: Alexander the Great in the Roman Empire, 150 bc to ad 600 London  2019. ISBN 978-1-138-31586-0

: Alexander the Great in the Early Christian Tradition. Classical Reception and Patristic Literature. London  2019. ISBN 978-1-7883-1164-9

: Alexander the Great in Arrian’s ›Anabasis‹. A Literary Portrait. Berlin  2019. ISBN 978-3-11-065873-6

Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Guendalina Daniela Maria Taietti, Classics and Ancient History, University of Liverpool

The scholarship on the life and deeds of Alexander the Great has seen different shifts over the decades: from an Alexander-centric view, we have turned our attention to Eastern perceptions of the Macedonian campaign in the East and to the evaluation of different types of sources; from attempts to reconstruct a “historical Alexander”, we have started appreciating the literary value of the Alexander-historians per se. Peltonen, Djurslev and Liotsakis’ books respond to both the surge of interest in the reception of Alexander in the Roman period and to the need for a complete analysis of its vast Imperial literature referring to the Macedonian.

In his book, Peltonen explores the various stories of Alexander and their use by about seventy classical and post-classical authors to promote their political, philosophical, personal and religious beliefs. The analyzed texts are dated from the end of the Republic to Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages, thus showing continuity and changes of ideas among those who exploited the myths and the deeds of the Macedonian. Djurslev deals with the image and role of Alexander in early Christian literature, from the reign of Marcus Aurelius to Constantine, when, according to him, the major components of Alexander’s Christian reception took shape. Liotsakis focuses on one single author of the Imperial era, Arrian, whose literary mastery has not been duly discussed yet, despite his prominence among the Alexander-historians.

Peltonen’s book represents a revised and expanded version of his doctoral thesis submitted to the Tampere University in 2017, and is composed of an introduction, four main chapters (2. Alexander in an empire of Romans, Greeks, and Jews; 3. Alexander as a model of behavior; 4. Alexander in relations of power and influence; 5. Alexander in Christian apologia) and a conclusion. Completing the book there are two extremely useful appendices (1. Primary sources; 2. Chronological distribution of the data), a rich bibliography[1], and an index.

The introduction deals with the discussion of the sources, the methodology adopted, the aims, and the scholarship on the topic. Peltonen acknowledges the importance of Sulochana Asirvatham’s work on the Macedonians in the Second Sophistic and of Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander (2002) in the study of the reception of Alexander in Roman culture, but stresses the different goal of his book, which is to “offer a pragmatic view of the past as a rhetorical practice, with the purpose of achieving certain ideological goals”. The book is not about the historical Alexander, nor about his relevance in Roman culture, but explores how authors chose Alexander-exempla from the past and why they presented them in a certain way. Peltonen reminds the reader of his aims throughout the book, making the material accessible to non-experts and his reasonings easy to follow, despite the fact that the language lacks clarity in some passages – a problem faced by many non-native speakers.

Chapter 2 evaluates the use of Alexander as a means of self-definition and discrimination between them and “the others” by authors from different cultural identities. Roman Latin writers of the early Empire avail themselves of Alexander to assess the princeps’ rule, prompting him to remain faithful to the mores maiorum, the values that made Rome great; Roman Greek authors present Alexander as a Hellenic hero and an invincible general with great military virtues, to proclaim the superiority of their Greek paideia. Jewish authors also use Alexander to reassert their uniqueness, but while the second-century BC author of the Maccabees portrays Alexander in a critical tone – he being the precursor of Antiochus IV (175-164 BC), the destroyer of Jerusalem, in the Jewish Antiquities Josephus (I century AD) narrates Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem in a positive fashion, with the patriotic aim of teaching Rome to respect the Jews and their God as the Macedonian king did. In the Late Empire, Alexander appears in comparationes in panegyrics not only to show the greatness of the ruling emperor, but also as a historical exemplum to illustrate contemporary issues; thus, Alexander fighting the Persian Empire paves the way to the Roman emperor defeating the Sassanid Persians.

Chapter 3 considers the philosophical and pedagogical discourse over Alexander; it emerges that contrasting views such as the philosopher-king and the barbarous, immature tyrant were “both popular ways of presenting Alexander in philosophically oriented moralistic writings”.

