Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Keyne Cheshire, Alexander the Great. Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 189. ISBN 9780521707091. (pb).
Reviewed by Charles E. Muntz, University of Arkansas

[Table of contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The present volume by Keyne Cheshire belongs to Cambridge University Press's "Greece and Rome: Text and Contexts" series, which aims not only to provide students with another series of sourcebooks but also to stimulate students to think for themselves about the issues involved. The series is aimed at both advanced high school students and undergraduates. Cheshire's volume on Alexander the Great consists of an introduction, six chapters containing excerpts from Plutarch and Arrian covering the whole of Alexander's life and career, a list of ancient sources, and a brief annotated bibliography.

The introduction begins with an example of the enduring fascination the Macedonians still hold for us today: the controversy stirred up in modern Greece by the formation of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. From there Cheshire gives a clear and concise account of the relations between the ancient Greeks and Macedonians from the fifth century through the reign of Philip II (359-336 BC). He then gives a basic overview of Plutarch and Arrian, the two sources for Alexander excerpted in the rest of the book. Cheshire explains that Plutarch and Alexander were chosen because they complement each other well, one being a biography, the other a narrative history. Furthermore, Plutarch's and Arrian's statements on their aims and methodology help students follow how these authors are shaping their accounts. It is somewhat disappointing that Cheshire did not go into more detail on the source problems for Alexander -- he does not even mention the other extant sources, but directs the reader to an appendix. A number of these other sources are mentioned in the body of the book, either in the excerpts from Plutarch and Arrian themselves or the notes on them, and it would have been better for Cheshire to lay out some of the basics about how they are related and the problems with them from the beginning.

The texts themselves are divided into six chapters, and are arranged so as to form a continuous chronological narrative of Alexander's life rather than as a set of excerpts on different topics. Cheshire gives lengthy excerpts from both authors (although never on the same topic), which allows the reader to get a better sense of the style and concerns of both Arrian and Plutarch than possible from shorter bits of text. The first chapter on Alexander's youth is drawn almost entirely from the opening of Plutarch (Arrian does not cover it). Arrian's preface and an inscription relating to the League of Corinth (IG II2 236a) are also included in the first chapter. The second chapter examines the initial invasion and the battle of the Granicus, drawing mainly on Arrian but switching over to Plutarch for the Gordian knot and Alexander's illness at Cydnus.

The third chapter discusses the Battle of the Issus and the expedition into Egypt. Arrian is the main text for the battles themselves, while Plutarch is excerpted to illuminate the attitudes of Alexander and the Macedonians to the more decadent aspects of life, for the siege of Tyre, and for the journey to Siwah. The fourth chapter begins with Darius' letter to Alexander, as reported by Plutarch, and shifts over to Arrian for the Battle of Gaugamela. Plutarch is the source for the destruction of Persepolis, and the chapter concludes with Arrian's account of the pursuit and death of Darius.

Chapter five surveys Alexander's invasion of the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire and India. This chapter covers a much wider range of events and issues than the others, including Alexander's adoption of Persian dress, proskynesis, the death of Bessus, the rock of Aornus, the battle of the Hydaspes, and Alexander's encounters with various Indian sages. The final chapter picks up with Arrian's account of the crossing of the Gedrosian desert. Plutarch supplies the narratives of both Hephaestion's and Alexander's deaths, and Cheshire concludes with Arrian's obituary for Alexander. A brief epilogue lays out the aftermath of Alexander's death and the wars of his successors, and raises the question of man versus myth. Finally there is a list of the ancient sources and a brief annotated bibliography.

The translations themselves are very lucid and the texts are extensively annotated. Persons, places, and events are put in a bold blue typeface and explained at the bottom of the page. Some of the notes go beyond simple definitions to explain interesting allusions, differences between the sources, or rhetorical devices that might not be familiar to modern readers. Cheshire succeeds admirably in keeping his notes informative about most items with which a student might not be familiar without becoming too lengthy or involved.

