Saturday 14 January 2012

Problems of Interpretation

I’ve mentioned, probably many times before, issues that there are with historical sources. The sources we have from the ancient period (and that is what I’m going to talk about, even though the comments apply more widely) are scarce and, almost certainly, biased.

They also use conventions that we may not understand, and certainly have a relationship with the ‘truth’ (to use a tendentious word) which is not the same as modern historiography would allow.

I’ve been reading the Landmark Arrian, which is a very nice book, well produced, with handy maps, notes and pictures. As you probably know, Arrian chronicled the campaigns of Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as ‘the Great’. So far I’ve just about got beyond the Battle of Issus, but even at this relatively early stage, problems are becoming clear.

What sort of problems am I talking about? Well, there are problems of interpretation, and these are multi-layered.

For example: Why did Alexander invade Asia?

Arrian’s answer to this question is that Alexander invaded Asia to punish the Persian Empire for invading Greece. Now, Alexander was, of course, a politician, and he knew that such an answer would play well in Greece and the Greek cities of Asia Minor. Indeed, as he captured the Greek cities he generally granted them their freedom, although exactly what that meant is not clear. Mostly, he seems to have restored the Greek version of democracy to them, and ensured that they allied with Macedonia.
Now, Arrian details Alexander’s march from Greece (he had to capture Thebes before invading Asia) to the Hellespont. His list of cities and rivers crossed is a perfectly reasonable one, so far as anyone can tell. However, it is also notable that his route is the exact opposite of that detailed by Herodotus in his Histories, when he is describing the invasion of Greece by Xerxes.

What are we to make of this?

Clearly, Arrian is trying to make a point here about the invasion. Alexander’s claim to be avenging the invasion of Greece is made later in the book than the actual invasion itself. The itinerary, then, is actually making the same point in advance; foreshadowing, if you like, Alexander’s explicit argument for invasion.

What, then does this do to our interpretation of Arrian’s account of events? Do we believe that Alexander did take this route, or is it a literary trope? If Alexander did not take this route, how did he get from Thebes to the Hellespont? If he did, then did he do it consciously to make a political and diplomatic point, or was it just the best route available?

Now, as wargamers, this may not be a major problem to us, but it does affect how we view the reliability of our author. We have to recall that Arrian, although reliant of now lost sources written nearer the time, wrote in the second century AD. His sources were also probably biased, in favour of the Macedonians. So we are only getting at Alexander as an interpretation (Arrian’s) of an interpretation (his sources) of the events; and that assumes that the sources had clear accounts themselves.

The problem is if, for example, we take seriously the parallelism between Alexander’s invasion of Asia Minor and Xerxes’ of Greece, we land up with a sceptical position about a fair amount of what we read.

For example, if the first encounter of the Persians and Greeks was at Thermopylae, then what does that make of Arrians account of the action on the River Granicus? After all, Granicus was, simply a victory over local Persian forces, defending a river line. But these same forces had been able to ward off the Greeks in Asia Minor for a century or so.

I wouldn’t want to suggest that Granicus did not take place, nor that either Arrian or his sources are making stuff up, but the parallelism seems to me to be a bit suggestive that, perhaps, other work aside from his sources, informed Arrian’s account.

It does get a bit worse, too. Arrian, by his own account, is out to lionise Alexander. He thus presents him in a certain way, describing his abilities in battle (he is always at the front, the vital point) as well as his gracious diplomacy.
But took at a map of the manoeuvers before the Battle of Issus. Who let whom get across their lines of communication? Darius was not cut off from his base, while Alexander seems to have managed that, and not to have command of the sea at the same time. Who now looks like the better general?

Now, as everyone knows, the Macedonian led army won at Issus. It wouldn’t be the first or the last battle when the army in the worst strategic position has fought itself out of it. But the general acclaim of Alexander’s generalship does look a little flaky about here. He may well have been confident of the fighting abilities of his troops, but he probably should not have left them in such a dubious strategic position.

Now, Arrian tries to defend his hero by claiming that Darius should have stayed where he was, on a plain at Sochoi where he could use his numbers. This idea is presented to Darius, on Arrian’s account, by a renegade Greek, who Darius ignores, going with advice from his Persian advisors who Arrian is quite rude about (2.6.3-7).

I think we can see what could be going on here. Darius did not make a mistake but the blame is placed on non-Greeks and Darius himself by Arrian (who also suggests a god had a hand in it), while what actually seems to be the case is that the Macedonian – Greek army simply had to fight its way back along its line of communications. Arrian’s account of the battle also suggests cowardice on Darius’ part, by the way, as he was the first to flee.

This, then, leaves us with an account of Issus which has a slightly dubious relationship with the battle itself. But it is the account which we have to work with. Bother.

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