David Grant, Alexander the Great A Battle for Truth and Fiction (Pen & Sword, 2022)
David Grant describes the ancient sources as, ‘that knotted and frayed ball of historically intertwined string’. They are riddled with problems, awash in unreliability, and seemingly worthless if the depressing introduction is anything to go by. Grant spends the next 200 pages reinforcing that view.
Grant begins with the primary sources, those closest to Alexander, and those writing during the wars of Alexander’s Successors, which makes them suspect almost by definition as they promoted their candidates to inherit Alexander’s legacy. Grant also highlights chronological issues leading to problems in the historiography. He then moves onto the secondary Roman sources and their cultural filters. Here Grant introduces the damaging art of rhetoric that permeated historical writing along with the historians he describes as the Compiler, Entertainer, Preacher, and the Romanized Soldier, all of them labelled ‘misdirecting preservatives’. Grant also attacks the numbers used in battle descriptions and the Roman acceptance of them, which seems a bit of a straw man to swing the hatchet at, but it is in keeping with the theme of Grant’s book. He also devotes a chapter to tearing down the Greek Alexander Romance as a combination of history and legend before a treatment of how Alexander’s death helped foster his legend. A digression on the treatment of Alexander’s women follows, then Grant turns to actual and potential historical forgeries. The latter reviews books lost, such as those burned with the library at Alexandria, and those filtered through various processes including mediaeval monasteries. Renaissance attempts to recover ancient texts and accusations of forgery occupy Grant, and difficulties in reproducing accurate texts continued through the 19th Century. Grant notes the paucity of original texts to begin with in a wide ranging diatribe where even the names of some of the original writers is called into question, particularly the enigmatic Quintus Curtius Rufus. Grant sums up the pursuit of Alexander as a cautionary tale where the historians have muddied the waters to such an extent that the historical Alexander may never be found.
As someone with a passion for studying history, I found Grant’s book useful but bleak. It is standard practice, of course, to question our sources, but while Grant is clearly knowledgeable, he brings that to the brink of annihilation when it comes to recovering Alexander the Great. Yet, there are places in his text where Grant alludes to a workable history of Alexander, and he notes the work of historians and other specialists who have worked diligently to analyse the sources, separating the wheat from the chaff. Grant doesn’t do that, seemingly accepting the defeat, or is he just keeping his cards close to his chest? I couldn’t quite discern the answer to that. Nevertheless, Grant highlights the problems with sources for Alexander and does so in a clear, structured manner, and for that, we should be grateful.