Posted: March 23, 2006
ublishing books about Alexander the Great is an industry that shows no signs of diminishing. These three books make diverse contributions to the huge library of modern works about Alexander, but each, in different ways, illustrates how challenging it is to make judgments about "great men" which will stand the test of time.
Claude Mossé, emerita professor at the University of Paris, VIII, spends three of the five sections of Alexander: Destiny and Myth (originally published in French in 2001) sketching Alexander's career and personality, but she is much more interested in exploring the "myth of Alexander." She writes:
[I]t seems that nowadays any idea of a comprehensive interpretation of this figure has been rejected [by historians]…. They refrain from passing value judgments on the man, and try instead to weigh up the consequences of his brief reign, in particular with regard to the evolution of the concept of royalty and the creation of a new form of monarchy in the states that emerged from Alexander's conquest…. However, if historians have given up attempting to fathom Alexander's real intentions or judging the man's qualities, novelists have stepped in to replace them.
Mossé's study then turns from history to the novels written about Alexander. For her, "the essential question remains: did Alexander really change the course of history?" The answer is diffuse. Alexander's reign introduced a new form of political power into the eastern Mediterranean—personal monarchy—and it set in motion "cultural syncretisms which are impossible to ignore and without which it would be hard to understand the ideological and religious ferment of the end of the first millennium A.D." Yet what Mossé desires, finally, is "a new approach to history, one that takes the imaginary into account, along with its place in the evolution of societies." She does not offer specifics on how imaginary history might be carried out.
Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, is well known for his scholarship on ancient Sparta. He writes his wide-ranging book for general readers as well as scholars; it offers comprehensive treatment of Alexander's life, conquests, personality, and legacy. Cartledge expertly explains how hard it is to determine what we really know about Alexander: none of the surviving sources is remotely contemporary, and they frequently disagree. For example, we have five different versions of how Callisthenes died—Callisthenes, the official historian of Alexander! Cartledge's appendix, "Sources of Paradox," explains the source problems, and, as he suggests in his preface, readers might well start by reading this first.
The interpretative theme of Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past is Alexander's devotion to hunting, which Cartledge calls the most important of the "keys to unlocking the enigma that was Alexander." As unlocked in his chapter on "Alexander the Man," the riddle reveals an obsessively violent Alexander:
From all the evidence a consistent picture emerges of an Alexander passionately attached, almost addicted, to the thrills and spills of the chase. Butchering wild animals was by no means irrelevant to the career of a man moved on more than one occasion to treat "untamed" human enemies, such as the Cossaeans in 324/3, with unrestrained savagery.
Since this "consistent picture" implies a deeply negative judgment on Alexander, it seems inconsistent with Cartledge's conclusion in this same chapter. He says that his own view of Alexander "falls somewhere between" negative and positive and "takes account of Lord Acton's dictum that 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'" Praising Mossé's "finely balanced judgment" in her own book, he quotes from her chapters on "Alexander the Man":
'He was no doubt neither the political and military genius that some have described nor the sage who derived total self-control from Aristotle's teaching. Nor was he the drunkard incapable of mastering his temper, nor the 'savage' barbarian who razed Thebes and burned down Persepolis. He was a man of his times....'
Cartledge concurs, then, with Mossé's view that we should in the end "judge Alexander by his achievements and by the evolution of the empire that he conquered in just over one decade.