What makes this book valuable is not so much the selection of texts, but rather the questions Cheshire provides after each section. These questions are generally very good and examine a wide array of issues and problems, from military tactics to Alexander as a person to interpreting the ancient writers. The best are the more open-ended questions, which encourage students to think harder about the issues involved or make connections between different points in Alexander's career. So, for example, a question about Alexander's stay in Babylon and his attitude towards native religion asks the reader to think back to Alexander's coronation in Egypt. Questions about tactics and strategy in the battles are particularly good, and there are also a few questions inviting students to think of modern parallels -- for example, one of the questions on the disastrous march through the Gedrosian desert asks for recent examples where the "concern for the whole as required the neglect of individuals." I like having a few such questions to help students see how studying ancient history can be relevant to the modern world.

In addition, many questions deal with problems of source interpretation. This is most welcome, as too often I have found that students have difficulty understanding how wide the gulf between ancient historiography and modern historiography really is. So, for example, the questions on the battle of the Issus ask students to consider whether Arrian focuses more on tactics, the psychology of the armies, or stories about the leaders, or if the focus changes over the course of the narrative. Such open-ended questions are excellent at fostering class discussions. Other questions draw attention to the differences between Plutarch or Arrian, or how they use the earlier sources they cite.

It is a shame, given that Cheshire has a number of questions on source problems, that he limits himself to excerpting from Plutarch and Arrian. Cheshire gives no real justification for this decision, although he offers a very brief overview of the major sources, both extant and lost, at the end of the book. While I can understand focusing primarily on only two works for the majority of the excerpts, I can really see no reason not to supplement them with excerpts from the others, especially when they present a very different picture of Alexander (as Curtius often does). Cheshire does make a number of references to alternate accounts in his notes, and occasionally even in the questions, but why not just include some of those passages? I have found that exposing students to two different accounts of the same event is an excellent way to stimulate their thinking about the nature of ancient historiography and the problems in using the ancient sources. I also worry that in limiting himself to Plutarch and Arrian, Cheshire leaves students with the impression that they are necessarily superior to the other surviving sources for Alexander.

My other major concern about this book is that Cheshire tends to play down or minimize the darker aspects of Alexander and his conquests. For example, the conclusion of the siege of Tyre is drawn from Plutarch, who makes no mention of the slaughter that accompanied the fall of the city, variously described by Arrian, Curtius, and Diodorus. The even fiercer siege of Gaza is passed over entirely, while the destruction and slaughter wreaked by Alexander in the east is largely ignored. Cheshire recommends Peter Green's and A. B. Bosworth's biographies of Alexander for additional reading, both of which certainly present a much more negative view,1 but how many students will have the time or motivation to read them?

Unlike most textbooks, there are extensive, full color illustrations. These are generally of very fine quality and nicely complement the text. The battle plans in particular are superior to those usually found in textbooks, and make good use of color to clarify the course of the battles. A very odd omission is a picture of one of the many copies of the portrait of Alexander by Lysippus, especially since Plutarch's description of this is included. Although Cheshire does not mention the controversy stirred up by the original flag of the FYROM, with the star-burst emblem copied from ancient Macedonian motifs, an illustration of the flag and the artifacts that inspired it would have provided a nice visual demonstration of the enduring power of Macedonian symbols.

Finally, given the large number of people, places, and events in Alexander's life an index would have been most helpful.

In spite of my reservations, Cheshire has produced a fine book. While I think a more advanced undergraduate class on Alexander would be best served by reading the full texts of the ancient sources, I could very easily see using this book for a freshman seminar or a western civilization class that had Alexander as one of its main topics. But I would be prepared to supplement with extracts from other sources to give students a fuller picture, both of the ancient evidence and of Alexander himself.

Table of Contents

1. From birth to kingship
2. Into Asia
3. Issus and Egypt
4. Gaugamela to the death of Darius
5. East to India
6. Back towards Babylon
Ancient sources
Further reading and references


1.   A. B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great, Cambridge, 1988. P. Green, Alexander of Macedon 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography, Berkeley, 1991.

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