Chapter 4 explores the ways in which Roman authors portray Alexander as a king who valued friendship (see the physician Philip or Hephaestion) and/or as a good/bad patron of arts. These images are found in private letters and public orations of authors who seek to gain favor and status in the social networks of the Roman elites. Again, Peltonen makes it clear that these authors were not interested in assessing the historical Alexander, but were rather using him as an exemplum taken from the Classical tradition to appeal to their masters or audience.

Chapter 5 evaluates the religious use of Alexander by Christian and Jewish authors from the second to the fifth century AD. Alexander’s wrong doings are presented as the result of Aristotle’s teachings and offer proof of the superiority of Christian paideia to the Classical one. The chapter has an interesting section on how fourth and fifth-century Christian texts on asceticism exploit Alexander’s encounters with Diogenes and the Brahmans to show the superiority of ascetic life. It concludes with a dense interpretation of the religious meanings and overtones given to some exempla on Alexander which helped Christian and Jewish writers to promote their worldview.[2] Since Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem and Daniel’s descriptions of the succession of rules play an important role in this chapter, as they did in chapter 2, the reader feels like the book concludes having cohesively proven that during the Roman Empire there was not a single, coherent view of Alexander nor a historical one, as “for ancient authors representing different sociocultural groups, the figure of Alexander mattered more as a rhetorical tool”.

I strongly recommend Peltonen’s book as a vademecum of references to Alexander in the Roman culture spanning from the second century BC to the sixth AD, and I am thankful for his attempts to show the importance of Alexander in the self-definition of the different socio-cultural, religious and ethnic entities living in the empire. Alexander the Great in the Roman Empire also provides the reader with the background knowledge to appreciate the reception of the Macedonian in Christian literature, which is the topic of Djurslev’s book.

Alexander the Great in the early Christian tradition – a revised version of his doctoral thesis submitted at the University of Exeter in 2016 – consists of four chapters (1. Apologists and Co.; 2. Classical Themes and Christian Tradition; 3. Tales from Judea and the Diaspora; 4. History and Rhetoric), which are framed by an introduction, a conclusion, and an epilogue (Writing Alexander, Writing Constantine).

The beautifully written introduction explains the aims of the book: to tell “a story of what the first Christians said about Alexander and why”; it sets the chronological frame (mid-second century AD-325 AD, the “formative age” of the Christian ideas about Alexander), and poses questions which the reader should bear in mind when approaching the early Christian tradition on Alexander.

Chapter 1 is a useful survey of Christian authors who refer to Alexander, which goes from Tatian of Assyria to Jerome of Stridon; the survey already brings about some of the differences and similarities with the Classicizing and Jewish authors of the period, and refers the reader to the other chapters for further discussion.

Chapter 2 explores how Christian authors develop or reject three major themes inherited from Classical tradition. The first theme, Alexander’s education, is centered on the relationship between the Macedonian and his teachers – especially Aristotle – and his encounter with the Brahmans. While Classical authors use this material to portray Alexander as a philosopher-king, Christian writers shift their attention to his excesses and violent actions, seeing them as proof of the falsity of pagan philosophy.[3] The second theme, Alexander’s epistolography, was exploited in a new fashion: Christian authors made the most of a pseudo-letter in which Alexander writes to his mother Olympias that the Egyptian gods were actually men. As the letter debunks Egyptian religion, it was used to prove the superiority of Christian arguments against Paganism. The third theme, Alexander’s wish for deification, is a “missed chance” for the Christians to deride Greek culture and attack the Macedonian. In fact, references to the myths related to Alexander’s birth are rare in early Christian authors, who, with the exception of Clement, “tended not to capitalize on Alexander’s death as evidence against his deification” either. Djurslev acknowledges the peculiarity of this phenomenon and adds that “the Christian corpus contains relatively few instances of personal attacks on Alexander”; however, the reader is left with no firm clarification on the reasons behind the Christians’ choice of not using the Macedonian as a rhetorical tool against deification.

Chapter 3 investigates the influence of Jewish tradition on Christian authors, specifically in regards to Alexandria as Alexander’s city, Alexander and the Bible, and Josephus’ account of Alexander’s alleged visit to Jerusalem. This dense chapter elegantly shows how Jewish tradition made Alexander directly relevant to the Christian world.

