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Alexander the Great: the 'vulgate' tradition

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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 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, the texts from the 'vulgate' tradition are discussed. (For oriental sources, go here; for the 'good' tradition, go here.)
Source criticism
Contemporary sources
Zoroastrian texts
Diodorus of Sicily
Q. Curtius Rufus
The 'vulgate': Cleitarchus
Official propaganda: Callisthenes
Arrian of Nicomedia
Aristobulus and others
Plutarch of Chaeronea

Diodorus of Sicily

The oldest surviving Greek source on the conquests of Alexander is book seventeen of the Library of world history by the Sicilian author Diodorus, who was active between 65/60 and 35/30 BCE and worked in both Alexandria and Rome.

Diodorus' Library consisted of forty books, of which 1-5 and 11-20 survive completely (the other volumes are known from Byzantine excerpts). The first book deals with the legendary past of Egypt; the second with the ancient history of Assyria and Babylonia (based on the History of the Persians by Ctesias); and Libya is dealt with in the third book. In the next three books, the Greek antiquities are described. Book seven deals with the Trojan War, and after that, Diodorus retells Greek history until the reign of Alexander in ten books. These books contain digressions on contemporary events in Rome and Agyrium, the otherwise almost unknown town on Sicily where Diodorus was born. The history of the Mediterranean world after Alexander's death is the subject of books 18-40. It may be noted that books 11-20 are the only surviving continuous account of the Greek 'classical' age.

As a historian, Diodorus is as good as his sources:

  • the History of Ephorus of Cyme on Greece until 356;
  • an unknown author on the the years 359-336, i.e. the reign of the Macedonian king Philip (Diodorus' sixteenth book; an example is the description of the battle of Chaeronea);
  • Cleitarchus' History on the conquests of Alexander (book seventeen; an example is the account of the sack of Persepolis);
  • the book by Hieronymus of Cardia on the wars after Alexander's death (an example is the description of Alexander's last plans); and so on.
Modern scholars have severely criticized Diodorus, who was, in their vision, uncritical. This is exaggerated and the latest research offers something of a rehabilitation: the Sicilian author wanted to write an easily accessible world history, and knows how to tell a story. His theme, how disunited cultures were growing to one Mediterranean civilization under Roman rule, is well-worked out and was certainly appreciated by his contemporaries.

Alexander played an important role in the Library of world history. After all, he brought Egypt, the Achaemenid empire, Libya and Greece in closer contact with each other - four civilizations that Diodorus has already introduced in books 1-4, long before he begins to write about Alexander himself.

Diodorus' source for his book on Alexander was Cleitarchus, a secondary source that will be discussed below

From Diodorus' Library:
bull of Phalaris
battle of Chaeronea
accession of Darius
Alexander's army
sack of Persepolis
Alexander and the exiles
Alexander & Chaldaeans
Alexander's last plans
revolt of the veterans
death of Antipater
death of Arridaeus
'freedom for the Greeks'
death of Alexander IV
Babylonian war
Demetrius in Babylonia
siege of Rhodes
foundation of Halos


Q. Curtius Rufus

Disregarding some minor authors, Quintus Curtius Rufus is the only Roman writer whose work, the History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, on Alexander has survived. The author was probably a military commander who rose to a senatorial position under the emperor Tiberius, who parried criticism on Curtius' lowly birth (son of a gladiator) with the quip that here at last was a man who owed his career to himself. However, Curtius' road to the top was barred after the fall of his patron, the notorious Seianus. Between 31 and 41, Curtius composed the History of Alexander, which he published under the emperor Claudius. He was consul in 43 and died in 53 as governor of Africa. (Main source: Cornelius Tacitus, Annals, 11.20-21).

Originally, the History of Alexander consisted of ten books, and although the work was very popular in the Middle Ages (it is known from more than a hundred manuscripts), the first two books are now missing. They contained the events between the accession of Alexander and the death of the Persian commander Memnon of Rhodes. Our manuscripts start when the Macedonian army marched through Phrygia, in the Spring of 333; the last book ends with the burial of Alexander's body in a golden sarcophagus, which was later brought to Egypt (321).

