Sometime in the mid-second century A.D., Lucius Flavius Arrianus—a Greek-speaking prominent Roman citizen from Nicomedia, in northwest Asia Minor near the Bosporus—wrote a history of Alexander the Great’s eleven-year-long “march up country” that began with the invasion of Persian Ionia and ended some 3,000 miles distant at the Indus River. The well-connected and well-read Arrian tried to emulate formal classical Greek prose of a distant age, and he probably modeled his history of Alexander after Xenophon’s more famous Anabasis, which chronicled a far earlier Western march of the mercenary Greek “Ten Thousand,” who in 401 B.C. fought their way home from Babylon after the death of their boss, the Persian would-be royal usurper Cyrus the Younger.

Nearly five hundred years after the death of Alexander, in the age of the emperor Trajan, the creator of the Hellenistic world still held the popular imagination. Arrian wrote a largely favorable account of Alexander in hopes of enlightening his Roman audience about the truth of the legendary conqueror “for the benefit of mankind.” That he fought under Trajan and held responsibilities for eastern frontier defense no doubt made Arrian sensitive to the sort of cultural, military, and political challenges that Alexander had once faced in Asia. Arrian was a military thinker as well: he wrote a Tactica, an extant abstract work on the nature and organization of the Macedonian phalanx and cavalry that drew heavily on mostly lost Hellenistic tacticians—and which was not always relevant to the conditions of battle on the Roman frontier. As both a scholar and veteran, Arrian saw himself as uniquely qualified in making Alexander’s military accomplishments known to an eastern Roman audience.

The result is that his Anabasis is considered the most complete and reliable extant source of Alexander’s conquest. Arrian drew carefully on the lost contemporary accounts of Ptolemy and Aristoboulos, and wrote after and sometimes learned from the other extant Roman-era sources of Alexander: Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch. While Arrian was clearly impressed by the achievement of Alexander, whose empire was divided by his successor generals and later annexed in part into the Roman empire, his portrait is not quite a whitewash of a Great Man. Many of the details of Alexander’s dirty war in Bactria and murderous rampage against his own intimates are known fully only from Arrian, whose general theme is that such larger-than-life geniuses do what the rest of us cannot, both bad and good.

As a result, scholars know far more about Alexander the Great than earlier great captains such as Epaminondas the Theban or Alexander’s own father, Philip II. Yet historians still cannot quite figure out what to make of Alexander’s short life that ended in exhaustion, debauchery, and frequent illness at thirty-three. To Peter Green, a youthful and mostly immature Alexander and his cronies should not be taken too seriously in what they professed amid their drinking, whoring, plundering, and gratuitous cruelty. For Ernst Badian, Alexander was a shrewd conniver whose savagery was essential rather than incidental, to his megalomaniac visions. Few of today’s more skeptical age still adhere to W. W. Tarn’s romantic view of Alexander as a veritable nineteenth-century British colonialist—part Field Marshal Kitchener, part Cecil Rhodes, intent, in idealistic fashion, on carrying the white man’s burden of civilizing to the more savage East.

The enigma arises partly because all contemporary written accounts of Alexander’s miraculous career are lost, and partly because he deliberately cloaked his brutal conquest of the Persian Empire with a showy veneer of East-West ecumenicalism that he passed off as the “brotherhood of man.” In his brief fifteen years of warring following the death of his father, Alexander posed as the emissary of a civilizing Hellenism as he killed more Greeks—whether besieged Thebans or mercenaries in the service of Darius III—than had perished in the earlier invasions of Darius I and Xerxes combined. Yet, as proof of his literary flair, he spared the house of the poet Pindar, while killing 6,000 Thebans, enslaving another 30,000, and leveling the great city of Oedipus.

In multicultural fashion, Alexander arranged mass marriages between his Macedonian soldiers and Iranian women, incorporated Persian elites in his administration, and deferred to the conquered by wearing native dress—even as he had executed or murdered his
closest associates, Parmenio, Philotas, Cleitus, and the philosopher Callisthenes, and wiped out entire villages in serial fashion while pacifying Afghanistan.

The Landmark Arrian is the fourth volume in Robert Strassler’s ongoing series of ancient Greek historians. His first effort, The Landmark Thucydides, appeared in 1996 and marked a radical departure from the usual English translations of Greek historians. Instead of the characteristic small fonts, multitudes of unexplained strange and hard-to-pronounce names, places, terms, and the too-few and too-fuzzy maps that are found in most translations, Strassler, who had established a successful private-sector career in finance and commerce, offered an entirely novel format. Headers and sidebars on every page highlighted relevant dates and provided running mini-synopses of the narrative. Footnotes explained unfamiliar words. All these aids were cross-referenced to over ninety pages of appendices, chronologies, and glossaries that amplified ancient Greek historical customs and practices relevant to the text of Thucydides—and to easily accessible maps that appeared about every third page.

