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Book Reviews: Non-English

Alexander de Grote - De Ondergang van het Perzische Rijk [Alexander the Great - The Fall of the Persian Empire], Jona Lendering, Athenaeum - Polak & Van Gennep Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2004; reprint 2005. ISBN 90.253.3144.0

Reviewer: Heinrich Müller

Lendering’s book is the first biography of Alexander (=A) that unhesitatingly uses the oriental sources, including some recently discovered cuneiform texts, and consistently tries to show how Alexander’s conquest was experienced in the east. Alexander de Grote is a bold attempt to tell “the other side of the story” but, to be honest, Lendering (=L) has greater ambitions than the oriental sources allow. He is the first to admit this. He points out that at the moment, we have not enough Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian or Indian texts yet (“Let’s hope this book will be outdated soon”, page 14). So, for the time being, we are still forced to rely mostly upon the usual Greek and Latin sources. Yet, unlike other recently published books [1], L makes a methodological point of listening to the voices of the nameless conquered people.

L’s method is not unlike that of Arrian and his modern epigones: he has two sources (Arrian and the Vulgate), and assumes that where they are in agreement, we can accept their information as more or less reliable. L always sticks to this principle and carefully notes disagreements. For example, on page 146, he tells that the Vulgate mentions the murder of the Persian commander of Gaza, adds that Arrian ignores this, and summarises that we can not know what happened. It is interesting to compare this unadorned treatment with that by Bosworth, who says more or less the same and adds that “the fact that the episode is singularly revolting is no argument against its historicity” [2]. This type of innuendo is absent from L’s book.

In his methodological section (page 13), L adds that agreement of his main, Greek sources is insufficient to establish what really happened. We must also study texts from Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, and India. Although this seems obvious, it is still something new. Using oriental sources, L achieves some interesting results, e.g.:

  • He makes it clear that the reign of Artaxerxes IV Arses was marked by civil war, offering the Macedonians an irresistible opportunity to attack.
  • He shows that before the battle of Gaugamela, the Persian army was discouraged by a lunar eclipse. Following Van der Spek [3], L argues that the eclipse was a very evil omen indeed and (going one step beyond Van der Spek) L implies that Alexander attacked an army that was just waiting for an opportunity to desert king Darius. I found this the first truly convincing interpretation of what happened at Gaugamela. (This chapter can be found in an English translation at .)
  • L suggests that as satrap of Bactria, Bessus officially was the intended successor or “mathishta” [4], which explains why he automatically became king after the death of Darius. This can be deduced from the Alexander Chronicle, a cuneiform source that has been dated by Van der Spek to the reign of Alexander [3]; L gives a slightly different but convincing reconstruction.
  • On page 343-354, L reconstructs the circumstances of Alexander’s death as they would have appeared to the Babylonian astronomers, who had predicted what was going to happen. L’s bold identification of the exact prophecy with a tablet in the Louvre, merely hinted at by Van der Spek [3], is in my view, a triumph. These pages are, to the best of my knowledge, the first successful attempt in the “alexandrography” to use an eastern perspective. They are the best part of the book.
Admittedly, L is sometimes a bit too optimistic about the possibilities of the oriental sources. I am not yet convinced that his date of the battle of Issus (ca. 6 November 333; page 109 and 382) can be deduced from the Astronomical Diaries. (L has a more convincing astronomical argument.) Nor do I believe that the brief remark in the Diaries that gold arrived in Babylon in August 325 necessarily refers to gold from India that was guarded by Macedonian soldiers (page 314). On the other hand, it must be said that precisely because of the scarcity of eastern sources L is right to squeeze every possible drop of information from them. And it must be added that he is careful to introduce his suggestions with caveats like “maybe”.

Of course the book is essentially a biography, but L often steps aside from this road and focuses on a detail. He presents the sources, explains the complications, offers a solution (when possible), and returns to his main narrative. The result of this Herodotean approach is that the book is a real page-turner. I learned that…

  • Diodorus’ statement that the defenders of Tyre “fashioned shields of bronze and iron and, filling them with sand, roasted them ... and made the sand red hot” is – in L’s words – “one of the mysteries ancient metallurgy”: before the sand would have turned red, the shield should already have melted (page 142).
  • one of the motives for founding Egyptian Alexandria was to blackmail Athens: the price of grain was artificially kept high (page 158).
  • Alexander’s invasion of Iran took place in a “little ice age” (page 201-202); in an earlier posting at Pothos, L mentioned that 330 was the coldest winter in the past seventy-five centuries.
The digressions are nice, although sometimes unnecessary. (On page 318, there’s an amusing catalogue of fish from the Indian Ocean, which serves to prove that the Fish Eaters of the Makran were not really poor but is also a bit too long.) The illustrations are sometimes too fine for the paper that is used, the table of contents is too long and the bibliography is too short [cf. note 4].

On the other hand, L introduces several really new sources. He uses the oriental information to challenge the now common opinion – once proposed by Badian and accepted by Bosworth and Worthington – that Alexander was some sort of tyrant, or even suffering from a mental illness. As L indicates, many erratic acts, like the cruel punishment of Bessus, can be understood when we take into account that Alexander had Iranian subjects who expected him to punish a regicide in an Iranian style.

L’s disagreement with the current orthodoxy does not mean that he returns to “the old Alexander” of Tarn, Lane Fox and Hammond. In fact, L appears to be looking for a third way. In his view, it seems, the conqueror is not just forcing his will on the conquered, but is also being changed by his subjects. I think this is right. I have seen how the Russian occupiers of Berlin adapted themselves to the Germans they had conquered. L is the first Alexander historian who seems to have fully understood how conquest is a process that transforms both the occupied and the occupier. This, added to L’s superior command of western and eastern sources and the fact that he has visited almost every battlefield, makes Alexander de Grote; De ondergang van het Perzische Rijk probably the best book on the Macedonian conquest of Asia in a decade or two.

Heinrich Müller, Berlin, Germany, 8th February 2005

(Many thanks to Alexander Meeuws for checking if I had really understood L’s Dutch book.)
[1] E.g., Ian Worthington, Alexander the Great: Man and God (2003); Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (2004), W. Heckel and J. Yardley, Alexander the Great. Historical Sources in Translation (2004).
[2] A.B. Bosworth, Conquest and Empire (Cambridge 1988) page 68.
[3] R.J. van der Spek, “Darius III, Alexander the Great, and Babylonian scholarship” in Achaemenid History 13 (2003) 289-346. According to the acknowledgements of L’s book and Van der Spek’s article, the two authors have closely collaborated.
[4] The relevant arguments are derived from a book by H. Sancisi-Weerdenburg (Yauna en Persai. Grieken en Perzen in een ander perspectief, Groningen 1980), which is not mentioned in L’s book, but see L’s website