A REVIEW OF ALEXANDER'S LOVERS BY ANDREW CHUGG
Alexander's Lovers by Andrew Chugg was published by Lightning Source of Milton Keynes, Great Britain in 2006.
Original and mostly excellent ****
The title sounds promisingly fun, and so indeed is this riveting collection of biographies of the individuals with whom Alexander the Great had love affairs. But it is much more. As an exhaustive and scholarly study of these affairs, closely argued from apparently every surviving piece of ancient evidence, it is the best sourcebook there is on not only the individuals concerned, but on what love meant to Alexander, which is to say a great deal. Even the most serious students of the great one cannot fail to find interesting new food for thought here.
I was initially sceptical encountering a book with this title, knowing how often writers have represented Alexander's love life as they personally would like it to have been, mostly divided by opposing desires either to dismiss the strong evidence of his affairs with other males or to promote him as an idol for the modern gay cause. Admirably, Chugg does nothing of the sort. Alexander was romantically typical of ancient Greeks in enjoying passionate love with both women and boys without any sense of contradiction. This seems to be incomprehensible to many modernists who cannot imagine life without a fixed sexual orientation, but not to Chugg: he rightly does not even address the misguided question of Alexander's sexual preferences, but presents him as he surely saw himself, a unique individual untrammeled by such preconceptions.
I suspect Chugg has been much more influenced by Mary Renault's writings about Alexander than might be supposed from his two brief references to her. Besides sharing Renault's (and my) extremely high estimation of Alexander, he has picked up and expanded on many of her specific interpretations. One moment when Renault did disappoint me though, as a fervent admirer, was in her abrupt and ill-considered dismissal of Herakles as a genuine bastard son of Alexander by Barsine. It was so uncharacteristically unreasonable that I'm afraid I suspect her of succumbing to homosexual bias: she portrayed his marriages convincingly, but the idea that Alexander was sufficiently enthusiastic about the opposite sex to maintain a mistress as well was apparently too much for her to stomach. Not so Chugg, who shows the evidence for Herakles's paternity to be irrefutable, as well as insisting on the genuineness of Alexander's love for individuals of both sexes.
My only serious criticism is his unjustified representation of Hephaistion, whom I do not think anyone disputes was the great love of Alexander's life, as sexually intimate with him until death, rather than until manhood. There is not the slightest evidence for this and it runs counter to every expectation arising from what is known of Greek homosexual love affairs: that they were between adolescent boys and either men or other boys, and, however intense and lifelong the love they generated, the sexual component dropped away as the boy became a man.
In the case of Alexander and Hephaistion , critical evidence comes from the description of Hephaistion by Justin in his Epitome of Trogus (XII 12 xi). Chugg translates this as "a favourite of Alexander's, firstly because of his good looks and boyish charms, then for his absolute devotion to the King", which he makes the basis of a claim that the adult Hephaistion looked boyish. J. S. Watson translated it very differently as "a great favourite with Alexander, at first on account of his personal qualities in youth, and afterwards from his servility," which I say is far more accurate (though still a bit off in translating "pueritia" as youth rather than boyhood). Surely Justin's point was that the nature of their love changed? Moreover, in a fine analysis of Alexander's sexual apathy towards women as a teenager, Chugg shows convincingly that the most likely cause was his sexual involvement with Hephaistion. But how by this logic can he avoid concluding from the contrary enthusiasm the adult Alexander expressed for the charms of both women and boys that he was no longer thus distracted by Hephaistion? Finally, if the two were really sexually involved until death, and as open about it as Chugg claims, one of them would have been regarded as what the Greeks termed a "kinaidos" (invert), and it would be inconceivable that none of the several ancient writers who were hostile to Alexander would have said so. This issue matters very much because it leads Chugg to conclude that Alexander's love life was "exotic" by modern standards because it encompassed women and men. It did not. It encompassed in an unusually high-minded manner women and boys, something different and far more challenging for the modern imagination.
Amongst a few minor blemishes, it may be worth mentioning that Chugg is often repetitious, and that numerous fine paintings illustrating the story are cheaply rendered as little black and white images. I expect the latter was for understandable reasons of economy, since the book is self-published. What is harder to understand is why such an interesting and scholarly contribution to our understanding could not find a trade publisher.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on Goodreads.com, 2 May 2015
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
jedson 15 November 2017
Why is Alexander great? It’s not his love-life that I have a problem with. It’s this: What is so great about dashing around conquering people who are just going about their business and leaving you alone? We revere lots of people like this. Here’s a few examples, with notes (admittedly taken out of context.)
He formed a triumvirate with Mark Anthony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. They secured their power in Rome by executing thousands.
“He defended a Christian Europe from Muslim Saracens and pagan Saxons, often beheading thousands in a single day.”
Ashoka the Great “When his father died, Ashoka killed all his brothers and went on a brutal rampage to expand the empire. It culminated in the slaughter by the Dayariver, where more than 100,000 citizens were killed by his army.”
“He left a mountain of skulls that remained for years in China.”
They’re all that way.
My point is that maybe we need a new idea of “greatness.”