Chapter 4 analyses the different approaches adopted by Christian writers to integrate Alexander in their historiography. Classical and Jewish material, comparationes and exemplum literature played an important role in Christian chronicle literature. In the conclusion, Djurslev stresses the importance Alexander had in the Christian self-definitions, and that Christianity mattered for Alexander’s tradition too.

The epilogue compares Eusebius’ Life of Constantine to the Alexander tradition, showing the many similarities and the importance of exemplum analysis when it comes to understanding the Christian approach to the Macedonian.

The bibliographical list is accurate and rich, although it stops in 2018, thus lacking important contributions to the field, such as Peltonen’s Alexander the Great in the Roman Empire. An index locorum and a general index complete the book, both very useful and well-structured; here the inclusion of a section with the central original passages (and their English translation) discussed in the book might have been beneficial to both the students approaching these authors for the first time and the experienced scholars in Christian studies.

The book is an enjoyable read and has the great merit to offer an in-depth analysis of Christian sources which are often neglected in Alexander studies; it shows the similarities between the Christian and the Classical (Pagan) tradition on Alexander, and enriches the reader with knowledge on patristic literature.

Conversely, Liotsakis focuses on a well-known Alexander-historian, Arrian of Nicomedia. Liotsakis’ book, composed between 2016 and 2019, is a literary portrait of Arrian’s Alexander, i.e. it aims at offering a narrative analysis of the Anabasis, shedding light on the author’s style and interpretation of the Macedonian king. As Liotsakis makes clear in the introduction, despite Arrian’s popularity, there are only a few monographs on the Anabasis, namely the works of Philip Stadter, Henry Tonnet and Brian Bosworth – mostly published in the 1980s and followed by Bogdan Burliga in 2013, and none of them is devoted to the thorough analysis of the Nicomedian’s narrative skills.[4] With his book, Liotsakis endeavors to give justice to the Anabasis’ literary qualities and techniques.

The book comprises an introduction, four chapters (1. Overall Design: From Praise to Criticism; 2. March-Narrative and Characterization; 3. Atemporality and Characterization; 4. Arrian Homericus: Alexander, the Epic Hero), general conclusions, a bibliography, an index nominum et rerum and an index locorum.

The introduction is informative and lays out clearly the subject and the aims of the book (a literary analysis of Arrian’s Anabasis), the previous scholarship on Arrian, the methodology adopted, and a concise overview of the four central chapters of the book, which show different aspects of the historian’s modus narrandi.

Chapter 1 focuses on the narrative techniques through which Arrian expresses his criticism towards certain aspects of Alexander’s character. Liotsakis recognizes that the Macedonian’s intellectual skills and dexterity in the conduct of war are praised throughout the Anabasis, but he seeks to develop the idea, shared by many scholars, that Arrian also describes a moral decay of his hero, especially in the last years of campaign. Liotsakis claims that the Anabasis has a moral plot that unfolds from praise in the first three books to criticism of Alexander in the last four books, and proves that by juxtaposing the two parts of the work in respect to the siege descriptions and the people confronted. The idea that in the Anabasis Alexander is not a morally static character is also sustained in chapters 2 and 3. The former deals with the so-called “march-narratives”, the way Arrian portrays Alexander in his marches from station to station, their framing, and the choice of technical and geographical details; the latter explores how different types of anachrony, such as the gaps generated by the individual-focused narration, the atemporal collection of episodes or the long digressions, disrupt the rectilinear, chronological order of the march-narrative to shape the dynamic portrait of Alexander, with the changes in his personality and moral values.

In Chapter 4 Liotsakis discusses the Homeric aspects and coloring of the Anabasis, which can be traced in the use of Homer’s language, in battle descriptions, and in Alexander’s aristeia (and Darius’ lack of it). This chapter is particularly interesting because it seeks to assess Arrian’s personal stance in the traditional association of Alexander with the Homeric world and the epic character of ancient historiography. In the conclusions, Liotsakis stresses once again Arrian’s independence from his sources and the originality of his work, both in his judgment of Alexander and in his narrative choices.

