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Alexander the Great: sources (oriental)

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Bust of Alexander from Italica (Spain). Photo Jan van Vliet.
Alexander (from Italica)
There are many ancient sources on the career of the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great: the Library of world history of Diodorus of Sicily, Quintus Curtius Rufus' History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, a Life of Alexander by Plutarch of Chaeronea and the Anabasis by Arrian of Nicomedia of Nicomedia are the best-known. All these authors lived more than three centuries after the events they described, but they used older, nearly contemporary sources, that are now lost. In this article, they are discussed. We should start our discussion, however, with the contemporary evidence from the ancient Near East and a note on source criticism.
Source criticism
Contemporary sources
Zoroastrian texts
Diodorus of Sicily
Q. Curtius Rufus
The 'vulgate': Cleitarchus
Official propaganda:
Arrian of Nicomedia
Aristobulus and others
Plutarch of Chaeronea

Source Criticism

The distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources was first made by a Renaissance fraud named Nanni of Viterbo in his Commentaries on various authors discussing antiquities (1498). The 'various authors' were in fact invented by Nanni, but his methodological remark was useful and he should be recognized as one of the 'fathers of history'.

A primary source is contemporary with the events it describes; e.g., the Pentagon papers, the Congressional records, the Haldeman diaries and the Nixon tapes. Primary sources are usually kept in archives and are not what one calls nice reading. (The author of the present article remembers falling asleep when reading the Acts of the Dutch parliament.)

A secondary source is essentially an afterthought of someone who wants to know what has happened and has researched the primary sources in the archives. For example, a book on the Watergate scandal will be based on documents found in the FBI archive, the President's personal file and the transcripts of the Nixon tapes. Its footnotes will refer to -for example- 'the Ehrlichmann papers, box 45'. Publications like these are, depending on the literary qualities of the author, a lot more entertaining, but the reader has to take the writer's word for it that he has used all relevant primary sources. A surprisingly large part of the debates of historians are devoted to accusations of selective use of archival material.

Secondary sources are used to write tertiary sources, which have a larger scope and ignore the details. One hopes that in a future publication like A history of the Unites States, 1945-1980, the effects of Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik on American policy-making will be taken into account, and one hopes to be spared irrelevant details about pieces of tape.

The distinction between primary, secondary and tertiary sources  is artificial; there are many works that can be classified in two categories (in the example above, one may think of the Kissinger memoirs, which are both primary and secondary sources). Nonetheless, the distinction  is useful because it offers a tool to establish the relative historical merit of these texts. When a primary and a tertiary source contradict each other, it is better to rely upon the primary source and to explain why the tertiary source has another point of view, than the other way round.

Those who want to study Alexander, have access to four tertiary sources (written in Greek and Latin), many quotes from secondary sources (all written in Greek) and one primary source. It is written in Babylonian and is also interesting because it offers a non-Greek perspective.

Astronomical diary describing the battle of Gaugamela. British museum, London (Britain).
Astronomical diary describing the battle of Gaugamela (British Museum)

A contemporary source: the Astronomical diary

If we ignore a handful of inscriptions and a passing remark by the Athenian orator Aeschines, the only contemporary, primary source on Alexander is the Astronomical diary that was kept in the Esagila, the temple of the Babylonian supreme god Marduk. It contains a day-by-day account of celestial phenomena, but also mentions other events, such as the level of the Euphrates, meteorological phenomena, food prices, incidents concerning Babylon and its temples, and political events. After all, celestial phenomena were omens of important political changes. 

From the
Astronomical diary:
the battle of Gaugamela
the death of Alexander
Nineteenth- and twentieth-century archaeologists have excavated millions of cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia and Iran, and it has been impossible to publish them all. As a consequence of this backlog, the Astronomical diary still contains lacunas. Nonetheless, it contains very interesting information, such as the prizes of commodities when Alexander's army was in Babylonian (sky high: the governor of the city had to close the market), an otherwise unknown invasion by Arabian tribesmen, and the correct dates of certain events (e.g., Alexander died on 11 June 323 BCE; more...).

