In Search of the (Maybe Not So) Lost Testament of Alexander the Great
In Edgar Allan Poe's short story, "The Purloined Letter," the hero C. Auguste Dupin outwits the police when he is brought in to consult on a stolen letter being used for blackmail purposes. In the story, the police search an apartment where they know the letter to be hidden, checking the drapes and other unique hiding places that might conceal it. Dupin saves the day when he looks for the letter and finds it sitting out in the open, too obvious to be the object the police sought. The story is often pointed to as the epitome of the adage, "Hiding in plain sight."
In his new book, IN SEARCH OF THE LOST TESTAMENT OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT, historian David Grant must have felt a bit like Poe's Dupin, as he unveils his theory that the titular lost will was never truly lost, but was actually published to the world, and passed off as fiction. If proven, Grant may well be able to one day soon look to other historians and quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
What first clued you in that the will and testament recorded in the Alexander Romances might be the real thing, or a very close facsimile thereof?
Here it’s worth taking a step back and reviewing what we read as far as Alexander’s death. On the 10th or 11th of June in the year 323 BCE Alexander III of Macedonia died in Babylon in his thirty-third year. Some 2,340 years on, five barely intact accounts survive to tell a hardly coherent story and they conclude with a contradictory set of suspicious claims. One portrayed Alexander dying silent and without leaving any succession instructions; he was vocal and somewhat Homeric in another, in which he left the empire to the ‘best’ of strongest of his men’; he dubbed the wars he predicted would follow as his ‘funeral games’. A third tradition detailed his Last Will and Testament though this narrative is most famously now attached to the end of what we popularity call today the Greek Alexander Romance, a book of fables, with, nevertheless, some unique snippets of factual reporting. Which account do we trust?
My belief in the factual origin behind Alexander’s Will, or his succession document, stems from the conclusion of many scholars that the Will, though no doubt skewed for political effect, did not originate in the Greek Alexander Romance, but in a political pamphlet which emerged some 5 or 10 years after Alexander’s death. It appeared alongside claims that his generals conspired to poison him at Babylon. The pamphlet was written by someone at the heart of the wars fought by Alexander’s generals in their bid for control of the empire.
Some basic avenues of logic have been unexploited. If scholars concur that the Will re-emerged in this early pamphlet, they also agree on two key points 1) That Will’s were indeed the mechanism used for succession by kings and nobles in Alexander’s day - and evidence clearly supports that. And secondly 2) whoever reissued the Will expected it to have an impact on the wars raging for his empire. And that impact would only have been possible in an environment in which knowledge and rumour of an original Will was in circulation. In the complete absence of an original succession document, reissuing a completely invented Will would be ultimately been impotent and self-defeating, as all those proposed as authors of this pamphlet were major players in the dynastic struggle, as were their opponents.
We should also recall who Alexander was. Relinquishing the opportunity to manipulate the future through written succession instructions was simply not Alexander. He was a manipulator of men, of priestesses, diviners and their gods; he exploited the Homeric imagery of the past and he attempted to change the present. And whether truly part of some higher ideal to merge cultures or a purely practical initiative, the mass weddings at Susa, at which he paired his officers with Persian wives, made it clear that Alexander was setting out to manipulate the future as well: he was attempting to establish an environment in which his half-Asiatic son or sons could rule.
Moreover, Alexander’s top echelon of generals and Bodyguards were lions of ambition, and they were pressing him at Babylon for a decision on who would inherit the realm and govern the empire. They needed clear succession instructions to legitimise their inheritances, even if, once they proclaimed themselves kings, they had no intention of governing I the name of Alexander’s half-Asiatic sons.
So what we read today in the Greek Alexander Romance is, I propose, a Will that houses key elements of Alexander’s original succession instructions, the political machinations of the general who reissued the Will, and some embellishments and corruptions acquired through time.
Can you take us through the research process? Was it doing a ton of Internet lookups, some Indiana Jones style travel and excavation, or somewhere in between all that?
My research process had been long and varied. I have accumulated a library of academic studied on Alexander over the past decade that now fill the shelves of three walls of my study, including difficult to obtain and out of print works, though internet scanning is helping accessibility. The bibliography at the end of my book is some 30 pages long as a result.
But I have made some site visits too and several weeks ago I was at the royal tombs in Vergina, northern Greece, at the site of the ancient Macedonian spiritual and religious capital of Aegae. I was fortunate enough to spend time with the anthropologists who have been studying the bones of what well maybe the family of Alexander the Great for the past 6 years.
