Saturday, October 15, 2011

"Alexander’s winged boots are harder to believe when recounted in Xenophontian prose."

"The [450 aa (after the death of Alexander)] source who provides modern historians with most of their facts, therefore, was himself dependent on one [contemporary] source which ancient writers thought Alexander would have thrown away in disgust [(Aristobulus)] and on another which is attached to an official programme of exaltation [(Ptolemy I)]. It’s not simply that modern historians have been taken in by Arrian’s plain-talking rhetorical strategy. . . . Nor is it simply a question of prejudice about the greater reliability of histories written by manly men-of-action. More than any other ancient author Arrian seems to approach his subject in a modern way. He says what texts he is using, why he chose them and how they will be used. Every now and again he compares them with each other and with what he has found elsewhere.
"This modernity is an illusion. It is not hard to see that Arrian’s unusual carefulness derives from unusual anxiety about the charge of extreme bias which might be laid against his chosen authorities. His methodological transparency is the mark of a partisan defensive about the charge of partisanship, not a precocious scientific historian, working with meticulous care. Arrian’s high reputation was earned by omitting the most egregious examples of fawning he found in his sources, supplementing from other sources their most egregious omissions, and being noisily defensive about the charge of bias. For students of Quellenforschung, who learned their trade trying to see behind the more opaque texts of Homer and the Bible, he was a gift from heaven. He seemed to have done all the work for them and even at times to have indulged in a little Quellenkritik. It seems inevitable in retrospect that this most nervous of historians would find highest honour in the age of source analysis.
"Unfortunately, it is an age which hasn’t yet passed. Alexander scholarship still consists, for the most part, in arguments over which bit of which surviving text derives from which earlier lost source, whether it is a solid piece of information and how, in that case, it can be squared with something someone else says elsewhere. . . .
"To be sure, since knowledge of Alexander is derived overwhelmingly from derivative texts, we need to know everything we can about them and their sources. Moreover, there is an old-fashioned charm to this kind of fact-oriented text-combing: phenomenal erudition, lack of circumspection, proper engagement with the work of older scholars, clarity of exposition, and a satisfying bluntness in critical asides. . .  And one wouldn’t wish on any subject the type of Lacanian analysis, rhetorics of gender and queer theory, which afflict other areas of ancient history. But there are surely more useful things to do with Alexander in the 21st century than Quellenforschung.
"Most of the secure facts about which author used what when were pinned down years ago, and although possible new connections have proliferated, cogency is rare – everything anyone needs to know can be found conveniently in P.A. Brunt’s notes and appendices to the Loeb edition of Arrian. Moreover, for most of the derivative authors, the whole idea of neat genealogies is more convenient than plausible. No historian of Alexander came to the subject a virgin. Not only was he the most important figure from the Greek past but it is unlikely that any writer of the Roman period managed to get through his education without a knowledge of some of the more notorious passages of Hegesias, Callisthenes and Clitarchus; as prime examples of how not to write history, or simply how not to write, they were too useful to be ignored. There must have been promiscuous cross-fertilisation of sources over a long period, making a Gordian knot of the lines of transmission. . . .
"The one author who does show his methods, on the other hand, Arrian, seems deliberately to have selected the most hagiographical version and then disguised its excesses. But Arrian’s bad choices cannot now be corrected. No amount of source criticism can make him more objective. . . .
". . .  when the Metz Epitome, a late, partially preserved manuscript in the novelistic tradition, written c.1300 years aa, is hailed as ‘perhaps the single most important contribution to the source criticism of Alexander’s reign’ and Polybius is enthusiastically elevated into the canon of derivative authors on whom source criticism can be performed (‘amazingly for the first time’), one cannot help seeing signs of desperation. The texts are finally running out and Alexander historians are finally running out of excuses for not doing something more interesting with their subject."

James Davidson, "Bonkers about boys," London review of books 23, no. 21 (1 November 2001), (7-10).

No comments: