Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Campaigns of Alexander, Book Seven: For the benefit of mankind

Though I have myself had occasion to find fault with some of Alexander’s deeds in the course of my history of them, I am not ashamed to admire Alexander himself. If I have condemned certain acts of his, I did so out of my own regard for truth and also for the benefit of mankind. That, after all, was my purpose in embarking on this history, and I, too, have been favored with help from god.

- 7.30.3, The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, translation by Pamela Mensch

I mentioned in the opening post for Book Seven that Arrian inserted himself quite liberally in Book Seven and I thought I should give some examples. I have focused on Arrian’s “appearance” in some earlier posts, especially in his two prologues and how they influence Arrian’s presentation in Books Four and Five. Another example was calling attention to himself in Book Two (not to slight the other Books where he does this, too).

The opening paragraphs of Book Seven prove to be some of Arrian’s most confused writing, where he alternates between Alexander’s ambition and “a better way of thinking” from Indian sages. The sages promote contentment with what one has instead of longing for more, obviously not Alexander’s strong suit. Arrian seems to believe Alexander would have been better off if he had followed the Indian sages’ advice, yet Arrian also admires all he accomplished. As footnote 7.2.2a points out, Arrian tries to have it both ways in these paragraphs, following contemporaneous writings that explored “the contrast between eastern quietism and western imperialism”.

I will skip the premonitions, prophecies, and foreshadowing of Alexander’s death even though they provide plenty of opportunity for Arrian to step from behind the page. Arrian’s assessments on Alexander’s life and death are some of Arrian’s most forward passages. During comments on the oracles of Bel, Arrian opines

And perhaps it was better for him to depart at the high point of his fame and of the world’s longing for him, before any of the calamities of man’s lot befell him—the kind of calamities that, in all likelihood, prompted Solon to advise Croesus to look to the end of a long life and not to declare any human being happy until then.

"Perhaps" allows a lot of leeway in judging this quote. Not to mention Arrian had hindsight of seeing the empire disintegrate after Alexander’s death, seeing the calamities that befell many of his inner circle.

Arrian saves some of his most scathing comments for Kleomenes, satrap of Egypt. Calling the official “a despicable man” and “a villain”, Arrain doesn’t hold back on his judgment (7.23.6, 8), which proves to be humorous since these comments come during Arrian’s judgment on Alexander’s overwrought behavior following Hephaistion’s death. Pointing out the waste of time and effort on trivial matters to honor Hephaistion, Arrian also deplores Alexander’s leniency to Kleomenes.

Arrian sums up his subject at the end of Book Seven by assessing Alexander’s character. Arrian begins by praising Alexander’s for his body (including his self-control!), his mind, and his military genius. Given his admiration it's not surprising Arrian finds Alexander’s actions mostly honorable as was his concern for benefiting others. Arrian pauses to look at some of the criticisms leveled at Alexander, starting with the excesses of action, claims to divine parentage, and his blending of Macedonian and Persian customs and troops. Arrian views these as methods to either reinforce his authority or inspire his men. I quoted the first part of the final chapter in the previous post, where Arrian warns average men to refrain from judging someone superior. Arrian closes with the opening quote of this post, but I want to note previous section since Arrian believes Alexander may have had some divine component:

I suppose there was no race of men, no city at that time, no single person whom Alexander’s name did not reach. I therefore assume that a man unlike any other in the world would not have been born without the intervention of the gods. Oracles are said to have indicated this at Alexander’s death, as did various apparitions that were seen and dreams that were dreamt, the honor in which Alexander has to this day been helf by mankind, and the memory of him, which surpasses the merely human. (from 7.30.2)

There’s another way Arrian inserts himself in the text, or rather he inserts Roman reputation and influence in Alexander’s empire. Arrian speculates on Alexander’s travels had he remained alive, exploring the claim that “he was already unsettled by the Romans’ growing renown.” (7.1.3) Later in the Book, Arrian quotes other writers saying the Romans sent an embassy to Alexander while on his way to Babylon and he “spoke prophetically about the Romans’ future power, as he had observed that their people were orderly, hardworking, and free, and he had also learned about their constitution.” (7.15.5) Although Arrian believes the embassy from Rome unlikely he still includes the story in his narrative.

Despite pointing out disapproval for occasional acts of Alexander, Arrian remains an enthusiastic admirer of the ruler. His delivers his criticism with a light hand, usually providing excuses or putting a positive spin on events. Arrian makes clear in the last chapters that there were things to reproach about Alexander but that his success in so many other areas outweighs the negatives. I think Arrian has no doubt he succeeded in his implied claim in the second prologue that he has provided a worthy publication of Alexander’s epic exploits.

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