Saturday, 5 November 2016

Alexander the What?

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.


  1. Can he be both?
    Alexander the Great general
    Alexander the Mediocre empire builder
    And also maybe
    Alexander the Useless potter
    Alexander the Great historical subject

  2. It really does depend on your frame, doesn't it? A narrow frame focused only on the battles might see him as a great tactician, although even there I have read snippets suggesting that he was more lucky than great. A broader frame looking at his empire building makes it easier to construe him as really not so great after all because it all fell apart after his death. To add some context to the debate and to provide a suitable framework for judging him, it might be worth considering when and where he acquired the epithet 'Great'. Who gave it to him? And for what? From this you can decide whether he is worthy of the title. From what you write, neither Hammond nor Grainger have considered this, and I think it is particularly relevant for judging him.

    1. I've no idea who invented 'the great'. But if you say 'Alexander III of Macedon' no-one knows who you are talking about. I'll see if it says anywhere, but my suspicion is that, probably Alexander invented it himself...

      As to the frame, exactly. But even within the frame of his reign alone, the evidence is not all 'great' - the near fiasco at Issus being a distinct point against wonderful generalship. But hero-worship is very forgiving.

    2. I did a bit of looking around. He appears to have acquired the epithet 'Great' some years after his death, and it appears to have been because he never lost a battle. The earliest reference appears to be Plautus. If this is right, then examining his reputation outwith his generalship/luck is probably not a useful frame for determining if the epithet is accurate. After all, as Ben wrote earlier, he was probably Alexander the Useless Potter too.

    3. Thank you, useful. I, of course, am also a useless potter, so can I be great? After all, as a solo wargamer, I never loose a battle either...

      I doubt if we can lose the great bit, but I do think that a bit more of a critical eye should be cast over the reputation. 'Great' for whom? The ordinary Persian on the Sardis chariot? The slaughtered Greek mercenaries at Granicus? The inhabitants of Tyre?

      Of course, the reputation depends on your 'frame'. If your criterion for great is conquering the known world, then Alexander deserves it. If your criterion is creating a long lasting dynastic empire, he doesn't.

      The chronicles, presumably those the Plautus knew about, had a given focus - thus he was great. reading against the grain of that historiography asks the questions about what greatness means, but can't, ultimately, answer them, I suspect.

    4. Yes, understanding the context for the epithet gives you a position from which to examine it, and then to consider other aspects of his reputation.

  3. Issos didn't turn out too badly in the end, and that's what counts. People love to cut great reputations down to a more manageable size, but his achievements still inspire awe in me.

    1. Well, usually, cutting reputations down to size occurs when they've got a bit inflated. From a military and tactical point of view, Alexander was good. Strategically, Issus is a bit iffy, at least. In terms of more or less everything else, he did fail, and probably left the world a worse place than he found it. The problem with history, of course, is that we can never re-run the world to see what would have happened otherwise.

  4. I think that he has to have been a great leader. Looking at a map showing the distance that he covered with his army is very awe inspiring.
    Getting an army ladened with 20 foot pikes to walk that far and fight and win many battles is a pretty amazing effort and I think just for this earns his place in history.
    The fact that they eventually said "no more" should not take away from his going as far as he did.

    He must have been an inspiring leader.

    1. I'm not disputing any of this, except, perhaps, that the pikemen didn't carry their pikes all the way, but I do suspect that the reasons the Macedonians followed Alexander were not, particularly, because they found him inspiring, but because he was the king.

      It is a thing about frames again: we don't know the mindset and worldview of a Macedonian pikeman. Calling Alexander inspiring (or rubbish) is, at least in part, framing him in modern terms of leadership. Given what I have seen of modern leadership initiatives, that does not fill me with confidence...

    2. Very true. It is easy to look at the past with modern eyes.

  5. I suppose it depends on your frame of reference. In the 'West' he is generally thought of as the Great and the educated talk of his merging of Greek and Persian culture. As I understand it, in modern 'Persian' culture (Iran and the wider Farsi sphere) there are folk tales of the evil Iskander and what he might do to naughty children (much like the Austrian Santa Claus).

    1. I suppose that, from the Greek perspective and the heirs to that - Romans and successor western states, he is Great, having spread Hellenistic ideas across the Persian world. On the other hand, the Greeks kept rebelling against his rule.

      Funny thing, history. The more you look at it, the more complex it gets.

  6. Oh, and how many other 'the Greats' deserved the epithet? Apart from Alec, what about Frederick? Catherine? Alfred? And outside England (and the Anglophone world?), is Alfred known as the Great? And how come Napoleon isn't?

    I can't think of any Fritzian legacies that last to our current day (as achievements). Catherine's territorial legacy has largely gone (though is seeing a resurgence under Uncle Vlad). Apart from that she left a nice gallery in St Pete's. Alf seems to have done a lot of good with the written word, but beyond England does that amount to much? That probably just leaves Peter.

    Within narrow frames of reference they all do deserve it to an extent. But still?

    1. Don't forget Cnut the Great, the other king of the English who had that epithet. :)

      Charlemagne (Carolus magnus) too.

      Greatness will always be limited in one way or another. Alfred's work had a lasting effect in England, yet some students have not even heard of him these days. Cnut's regime also affected the shape of England today, although he was not taught as 'Great' when I were a lad. If we insist on a global context though, I'm not sure anyone counts as 'Great'.

    2. Interesting, yes. The most I know from school about Cnut was the thing about the waves.

      'Greatness' seems to be relative to the country, and seems usually to be retrospective. It also seems to attach only to leaders; we rarely get great attached to, say, prime ministers.

    3. Agreed, it's relative to the country and it's a retrospective judgement. If one were inclined, there might be some mileage in checking how and why these leaders gained the epithet, who assigned it, and what those people gained from doing so.

      Cnut's an interesting bod. It's his fault that London is the capital of England, and there are various institutions that result from his reforms and laws. He ruled a mini-empire that included Norway, Denmark, England, the Faroes, Shetland and Orkney. Unfortunately, it all fell apart after his death. I sense a pattern here ...

    4. Didn't Cnut's empire fall apart because of an oversupply of heirs who didn't agree?

      Perhaps all empires which are 'personal' are destined to fail, one way or another. Which makes Charles V's decision to split the Hapsburg empire between Spain and Austria look more sensible. after all, most of the territories were only held because he happened to be someone's son.

    5. Yes, pretty much too many heirs. It's a common story in Scandinavian kingships; the heirs either slaughter each other or things fall apart. There were also external forces at work that made things worse.

      You could be right about the personal aspect. The empire needs something more than one charismatic leader to endure. I sometimes think that it is the bureaucracies that really hold empires together.

    6. Isn't that the case with any warrior kingdom? Back full circle to Macedon again.

      I forgot about Charlemagne. Lasting legacy = France? If so, that's a reasonable claim to 'greatness'.

    7. I think Macedon was a kingdom that needed a king to make it work, in the sense that everyone else was just a power hungry noble.

      As for Charlemagne, didn't he split the kingdom on his death?

    8. It was Charlemagne's son Louis that split the kingdom. Charlemagne's lasting legacy is probably the modern boundaries of France and Germany, and a lot of medieval literature about his knights.