Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Campaigns of Alexander: Arrian’s prefaces and Books 4 & 5

I tried to keep both prefaces in mind when reading Arrian’s book because they frame everything that follows. Arrian defends his reliance on Ptolemy and Aristoboulos in the opening preface but the disagreement between their reports as well as discrepancies with additional sources stand out in this section. Arrian highlights these differences, lays out several reports and offers his belief on what happened in a Herodotean fashion. These differences question the veracity of the sources while dovetailing nicely with the claim Arrian made in the second preface (1.12.2-5)—Alexander did not have someone like a Homer or a Xenophon to record his great achievements until Arrian's account. Books 4 and 5 provides many examples in Arrian’s hagiography of Alexander such as praising his foresight, magnifying his achievements, and highlighting the minimal cost (to the Macedonians).

Not only does Arrian sound like Herodotus when explaining his reasoning on what happened but also during the digressions of these books. The first digression, 4.7 – 14, allows Arrian to appraise Alexander on a moral basis. With the murder of Kleitos, the experiment in Persian ceremony, and the murder of Kallisthenes, Alexander’s moral failings regarding temperance and moderation come to the foreground. Even when rebuking these actions Arrian sounds subdued, blaming Kleitos and Kallisthenes for being the main cause of their own deaths. The brief mention of Alexander’s behavior toward Darius’ wife, coming immediately after these murders, serves to reestablish Arrian’s reverential tone toward Alexander and highlight some of his good moral points. Book 5’s opening digression about the origins of Nysa by Dionysus accentuates myth building and Alexander’s willingness to see the works of “his ancestors” in his travels. Arrian uses the geographic discourse about India to expand the magnitude of Alexander’s accomplishments in terms of the amount of land conquered, number of rivers forded, and height of mountain ranges crossed.

While adding another contradiction about Alexander to examples I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, Alexander’s lack of moderation in personal matters, presented as a moral failing by Arrian, proves to be the trait Arrian believes makes Alexander great. His dream of unlimited expansion runs counter to his men’s desire to return home, though. As many other commenters have noted, Alexander’s trek was stopped not by foreign armies but by his own men and their lack of the same ambition as their leader. There are hints of abominable weather but Arrian simplifies the comparison between Alexander’s desires and those of his men.

I have highlighted some thematic and stylistic topics in this post at the expense of Alexander’s substantive acts such as his impressive military victories, the murders of Kleitos and Kallisthenes, or the remarkable speech at the Hyphasis River (all of which I hope to review). I mentioned some similarities with Herodotus in the digressions and manner of presenting conflicting report, but Arrian also echoes some of his language as well as that of Thucydides—hopefully I’ll have time soon to expand some of these observations into posts, too.

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