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One Book, Two Views: Heckel & Tritle, Alexander the Great. A New History

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Once, Alexander the Great was portrayed as a noble conqueror, who aimed at the unification of mankind. Although many people are still familiar with this interpretation from TV - the Macedonian king was presented in this way during the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens - or the internet, it is outdated. Since the horrors of the Second World War, historians have become suspicious about Enlightened Political Leaders Fighting For Great Ideals, and since the Decolonization, western scholars have learned to appreciate the cultural achievements of the Near East, ancient and modern. They also discovered that the spread of Greek civilization was not always a blessing. For example, the “the ladder of interrogation” (i.e., the torture rack) was introduced in the courts of Babylonia. With these things in mind, historians have painted a different portrait of Alexander, using various shades of grey and black.

When two diametrically opposed views can exist, scholars have usually fallen victim to a false dichotomy (“if Alexander was not good, he must have been bad”). In situations like these, often a third view will arise that offers something new and explains how the earlier perspectives could have been created. This has indeed happened. Over the past three decades, many cuneiform sources have been published, and a new synthesis on the history of Achaemenid Persia has been created. Some of Alexander's acts can now be explained as accommodation to eastern legal practice. Certain terrible punishments that were once explained away or interpreted as evidence of Alexander's cruelty, are now seen as a way to continue Persian customs. The Macedonian king, it has been argued, wanted to be an Achaemenid.

In Alexander the Great. A New History (2009) Waldermar Heckel and Lawrence Tritle present several articles, mostly written especially for this book. Compared to similar publications, the quality ranges from better-than-average to good. There's an interesting piece on Alexander's Macedonian background and there are two articles on the successors; we can read about Alexander's court, army, cults, sex life, mother, conquests, portraits; his relation to Greece is the subject of two articles; Darius and Alexander's relation to the Persian Empire are dealt with in two pieces; the fashionable subject of "the Roman Alexander" is present too, and the final chapter is on the paintings of LeBrun and the Oliver Stone movie.

Does the book offer, as the title suggests, a new Alexander? Not yet. Some authors ignore the potential of the cuneiform evidence. We can hardly blame them, because these sources are published frustratingly slowly and it is still possible to write an interesting article with the old evidence.

The simple truth is that, although there is a new synthesis of the history of Achaemenid Empire in general, new cuneiform sources for the reign of Alexander are still scarce. It was only in 1993 that scholars realized that the Persian king mentioned in the chronicle known as ABC 8 was not Darius the Great but Darius III. The consequences of this redating are still debated.

It's just one of about 100,000 unpublished Babylonian tablets in the British Museum. There are simply too many texts, and there are not enough funds, to publish them. One day, we will overcome the old good/bad Alexander dichotomy, but for the time being, scholars cannot realize the full potential of the cuneiform evidence. In short, a revolution has started, but it is too early to know its consequences. Alexander the Great. A New History can, therefore, not yet offer a new Alexander. His portrait is right now being painted.

Still, for the time being, this is a state-of-the-art series of articles.


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The trouble is that scholars have allowed the art itself to become increasingly marginalized. If the book is not what the reader may reasonably expect, it is because ancient historians have failed to keep up with the developments in scholarship in general. Heckel and Tritle's Alexander the Great, although a book that is for  a book on ancient history better than average, can also serve to illustrate that the discipline in general is in decline.

The books starts with the self-congratulatory remark that "One of the strengths of this volume is that it includes contributions by scholars outside the English-speaking world". Apparently, it can no longer be taken for granted that historians read foreign publications. If I were working at a university, I'd feel humiliated, make a plan to achieve the normal level again, and would be working frantically to implement it. The team of Heckel and Tritle, on the other hand, is happy when it reaches the level society expects from its scholars, and even claims that it is a strength when it reaches normalcy.

At first, I thought this was just an unfortunate sentence. But it isn't. The subtitle of the book, A New History, introduces a similar error. Heckel tries to offer a definition of "new" and mentions that some of his authors provide a new synthesis of their topics while others present fresh approaches. There is room for debate, and this is what Heckel calls new. But debate, synthesis, and fresh approaches are, for scholars, business as usual. Heckel's definition means that any historical publication is always new, which means that there is no need to focus in the subtitle on the newness of the views in a book.