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It is confusing to see a judgment based largely on what Alexander was not, especially when its "balance" is at odds with its criticism of his "unrestrained savagery." The explicit connection Cartledge establishes between his Alexander and Mossé's, however, leads me to the book's most puzzling aspect: his response to the now much-discussed question of Alexander's sexuality. In his foreword to Mossé's book, Cartledge raises this issue in the context of the two novels about Alexander that Mossé tackles, one by Klaus Mann from 1929 and one by Valerio Massimo Manfredi from the late 1990s. Cartledge expresses astonishment that in his recent novel Manfredi
really did overlook or omit to mention any kind of sexual activity by Alexander other than heterosexual encounters with physically mature females. But, as Mossé clearly implies, it beggars the imagination to suppose that in reality Alexander never had sex with anyone of his own gender, or with an immature male, and on [Klaus] Mann's part, as she states, 'the choice of a particular kind of sexuality is definitely made'—his [novelistic] Alexander is a preferred homosexual. Strangely, and in a way sadly, it is the straight Manfredi version, not the countercultural Mann version, that is coming very slowly towards a cinema screen near you, courtesy of Dino de Laurentis and Baz Luhrmann. Those with fond memories of Hollywood's homosexually inclined 'beefcake' movies of the 1950s—when the last major movie of Alexander was made [Cartledge wrote these remarks in 2003, before the release of Oliver Stone's Alexander in 2004]—are in for a bitter disappointment.
To tell the truth, I can't figure out why it is strange or sad that de Laurentis and Luhrmann are not making a homosexually inclined beefcake movie about Alexander. More importantly, I can't understand the claim about what Mossé "clearly implies." Nowhere does she even hint that Alexander had a homoerotic relationship with his close friend Hephaestion, nor does she discuss the eunuch Bagoas (concerning both of whom, more shortly). In fact, she discusses homosexuality at all only in her section on Mann's novel. Like the ancient sources, Mossé evidently did not think that defining Alexander's sexuality was a task worth much attention—as opposed to explaining what his sex life might reveal about the state of his self-control, a question they thought very significant.
My best guess is that Cartledge's puzzling remarks about Alexander and homosexuality are related to the distinctly modern, indeed, hip tone of his book, which he explains is "distantly based" on his lectures for undergraduates in Britain. Consider, for example, the quotation (from Tom Holt's novel about Alexander) with which Cartledge chooses to open his chapter on Alexander's conquest of Persia: "'As is tolerably well known by now, Alexander had no sex-life whatsoever and my theory is that he got his fun doing to countries what normal people do to women, cities being the tangible outcome.'" Since Cartledge elsewhere explains to readers that Holt's novel is "comic and absurdistâ€¦even trivializing," what are they supposed to make of Holt's mocking implication that "normal," i.e., heterosexual, relations amount to promiscuity or even rape?
The situation becomes murkier still with Cartledge's conclusion that "almost certainly" Alexander and "the slightly older Hephaestion" had a sexual relationship, at least during the pair's adolescence and perhaps even early adulthood. He insists, "Efforts to expunge all trace, or taint, of homosexuality from their relationship are in any case seriously misguided." He justifies this conclusion, first, by comparing it to the relationship between the close friends Achilles and Patroclus of Trojan War fame—even though, as he says, Homer does not make them lovers, and the first claim that they had sex comes 300 years after Homer, in Greek tragedy (which made a business of reworking Homer's stories). Given Cartledge's emphasis on being sensitive to the nature of sources, it seems odd to prefer the much later tradition about Achilles and Patroclus.
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Cartledge's second justification for believing that "the love between [Alexander and Hephaestion] was physically expressed" is potentially more confusing:
The point is that in classical Greece homoeroticism among males during adolescence was considered perfectly compatible with an actively heterosexual adult lifestyle later on. Nor was there any stigma of a religious or other nature attaching to homosexuality in itself: what mattered was how it was expressed, with whom, and in what contexts.
This is correct, but perhaps more should be said, especially given the modern preoccupation with Alexander's sexuality (as in the furor that erupted, most notably in Greece, over his depiction in Oliver Stone's movie). For one thing, there was no consensus about the legitimacy of male homoeroticism in classical Greece—some city-states accepted it, and some did not. The best evidence I know for its ambiguous evaluation in Greek society is Xenophon's explicit denial, against the other evidence, that close friendship between Spartan men ever included sex. Furthermore, the homoeroticism that was acceptable in some places was, as Cartledge says, governed by strict rules of propriety. To be acceptable, sex between men could take place only between an older male (the "lover," in the Greek terminology for this kind of relationship) and a younger, adolescent male (the "beloved"). Sex between men of roughly the same age did not meet this standard of acceptability. For this reason, an actively sexual relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion would not have been acceptable by Greek standards of the times. Cartledge's conclusion about Alexander's relationship with his closest friend therefore does not fit with his judgment, echoed from Mossé, that Alexander was "a man of his times."