As far as the research impetus, early on in the book’s development, once I had completed my Masters degree, I set about radically rebalancing and recalibrating my investigative scales once I had analyzed the sources, even the testimony from the eyewitness accounts. Put simply, history is self-interested and written by those with agendas, whether they subconscious or not deliberate. And if we have conflicting reports for Alexander’s death, someone was lying.
Have you run up against any rebuttals or contradictory claims to your findings?
Every day, in every book. Because Alexander’s testament became something of a pariah 2,000 years ago and unworthy of further consideration once relegated to the pages of the Greek Alexander Romance and attached to the suspicious looking conspiracy to assassinate Alexander. As a result, all biographies, monographs, universal histories and academic studies over the past two millennia have concurred on one key issue: Alexander the Great died intestate and never made a Will. The irony, a positive one for our contention, is that these fanciful romances, so welcomed in the Middle Ages and translated into myriad languages, significantly outsold them all.
So, yes, I am working in a hostile environment. As far as direct and personal rebuttals to my book, none yet (it's early days) but I state at the end of my preface, ‘I sign this off with some trepidation knowing a phalanx of sharp and critical blades shall soon be marching in close-order my way’. I am essentially undoing 2,000 years of scholarship on the issue of Alexander’s death, what took place at Babylon in June 323 BCE, and the mechanism behind the division of his empire and the wars that followed. But challenging history is what moved it forward.
Alexander the Great's story has evolved into such a mythic one. What impact do you see your findings having on what we know, or think we know, about the historical Alexander vs. the mythological one?
It is correct to state that his story has become ‘semi-mythical’; the term often applied to this type of hybrid history, where truth and fable have become laminated together, is ‘mythistorical’. But this could equally apply to the ‘mainstream’ histories from the Roman era, as well as the Romance texts. Readers should be aware that no eyewitness accounts survive and everything we read today (bar fragments) was written some 300 to 450 years after Alexander died. Moreover, the Hellenistic era (popularly defined as from Alexander’s death to the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE) was a period when anecdote and fable gradually obscured the truth.
My reinterpretation of events has an impact in a number of ways.
Firstly, it changes our whole understanding of the allocation of power at Alexander’s death. In the current ‘standard model’, historians believe it was left to Alexander’s second-in-command to appoint governors across the empire in the absence of any instruction from Alexander himself. So the Will becomes nothing less then the world-shaking imperial mandate which effectively laid the foundation of the Successor kingdoms established by Alexander’s generals which continued to battle for Alexander’s former empire until the Roman legions arrived.
Reintroducing a Will also brings coherency the proceedings at Babylon in the days immediately following Alexander’s death and even approaching his death, when Alexander asked that all his leading generals wait outside the door of the royal quarters; obviously something momentous was being said or read inside. Otherwise, the drama we read of at the Assembly gathering of the Macedonian army is pure theatre, as many scholars have noted. The account of the Roman historians Curtius Rufus, whose text remains the fullest coverage of events at Babylon, stated ‘a crowd of the rank and file was anxious to know to whom the fortune of Alexander would pass’, the very wording we would expect to see from an impatient crowd waiting for the public reading of his Will. So, as I see it, the whole drama at Babylon following Alexander’s death is just as well interpreted, or better interpreted, in the presence of written succession instructions. Curtius, writing some 1,950 years ago, did go on to state that some authorities writing before his day also believed the provinces were distributed by Alexander’s Will, even if by the Roman era, it was ignored.
Obviously this is going to keep you busy for a while, but some part of you must be looking ahead. How do you top this? Julius Caesar's letters home from camp?
Caesar and the Roman emperors who followed him are relevant to the story of Alexander in more ways that one. It is said that ‘all roads lead to Rome’ but actually to Alexander it seems, for he was the common motif behind their biographies. Caesar is said to have penned his own Gallic War diaries himself; there are ten surviving manuscripts of the commentaries on the war in Gaul and you need to question their partiality. Suetonius, writing less than two centuries after the dictator’s death, told us no one knew who wrote up Caesar’s memoirs of the Spanish, African or Egyptian campaigns to perhaps the Gallic diaries are suspect too. As far as Caesar’s Commentarii, if they are genuinely his, they attained an authority in later years, not because they were unbiased and reliable, but because his supporters allowed no other version to establish itself. This observation is particularly relevant to the eyewitness accounts of Alexander, which became the literary stock for the biographical stews served up for the next 500 years, as they are the basis of what we read, and conclude, today.
The part of me that is looking ahead is planning to use what I have learned in this 10 years of research to write an account of one the most remarkable episodes of Alexander’s campaigns in which the remarkable use of mechanical siege ingenuity was employed by both attacker and defender. Watch this space.
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