The most intriguing information from the Astronomical diary, however, is related to the battle of Gaugamela, which was fought on 1 October 331. It suggests that the Persian soldiers were demoralized and states that they left their king and fled during the battle (text). This is exactly the opposite of what we read in the four tertiary sources, Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch and Arrian: they write that Darius left his soldiers.

The difference is easily explained. The battle was fought on a very dusty plain and it was impossible to see what was going on. At the end of the day, the Macedonians found themselves masters of the field, tried to reconstruct what had happened and assumed that Darius had fled. The official account of the battle was written by Callisthenes of Olynthus (below) and as we will see, the stories of Diodorus, Curtius Rufus, Plutarch and Arrian are derived from this account. Modern reconstructions of the battle of Gaugamela that ignore the Astronomical diary are therefore nothing but reconstructions of what the Macedonians thought that had happened, and not of the battle itself.

The Astronomical diary is a very important source, and we can be confident that similar sources are waiting to be discovered in the storage rooms of the modern museums. Lack of money, the present political situation in Iraq and the fact that archaeologists and assyriologists belong to different disciplines, are factors that explain why so many cuneiform tablets remain unpublished. A sorry example is the collection of the Persepolis fortification tablets: their number is estimated at 25,000-30,000 but only 3,000 have been published. Other archives from the Achaemenid and Seleucid age waiting for publication are known from Arbela, Nippur, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Ur and Susa, and it is to be expected that future excavations in the capitals of the Persian satrapies will offer an abundance of new information. It is not much exaggerated to state that those who want to study Alexander, should learn Babylonian or Persian instead of Greek.


Zoroastrian texts

Even today, the Zoroastrians (that is, the followers of the legendary prophet Zarathustra) tell stories about a serious religious persecution by 'the accursed Alexander', who killed the Iranian priests and ordered the holy book of Zoroastrianism, the Avesta, to be burned. One of these sources is the Book of Arda Wiraz, a description of heaven and hell by a religious scholar who wrote commentaries on the Avesta in the third or fourth century of the common era.
This is a very problematic text because it presumes that there were written Zoroastrian texts in the age of Alexander: after all, you can not burn a copy of the Avesta if it was not a written one. Several modern scholars have argued that in the fourth century BCE, there were no written Avesta's, and that religious traditions were transmitted orally. In their view, the writing of the Avesta did not take place before the Sasanian dynasty ruled in Persia, i.e. after 224 CE and probably even later.

In the opinion of the author of this article, this is exaggerated. The texts from the Sasanian age and later additions contain too many statements about the writing of the Avesta in the Achaemenid age to deny the existence of books categorically. The truth may be that in the days of Alexander, the Zoroastrians had a few written texts, and that Alexander has indeed tried to destroy them. (Acceptance of this hypothesis has the additional advantage that it also explains how the Gâthâ's have survived, poems from the last quarter of the second millennium BCE that are too well-preserved to be transmitted orally.)

That there were texts that Alexander could destroy, does not mean that oral traditions were not important. Texts like the Book of Arda Wiraz were written long after the events they describe, and contain information that was certainly orally transmitted.

Although oral traditions can be extremely unreliable, it is not wise to ignore them whatsoever. The Jewish Mishna, a large collection of rabbinical wisdom, offers a splendid parallel. It was written down at the end of the second century CE, long after illustrious Pharisee teachers like Hillel had died. For generations, the teachings of the Pharisees had been transmitted orally. However, no modern scholar has ever claimed that the Mishna is not a reliable source for the study of Hillel's teachings. The same holds for the Zoroastrian traditions; although they contain anachronisms and miracle stories (like the Mishna), it is likely that they contain reliable information.

Of course, they are tertiary sources and must be used with caution; nonetheless, they are useful to reconstruct the Persian side of the story, something about which our Greek sources tell us next to nothing. 

To part two (Greek and Latin sources)
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