Let’s get right into this. I’ve been reading Curtius’ History of Alexander the Great.
This would seem like a natural continuation of my slow progress through classical history, if it really amounts to that yet. It’s hard to keep in mind that, in contrast to Thucydides or Xenophon, I’m now dealing with a history written more than three hundred years after the events it describes. (Alexander died in 323 BC and the timing for Curtius is extremely vague but he can safely be placed in the early Roman empire.) I’m quite interested in how historical knowledge gets pieced together in a reader’s mind, and this gap and the different kinds of sources, immediate or later, would certainly bear on that. I hope I can say something more about this sometime. The other gap that should be kept in mind is the lost beginning of the history itself. The first two books are lost and replaced in the Loeb edition with summaries by the seventeenth century editor Freinshem based on Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch, and a few other sources. So there are alternative routes to understanding Alexander’s time, which I do hope to explore. I really only chose to read Curtius instead of Arrian because I found a cheap copy a while back. In spite of all these issues I have to admit that I tend to read less critically than I probably should, and if I wanted to, I could give an utterly guileless summary of the campaign of Alexander according to Quintus Curtius, because that’s mostly what I was looking for.
I won’t do that though. I think the best thing to set beside my tendency to that kind of naive reading is an appreciation of Curtius’ impressive skill as a storyteller. After Alexander has pretty well overthrown the Persians, there’s naturally a kind of lull in the action. Issues of the army’s loyalty and Alexander’s self-aggrandizement come to the fore. Probably the biggest episode between the death of Darius and the battles in India is a plot to kill Alexander that embroils some of Alexander’s closest companions. A small example could represent his handling of the whole affair: The first conspirator to be confronted “gave himself a severe wound with a sword” (6.7.29) before he could be arrested. Here Curtius, with a touch I very much appreciate, does not merely describe the outcome, saying that the man killed himself, but describes the action itself. It’s more common to read about noble generals “falling on their swords”, and so the word “wound” here is uncommonly vivid. (To the best of my ability I have tried to verify that this is in the Latin, and not a happy introduction by translator J. C. Rolfe.) Curtius has brought us directly into the action as we read of the man being brought before Alexander only to expire before he can reveal anything. One of Alexander’s chief men, Philotas, is now confronted with having failed to act when warning of the conspiracy was first brought to him. As Curtius tells it, we really don’t know whether he was guilty or not. What follows is a dramatic account of the trial, with elaborate speeches, the eventual torture and confession of Philotas, and finally the cunningly arranged murder of Philotas’ father Parmenion, who was away in another district with a large army. It’s an appalling episode, and I hope I can justify myself by saying that its fascination comes not just from Curtius’ descriptions of blood and betrayal but from the skillful touch he brings to questions of guilt and remorse. How sincere is Alexander’s initial pardon of Philotas? What about the army’s leniency (and the army plays a large role in the trials) towards those who deserted in fear of the proceedings? There’s much more to get into here.
I did learn a few things from this besides the general outline of Alexander’s career. First, Philip and Alexander’s involvement with Greece wasn’t all about Chaeronea. Philip invaded under the pretense of exacting obedience already promised him by the Greeks. At Chaeronea, they indeed defeated a confederation of Thebans and Athenians. Later, when Philip was dead, the Thebans revolted again, and it was then that Thebes was destroyed. Still later, when Alexander was in Asia, his governor Antipater confronted the Spartans and killed their king. Second, Alexander comes out of this still managing to cut a pretty impressive figure. I’m not sure how to say exactly what I mean here. Basically, in Curtius, the big-picture politics appears to receive a more temperate treatment than I am accustomed to, but the adventure story and the Great Alexander come through still looking pretty amazing. As I said, I am leery of reading this too naively, but I have to wonder if nowadays, with the “great man” idea of history in disrepute, we are too given to great political generalizations. I’m sure I’ve read a lot about “the end of freedom in Greece”, usually leading up to that one name, Chaeronea. For another example, look at the varied fortunes of the phrase “the end of history” over the past few years, not to mention the temptation to characterize whole periods of recent history as Herodotean or Thucydidean.