02. Monographs on Alexander, 2.05 Leader, Alexander - Non Fiction Book, Reviews

Review: “Folly and Violence in the Court of Alexander the Great and his Successors?” by Tim Howe, Sabine Müller (eds.)


Hello everyone, thanks for being up to Alessandro III di Macedonia, blog about Alexander the Great and Hellenism. It had been some time that thoughts and problems kept me away from reading and even more from Alexander, but now I’m starting to read again and I feel that somehow I missed reading about Alexander. Today I’m talking about the book:

Folly and Violence in the Court of Alexander the Great and his Successors?

by Tim Howe, Sabine Müller (eds.)

Projekt Verlag, 2016

ISBN: 978-3897333970, 59 pages


The ancient Greco-Roman sources on the history of Alexander III and the Successors contain numerous epi­sodes on diverse forms of Macedonian violence. Viewed from a mocking, moralistic perspective, the Macedonians served as a distorted mirror in which Greeks and Romans asserted their identities. The theme of Macedonian violence was also present in Greek comedy. This volume explores four case studies aiming at the deconstruction of these Greco-Roman topoi. The articles examine images of the Macedonians, Alexander, and Demetrius Poliorcetes analyzing the dimensions and expressions of Greco-Roman bias and its socio-political background.


Sulochana Asirvatham is Associate Professor of Classics and General Humanities at Montclair State University (NJ, USA). She did her PhD in Classics at Columbia University, is coeditor of Between Magic and Religion: Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Mediterranean Religion and Society (Lanham, MA 2001) and has published widely on Greco-Roman historiography, with a focus on Alexander the Great.

Matti Borchert is a faculty member of the department of Ancient History of Marburg University. He studied Greek Philology, German Philology, and History at Kiel University and Innsbruck University and is doing his PhD in Ancient History. His special field of interest is the History of the Ancient Near East.

Tim Howe is Associate Professor of History at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, Senior Editor of The Ancient History Bulletin, and Associate Field Director of the Antiochia ad Cragum Archaeological Project (ACARP) in Southern Turkey. He studied History and Anthropology at Cal State, Chico, did his M.A. and Ph.D. at Penn State and teaches about the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern Worlds. He has published widely on Mediterranean agriculture and trade, Alexander the Great, Ptolemy, ancient Mediterranean warfare, and Greek and Latin historiography.

Sabine Müller is Professor of Ancient History at Marburg University. She is the author of Das hellenistische Königspaar in der medialen Repräsentation. Ptolemaios II. und Arsinoë II. (Berlin/ New York 2009), Alexander, Makedonien und Persien (Berlin 2014) and Die Argeaden, Geschichte Makedoniens bis zum Zeitalter Alexanders des Großen (Paderborn 2016, forthcoming). She has also published on Ancient Persia, Lucian, Sulla, Sertorius, Nero and the Parthians, and the reception of antiquity.

Frances Pownall is Professor of History & Classics at the University of Alberta. She is the author of Lessons From the Past: The Moral Use of History in Fourth Century Prose (Michigan 2004), a number of articles on Greek history and historiography of the classical and Hellenistic periods, and translations and historical commentaries on important fragmentary Greek historians in Brill’s New Jacoby.


Introduction: Does the cliché suffice? – Tim Howe, Sabine Müller – 7
Youthful Folly and Intergenerational Violence in Greco-Roman Narratives on Alexander the Great – Sulochana Asirvatham – 11
Between Debauchery and Ludicrousness – Alexander the Great and the Golden Plane Tree – Matti Borchert – 25
Make It Big: The “New Decadence” of the Macedonians under Philipp II and Alexander III in Greco-Roman Narratives – Sabine Müller – 35
Folly and Violence in Athens Under the Successors – Frances Pownall – 47
The Editors and Contributors – 59

Classificazione: 5 su 5.

Reading time: from 26 to 27 January 2022.

Any errors in this review are my fault and not the authors’, so please report them to me and I will correct them right away! Thanks to everyone and I apologize to the authors.

