In my previous post I discussed the complexity of historical criticism, and how even texts of the same literary genre can vary substantially in terms of historical reliability, based on their date of composition and their available sources of information. In this follow-up post, I will discuss some further historical-critical issues that we can compare between the Alexander Romance and the NT Gospels. This post will not be the final installment of my series discussing the historical reliability of popular-novelistic biographies, since there is a large amount of diverse issues that need to be covered. In part 2 of this series, however, I will discuss redaction criticism and how it can affect the historical reliability of ancient texts. Redaction is a process by which later authors or editors interact with earlier texts, sources, and traditions and shape them into later narratives. During this process, new details can often be added to the narrative and earlier stories can become embellished with subsequent material. Since this progression has a tendency to make stories grow over time, and thus to become more and more legendary, it is highly relevant to the historical criticism of ancient texts.
An intriguing aspect of our extant literary sources for Alexander the Great is that they virtually all date to the Roman period (146 BCE – 330 CE). This is not because there were no histories of Alexander that were written during the Hellenistic period (336-146 BCE). In fact, Alexander’s campaigns were documented by a wide variety of eyewitness and contemporary historians, whose works no longer survive due to disappearance in textual transmission. Our extant historians for Alexander, however, such as Plutarch and Arrian, quote a large number of previous authors and sources (such as as Callisthenes, Ptolemy, and Cleitarchus), and so, even though the works of Alexander’s original historians no longer survive, we still have a large number of fragments preserved of them. These fragments are available in edited volumes, such as Felix Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians, and are used by modern historians when reconstructing the life of the historical Alexander.
It remains quite interesting to consider, however, why later Roman authors took such a strong interest in Alexander. Most Roman historians during the late-Republic and early-Empire wrote primarily on topics of Roman history (although the Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos did write short biographies of famous Greek statesmen in his Lives of Eminent Commanders). Alexander is an exception, however, in having a full-length Latin history (and not just a short biography) written about his life. As Richard Stoneman (“The Latin Alexander,” pg. 167) explains:
“The career of Alexander the Great provides a unique exception to the general rule that Latin writers of history wrote (before the Christian period) only on Roman topics … [O]nly he became the subject of a full-length history in Latin. And this occurred more than once. The first Latin Alexander historian was Quintus Curtius Rufus … who composed a lengthy and important historical account of his career, probably in the first century CE.”
Alexander was not just a fascination of Roman literature, however, but also served as an overt model of Roman statecraft, especially during the imperial period. The Roman biographer Suetonius claims that the emperor Augustus (Rome’s first emperor) used an image of Alexander as a seal for his letters (Aug. 50.1), and even arranged a special viewing of Alexander’s entombed sarcophagus, while staying in Alexandria (Aug. 18.1).
Following the Roman conquest of the Greek East and the Hellenistic kingdoms that were derivative of Alexander, a question that nagged many Roman historians was: What would have happened, if Alexander the Great had marched West and waged war against Rome? As Ken Dowden (Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, pg. 186) explains, “Alexander never went to Sicily, Italy, or Africa, though a western expedition was alleged to be among his last plans, and ‘What if he had?’ later became a popular debating topic” during the Roman period. This topic is seen even in the historian Titus Livy’s History of Rome, where he spends an unusual amount of space discussing Alexander, even though most of his history is devoted to Roman topics. As Diana Spencer in The Roman Alexander: Reading a Cultural Myth (pg. 51) explains:
“Livy’s ‘digression’ in Book 9 is inspired by a vision of an Alexander who can prove useful for Roman self-definition as a historical race, and as a people who, through good management of their ‘Alexandrian qualities,’ offer a new, improved model. Livy opens his excursus with a question and a claim–he tells us that he has often considered but never formulated the question of what the outcome of a war between Alexander and Rome, man versus state, would have been (9.17.2) … If we remember that this narrative of Livy’s is designed to present the story of Rome from its foundation, then this digression on so splendidly individualistic an autocrat, a digression that never succeeds in entirely dimming his lustre, is particularly noteworthy.”
And so, Alexander always had a strong reception in the Roman West, and was varyingly seen as a predecessor, rival, and model of the Roman Empire. This fascination with Alexander’s character, as Spencer (pg. 41) explains, highlights “the modulations taking place in a pattern of ongoing reinvention of Alexander as a model for the interrogation of power and authority at Rome.” All of this context is relevant for understanding the Alexander Romance and one of its most glaring historical inaccuracies: Alexander’s journey to Rome (1.28). As will be discussed in the analysis below, we have good reason to think that this episode is a later redaction to the AR, which was directed toward an audience living during the Roman period.