- The Conquests of Alexander the Great
Waldemar Heckel has established himself as one of the world's leading experts on Alexander the Great, particularly in the areas of military affairs and in prosopography. His The Marshals of Alexander's Empire (1992) and Who's Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander's Empire (2006) continue the seminal work of Helmut Berve (1926) and serve as valuable contributions to the field of Alexander studies. Alexander as a political and military figure occupies centre stage in this small volume (although it is a bit surprising not to find included in his bibliography his useful The Wars of Alexander the Great 336-323 BC  in the Osprey series). Heckel boldly states his aims in the preface 'to provide an intelligent introduction to the conquests of Alexander the Great (334-323) and to highlight major themes and, in places, to challenge accepted interpretation.' He adds, '[T]oo many of those who write about Alexander today claim to know what Alexander "would have" or "would not have done."'
The key to reconstructing (or deconstructing) Alexander's career begins and ends with the literary sources, and five ancient authors anchor Alexander studies in the modern era: Diodorus Siculus, Curtius [End Page 343] Rufus, Justin, Arrian, and Plutarch. The earliest of these writers lived in late first century BCE, three centuries after the death of Alexander! All claim to draw on earlier sources, contemporary (or nearly so) with Alexander. Archaeology, epigraphy, and numismatics have helped, but in the end any portrait of Alexander is a composite of competing literary sources. The real Alexander usually fluctuates between legend and history, then and now. As a general rule, Heckel devalues the stock legendary anecdotes and affirms Alexander's status as 'one of the world's greatest military strategists.' Heckel presents Alexander's battles clearly and concisely, accompanied by illustrations of the tactical phases of Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, and Hydaspes. However, all too often, he interprets the motives, policies, and actions of the key players as if he were inside their heads, the very thing he takes others to task for. And he certainly follows through - with bravado - on his promise to 'challenge accepted interpretations.' To take a few examples: (1) Heckel labels a certain military writer as 'simplistic and unfair' when he calls Darius III a coward for having fled the battlefields of Issus and Gaugamela (and thus deciding the fate of the Persian Empire) and then offers up his own rationalization, repeated several times: '[H]is [Darius's] own safety - and the vain prospect of fighting another day - demanded that he avoid capture.' When Cyrus the Younger charged his brother Artaxerxes II at Cunaxa in 401 BCE, Artaxerxes stood his ground and Cyrus was killed in the attempt. How is this different? To call Darius's flight an act of rational state policy borders on apologia. (2) Heckel dismisses the unfulfilled pothos explanation surrounding the Hyphasis Mutiny in India by arguing that it was deliberate and fraudulent stagecraft on Alexander's part and that 'in effect, Alexander had renounced all claims to conquest east of the Hydaspes' and that 'he had no serious intention of proceeding but wanted to place the blame for turning back on the shoulders of his men.' Heckel admits that some have rejected this view as 'heretical.' Finally, (3) Heckel, in referring to the mass marriages at Susa in 324, states, 'It has long been regarded as axiomatic that the Macedonian nobles repudiated their Persian brides immediately after Alexander's death. But, in fact, we know of only one such case,' which was Craterus and Amastris, niece of Darius III. This claim is misleading. In fact, we can document only one Persian noblewoman, Apame, wife of Seleucus, who did stay married and who assumed an important role in the age of the Successors.
In spite of my reservations about some of his 'revisionist' conclusions, I rather enjoyed Heckel's irreverent and iconoclastic approach to Alexander, and it is a good quick read. He has an excellent command...