Tag Archives: Ancient Greece

Reading History: “Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious Death” (by Anthony Everitt)

By this point, I’ve read numerous biographies of Alexander the Great. Some, such as Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander are quite hagiographical, while more recent offerings from classicists such as Paul Cartledge and Robin Lane Fox take a more balanced view. Anthony Everitt’s new book, Alexander the Great: His Life and Mysterious death falls mostly into the latter camp. While on the whole he is fairly complimentary of the Macedonian king and conqueror, he doesn’t shy away from pointing out of some of his significant shortcomings.

Everitt documents Alexander’s life from beginning to end, from his youth in the unruly court of his father Philip to his final days in Babylon. We see him in battle (frequently), and in love (less frequently). We learn of his tempestuous relationships with both his mother Olympias and his father Philip, as well as the many men that surrounded him (and a few of the women).

As was the case with Everitt’s last book on the history of Athens, there were several times when I felt myself growing bored. Part of this is his style, which tends to be very unimaginative and dry, and part of this has to do with how he organizes his narrative. There are times when the book seems like little more than a recitation of the events of Alexander’s life, with only slight glimpses into the more personal aspects.

What he lacks in stylistic grace, Everitt makes up for in rigour and detail. He provides voluminous (some might say exhausting detail) of the various battles that Alexander waged in his attempts to bring the world under his dominion. Everitt argues that Alexander was driven by pothos, a desire to attain the unattainable, and that this was what accounted for his seemingly never-ending desire to embark on the next battle, the next voyage to the unknown.

On the whole, Everitt argues that Alexander deserves the appellation “the Great.” This was a man, after all, who radically reshaped the Mediterranean world, with consequences that would extend far into the future. At the same time, he doesn’t gloss over those instances when Alexander’s behavior was truly terrifying (and terrible), those times when he allowed his anger to get the better of him and committed acts of truly terrible barbarity and atrociousness.

My greatest complaints with the book are twofold. As I alluded to earlier, Everitt doesn’t really pay very much attention to Alexander’s personal life. While he is fairly upfront about the fact that Alexander almost certainly had a sexual relationship with Hephaistion and, later, with the eunuch Bagoas, there’s no real sense of what these men meant to Alexander emotionally. Everitt argues that his avoidance of this subject stems from the sources, and though that’s a fair point as far as it goes, it ensures that Alexander remains something of an enigma, forever hovering just beyond view.

My more significant complaint about this book is how little I felt I learned from it. There were very few revelations in Everitt’s biography that I hadn’t encountered before, and while this isn’t a deal-breaker as far as my enjoyment of the book goes, it does make me wonder why, exactly, we needed another biography of one of the world’s most famous figures. For that matter, I’m not exactly sure why the title makes such a point of mentioning his death, since Everitt clears up the “mystery” fairly quickly, positing (reasonably) that it was probably due to malaria rather than a sinister act of poisoning.

To my mind, one of the most poignant parts of the book comes at the very end. Everitt reminds us that, though we have a fairly copious amount of material from the ancient world dealing with Alexander’s life, there is very little about the Persians that he conquered. Almost the only direct access we have to the Achaemenid dynasty is from the Greek perspective, and Everitt forces us to wonder exactly how our perspective on Alexander might have been very different had we had more from the Persian point of view.

All in all, this is a very serviceable biography of one of the ancient world’s most famous conquerors. Those looking for a no-frills exploration of his life will find that here, while those looking for more original takes would probably do better to look elsewhere.

Viewing History: “The Greeks” at the National Geographic Museum

I recently had the pleasure of attending the exhibit entitled “The Greeks:  From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great” at the National Geographic Museum. As a lifelong devotee of the classics and an avid museum-goer, it was quite compelling to see the world of the ancient Greeks brought to life, with a number of exquisite artifacts from various museums throughout Greece on magnificent display.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the exhibit, both in the vast scope of what it included as well as the information displayed. While most people usually think of classical Athens as the epitome of Greek culture, there was a great deal both before and after, and the National Geographic Museum did a fine job displaying objects from throughout the history of ancient Greece, including objects from Minoan Crete, Mycenae, classical Athens, and Macedon.

I was particularly excited to see both the objects from Mycenae and from the kingdom of Macedonia. In terms of Mycenae, it was really quite thrilling to see one of the masks that the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann believed belonged to the infamous King Agamemnon from The Iliad. There is always something particularly unsettling about these death-masks, and that is certainly true in this case. These are objects that convey an admittedly dim impression of the actual face of the deceased, but one cannot shake the feeling that one is standing in the presence of the ghosts of the past, a ghostly and ethereal reminder of lives past. While only one of the masks was actually from the tomb (the other, more famous, was shown in a replica), it was still a phenomenal experience to see these icons of the ancient world in actual space.

There is something even more unsettling about the helmets that have been excavated from various tombs. Again, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the presence of the dead was everywhere in the room, suffusing the entire exhibit with an aura of faded, yet still potent, grandeur. These were the most powerful and skilled men in their world, now reduced to nothing more than empty helmets in a lavish room, a humbling reminder of the exquisite ephemerality of the human experiment.

The true highlight of the Macedonian section, however, was the crown belonging to Queen Meda, the seventh and final wife of Philip II and the only one permitted to be buried with him in his official tomb. Further, there was also a small medallion with a portrait of Olympias, which the caption claimed was the only verified likeness that we have of her. Needless to say, as a fan of the powerful women of the ancient world, it was quite thrilling to see bits and pieces of their lives, reminders that even in the most patriarchal societies there was still the possibility of revolt and subversion.

At the formal level, I actually appreciated that there has been a shift from live-action reenactments to heavily stylized cartoons. For better or worse, the old style of reenactment has become rather blase, and it is often difficult to take them seriously, even in the most serious environment. Fortunately, these new animations looked very similar to the Greek vase paintings, allowing them to remain aesthetically woven into the fabric of the exhibit as a whole.

I do, however, have one complaint to make about the exhibit, and that is the resolute straight-washing that permeates its entire ethos. Some of the incidents are minor, such as referring to Patroclus as Achilles’ friend, when even the ancient Greeks believed they were lovers. Others, however, are significant omissions that present a skewed vision of ancient Greek culture. There was no mention (or none that I saw) of the same-sex relationships that were key to practically every Greek city-state, whether it was the institutionalized pederasty of Athens and Sparta or the Sacred Band of Thebes. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but it is still distressing to see this historical blindspot in 2016, after generations of classicists and historians have worked so hard to not only bring the presence of same-sex desire into the open but also to show how historically contingent it is (and remains). This is a major shortcoming of the exhibit, in my view, a wasted opportunity to explore the Greeks’ contradictory thoughts about same-sex desire.

Overall, however, I would say that this is a successful exhibit and does a great deal to bring to light the strange and compelling nature of the world of the ancient Greeks. For all that they are looked to as one of the foundations of Western culture, civilization, and government, there was much about their way of being and looking at the world that is completely foreign to and different from our own. This exhibit, fortunately, makes a significant contribution in helping the modern subject to understand that strangeness.