I have by my side two books, both of them interesting in their own way, but between them I think they augment the point I was trying to make last time about the framing we do when we do history. Indeed, there was no post last week because I was trying to finish the second book, as I had already had this as an idea.
The first of the books I want to discuss is ‘The Genius of Alexander the Great, by Nicholas Hammond (1997, London: Duckworth). Hammond was a well known classical scholar, and did an awful lot of work of Greece and Macedon during the classical age. The thesis of the book is well summed up in the title: Alexander was not just the Great, but he was a genius. His logistics were first rate, for example. His military acumen was second to none. He set out to, and achieved, conquest of the known world and, if others had not go cold feet, he would have conquered the rest of it as well. Indeed, had an early death not overcome him, he would have got as far as the Gates of Hercules within another campaigning season or so.
In this, of course, Hammond has to explain a few bits of history away. For example, Darius got between Alexander’s army and his base just before Issus, which does not seem to be the mark of a particularly great leader. We all have bad days at the office, granted, but Alexander had to rely on his army to fight their way out of the predicament. Similarly, the debacle in leading part of the army across the desert has to be explained, especially in the light of the excellent logistical mind that Hammond credits Alexander with.
There are a few other anomalies that have to be smoothed over, as well, such as drunkenness and murder, but on the whole, Hammond’s alexander is a rather likeable chap, at least in terms of despots of the era, who could do a nice turn is cross-cultural relations and with whom you could have a drink (or seventeen).
The other book is Alexander the Great Failure, by John D Grainger (2007, Continuum: London). I do not think that Grainger is a classicist, but a more general historian. In fact I recall reading one of his previous books, Cromwell Against the Scots, which finished with an appeal for England and Scotland to remain united, on the basis that when they fell out, mayhem and military government ensued.
Grainger’s point is that alexander did nothing to fix any of the problems he inherited from his father, including the personal nature of the Macedonian monarchy. This caused problems in Macedonia when the king was absent, as Alexander was for most of the time. He also failed to fix the heir, by, despite being urged to before invading Asia, not marrying and begetting a son. In the end, he did gain an heir, but that heir was posthumous and got murdered before any significant activity too place.
Aside from that, Grainger rather grudgingly admits that Alexander was a good commander, although he points out that Macedonian progress in Asia would have been harder if Darius III had been more secure on the throne, and the Egyptians had been less restive. The biggest charge against Alexander that is laid is that he failed to sort any administration out for the conquered areas. They were left to Macedonians he appointed, or, more frequently, the already existing satraps were left in post. They quite frequently revolted.
Grainger’s evidence for Alexander’s failure comes from pushing beyond his death in the historical record. The collapse of Alexander’s empire was not, according to Grainger, inevitable, even on Alexander’s early death. Several of the successors had a good go at conquering the empire and holding it, but all failed. If Alexander had had a viable, teenage heir, then the empire might have held together. But he did not, and it fell apart as the successors lost trust in each other, and grabbed what they could hold.
The upshot of this is that the empire collapsed. The eastern satraps became independent, or were reconquered by the resurgent Indian states. Macedonia was exhausted and failed to defend itself from the Galatian invasion, and the successor states slugged it out to mutual exhaustion and, in doing so, permitted power to arise further west, in the shape of Rome, which eventually conquered the whole lot.
The interesting thing about these two accounts is that, whichever one you might like, they are both based on the same set of historical data. There are no new facts, no astounding discoveries in either volume. Both base their account of the reign of Alexander and beyond on the existing historical record. So far as I can tell, neither author has bent that record out of shape to accommodate their views.
We have, then, what we can call a ‘maximal’ and a ‘minimal’ view of Alexander. Maximally, with Hammond, we can call him a genius. Minimally, with Grainger, we can call him a disaster. Either view is acceptably academic: it is based on reasonable interpretations of the sources. Both authors admit that there is a lot we will never know about Alexander and his forebears and successors.
So we have here two historical frames, one in which Alexander is the Great, and one in which he is a failure. Which do we choose? Do we have to choose?
In fact, I don’t think that the two pictures are incompatible. Grainger admits that Alexander was a good general. Hammond does not really discuss administration. But somewhere in these (perhaps rather extreme) views of Alexander there might be considered to be some ‘truth’, whatever that might be. As historical wargamers, are we committed to a framework of history for the specific periods we game in?
We could wonder if this mattered, but I think it does, even at the level of whether Alexander gets +3 on his command dice for being a genius, or being at -1 for being a drunkard. Somehow, we have to make a judgment.