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The good, the bad and the prejudiced: Oliver Stone's Alexander.

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Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre.
There are many flaws in Oliver Stone's movie Alexander and there's no need to repeat what has been said so often before: the endless speeches, the flat characters, or the remarkable portrayal of Alexander's homosexuality, which appears to have been either too much or not enough for the reviewers.

Still, I have the impression that the most disturbing aspect of the movie has remained unmentioned: Stone and his historical adviser, Robin Lane Fox from Oxford University, offer an extremely one-sided picture of the war between Macedonia and Persia. It is based on western sources only, as if the Near Eastern studies of the last decades have offered nothing new. Now I will immediately admit that it is easy to exaggerate the importance of a discovery, but I think that in the last quarter of a century, we have indeed obtained something valuable. The cuneiform tablets from Babylonia, which are published slowly, offer contemporary, first-hand evidence. Ancient historians are currently witnessing a breakthrough comparable to the discovery of the scrolls of the Dead Sea. Stone and Lane Fox seem to be unaware of it.

Or have they deliberately chosen to ignore it? It can be argued that the narrator of the movie is a European, Ptolemy, who cannot have been aware of Babylonian information. Not only is this untrue (many texts were immediately translated into Greek), but the movie also contains images of events at which Ptolemy cannot have been present. We are, therefore, not witnessing Ptolemy's story, but a historical reconstruction. Stone and Lane Fox have left no opportunity unused to say that they were showing events as they really must have been, so I think that we are justified to judge them by this standard.

What have the ignored Babylonian sources to offer? There is some specific information about Alexander. The Astronomical Diaries (and the Chronicles based on them) mention, for example, the course of the battle of Gaugamela, the dethronement of the Persian king Darius III Codomannus, the accession of Bessus, an execution and a satrap not recorded elsewhere, Alexander's building projects, his preparations for a war against the Arabs, the date of his death (11 June 323), and the price of food when his army was in Babylon. Even more important is that the cuneiform texts offer general information. We now have a far better idea about Near Eastern society than thirty years ago.

As a result, we can correct errors in the western sources. For example, the entire account of the battle of Gaugamela needs to be rewritten. The lunar eclipse of 20 September 331 was the worst of all possible omens and the soldiers of the Persian army knew that their king was doomed. When Alexander attacked these demoralized men, they almost immediately deserted their king. To exaggerate a bit: "Gaugamela" was no battle at all, the Macedonians were butchering refugees. The story by the Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia, in which Darius is presented as a coward, is simply wrong. The great king was deserted by his troops, not the other way round, as Stone and Lane Fox would have it.

Or, to offer another illustration: Stone's Babylon is some sort of "Playboy Mansion" with a royal harem and belly dancers. Since the days of good old Herodotus, this is the usual way to represent the cultural capital of the Near East, and in many western languages, the word "Babylon" has become shorthand for sexual scandal. However, there is simply no evidence for the prostitution mentioned by Herodotus and Curtius Rufus, or the royal harem with 365 concubines that Alexander is supposed to have taken over from king Darius. There are tens of thousands of cuneiform tablets (120,000 in the British Museum alone), and none of them offers any support for the reconstruction of Babylon that is offered by Stone and Lane Fox.

Sometimes, a Babylonian source helps us recognize significant details in our Greek and Latin sources. One of the unpleasant surprises that the Babylonians experienced was the introduction of the rack. They had no word for it, so they used the rather clumsy expression "ladder of interrogation". Alexander's excessive use of torture is merely hinted at in the classical sources but now appears to have been widely recognized as a distinguishing aspect of his policy. It's not in the movie.

What is disturbing about Alexander is that it offers a western image of a decadent Near East, full of cowardly kings and sensual women. No orientalist cliché is too grotesque. If Lane Fox had ignored thirty years of scholarship in his book on Pagans and Christians, his reputation as a serious scholar would have been damaged beyond repair. If Stone had used similar stereotypes to describe Jews, native Americans or Africans, he would have encountered a storm of indignation. Unfortunately, there is no Iranian Anti-Defamation League.

© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 9 August 2004
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