The purpose of this book and their contributions is to show how the Greco-Roman traditions spoke about the Macedonians, how they rendered them through caricatures and exasperations.

Introduction: Does the cliché suffice? (Tim Howe, Sabine Müller)

In the Introduction Howe and Müller reflect on the fact that the many Macedonian literary works have not come to us except in short fragments and we know them through Greek or Roman sources but this involves considerations that must be kept in mind. First of all, the Greek and Roman authors have their own culture that influences them and which is often different from the Macedonian one; second, they often use Macedonians as a distorted mirror to highlight them in a negative way; third, the culture of the Greek and Roman authors influences their narration of the historicity of events, of the portraits of political actors and the trend of the value of their judgments; fourth, the now lost contemporary literary resources were once available and influenced ancient fiction and interpretation. In this book will be examined four studies on the literary and ideological distortions of Macedonians from the Greco-Roman point of view.

Youthful Folly and Intergenerational Violence in Greco-Roman Narratives on Alexander the Great (Sulochana Asirvatham)

Asirvatham makes it clear from the beginning that in the Roman era there wasn’t the same concept of youth as ours and was sometimes contrasted with the maturity of adulthood. Plutarch in the Life of Alexander is the only one who speaks of the youth of the Macedonian and does so by giving him as a model of self-control. But Alexander wasn’t interested in sex (he tells us he was still a virgin when he met Barsine) and was it a sign that he was still a child? Or was it a paternalistic sign of protection towards women? Even the questions of whether Alexander was Philip’s heir or one of many and whether Alexander could decide for himself who to marry without Philip’s approval don’t find a clear and direct answer. In Plutarch with the question of Philotas the discrepancy between Alexander’s desire for authority and his perception of him as still a boy emerges; the author describes Parmenion as a friend and Philotas as a flatterer.

Baynham points out that in the first two lost books by Curtius probably he spoke of the young Alexander and probably as Plutarch speaks of him, that Alexander introduces himself as a companion to his friends; at times Alexander is ambiguous in presenting him both as a father figure and as his son; Alexander is regressive towards Lanike but in Curtius this happens because he’s characterized by his youth.

In Alexander Romance, his acts of violence are early signs of his need for competition that will result in conquest and love of exploration. Here Alexander is Nectanebo’s son, not a son of god and he kills his father and there are also other acts of violence against Nicolaus at the Olympic games and he also kills Attalus.

The only way to be ever-youthful and authoritative at the same time is to be a god. All our writers agree, at the very least, that Alexander was not a god.

For Plutarch and Curtius Alexander was of an impressive youth but they explain his behavior because he sins of hubris.

Between Debauchery and Ludicrousness – Alexander the Great and the Golden Plane Tree (Matti Borchert)

In the twelfth book of Athenaeus’ Deipnosophists Alexander is portrayed as a king corrupted by Persian customs with excesses and lust. The golden plane tree and the vine were the symbols of Persian wealth and not even these symbols lived up to Alexander’s luxurious and decadent lifestyle. Callisthenes created the theme of Alexander the son of Ammon and Megasthenes paints him as a civilizing Dionysus.

Certainly, Callisthenes and Megasthenes did not inted to create a negative or mocking image of Alexander, they could hardly control the reception of their works. In consequence, often, one-dimensional clichés survived.

In Aelian and Phylarchus the symbol of the golden plane tree becomes that sexual depravity and Alexander here is a ridiculous figure who follows in the footsteps of the Persian king who loved a plant and tried to win the favor of the Persians. In Pliny’s Naturalis Historia the golden plane tree becomes a negative image also associated with the worst tyrants including Dionysius I and Caligula. Alexander is juxtaposed to all these negative symbols and he becomes the example for the Romans of tyranny, effeminacy, depravity and decadence. The Phylarchusepisode is a way of portraying Alexander as a tyrant.

