Friday, April 29, 2011

Arrian: Book One—I am the greatest, at least by association

Arrian takes pride in his work, most notably in the two prologues in Book One. In these passages he directly addresses the reader, stressing the greatness of his subject and, by association as his chronicler, of himself. I think it’s worth taking a minute to look at Arrian’s claims in these prefaces or prologues. The second prologue deserves additional scrutiny because of its placement, comparisons, and claims. All quotes are from The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch.

In the first prologue (often labeled the Preface), Arrian defends his use of Ptolemy and Aristoboulos as his main sources because they both served under Alexander (they were there), both wrote after Alexander died (nothing to gain or lose by telling the truth), and Ptolemy would, as king, would “have been more disgraceful to speak falsely”. The last point makes Arrian appear somewhat credulous, to say the least, but I’m sure it scored some nice points with the emperor in the obvious bow to authority. Arrian has included additional material when they seemed “worth relating and not wholly implausible”. When Ptolemy and Aristoboulos disagree on their accounts, Arrian again goes with the more plausible account.

The first preface ends with Arrian’s charge to any reader surprised at his writing this history of Alexander: “Any readers who are surprised that it would have occurred to me to write this history, after so many others have written theirs, should read the other accounts and then mine—and then let them say they’re surprised.” The first prologue sets the initial tone of the work, but it pales in comparison to the claims of the second prologue at 1.12.2-5. At this point in the narrative Alexander has just crossed the Hellespont, visited the remains of Troy, and laid a wreath on the tomb of Achilles. The symbolism piles up as Arrian reintroduces his work. Arrian claims Alexander had one unfortunate trait—the lack of a worthy history. Achilles had Homer. Is Arrian implying that he’s the equivalent of Homer? I wouldn’t be surprised given his attitude in the rest of this passage. Alexander’s “exploits were not published to mankind in a worthy manner either in prose or in verse. Nor were his praises sung in lyric poetry… .” And Arrian thinks he is just the guy to do it—as he implies, a great figure deserves a great writer.

Arrian takes several shots at Xenophon, providing pointed contrasts between Alexander’s and Xenophon’s accomplishments. While Arrian revered Xenophon since he added the historian's name to his own, apparently the appreciation resided mostly in Xenophon’s writing ability and not his military achievements. Or maybe just when compared to Alexander. There may be (a no longer false) modesty from Arrian in this history regarding a) his distance from the subject (compared to Xenophon who wrote his own history in the Anabasis), and b) his willingness to go unnamed in the work. Arrian claims “these chronicles are my country and my family and my offices, and have been from my youth.” Since Alexander held the “foremost place among warriors”, then Arrian should hold “a foremost place among Greek writers”. Many comments spring to mind from these prefaces, but I’ll limit myself to one point.

Arrian makes it clear in the first preface there were many histories of Alexander’s exploits to choose from when compiling a history. The second preface, though, complains of the void in adequately relaying his deeds in a “worthy manner either in prose or in verse.” I think it worth looking at these two claims. Several options can explain the void despite numerous histories but I keep coming back to two reasons. If Arrian meant there were not many great writers from Alexander’s time down to the second century CE that addressed Alexander's life then Arrian engages in self-promotion consistent with his claims in the prefaces, especially in the second one. Alexander's accomplishments cannot be denied, as Arrian declares, but there may be a tacit admission regarding conflicting views of Alexander. I’m not referring to the conflicting histories Arrian mentions—paring down to just the basic facts provides a somewhat consistent narrative. Where the historian places the emphasis in those facts can make all the difference. I’m looking forward to see how Arrian handles the many facets of Alexander.

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