Sunday, May 15, 2011

Arrian: Book Two—Arrian

All quotes are from The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch.

I wanted to add a few words on a few things that stand out about Arrian so far in his book on Alexander. Even though Arrian writes about events occurring 400 years earlier and is reworking Ptolemy’s and Aristobulus’ accounts (for the most part, at least according to him), the addition of certain comments and stories add personality to the history. We can’t know the reasons for Arrian’s writing of this history beyond what he stipulates in his prefaces, but questions will continue to circulate on his motives—was some sort of imperial propaganda intended?

Occasionally Arrian will pause and provide background on a certain people, the history of a place, or tidbits he finds interesting. The monument of Sardanapalos at Anchiale is just one of those tidbits:
The monument of Sardanapalos stood near the city’s walls. Upon it stood Sardanapalos himself, his hands brought together as though to clap. An inscription was carved on it in Assyrian characters; the Assyrians said that the epitaph was a line of verse. The sense conveyed by the words was: “Sardanapalos son of Anakyndaraxes built Anchiale and Tarsus in a single day. Eat, drink, and be merry, friend, since all other human things are not worth this”—“this” meaning the sound of a hand-clap. The phrase translated as “be merry” was said to be more vulgar in the original. (2.5.3-4)

It’s the last sentence that makes the quote, and now I’ll never be able to keep a straight face when I hear the sanitized version. There are several such instances pointing out interesting things, although the digressions are on a minor scale compared to Herodotus. But it is just such detours that add warmth and interest for me. Sometimes the anecdotes masquerade as history while other digressions serve an important purpose in his history. Arrian’s discussion of the Herakles of Tyre versus the Greek Herakles may seem pedantic or arcane but I found it important for what followed, not the least of which was Alexander made it clear he wanted to sacrifice to the Tyrian god.

Following the examples of previous historians, Arrian uses speeches to advance the narrative and provide motives/detail/themes/etc. I had mentioned in a post on Book One that there were few speeches in that book but Arrian makes use of them in Book Two, both as direct quotes and paraphrasing what was said. The speech he gives to Alexander before the battle of Issus is a stirring call to arms for the Macedonians and Greeks, with plenty of allusions to themes found in Herodotus. The letters between Alexander and Darius add a nice touch, even if they are suspect. The use of such literary devices or rhetorical techniques doesn’t make the events any less likely to have happened, at least in general, but it does make it difficult to separate the historical facts from the literary aspects.

I haven’t mentioned Xenophon, the writer Arrian must have appreciated above all since he added the writer’s name to his own. That’s because I have only read one work by Xenophon and that was quite a while back so I don’t feel comfortable comparing the two (although I hope to correct my lack of Xenophon soon). I remember some advice I was given when reading Xenophon—pay as much attention to what he doesn’t say as to what he includes. In at least one instance so far with Arrian that proves to be true as well. As I mentioned in the post on the siege of Tyre, Quintus Curtius and Diodorus mention the crucifixion of surviving Tyrian military-age men yet Arrian does not address this claim. We don’t know if Ptolemy and Aristoboulos, Arrian’s trusted sources, mention the atrocity. Probably not since Arrian could not know with certainty that the earlier works would not survive, but that’s just speculation. As Paul Cartledge put it in the introduction of The Landmark Arrian, “in the realm of military ethics, Arrian is determined to portray Alexander as restrained and humane rather than brutal and bloodthirsty, at least in the first half of his narrative.” Obviously we can’t fully understand why Arrian took this approach, but I can’t help but think of Xenophon’s advice at the end of Book Five of his Anabasis (translation by Rex Warner): “Yet it is an honourable thing, and a just and upright thing, and more pleasant too to remember what is good rather than what is bad.” At some point, though, the bad things about Alexander cannot be hidden.

Arrian occasionally slips from behind the page, adding wry or pointed comments in his history. One example, which conveniently supports the “Persian = soft” theme, comes after the battle of Issus and Alexander’s troops capture the “trappings of luxury that accompany the Great King even on campaign”. Arrian throws in some psychological explanations of events. Twice he has explained events with the analysis that people see what they want to see. The first occurrence was in Thebes, where the rumor of Alexander’s death (because he had been away a long time) led to the town’s revolt from Alexander. “The result was just what usually happens under such circumstances: in the absence of accurate information, people formed conjectures in keeping with their wishes.” (1.7.3) A second incident led Darius to leave his superior position at Sochoi, which ended with the decisive defeat at Issus. In Darius’ case, the advice he received to abandon Sochoi gave him “more pleasure at the moment.” (2.6.3-7) Contrast this to Alexander’s well laid-out plans at 2.17.1-4 and you can see some of the differences Arrian wants to highlight.

There are some touches that Arrian adds that I can find no other way to describe than part Herodotean and part cheerleader.

Though I have recorded these incidents, I do not claim that they are either authentic or entirely implausible. But if they did take place, I commend Alexander for the compassion he showed the women and for the trust and respect he showed his friend. And if the chroniclers of his career think it credible that Alexander would have acted and spoken in this way, I commend Alexander on that score as well. (2.12.8)

Putting aside the sexual restraint allusion, this reminds me of Herodotus’ approach of presenting several versions of a story (or noting there are several versions but declining to go into detail). My favorite non-inclusion, though, comes after the athletic games marking the fall of Tyre: Alexander “dedicated the Tyrian ship sacred to Herakles, which he had seized in the naval attack, and affixed an inscription on it, composed by either himself or another, that is not worth recording (which is why I have not taken the trouble to record it).” (2.24.6) I guess it’s nice to know that Arrian didn’t consider Alexander wholly infallible at this stage in his campaign…

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