Taken as a whole, it is a very fascinating book, although it contains many errors. Both can be explained from the fact that it has Cleitarchus as its source: the author of this secondary source had, as we will see below, written a fine history that focused on Alexander's presumed psychological development - from a brilliant young conqueror to a paranoid despot. This psychological dimension makes Curtius' History of Alexander good reading and the Roman readers must have seen through it: of course, the real subject was not Alexander, but their tyrannical emperor Caligula. Curtius also copies Cleitarchus' mistakes, although he is not an uncritical imitator: he has read other sources (Ptolemy, Aristobulus) and sometimes corrects his model. Curtius may not have been a great historian, but he certainly tried to be critical, and -as we shall see below- he offers many interesting stories that we do not find in our best source, Arrian, to which he is a valuable addition.

From Curtius Rufus'
History of Alexander:
The fall of Tyre
The death of Batis
The surrender of Babylon
The Babylonian women
The Hindu Kush
The Bactrian desert
Bacchanal in Carmania
After Alexander's death

The 'vulgate': Cleitarchus

Q. Curtius Rufus and Diodorus of Sicily are tertiary sources, who elaborated a secondary source, the History of Alexander by Cleitarchus. According to one source (Pliny the Elder, Natural history 3.57-58), this author was in Babylon when Alexander received an embassy from Rome; it may be true, but it is a bit strange that Curtius does not mention the presence of Roman envoys, although he and his audience must have liked this detail from Cleitarchus' history. On the other hand, Curtius Rufus' texts contains lacunas. There are no other indications that Cleitarchus met Alexander.

What is certain, however, is that Cleitarchus lived in Alexandria and was the son of a historian named Dinon of Colophon, who was the author of a Persian history (now lost). Cleitarchus may have started his research after Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals and the future king of Egypt, had ordered Alexander's dead body to be brought to Egypt; the History of Alexander was finished between 310 and 301. (Probably in the first part of this period, because there is one clue that Ptolemy's account of Alexander's wars, which appeared after the History of Alexander, was published before 301.)

His main source may have been the work of Alexander's court historian Callisthenes of Olynthus (to be discussed below). However, this work only covered the period until 329, and Cleitarchus added information from other sources; among these were the memoirs of Onesicritus of Astypalaea and Nearchus, Alexander's helmsman and his fleet commander. Another source of information was available in Alexandria: there were many Macedonian and Greek veterans living in this city, and they must have told Cleitarchus about their adventures. Perhaps Cleitarchus had already to make notes in Babylon.

His book was -if popularity is an indicator- the most entertaining history of Alexander's conquests. It offered many vivid descriptions and eyewitness accounts, usually from a soldier's point of view. We know these stories from Diodorus' Library of world history and the History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia by Curtius Rufus, because Cleitarchus' own book is now lost. However, Diodorus and Curtius Rufus retell the stories often in almost identical words, which gives us a good idea of the History of Alexander. The following texts are examples:

These stories all go back to eyewitnesses; a man like the court historian Callisthenes would not write about the mass crucifixion at Tyre, and the history of Ptolemy -which was written from a commander's point of view- would not deal with the difficulties that the soldiers experienced in the Hindu Kush. To modern historians, the value of Cleitarchus (that is: Diodorus and Curtius) is the presence of these details, which would otherwise be unknown.

Another aspect of Cleitarchus' work that deserves to be mentioned, is the psychological portrait of Alexander, which is painted in dark shades. In Cleitarchus' opinion, the young king was corrupted by his constant good fortune and became an alcoholic, a tyrant, and a murderer. Modern scholars do not deny the facts that Cleitarchus mention, but tend to give another interpretation. For example, according to Curtius/Cleitarchus, Alexander started to change after the death of his opponent king Darius III of Persia; from then on there was no check on Alexander's vices. But many incidents that should prove this psychological development, can better be explained from the fact that Alexander had to behave as a Persian king if he wanted to be accepted by his new subjects.

Summing up, we can say that Cleitarchus' work combined vivid descriptions, eyewitness accountants and a dark psychological portrait of Alexander. He also delights in fantastic tales and he sometimes sacrificed historical reliability to keep the story entertaining and to stress the psychological development. Therefore, Cleitarchus' History of Alexander contains many errors (some serious).

Cleitarchus' work is often called 'the vulgate' (Diodorus and Curtius Rufus being 'the vulgate tradition'). It is indeed a popular story: its contains romantic details, a convincing (but incorrect) psychological portrait, fantastic stories. It is certainly not a bad source, but as we shall see below, modern historians prefer the account of Arrian, which is based on terse primary sources like Ptolemy. These are called the 'good' tradition. 


To part three (the 'good' tradition)

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