x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Alexander the Great's escapades

The Landmark Arrian offers a rich and lustrous chronicle of Alexander's military campaigns.

The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander
Edited by James Romm
Series Editor Robert Strassler
Translated from the Attic by Pamela Mensch
Pantheon
Dh148

Robert Strassler's Landmark series of classical editions, begun in 1996 with The Landmark Thucydides, and continued in 2007 with The Landmark Herodotus and in 2009 with The Landmark Xenophon's Hellenika, operates from a very simple premise: geography is the best illustration of history. These editions are oversized and stuffed with maps of telescoping specificity, cartographical caves of wonder designed to show that the past moved every bit as much as the present does.

It is an inspired idea, and in dealing with the ancient world it finds its perfect subject: Alexander the Great, whose conquests stretched from Greece to the heart of India, from Egypt to the Caspian Sea. Of all the archaic warlords, only Alexander worked with a scope and speed appropriate for motorised vehicles and air transport, yet he did it all with horses and camels. He was born in 356 BC and dead by his early thirties. His earliest chroniclers wrote of his precipitous, questing nature - the Greek characteristics of tolma and pothos, adapted to indefatigable Macedonian toughness. With brief pauses for illness and consolidation-by-marriage, Alexander was always in motion; he was practically designed for Strassler's series, and the new Landmark Arrian brings him to life as few mere prose accounts could.

But which Alexander? We have no contemporary narratives, and all the ones dating from centuries later have their defects. Diodorous Siculus, writing in the late 1st century BC, is too credulous; Quintus Curtius Rufus, in the 1st century AD, is too florid; the great Plutarch, writing around AD 111, is sketchy for all his greatness, and even our own Arrian can be prissy. But he is in all ways the best of the bunch: not only does he write with verve, but he brings the edge of experience to his subject. Lucius Flavius Arrianus was that rare thing, a Greek who rose to prominence in the Roman government of the first century AD. It is likely that he accompanied the emperor Trajan on his campaigns into Parthia, and under Trajan's successor, Hadrian, he was not only consul in Rome but later governor of Cappadocia, a still half-brigand province in which he saw his share of military action.

He admired the legend of Alexander, and he nips and tucks the messy man to fit his admiration (the roistering and pederasty are minimised or eliminated, for instance). His prose, however, is wonderfully quick and businesslike, very much the cultivated military man sitting down at his desk and trying to make sense of the library materials brought to him by his learned slaves. Pamela Mensch's translation (new for this volume) captures the tone of Arrian better than any previous English version, his curious mixture of diligence and naivete (the latter famously signalled by his willingness to trust the Alexander history of King Ptolemey I because it would be wrong for a king to lie).

The story Arrian tells - a young man and his unbeatable troops marching across the vastness of the Persian Empire, crushing all opposition, sweeping ever westward into India and briefly tensing to go even further - would tax the elasticity of fiction. Yet in this magnificent volume, edited by James Romm, it is all meticulously grounded in plentiful footnotes. There are 18 appendices on various special topics such as "Money and Finance in the Campaigns of Alexander" by Frank Holt, and "Alexander the Man (and God?)" by Richard Stoneham, and two fascinating examinations of Alexander's death, by Eugene Borza and AB Bosworth. And of course, most importantly, there are hundreds of maps telling stories all their own of turbulent seas, forbidding mountain ranges, and deserts that look lethal even on paper. Alexander's conquests stretched across the known world - this is the first edition of Arrian to show that world in all its vastness. As in the previous Landmark volumes, many of the excellent maps here feature insets allowing readers to "zoom in" from a greater height to more specific detail. The effect is illuminating.

A new feature for this volume is battle-diagrams, but any account of Alexander would be naked without them. One only needs to recall how many would-be conquerors found sudden and unexpected graves in Persia to look with fresh wonder on Alexander's string of glittering victories, and six of those victories get diagrams in this edition: the sieges of Tyre and Thebes, and the battles of Issus, the Granicus River, the Hydaspes River, and Gaugamela.

The last of these, in 331 BC, was a masterpiece of operational psychology even more than of tactical organisation. In 333, Alexander met the Persian king Darius in battle at the Issus River, taking his measure and the measure of all the royal forces. Those forces vastly outnumbered his own, but Alexander correctly divined their weakness: they were almost wholly dependent on the personal valour of their High King, and his valour (unlike Alexander's) could be broken.

At Gaugamela Darius arrayed his enormous forces on his chosen ground, stationing himself in the centre behind an imposing wall of scythed chariots and armoured elephants. Being vain, he expected vanity. Instead, Alexander directed his right wing to draw Darius's left wing further and further afield, quickly creating a hole in the Persian centre. Alexander then drove for that centre - for Darius himself - like a hurled javelin. And it worked: Darius turned and fled, and the bulk of his army promptly fell apart. The Landmark Arrian gives us two illustrations of the stages of Guagamela; they do wonders to augment Arrian's description of the battle (despite being a military man, his descriptions of such actions can be maddeningly diffuse).

The imagess of this and other battles also reveal the methodology of the series. These maps and diagrams are given with the greatest technical accuracy possible, but they are consciously derived from Arrian and nobody else. For the battle depictions especially, a Landmark Cassius Dio or a Landmark Quintus Curtius Rufus would look in some cases very different. There is an endearing reverence in this focus: unlike modern biographies of Alexander, The Landmark Arrian isn't interested in finding a consensus among conflicting sources. It is instead more concerned with giving readers the definitive Arrian. In this it surely succeeds.

Those appendices at the end, written by world-renowned Alexander experts on a wide range of topics raised by Arrian's work but given no explication by him, contribute a great deal to this end. Richard Stoneham provides a cogent and appropriately wide-ranging overview of the so-called "Alexander romance" and the various long Alexander poems to spring up in the Middle East in the centuries after his death. Eugene Borza takes readers on a tour of the royal Macedonian tombs at Aigeai under coordinated study since 1977. James Romm adds an essay on a subject that interested Arrian not at all: the ongoing relationship between Alexander and the Greek world back at home. In a separate essay, Romm also performs a quite absorbing textual analysis of some of Arrian's geographical blunders: it is a bravura little precis, in many ways the highlight of the volume's ancillary material. The two separate inquiries into the conqueror's death both rule out poison and make some fascinating medical guesses while they are at it. There are spirited examinations of both Arrian's probable sources and the nature of ancient sourcework in general, and all of this is pitched for the intelligent layman, serving at once to broaden the focus while keeping Arrian at its centre.

The end product of all this work is as sumptuous and invigorating an edition of this deserving author as has ever been published. Arrian has always been our most complete and substantial source for Alexander, and The Landmark Arrian does him the service of treating his work on its own terms, rather than as a quarry from which various biographical nuggets can be extracted. Strassler and his editors wisely keep their intentions mum, but it's impossible not to hope that a Landmark Caesar is being contemplated.

Steve Donoghue's work has appeared in The Columbia Journal of American Studies, The Historical Novel Review and Kirkus. He is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.