Monday, July 16, 2012

The Book of Alexander the Great

I read an odd book this weekend: The Book of Alexander the Great (I. B. Tauris, 2012).  It's a translation, by Richard Stoneman of a Greek book first published in Venice in 1670, but incorporating material from older romances about Alexander.  The translator writes that it's "just one of many visions of Alexander to emerge from the Byzantine preoccupation with the classical past, but it is the one with the highest aspirations to literary quality" (ix).

In many ways the book is fun.  The author is largely ignorant of history and chronology.  He makes Alexander a proto-Christian, gives him telepathic visions of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, whom he presents as Alexander's contemporary though Jeremiah lived a couple of centuries earlier, puts "on his head the crown of Cleopatra the queen of Egypt" (41) although Cleopatra lived three centuries later, confuses Alexander's Persian wife with Roxane, the Sodgian princess he married, and flings around numbers with abandon.  When Porus the King of India prepared to confront Alexander, he "counted his whole army and found that it numbered 50 million" (109); Alexander could muster only 6 million (110).  In their first battle "200,000 of Porus' troops were slain, and 6,500 of Alexander's." Two hundred thousand killed is a lot, but not disabling to an army of fifty million.  Or so I thought, but Poros told his assembled kings, "A vast number of our men were killed today while we were fighting the Macedonians; what are we to do?" (111).  All the numbers are fanciful, of course, as is the ability of Alexander and his adversaries to move hundreds of thousands of men over hundreds of miles in a few days, on foot or horseback.  Alexander finally defeats Porus in a one-on-one joust (117), a ritual combat from the Middle Ages.

The writing itself is thin, with details piled on randomly:
No other soldier would dare to face the Macedonians.  [Alexander] selected 2,000 beautiful women to travel with the army, all in a body, and he placed a Commander of the Companions in charge of the women.  When one of the soldiers was in need of a woman he would go to the commander, give him a golden florin and take one of the women.  The Commander took one florin for every night he spent with her.  All the troops were kept in strict order.  The 100,000 Macedonians were always beside him, and received many favours from Alexander.  He spoke with them every day; he was smaller than any of them.  They operated as one man when they were instructed [50-51].
And there is no mention at all of Alexander's great love Hephaestion.  There has been a lot of controversy over whether the two were lovers or BFFs, but one clue is that they compared themselves to Achilles and Patroclus, who were widely believed to have been lovers in Alexander's day.  (In that period the only controversy seems to have been which was the top and which the bottom.)  I'd wondered how a seventeenth-century Orthodox Christian writer would handle this major part of Alexander's life; I wouldn't have been surprised to find that the Book of Alexander the Great de-eroticized their relationship, but Hephaestion has simply been disappeared.  That's cutting the Gordian knot, I guess.

I don't regret having read it, though.  It's fascinating to get a glimpse of popular literature from any period, and to see another of the ways Alexander was has been depicted.  Like Jesus, every era constructs its own Alexander the Great.