Scholia Reviews ns 13 (2004) 11.
Diana Spencer, The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2002. Pp. xxvi + 277, incl. seven illustrations and two maps. ISBN 0-85989-678-1. UK£15.99.
University of Cape Town
Diana Spencer is a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Birmingham, and this is a by-product of her doctoral thesis, The Roman Alexander: studies in Curtius Rufus, which she presented to Cambridge University in 1997. This book is both a monograph on the use and development of the Alexander myth in the Roman world of the Late Republic and Early Empire, and a sourcebook of key literary passages relevant to the theme. The sources range from Cicero to poets of the Domitianic era (for whatever reason, Valerius Maximus is not included), and in each case a full translation is offered together with the Latin text. While the book has an obvious chronological focus, and concentrates on Latin authors, Spencer's study includes the origins of Latin literature, and follows the tradition way beyond the first century CE, concluding with comments on modern treatments of Alexander.
Her aims in this book appear to be encapsulated in the sentence, 'Ultimately, we will be able to read a story of the development of a textualized Alexander and his impact on Roman political evolution, whilst also gaining a sense of the semiotics of Alexander in the modern world' (p. xiv). She claims that what we know of Alexander from the classical sources is essentially a Roman story (p. xiv), since even the writers who might be labelled Hellenistic or Second Sophistic operated in a world that was dominated by Rome. I would be less inclined to reduce the significance of those labels in this way, and would rather think of three overlapping phases in the (multi-stranded) development of the myth. Spencer is rightly concerned with contextualising the texts in this collection, and, as she says, in distinguishing between the voice of the narrator and that of the author (p. xvii).
After a lengthy and useful introduction, the chapters are organised thematically, the first, 'History into Story' (pp. 1-38), providing an historical introduction, with the focus on the period down to the foundation of the Principate. The chapter opens with an interesting section under the title 'What's in a Name?', which covers the associations of the name Alexander, starting with the Trojan Paris, the connotations of the label Macedonian, and the implications of adding, or leaving out, the title 'the Great'. This theme is developed at various points in the book, as when Spencer refers to Lucan's 'destructive deployment of the adjective Pellaeus' (p. 114), and when she notes, that in a society where cognomina mattered, Metellus' appropriation of the cognomen Macedonicus meant that he 'integrates Alexander inextricably into the fabric of Roman public space' (p. 185). I missed a reference to the episode in 59 BCE when the audience in the theatre showed their feelings about Pompey by their reaction to the line, nostra miseria tu es magnus (Ad Att. 2.19.3). The section on names ends with the suggestion that Rome emerged as a sort of Successor kingdom (p. 5).
The chapter ends with a section on 'History and Identity' (pp. 31-38), which covers the shifting significance of the east for Romans, and gives prominence to Greek writers about Rome. Chapter 2, 'Readings -- Alexander Rex' (pp. 39-82), sets off from the closural problem: Alexander turned back from the east, did not progress from conquest to a management phase, and died before he could test the western half of the Mediterranean world. Hence the speculation illustrated by the first reading, Livy 9.18.1-7: what if Alexander had lived long enough to invade Italy, and where would his worsening alcoholism, savage anger and adoption of oriental practices lead? This second array of questions leads into issues relating to kingship in the following readings, which bear upon the relationship between ruler and ruled, and at the higher level between ruler and his advisers.
Chapter 3, 'Readings -- Living fast, Dying Young' (pp. 83-118), covers nine passages, most of them by Seneca, and shifts the focus from institutional factors to issues of personality. Spencer sees Caligula's professed admiration for Alexander as damaging to the continued use of Alexander as a positive comparative for Roman emperors (p. 93). Hence Curtius' treatment of the corruption of Alexander, which provoked numerous plots against him and increasing paranoia on his part. Curtius may be engaging in programmatic moralising, but his handling of Alexander's attacks on those whom he disliked or distrusted seem rather to reflect experience of trials for maiestas even before Caligula came on the scene. Furthermore, Tiberius was perhaps not the only one to be worried about Germanicus' emulation of Alexander. Spencer has a good section on Seneca and Lucan on Alexander's bloodlust, though to complete the picture one might draw in reference to Seneca's tragedies and take a less flattering view of his nobility of purpose.
