loeb Classics two volume edition, which also includes the Indica is a fine edition on many levels. For the properly educated, one can compare the Ancient Greek to the English translation, and for us lesser mortals, the copious notes, appendices and informative introduction ensure we know what to make of the text, and where controviersies arise in comparing this work to other surviving sources. There is also a useful index.

All of us know, or think we know, the story of Alexander's conquest of most of the known world, so it's fascinating to go back to authors such as Arrian and Curtius and see what they wrote. Arrian saw himself as writing the definitive history of Alexander, combining all sources available to him and choosing the most reliable, sometimes putting down all he'd found out when he couldn't decide where the truth lay. What is interesting is that he obviously didn't know of Curtius' history, even though the scholars think it was written a hundred years earlier than Arrian's work.

The image of Alexander's army rampaging through the Near East is in fact only partly true - much (most?) of his conquests were peaceful, in the sense that cities and kingdoms surrendered without a fight, rather that risk defeat under arms. The reason so many took this option was that Alexander was often magniminous to those who surrendered, and could (and did) destroy utterly those who bore arms against him.

Things that stand out for me on reading Arrian is how few actual Macedonian troops Alexander had for much of his conquests: as he moved further away from home he relied more and more on local levies of troops and on arrogating to himself troops that once fought for Persia. The other point that I feel I hadn't adequately considered before reading this was just how Alexander ran the lands he conquered. He appointed trusted generals as satraps and on occasion even local rulers got to continue their rule, after paying obesiance and tribute to Alexander. It is interesting how often Arrian (who on the whole is a supporter of Alexander) describes how recently conquered territories had risen in revolt against Alexander, and needed to be repressed. The idea of Alexander rolling across the Near East and crushing all resistance is in some ways a false one.

The sense of Alexander one is left with after reading Arrian is of a man who was perhaps not interested in the art of governing. He was interested in conquering and winning battles, and as long as someone was keeping the rear in check and getting enough money for him to keep his army on the go, he was happy with that. Certainly after his death the empire quickly crumbled, as each kingdom quickly reverted to local rule, apart from some exceptions (Ptolemy in Egypt, for example).

One gets a whiff from Arrian (something which is more emphasised in Curtius), that Alexander's conquests eventually debauched his character: he moves from being a great and noble commander into an "Oriental tyrant". Whatever the thoughts about his character, none can detract from his deeds - a hero to some, a monster to others.

The Loeb edition also includes Arrian's Indica, which is a narrative of Nearchus' voyage from India to Persia. This perhaps is more interesting as a historical document, and would have been even more so when Arrian wrote it, as much of that part of the world was a mystery to most Greeks.

I've enjoyed reading Arrian, perhaps more than I expected.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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