An Idea of Alexander

During the Enlightenment, Alexander the Great was reinvented as an esoteric ideal.

Idealised portrait relief of Alexander the Great by Landolin Ohnmacht (1760-1834).

One’s first thought on contemplating this behemoth is of the Italian phrase meaning that all translators are traducers. What the publishers had in mind when they translated Pierre Briant’s Alexandre des lumières: Fragments d’histoire européenne as The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire is beyond me. ‘Alexander’ does stand for Alexander the Great, but ‘Age of Empire’ in no way corresponds to the (Age of) Enlightenment. The phrase ‘First European’ is simply borrowed from the subheading of one of the book’s chapters.

Fortunately, few readers will be discouraged by an unhelpful title when the author’s name bears the authority of a genuine successor to the scholarly giants of a former generation, such as Elias Bickerman and Arnaldo Momigliano. 

Briant is emeritus professor at the Collège de France, holding a special brief for the history of the Achaemenid Persian world (c.550-330 BC) and the empire of Alexander the Great (r.336-323 BC). He has written the standard work on that Persian empire, a compact study of Alexander – both translated into English – and various studies of how those two subjects have been received in scholarly works from the 15th century on. It is to the latter, reception-studies genre, that this new book belongs. It focuses on Alexander-studies published mainly in French and Latin during the ‘long 18th century’.

Alexander was of intense interest to the leading scholars – philosophers, historians, politicians, polemicists – of that effervescent age, during which the foundations of our own were laid. One is amazed, too, at the prodigious labour of scholarship that Briant has devoted to this mountain of literature, manufactured by more than one republic of letters. The book is bottom-heavy: its notes and bibliography occupy about a third of its pagination. Besides reading and digesting the relevant original sources, Briant has written no fewer than 18 articles and two books in preparation for composing this one. 

Two main movements of Alexander-reception can be discerned within Briant’s compass. First, there is what might be called a conventionally ‘Plutarchan’ Alexander, which sees him as a modern moral exemplar. It is not an unequivocally positive view, but rather an Alexander divided schizophrenically between a ‘good’ model to imitate or revere from afar (military genius, chivalrous in victory, an exemplar of post-Renaissance princely virtue) and a ‘bad’ one, to shun and excoriate (autocratic despot, bloodstained purger of alleged plotters both at court and within his own family, indiscriminate slaughterer of Asiatic peoples ‘without the law’).

But somewhere around  the mid-18th century the true period of Enlightenment dawns. Through the sharp eyes and fluent pens of the Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Presbyterian Scot William Robertson, a ‘new’ Alexander is fashioned. He is no longer confined to the sphere of personal ethics but is let loose on the broadest plane of international commerce, thanks to his conquests of ‘Egypt’ and ‘India’ (the Indus valley of Kashmir and Pakistan today). Admittedly, this is an esoteric Alexander, who opens trade routes up and down the Tigris south of Babylon. It is an Alexander that the Russian émigré historian Mikhail Rostovtzeff would have embraced, but one less dear to the heart of the scholar who in a sense ‘invented’ the post-Alexander ‘Hellenistic’ period of ancient Greek history, the German Johann Gustav Droysen. 

For Droysen, Alexander was almost a John the Baptist avant la lettre. His conquests, and the consequent spread of Greek as the language of administration and culture to the Middle East, created a ‘catholic’ readership and audience of Hellenised Jews and ex-Jews such as (St) Paul of Tarsus for a unified Greek ‘Bible’. The brand-New Testament was spatchcocked uneasily onto the ‘Old’; that is the Septuagint, the Greek-translated Hebrew Bible. Momigliano wrote acutely of a Droysen ‘between Greeks and Jews’. Elias Bickerman commented on ‘the Europeanisation of the Classical East, apropos a book of Rostovtzeff’. Some scholars claim that the true ‘Mediterranean’ is today no longer the pool of water so labelled by the ancient Romans. Rather it is a ‘central Asia’, where the interests and the long, ever lengthening arms of Russia, China and India embrace. Briant’s Alexander – or, more accurately, Alexanders – would not necessarily consider that to be an alien world.

The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire
Pierre Briant
Nicholas Elliott (trans.)
Harvard University Press 496pp  £25

Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge.