Three Part Interview with James Romm (Part Three)

12 mins read

(Continued from a previous post)

Alan Vorda: Shortly after this episode, Koinos (p. 238) “died of a disease.”  Is there any knowledge of Koinos’ age or the disease from which he died?  This seems highly suspicious.

James Romm: Some modern scholars have speculated that Koinos was poisoned, but we have no evidence of this.  No ancient source suspects foul play, even the ones that want to believe the worst about Alexander.

AV: During the battle with the Mallois at the Hydraotes River, Alexander jumps into the Indian citadel and single-handedly fights the Indians.  Alexander is severely wounded (p. 245) by an arrow: “While his blood remained warm, Alexander defended himself, though he was in a bad way; but when a huge rush of blood gushed from the wound along with a hiss of air, he was overcome with vertigo and faintness and collapsed.” His life is saved by a handful of his men including Peukestas who covers him with his shield.  Please recount your thoughts on this battle, Alexander’s rashness to fight alone, and the wound he received.

JR: The episode at the Malloi town is one of the hardest to understand, in terms of Alexander’s thoughts and motivations.  There are different versions of it and it’s hard to know exactly what happened.  My best guess is that Alexander meant to shame his troops, who were fighting less vigorously than he wanted, by going first or even alone into combat.  He expected in this case that they would immediately follow him up the wall and into the town, but the scaling ladders broke under their weight, causing a lengthy delay in which he was left virtually unaided.  Alexander would not have jumped into the town had he known he would be stranded there for more than a minute or two.  He was not delusional.

AV: An Indian sage (p. 274) supposedly foretells Alexander’s death: “King Alexander, each man can have only so much land as this on which we are standing.  You are human like the rest of us, except in your restlessness and arrogance you travel so far from home, making trouble for yourself and others.  Well, you will soon be dead and will have as much land as will suffice to bury your corpse.”  Do you think this really happened or just Arrian introducing the foreshadowing element of the Fates into the story?

JR: This is one of several episodes in the ancient sources where Indian sages express their dismay at Alexander and his whole value system.  It is the kind of scene the ancient world loved to elaborate on and fictionalize, but there is probably some kernel of truth in it.  Strabo, another important source for Alexander’s invasion of India, preserves a fairly credible report by Onesikritos, a Greek officer, of his visit to an Indian religious academy, and it contains exchanges very much like the one you mention.

AV: Alexander declares (p. 287) himself a god.  Is this a true description by Arrian and, if so, what do you make of this?

JR: I think you have misinterpreted the speech Alexander makes here.  He tells his rebellious troops that they ought to just go home and abandon him and tell their countrymen they did so, and then says sarcastically that “such a report will be holy in the sight of god.”  He doesn’t refer to himself when he says “god,” and never, in Arrian’s account, makes claims to his own divinity.

AV: Alexander’s life-long friend and companion, Hephaistion, dies at an early age at Ecbatana, probably due to malaria.  Alexander is devastated by his death.  Please comment on their relationship, which some have speculated was homosexual at some point, and his abilities as a soldier since Alexander had given him the title of chiliarch.

JR: There is no doubt that they had a very close friendship and that Alexander trusted Hephaistion more fully than his other officers.  He promoted Hephaistion to high commands despite the man’s shortcomings as a soldier, which created considerable ill will among his more soldierly officers.  But there is simply no evidence of a sexual relationship.  There may have been one, and Alexander almost certainly had sexual intimacy with other males, but the relationship portrayed in Oliver Stone’s movie is based on pure speculation.

AV: Alexander dies a few months after Hephaistion at the age of 32 in Babylon.  There has been much speculation for the cause of his death.  Some claim it was poison or malaria, but it is suggested (Appendix O) it was due to typhoid fever.  Please extrapolate why there has been so much controversy over his death.

JR: Appendix O is the work of Eugene Borza, based on a medical panel he attended some years ago that examined the evidence presented by Arrian.  There are various questions that other scholars might ask to complicate the issue.  Is Arrian’s account credible? Should it be relied on for a medical diagnosis?  Might it have been falsified by those who had a vested interest in portraying Alexander’s death as natural, rather than the result of poisoning?  These are very knotty issues, and, to many historians, insoluble.  The second appendix that addresses the death of Alexander, by Brian Bosworth, raises some of these problems and poses a kind of counterweight to Borza’s view.

AV: Arrian speculates about Alexander’s early death (p. 298) that “perhaps it was better for him to depart at the high point of his fame.”  What do you think would have happened if Alexander had lived for another 30 years?  Do you think he would have gone on to conquer Libya, Carthage, and perhaps early Rome?

JR: He certainly intended to take on Carthage, and quite likely would have succeeded.  After that, the rest of the Mediterranean, including Rome, would have been easy pickings.  The face of the world would have been entirely different had Alexander survived to carry out the plans he had at the time of his death.

AV: Arrian’s primary sources for writing about Alexander were Ptolemy and Aristoboulos.  Based on these sources and the fact that Arrian was writing about Alexander 400 years after his death, then how credible and objective can Arrian’s work be?

JR: The narratives of Ptolemy and Aristoboulos were lost after Arrian read and used them, but we can judge by his history that they were fairly good eyewitness accounts, though tending strongly toward a positive view of Alexander.   The alternative source used by other historians—Kleitarkhos—was not as reliable and may not have been an eyewitness; but Kleitarkhos also does not have a vested interest in making Alexander look good.  Any responsible investigation must use all the available sources, but Arrian is the best of these.  He is certainly not objective, but he does not go so far in the direction of eulogy as to lose our trust.

AV: Finally, what is your overall opinion of Arrian’s writing and the life of Alexander?

JR: Alexander’s story is the ultimate case of truth stranger than fiction.  The circumstances that put such an incredibly talented, ambitious and charismatic man in control of an immensely powerful army, at a moment in history when world supremacy was up for grabs, seems like the premise of a myth or a fantasy novel, not a historical narrative.  The more I learn about the era, the more I am awestruck at the immensity of change over a very short period of time.  Possibly the world has never before or since seen such rapid and far-reaching transformations.

Arrian’s writing is imbued with the same sense of awe that I am describing, but it is focused on the single figure of Alexander rather than the larger era of which he was a part.  A more responsible historian would have said more about Alexander’s father, Philip, who set the stage for his conquests; about Alexander’s adversary, Darius III; and about the Greek city-states, still powerful enough during the Macedonian invasion of Asia to bring it to a halt, had they acted in concert.  Arrian is a biographer as much as a historian, and prefers to keep his eye on Alexander at all times.  The result is a compelling story of an individual, but one misses the sense of the wider world that was in the throes of cataclysmic change.