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Tue, 6 Oct 2009 09:40:18 -0500
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Alexander the Great. By KEYNE CHESHIRE. Greece & Rome: Texts and Contexts. 
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. viii + 189. 
Paper, $26.00. ISBN 978–0–521–70709–1.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Online Forum 2009.10.02

Alexander the Great never seems to go out of fashion as a topic of 
controversial debate. This is due as much to his inscrutable character as 
to the astonishing impact of his brief life and career. These very factors 
make him ideal for study in upper secondary and undergraduate curricula. 
The challenge for instructors is choosing texts appropriate for students 
coming to the study of Alexander for the first time, who are not yet (and 
most likely will not become) either serious scholars or enthusiasts of 
ancient and military history. Keyne Cheshire’s (C.) book attempts to 
close the gap between two types of texts readily available, both of which 
can be intimidating or confusing for those with little understanding of the 
social and historical context, much less the complicated nature of 
Alexander historiography. Full translations of the Alexander historians or 
selective collections of sources in translation may be desirable, but the 
context is largely lost on “beginners.” [[1]] Biographies of Alexander 
synthesizing the ancient evidence abound, but a drawback with both 
venerated standards and more recent books that take a thematic approach is 
that a different “Alexander” seems to emerge from every serious book 
published on the subject. [[2]] This may be well and good for scholars 
interested in new insights, or even for a general readership of 
enthusiasts, all of whom have likely already found their own 
“Alexander” and will beg to differ. C.’s book should appeal to 
instructors seeking a middle ground, who want to offer their students an 
approach to the study of Alexander the Great as he appears in the ancient 
texts, while at the same time encouraging students to form their own 
opinions about him.

C.’s book, published in the Cambridge series “Greece & Rome: Texts and 
Contexts,” is strictly speaking a “textbook” designed with the 
instructional features one expects in such volumes: copious illustrations, 
maps, diagrams, boxes of inserted text, etc. The stated aim of the series 
is to provide students with “new” translations of extracts from ancient 
sources and—what makes this volume different from other collections of 
Alexander sources in translation—to set them within their historical, 
social and cultural contexts. C.’s extracts are, perhaps regrettably, 
restricted to passages from Arrian’s Anabasis and Plutarch’s Life of 
Alexander, although students are frequently directed to other ancient 
sources for comparison. For example, in reference to a passage from Arrian 
(3.14) describing Darius’ flight from the battle of Gaugamela, students 
are asked to contrast Arrian’s account with the versions given by Curtius 
and Diodorus, as well as Plutarch (p. 82). C. does not explain why he 
extracts only Arrian and Plutarch. It appears that his choice is due to the 
fact that they offer a “statement of historical method,” so that “one 
can readily track how these authors’ aims and perspectives shape their 
accounts” (p. 4).

In keeping with the aim of the Cambridge series, C.’s approach is heavily 
historiographical. He begins in the Preface with the all-important 
question: “But who is this Alexander?” (p. v) and follows with the 
caveat, “Conflicting ancient accounts accompany nearly every episode of 
Alexander’s life…” (p. viii). In the Introduction, C. confronts the 
politically volatile “Macedonian question” and provides background on 
Philip II’s military reforms. He also addresses the problematic 
relationship between Philip II and the Greeks, a relationship Alexander 
inherited, and the “state” of the Persian empire at the time of 
Alexander’s accession. Next C. presents the extracts in a chronological 
progression through Alexander’s life and career, birth to death, divided 
into six “Chapters” that follow standard divisions: From birth to 
kingship; Into Asia; Issus and Egypt; Gaugamela to the death of Darius; 
East to India; Back towards Babylon. An Epilogue summarizes the Successors 
and the establishment of the Hellenistic kingdoms; this I find too brief to 
be adequate. C.’s selection of extracts is a mix of military narrative 
and anecdotal material covering many of the major events while avoiding 
overlap—Plutarch’s account of one episode, Arrian’s account of 
another. The translations are lucid, close to the Greek and, for the most 
part, capture its nuances. [[3]]