None of this is to deny that there is ancient evidence that Alexander had homoerotic relations with an adolescent male. The evidence, however, concerns not Hephaestion but rather the young eunuch Bagoas, whom Alexander was given as a gift (i.e., as a slave). Plutarch calls Bagoas Alexander's "beloved," probably based on a story from Dicaearchus, a contemporary source now lost. The novelist Mary Renault made Bagoas a central figure in one of her novels about Alexander, but this slave eunuch is remarkably little discussed in Cartledge's book (as in most modern books on Alexander), compared to the emphasis on Hephaestion. I can't help wondering if this imbalance doesn't reflect the modern sensibility that would regard homoerotic sex between Alexander and Hephaestion as acceptable because it would have involved free and consenting individuals of more or less the same social standing. Sex between Alexander and Bagoas, by contrast, wouldn't meet modern criteria of acceptability because it would have been perpetrated by a slave owner on a youth, mutilated to preserve his adolescent attractiveness, and who, like other slaves, had no choice whether to consent to sex with his master.
This distorting of Alexander's sex life—foregrounding an unattested homoerotic relationship with Hephaestion instead of an attested relationship with Bagoas—reveals how modern social preoccupations can interfere with the search for historical truth. It's worth pointing out, as none of these books do, that the ancient sources don't criticize Alexander for having sex with Bagoas. What they criticize Alexander for is his indulging Bagoas by being violently cruel to people whom his "favorite" disliked. This failing they see as part of the evidence for Alexander's falling away from the high standards of self-discipline that they attribute to the king before he became corrupted by his accumulation of power and wealth.
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In the end, then, judging Alexander—which inevitably means making a moral evaluation—is so difficult not just because the surviving sources are late and contradictory, but also because ancient and modern criteria for moral judgment can be so different at important junctures. Where these criteria overlap—more often in the evaluation of personality traits, such as self-control, than in political or social matters, such as conquest or imperial rule—is where we should perhaps look most closely for some common understanding of Alexander's "greatness." A thoughtful definition of those points of intersection ought to be the first requirement of any book judging Alexander.
Laura Foreman, a prolific author and reporter, tries to provide something like that in her Alexander the Conqueror: The Epic Story of the Warrior King. As she well says, "Many have failed to navigate the pitfall of judging [Alexander] by the moral standards prevalent in their time, not his." She accordingly enumerates actions of Alexander that many moderns would decry but that most ancients admired. Nevertheless, her overall evaluation of him is decidedly unfavorable, reflecting the most recent trend in Alexander scholarship. She also so readily accepts the modern assumption that Alexander and Hephaestion were lovers that she can remark, "the sexual aspect of their bond was almost incidental to the profound emotional tie that for both was lifelong." As for Bagoas, her only comment strikes an exceptionally modern tone, referring to his relationship with Alexander as an "affair," one that, she adds, did not alter Alexander's relationship with Hephaestion. Her ultimate judgment on Alexander couldn't be more contemporary: "His career proclaimed his essential nature as that of a destroyer, not a creator; in fact, the capacity for destruction was his unique genius."
In the end, then, Foreman chooses to leap into the very pitfall that she so astutely warns against, but all the same her book is marvelously (and literally) attractive. Beautiful color photographs enhance every page, showing landscapes, archaeological finds, and book illustrations that illuminate Alexander's career and the many myths that grew from it in later ages. In their vast range of subject and chronology, the pictures in this "coffee table" book do as much as any scholarly argument to help readers grasp the full scope of Alexander's greatness, whether in terms of the vast territories that he conquered, or the inexhaustible treasure house of stories about him—stories generated as myths in antiquity and the middle ages, and as scholarly and non-scholarly books today.