Alexander 3.2 The Vulgate

Alexander the Great (*356; r. 336-323): the Macedonian king who defeated his Persian colleague Darius III Codomannus and conquered the Achaemenid Empire. During his campaigns, Alexander visited a.o. Egypt, Babylonia, Persis, MediaBactria, the Punjab, and the valley of the Indus. In the second half of his reign, he had to find a way to rule his newly conquered countries. Therefore, he made Babylon his capital and introduced the oriental court ceremonial, which caused great tensions with his Macedonian and Greek officers.

Diodorus of Sicily

Alexander on the Alexander sarcophagus

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. (The other volumes are known from Byzantine excerpts.) After some legendary subject matter, Diodorus essentially retells Greek history with digressions on contemporary events in Rome and his hometown Agyrium. Book seventeen deals with Alexander the Great.

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

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. 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.

Q. Curtius Rufus

Alexander with an elephant's skin

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. Between 31 and 41, Curtius composed the History of Alexander, which he published under the emperor Claudius.note

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 two first 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.

The "vulgate": Cleitarchus

Medaillon of Alexander

Q. Curtius Rufus and Diodorus of Sicily are tertiary sources, who based themselves on 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.

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. Although Cleitarchus' own books are now lost, we know his stories from Diodorus' Library of World History and the History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia by Curtius Rufus. Because these authors retell the stories in often almost identical words, we have 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 accounts 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 perhaps 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.