Chapter 4, 'Readings -- Imaging Alexander' (pp. 119- 63), deals with the realisation in antiquity that the hero needed a eulogist of matching stature, and equally that the great writer needed a subject worthy of his talent. Who better to cite than Cicero? He provides the first two readings: Pro Archia 24, and Ad Familiares 5.12. There is a good treatment of Curtius' presentation of the final clash between Alexander and the court historian Callisthenes (esp. pp. 136f. on Curtius 8.5-8). There is then an easy glide into the genre of the Suasoria, with the elder Seneca Suasoria 1.9 and 14 illustrating rhetorical exercises counselling a limit on imperialist ambition; then from rhetorical exercise to satire with Juvenal Satires 10.133-73, where Alexander is associated with Hannibal, and written down as the Pellaeus iuvenis.
Chapter 5, 'Autocracy -- the Roman Alexander Complex' (pp. 165-203), has no readings and deals with a range of issues under the main headings 'Style of command' and 'Eastward Ambitions: the Politics of Victory'. Themes covered include clementia, divinity and felicitas. Spencer takes a strong line on the emergence of Alexander as 'a normative model for Roman leadership' (p. 165), and refers to 'the centrality of Alexander to Cicero's engagement with Caesar' (p. 165). And yet, it can be argued that, if Alexander was central to political debate about leadership in Rome, it made little impression on Diodorus, and perhaps even Timagenes. Spencer's subject is not imitatio Alexandri, but rather the use made of the Alexander myth in discussion of power relationships involving Roman figures. Spencer notes the difficulties of determining in any case whether conscious imitatio Alexandri inspired contemporary writers to develop that association, or comparisons made by contemporaries encouraged Roman political figures to emulate Alexander openly (p. 168). Spencer would leave open the possibility that Scipio Africanus fostered comparison of himself with Alexander, though most would probably follow Badian's view that Pompey was probably the first to encourage such an association. Spencer goes on to suggest that with Pompey dead Caesar 'could take tentative steps towards manifesting himself as the true heir of Alexander' (p. 170). On this count me among the doubters.
Chapter 6, 'Alexander after Alexander' (pp. 205-18), is a brief but valuable survey of the Nachleben of the Alexander myth. It includes a commentary on various Renaissance representations of Alexander which are included in the book's illustrations. Spencer finds Mary Renault rather bitchy about Curtius, Brian Walden rather Luddite about audio- visual technology for his television series Walden on Heroes, and Michael Wood rather amusing In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great (BBC 1997). There is an informative paragraph on various plans for Alexander: the movie (pp. 211f.), and a useful appendix on modern Alexanders, which includes a list of web sites.
The early pages are laced with Soc. Sci. and Lit. Crit. jargon needed to satisfy the academic, bean- counting quality controllers, but for the rest the style is more attractive, and at times positively jaunty, with vocabulary that includes 'pin-up' (p. 6), 'sexy' (p. 19) and 'morph' (p. 158). But throughout Spencer is making subtle points and drawing fine distinctions, and consequently some formulations do not read easily, as for example at p. 171: 'The unrest that Alexander's death sparked off implicates all his generals in the fragile hold he had on unity towards the end of his life', or at p. 191: 'These cavils [by Tacitus] and the Alexandrian edict made by Germanicus . . . lead inevitably . . . to the Tacitean eulogy of comparison with Alexander'.
Obviously more might be written about the authors, genres and political contexts of the readings provided by this book, and it may be that Spencer has perhaps magnified the impact which these passages may have made, but her purpose is an exegesis of the key passages and an historical account of the development of political themes associated with Alexander. In this she has admirably succeeded, and has made a useful contribution to the study of the Alexander myth, and to the study of political discourse in the late Republic and early Principate.[]
[] Typographical errors are few: the only serious case is the scrambling of the Greek word in Seneca de ira 3.23.8 (p. 106). Although it is not germane to the issues of this book, I do not believe it correct to show Alexander as returning from Siwah to Memphis via the Qattara Depression (map 2).