Liotsakis’ book has the merit to show the Anabasis’ worth as a literary and historiographical piece, and to reassess Arrian’s narrative skills, who cannot be considered a mere compiler anymore. The book is convincing, although a little further discussion of Arrian’s intellectual and historical context – not only as an Alexander-historian, but also as an author of the Second Sophistic and a Greek living in the Early Roman Empire – would have benefitted the broader assessment of his story-telling techniques and skills.

To conclude, Peltonen, Djurslev and Liotsakis constitute a nice “triad of Roman Alexander-books”: Peltonen explores the rhetorical reshaping of Alexander as a means to self-definition and promotion of the different ethnicities of the Late Republic/Early Empire; Djurslev narrows his focus and investigates the importance of the Macedonian in Early Christianity and the contribution of Christian authors in the reception of Alexander; Liotsakis shifts the interest from Alexander and the historical background of the Empire to one author, Arrian, and seeks to single out his literary skills. Together, the three books offer a panoramic of the rich and polymorphous use of the Macedonian in Imperial rhetoric, literature and historiography, be it Roman, Greek, Christian or Jewish; they show the role that self-definition and rhetoric played in the shaping of the Roman Alexander, and demonstrate conclusively that the reconstruction of a “historical Alexander” and of a “factual” history of the Macedonian campaign is problematic. Peltonen, Djurslev and Liotsakis have illustrated the beauty of the authors of the Imperial era, who did not just repeat known facts of Alexander’s life, but chose their sources wisely and molded them according to their political, philosophical, religious or literary agenda.

[1] The bibliography is rich, and there could be added just a few suggestions: Luigi Alfonsi, Sul passo liviano relativo ad Alessandro Magno, in: Hermes XC (1962), pp. 506–506; Drora Baharal, Caracalla and Alexander the Great. a reappraisal, in: Carl Deroux (eds.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History VII. Collection Latomus 227, Bruxelles 1994, pp. 524–567; David L. Balch, The Cultural Origin of „Receiving All Nations“ in Luke-Acts. Alexander the Great or Roman Social Policy?, in: John T. Fitzgerald / Thomas H. Olbricht / L. Michael White (eds.), Early Christianity and Classical Culture. Comparative Studies in Honor of Abraham J. Malherbe (Brill’s Supplements to Novum Testamentum 110), Leiden–Boston 2003, pp. 483–500; Glenn Barnett, Emulating Alexander. How Alexander’s the Great legacy fuelled the Roman wars with Persia, Barnsley 2017; Carlo Franco, L’ immagine di Alessandro in Giuliano imperatore, in: SCO XLVI.2 (1997–1998), pp. 637–658; Monaco Caterine Mallory, Alexander-Imitators in the Age of Trajan. Plutarch’s Demetrius and Pyrrhus, in: The Classical Journal 112.4 (2017), pp. 406–430; Devon J. Martin, Did Pompey engage in „imitatio Alexandri“?, in. Carl Deroux (eds.), Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History IX. Collection Latomus 244, Bruxelles 1998, pp. 23–51; Nikolaus Leo Overtoom, A Roman Tradition of Alexander the Great Counterfactual History, in: Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 52.3 (2012), pp. 203–212; Marta Sordi, Alessandro e i Romani, in: Rendiconti dell’Istituto Lombardo di Scienze e Lettere [Milano] XCIX (1965), pp. 435–452.
[2] On the other hand, the lack of Diogenes the Cynic in the Early Christian sources (up to the fourth century AD) is highlighted by Djurslev in chapter 2 of his book.
[3] Cf. Peltonen, chapter 5.
[4] Philip A. Stadter, Arrian of Nicomedia, Chapel Hill 1980; Henry Tonnet, Recherches sur Arrien. Sa personnalité et ses écrits atticistes I-II, Amsterdam 1988; A. Brian Bosworth, Arrian’s Literary Development, in: CQ 22 (1972), pp. 163–185; A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Vol. I: Books I–III, Oxford 1980; From Arrian to Alexander. Studies in Historical Interpretation. Oxford 1988; A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Vol. II: Books IV–V. Oxford 1995; Bogdan Burliga, Arrian’s Anabasis. an intellectual and cultural story, Gdańsk 2013