The real problem, however, is not that Heckel's "new" is a platitude. He ignores that for theoreticians, "new" has a specific meaning. In the 1960's and 1970s, science and scholarship experienced a profound crisis when it was recognized that truth claims are impossible to test. The best-known book from this period is Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he proved that scientists and scholars can only achieve progress within a certain framework of knowledge ("paradigm"). Replacing these frameworks was an irrational process. For example, the replacement of the old view of Alexander as an enlightened ruler who wanted the unification of humankind by the present, darker view, was caused less by rational arguments or new sources than by a shift in western ideas about non-western civilizations, which was in turn caused by the Decolonization.

As a result of this epistemological incertitude, scientific and scholarly funding can no longer be based on truth claims. Other criterions must be used. One of these is methodological innovation, or, as Imre Lakatos famously called it, "a progressive research program". Or, to say it in normal words: whether a discipline can offer something new.

Heckel and Tritle might easily have produced a book that offered, by the normal scholarly definition of the word, a "new" Alexander. After all, there have been methodological innovations. For example, quantification of the number of coins issued by ancient kings has created new insights. François de Callata˙ and V.K. Golenko have shown that the amount of money captured by Alexander in Susa and Persepolis equaled the amount of money spent on warfare by the Successors until the battle of Ipsus (301). This became, therefore, the last battle of a series of wars because no money was left. A fascinating conclusion, I'd say, that invites more research. Yet, numismatics are conspicuously absent from Heckel and Tritle's book. Nor is there any attention for the important recent contributions from paleoclimatology (Alexander greatly benefited from a climatic anomaly between 335 and 325). The fascinating rise of a fourth historical explanatory model, derived from social physics, is also carefully ignored - all explanations in Alexander the Great are hermeneutical. They might as well have been offered a century ago.

The inherent subjectivity of the hermeneutic explanatory model makes another innovation even more urgent. It is called "reflexivity", is commonly associated with the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu, and means that an analysis in the social sciences must involve both the object and the subject. If our changing vision of Alexander is determined by changes in our own society - think of the Decolonisation again - a historian can overcome part of the inevitable subjectivity if he explicitly takes into account how he is influenced by his own day and age. The "end of postmodernism" and the "return of history" (if I may summarize our present cultural climate with these two catchphrases) influence our view of the past, and if Heckel and Tritle had taken this into account, they would have produced a much more innovative book. But they didn't. The only way they acknowledge the influence of our own age is a series of remarks about that Oliver Stone movie.

By no scholarly definition, this book's Alexander is "new". The word is used here in a completely different sense, namely in the way it is used in commercial advertisements: this detergent has a new formula, that mobile telephone has new gadgets, and so on.

I do not know what this means. It is possible that today's historians, who are less certain of the funding of their projects than they used to be and have to "sell" their projects, have become influenced by the way commercial companies present their products. In an age in which the Departments of Education describe scholarship in economic terms, presenting scholars as producers of a certain quantity of knowledge per year, it is only likely that academics are influenced by ways of thought that are in fact foreign to scholarship. The same happens in museums: the exposition of Flavian Propaganda now in the Colosseum is called "Vespasian", without any historian complaining that this is simply untrue. In the same way, "The New Alexander" sells better than "Articles on Alexander".

An alternative explanation is that Heckel and Tritle are insufficiently aware of the wider context of scholarship. When historians or archaeologists speak about "interdisciplinary research", they invariably mean "multidisciplinary research", because they're unaware of the relevant definitions. Similarly, it is possible that the authors of Alexander the Great know more about their specialism than about scholarship in general.

Of course, there is no book that is so bad that we cannot learn something from it. As I already indicated in the first part of this article, the articles themselves are certainly interesting and I stress that Alexander the Great. A New History is better than other ancient history books. However, it illustrates that ancient history has become dangerously isolated from the main developments in historiography (the rise of social physics ought not to have been ignored in a book that wants to show what's new) and the other social sciences (a reflexive analysis might have served to limit the subjectivity of the hermeneutical explanations). The book is unfortunate illustration of the sad fact that today's ancient historians are incapable of maintaining the normal quality standards.

Waldemar Heckel and Lawrence A. Tritle, Alexander the Great. A New History (2009 London)

İ Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2011
Revision: 31 Jan 2011
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