The detailed index of The Peloponnesian War is as informative as most concordances, and there was not only a preface and introduction, but also introductory explanations concerning the Greek calendar. The brilliant 1874 Crawley translation was updated and purged of it archaic Anglicisms. In sum, Strassler succeeded in his goal of making a difficult author like Thucydides accessible to general readers and undergraduates. The book was acclaimed as the most useful English Thucydides on the market and soon outsold its many competitors. And while advertised as a user-friendly introductory Thucydides, the storehouse of information in the comprehensive edition often ensured that it was ordered in graduate ancient history seminars and used for quick reference by classical scholars.[1]

The Landmark Herodotus and The Landmark Xenophon soon followed and are finding commensurate success, with the necessary allowances given to the universal appeal of Thucydides. But a Landmark Arrian offers a special challenge. Unlike the other editions, Arrian is not a near contemporary witness of the events that he chronicled. He cannot claim, as his classical predecessors often did, to have participated in or talked to veterans of the war he wrote about. Although Arrian was an old soldier as well as a competent scholar, he was not, in the fashion of a Thucydides or Xenophon, a maker of history in the very upheavals he chronicles.

The result is that his narrative, while both lively and scholarly, is for its own time ancient history and, thus, far less vibrant than his Greek models of writing down what one did. If we keep in mind the differences between William H. Prescott’s magisterial book History of the Conquest of Mexico, written three centuries after the death of Hernán Cortés, and Bernal Díaz del Castillo first-hand, often horrifying sixteenth-century memoir of Cortés’s march and destruction of Tenochtitlan (The True History of the Conquest of New Spain), we can appreciate Arrian’s more distant relationship with his subject.

Nor does Arrian write in the philosophical tradition of Thucydides, who uses his history to offer timeless advice about human nature, or even Xenophon whose intimacy with Socrates explains the ethical imperative that permeates his work. In this regard, one might have thought that the fourth Landmark volume would have been devoted to Polybius, whose history of Roman Republican expansion is not only riveting, but often literary and analytical in the fashion of Thucydides.

We also properly speak of the work of Thucydides and Herodotus—and to a lesser extent Xenophon—as classics whose literary merits warrant a reading that transcends the subject matter under consideration. And while Arrian likewise wrote in a classical Greek of sorts, his Roman imperial Athens was hardly comparable to the intellectual ferment of the fifth-century city of Thucydides, Herodotus, and Xenophon. In short, there is nothing in Arrian comparable to the Melian Dialogue of Thucydides, Herodotus’s tale of Croesus and Solon, or Xenophon’s “thalatta, thalatta” moment as the bedraggled remnants of the Ten Thousand at last glimpse the sea. In the case of Arrian, “landmark” is perhaps a misnomer, inasmuch as few have ever read his Anabasis other than to learn the details of Alexander’s conquests.

Such differences between Arrian and his earlier forebears may also explain a disparity between translation and commentary in the present edition. Whereas in The Landmark Thucydides the English translation ran for 550 pages and the prefatory commentary and appendices came in at about 110, in The Landmark Arrian there are 140 pages of such commentaries, but only 312 pages of translated text—leaving the impression to the reader that a less impressive text requires compensation by much more scholarly input. And unlike the cases of the better-known Thucydides and Herodotus, the clear and commendable intent of The Landmark Arrian is thus to encourage a first-time acquaintance with Arrian, whose tales of one of the great campaigns in history is underappreciated.

In addition, in The Landmark Arrian Robert Strassler now serves as general series editor, while the actual preparation of the volume was outsourced to the classicist James Romm. The latter provides a solid preface and has collected a fine array of appendices by leading Alexander scholars, as well as providing seven well-crafted essays himself, especially on the military and political aspects of the conquest. The battle maps are the best in the entire series. In characteristic fashion, the Cambridge classicist Paul Cartledge offers a witty and engaging general introduction that touches on everything from Alexander’s sexual ambiguity to the sources of Arrian’s history. Pamela Mensch’s new translation is both literal and fast-paced, while retaining the flavor of Arrian’s formal and sometimes archaic prose. In other words, The Landmark Arrian not only is an ideal introductory text to the career of Alexander, but will introduce readers to an accessible ancient historian who has often been sadly ignored.

What is next in Strassler’s Landmark series? The stable of classic Greek historical authors will be soon exhausted with Polybius or perhaps the great fourth-century A.D. historian Ammianus Marcellinus. But no matter: there surely awaits on the horizon a Landmark Livy and Tacitus—the two majestic historians of both grand Roman republican ascendance and the subsequent, rather rapid, imperial descent into decadence.

 

[1]I cannot claim a dispassionate voice here inasmuch as I wrote the introduction to The Landmark Thucydides and two appendices in the volume.