C. effectively achieves the second aim of the book, that is, placing the 
texts within their context, in large part through explanations of key terms 
and phrases, which are highlighted in blue in the text with footnote-like 
commentary at the bottom of each page. Admirably, these are not restricted 
to persons, places and obligatory transliterated Greek words (e.g. 
“sarissa,” p. 33) but also provide commentary on social customs (e.g. 
ad Arr. 2.7 “slaves and free men,” p. 45) and cryptic phrases (e.g. ad 
Plut. 10 “those complicit in the plot,” p. 23). Each chapter contains 
periodic colored boxes with thought-provoking questions pertaining to the 
extracted passages. These are designed to launch discussion of crucial 
“problems” in Alexander’s career (ad Plut. 27 “What do the 
responses of the oracle’s prophet [i.e. priest of Ammon] imply about 
Alexander’s parentage?”, p. 69) as well as in the historiography (ad 
Arr. 4.8 “Why do you suppose Arrian uses the passive voce (‘he was 
struck by the sarissa’), in depicting the moment of Cleitus’ death?”, 
p. 107). And admirably, many questions do not preclude “correct” 
answers (ad Arr. 7.6 “On reading this passage closely, do you believe 
Alexander’s policies [i.e. 30,000 Epigoni] are an attempt to make the 
Macedonian army more Persian or the Persians more Macedonian?”, p. 160). 
Students are thus encouraged to think critically about the nature of the 
sources and to form their own opinions about Alexander. The volume is well 
illustrated with useful color maps of Alexander’s route, color-coded 
reconstructions of the four main set battles, images of works of art 
depicting Alexander’s life, and photographs of various locations as they 
are today. A timeline of important dates is included in the Introduction. 
An appendix provides brief blurbs on the ancient sources, both extant and 
(selectively) lost; this is followed by a very brief list of further 
reading and references highlighting some important studies in English. The 
restriction to English works is understandable although the impact on 
Alexander studies of scholars such as Jacoby and Berve ought not be left 
unacknowledged. An easy-reference glossary of terms concludes the volume. 
Unfortunately, there is no index.

C.’s book certainly has pedagogical merit. The color-coded 
reconstructions of the battles at Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela and Hydaspes 
are particularly useful for sorting out the convoluted ancient narratives. 
Although these reconstructions may not be historically accurate (as C. 
acknowledges on p. viii), they are true to the passages extracted and 
should help students not only to follow the tactics, move by counter-move, 
but to form opinions about Alexander’s generalship as it is represented 
in the sources. The explanations of key terms and phrases eliminate the 
need for historical commentaries, which for non-classics/history majors are 
likely to be tedious, though for comprehensiveness one still must turn to 
Bosworth and Hamilton. [[4]] It is worth reiterating that C.’s book is 
intended for upper secondary and undergraduate students, but its appeal 
doubtless will diminish at higher undergraduate levels. Some instructors at 
any level will be reluctant to move away from the full texts of Arrian and 
Plutarch, or to omit Curtius, Diodorus and Justin from their reading lists. 
Others will prefer to formulate their own questions and steer their own 
course through Alexander’s life. Even so, many instructors of courses at 
lower levels will be grateful for the book’s virtual self-teaching design 
and for the groundwork C. has done. His book offers a topic of broad appeal 
through which students can develop skills in critical thinking and debate. 
Its strength lies in its presentation of an inscrutable Alexander within 
his historical, social and cultural context. As for the content of C.’s 
extracts, those hoping for the full military narrative will miss the 
northern campaign immediately following Alexander’s accession, the 
“liberation” of the coastal cities of Asia Minor, and much of the 
Bactrian and Indian campaigns. Most of Arrian Book 6, in fact, is omitted, 
while the map of Alexander’s route east to India and back to Babylon (p. 
99) does not show his march all the way down the Indus to the India Ocean. 
[[5]] What C. does offer is a well-rounded view of Alexander as both 
general and man, and a balance between detailed extracts of the major 
battles and sieges and extracts on Alexander’s drinking habits, manner of 
dress and sex life likely to appeal to a broad range of students in upper 
secondary and undergraduate courses. Most importantly, C. allows each 
student to discover his and her own Alexander.

Sir Wilfred Grenfell College

[[1]] Recent selections in translation: W. Heckel and J.C. Yardley, 
Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation (Oxford, 2003); P. 
Mensch and J. Romm, Alexander the Great: Selections from Arrian, Diodorus, 
Plutarch and Quintus Curtius (Indianapolis, 2005).

[[2]] Among the venerated standards, those of U. Wilcken, Alexander the 
Great (London, 1932; repr. ,1981), J.R. Hamilton, Alexander the Great 
(London, 1973; pb Pittsburgh, 1974), and R. Lane Fox, Alexander the Great 
(London, 1973; , 2004) are still in print.

[[3]] One notable exception, ad Arr. 4.29: “Ptolemy son of Lagus, who was 
a Bodyguard and leader of the Agrianians…”(my italics). For 
“Bodyguard” Arrian uses the article and noun, but in reference to the 
Agrianians he uses the participle “leading” without repeating the 
article. Ptolemy was by this time named a Bodyguard, and on this occasion 
was “leading” rather than “leader” of the Agrianians.

[[4]] A.B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of 
Alexander, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1980; repr. 1995); J.R. Hamilton, Plutarch: 
Alexander (Oxford, 1969).

[[5]] The impression left by both text and map is that Alexander never 
reached the Indian Ocean, but left the Indus part way down and headed 
across the Gedrosian desert.

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