Review of Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation by Waldemar Heckel and J.C. Yardley

Eras Journal – Cambridge, L: Review of “Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation”, Waldemar Heckel and John Yardley

Waldemar Heckel and J.C. Yardley, Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation,
Blackwell, Malden, MA, 2003
Isbn 0631228217

This is the third translation of primary sources dealing with the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE) that Waldemar Heckel and John Yardley have collaborated on. Unlike their two previous efforts however, in which the work of only one authority – first Quintus Curtius Rufus,(Harmondsworth, 1984) and then Justin (Oxford, 1997) – was contained in one volume, this new publication is a textbook in which numerous sources are translated and arranged thematically. It is very well-conceived, and contains all the basic information essential for someone studying the period for the first time, including stemmata for both sides of Alexander’s family, a map of his extensive empire, a glossary of Greek terms, and an introduction that includes a chronological table and notes on every author quoted in translation. This introduction also discusses and contextualizes Graeco-Macedonian imperialism in the fourth century BCE, describes the qualities of Alexander’s principal enemy, the Persian Empire of Darius III, and outlines events during the King’s life and after his death at thirty-two.

The principle value of this book, however, is in the translations, which are uniformly excellent and consist of some of the most esoteric references to Alexander and his reign, including the first complete publication in English of theLiber de Morte, a work that recounts the events surrounding Alexander’s death (pp. 281-9). Collateral evidence, like some of the more important inscriptions and coins, are also included; and by grouping the chosen passages together by subject, Yardley and Heckel allow the reader to compare and contrast more easily the often-discrepant accounts. Moreover, these subjects are both judiciously chosen and mindful of recent scholarly trends. Passages concerning the Persian “other” and Alexander’s relationships with the peoples of Asia are collected; and there is also a chapter on Alexander and women, not that scholars have ever ignored this particular topic. Yet, by far the longest chapters are entitled “The Army and War” and “Alexander and the Macedonians: Disaffection, Conspiracy, and Mutiny”. The authors are correct to privilege these aspects of Alexander’s reign, which was characterized by imperial aggrandizement and repressive political control, and thus must remain the focus of any course or narrative history of the period.

Readers are not left to wade through the translation passages without aid either, as shaded boxes appear at the beginning of each chapter, and throughout them, offering firm, but helpful comments, and provide current bibliographical information. At this point, one can make the criticism that R.A. Billows’ Kings and Colonists – Aspects of Macedonian Imperialism(Leiden, 1995) should have been included on p. 91 as an essential discussion of Macedonian manpower. The exclusion of Diana Spencer’s The Roman Alexander (Exeter, 2002) is also surprising given the penultimate chapter’s focus on Alexander and the Romans and Heckel and Yardley’s acceptance of contemporary theory at other points, although Spencer’s book conceivably failed to reach them before their own went to press. The bibliography is otherwise very extensive and up-to-date.

The execution of this book, however, has some very unfortunate faults; the proof-reading in particular is quite poor. The most glaring mistake appears on the title page, where the subtitle reads “Historical Texts in Translation”, not “Historical Sources in Translation”, as it does on the cover. Embarrassing, but not as serious as the map on pp. xii-xiii, where “Bella” is printed for Pella, “Issis” for Issus, “Marcanda” for Maracanda, and “Laxartes” for the River Iaxartes. Smaller mistakes appear throughout the book, such as a lower-case “o” in “Oxydracae” (p. 174), and the double prepositional “of for Pindar” (p. 76). One could also argue that the passages detailing Alexander’s burning of the royal palace at Persepolis in 330 BCE do not belong in the chapter on the Persians themselves, as they inform us far more about Alexander and his court than the victims of this act of vandalism. Similarly, the significance of the massacre of the Branchidae (Greeks whose ancestors had defected and settled in Persia in the fifth century BCE) would have been made clearer if it had been included in the chapter on Alexander’s relationship with the Greeks, rather than cited as yet another example of appalling slaughter in Central Asia (p. 164). And, while inscriptions are included that delineate the relationship between Alexander and the Greek cities of Asia Minor, the testimonies of the ancient historians, which are far more informative, are not included. This underlines what is perhaps the central problem with a book of this type: it cannot include everything, even when its authors try to be comprehensive. It is, therefore, impossible for students to rely on this book alone, and they will still have to invest, as they have until now, in the complete texts of Arrian, Curtius, and Plutarch.

There is another reason why it will still be necessary for students to read in full the existing accounts of Alexander’s conquests, and that is to understand the epistemological bases of the ancient accounts. For this reason, the quality of a book of this nature is immaterial (and it certainly has some fine qualities). It still cannot demonstrate to students the historiographical difficulties and peculiarities of a work like Curtius Rufus’. Only Heckel and Yardley’s Penguin translation can, in fact, do that. Their current book will undoubtedly become an indispensable aid to teachers and students everywhere – but it can only act as an aid, not as a single volume reader for an entire course.

Luke Cambridge

School of Humanities, University of Western Australia