Make It Big: The “New Decadence” of the Macedonians under Philipp II and Alexander III in Greco-Roman Narratives (Sabine Müller)

Macedonian banquets were excessive from a Greco-Roman point of view and according to Menander Philip was a heavy drinker but Alexander was even worse. For Aelianus Alexander was world champion in drinking. This emphasis on drinking was due to the fact that symposia were very important to the ancients. The Greek authors created a new definition of decadent behavior typical of Macedonians at banquets: they exaggerated the description to differentiate them from Greek tyrants because the Macedonians were worse than them. This hostility towards the Macedonians was due to the fact that the power and importance of Macedonia were on the rise. Alexander I and in particular Perdiccas II were taken up by the Greek comedies and then also passed into the fields of Theopompus’ historiography and the politics of Demosthenes. The Romans used stereotypes of the roles of tyrants, suppression, lack of restraint, lust, cruelty, excesses and more but ultimately overdid those clichés in adapting them to Macedonians.

During the last part of Alexander’s reign, certainly the case of Harpalus influenced the Greek perception of the lifestyle of the Macedonian leading circles.

An important point for the Greeks was that the Macedonians didn’t mix the wine, as the uncivilized and unmoderated barbarians and even the non-popular Greek tyrants were accused of these drinking habits, so the Romans and Greeks emphasized the greatness of the Macedonian cups. Some key cases were for them the death of Hephaestion, at the court of Alexander there were often drinking competitions and when, finally, Arrian, Athenaeus, Plutarch and Diodorus said that Alexander died of alcohol intoxication it was not strange to them.

The redefinition of decadence applied to the Macedonians by Greek authors reflects the perceived novelty of the phenomenon of the Macedonian rise.

Folly and Violence in Athens Under the Successors (Frances Pownall)

The Successors were portrayed as crazy and violent tyrants but, in all this we must keep in mind the strategic importance of Athens.

Demetrius of Phalareum reigned for ten years in Athens and “corrected” its democracy by transforming it into a moderate oligarchy and Duris of Samos underlines his hypocrisy: the proceeds of taxes are spent more on his extravagant parties than for the city. Demetrius also had a marked sexual appetite and became a stereotypical tyrant.

The Greek sources portray Lachares as a tyrant (also because he used mercenaries, another element of tyranny) but instead he maintained the Athenian democracy. He would also delay his pursuers by throwing gold coins at them (another element of tyranny in Greek literature).

Demetrius Poliorcetes considered himself the son of Aphrodite and Poseidon: the first was used as a symbol of polygamy and promiscuity, while the second was seen as a reminder of the naval victories and of the antigonid refoundation of the Corinthian League.

Successors such as Polyperchon or Demetrius Poliorcetes who paid lip service to restoring to the Athenians their much-cherished political autonomy were successful in the short term in persuading them to accept their control, but when it became clear that any such ‘freedom’ was only illusory, received equally hostile treatment in the sources While the Athenians may have won the propaganda battle, they lost the war, for ultimately the Successors created an enduring Hellenistic royal ideology, while Athens never regained full political autonomy and was eclipsed in the cultural sphere by the royal Hellenistic city of Alexandria.

Thanks to this book I was able to reflect on how the Macedonians were seen badly by everyone but we must keep in mind the aim of the authors that is to discredit the Macedonian power both during the reigns of Philip and Alexander and during the Successors, but they clearly exceeded in the take these characteristics to extremes. The biggest problem is that these sources have reached us and not those contemporary to the worlds. Similar nuances in the interpretation of sources and ancient texts emerge only in texts like this and it’s the reason that pushes me to want to read similar texts as well. Readings of this kind are an important study, research and reflection on the contents of ancient authors. In my opinion, the authors clearly succeeded in their intent. Each contribution is accompanied by footnotes and the bibliography. This little book of 59 pages only is signed by important names, is the eighth volume of the series KOMIK UND GEWALT COMIC AND VIOLENCE COMIQUE ET VIOLENCE and you can buy it for the small price of € 11.80 on publisher Projekt Verlag’s website. For the names that sign the contributions the really small price is a bargain!

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