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Edmund Marlowe 15 November 2017
I take your point, of course, though I think it applies relatively much more to the individuals you have listed whose achievements were largely limited to conquest (meaning mostly Genghis Khan). But is it honestly fair for us to judge the greatness of our ancestors by our modern values of moral repugnance to war, regardless of how incomprehensible those values were to anyone at the time? Isn’t it perhaps a little patronising to sit in judgement of people whose sense of what it was admirable to do was determined by living in radically different circumstances?
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Robert Turner 02 November 2019
Why was Alexander great?
Alexander was great because he led a successful military campaign to free Greek peoples from the despotic rule of the Persian dynasty, which had been his father's mission, and then went on to liberate the remainder of the empire. He was an inspiring general, gifted with great rhetorical skill and a transparent love for his soldiers, alongside of whom he fought on the front line of every battle. He was a great military tactician, whose battle strategies are still studied in war colleges to this day. And he oversaw an enormous logistical enterprise, keeping his large army and support system continuously supplied, which happened under the effective supervision of his chief counselor and intimate friend Hephaestion.
More importantly, Alexander was great because as a conqueror he did not try to impose Greek values by force upon the lands through which he passed. When a city welcomed him without resistance, he left that city unmolested, did not destroy their local temples, and chose respected local leaders to supervise the affairs of the city. The Macedonian garrisons, which boosted the local economy, were left behind not to rule but to ensure the safety of the roads, which enhanced trade across the empire, ensuring not just a wide exchange of material goods, but the transmission of knowledge and ideas between disparate cultures. Most cities recognized this as a magnanimous imperial policy, which fostered enlightened self-rule and brought peace to a broad swath of the world.
Which brings us to the most significant reason Alexander was great. He did not succumb to the notion taught by his teacher, the great polymath Aristotle, that barbarian cultures had little of worth to offer Greek civilization. Alexander recognized that all cultures have something of value to share with other cultures, a very modern notion that makes Alexander metropolitan rather than provincial in his outlook. While he no doubt retained a sense of Greek exceptionalism, he nevertheless believed that Greeks could learn things from eastern cultures as well.
Furthermore, Alexander was great because he led one of the greatest scientific expeditions of all time. Aside from his creation of maps of new terrains, he was constantly sending specimens of animal and plant life back to Macedonia for Aristotle to add to his encyclopedic catalog of knowledge. Hephaestion carried on a regular correspondence with the court philosopher throughout the travels, also sending him reports of historical, sociological, and political characteristics of the cultures they encountered along the way.
Finally, Alexander was great because he founded Alexandria in Egypt, which became one of the greatest cities in history, diverse in its population, a crossroads of culture, which exemplified in its urban character all the best that Alexander had to offer in his worldview.
Alexander was a deep thinker whose political philosophy transcended the traditional notions of Aristotle, considered at the time and even now the greatest philosopher of his age. Coming from a culture of independent states constantly at war with one another, Alexander was a radical visionary who tried to mold a vast and lasting realm of peace that encouraged the widespread exchange of the very best that each culture had to offer. Tragically he died, perhaps by poison, before he had the opportunity to secure a continuity to this legacy.
It is not surprising that, when the new cult of Jesus began to spread, it did so rapidly along the network of trade roads that spanned the Roman Empire, modeled in many ways after Alexander's vision of a multicultural worldwide peace, a vision that also informed Christianity's outreach into the gentile world.
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Edmund Marlowe 02 November 2019
Robert, I think your analysis of why Alexander was great is superb. I would just like to add one point. I think that what inspired people most about him in his lifetime and in the centuries that followed is that he showed by his example that with enough determination, imagination and ability it was possible to go much further than anyone had thought possible. We should be able to appreciate that today without having to share the beliefs of the ancients as to which particular fields of human endeavour are most worthwhile.
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jedson Monday, 04 November 2019
If we say that X is a “great man,” what are we saying? If we simply mean that in some field of endeavor he or she is a very talented person, that would be a clear and easily comprehended assertion, as in “X is really good at ping-pong,” or “X excels at croquet.” But that doesn’t quite capture what is meant by “great.” The sentence “Alexander is a great man” must be uttered with a distinct sense of awe, or it misses the mark. What is meant is not simply that he was talented at war. It is that he was . . . well . . . you know. Great.
Human beings, it would seem, have the need for the divine in their lives. The Greeks had their gods on Olympus who were honored by a lovely assortment of temples. In the middle ages the people looked up to the Supreme Being toward which their cathedrals pointed. We no longer believe in gods of that sort, so we replace them with bigger than life human beings. We marvel at the accomplishments of the Great, and celebrate celebrities. It is no accident that in the same essay – Thus Spake Zarathustra – that Nietzsche proclaims the death of God he announces the birth of the overman (Übermensch) – the quasi-divine human being.
Somehow a limited selection of human beings have managed to become at least quasi-divine. Is it fame that has effected this transformation? Or perhaps wealth? Both, I suspect. Fame grants them the nearest thing to immortality that flesh and blood can hope for, and wealth gives them power. Thus the "great" become immortals of a sort.
Alexander was born into wealth and fame. But being the son of Phillip of Macedonia was an aspect of his situation – not his person. It was something he was given – not something that he earned. He inherited, in addition, an athletic body and a reasonable degree of intelligence. With all of that going for him he could hardly fail, unless the accidents of fortune turned against him. Given his fortuitous head start, he did what self-respecting leaders of empire generally do. He set out to win more territory for his empire. I am a little dubious about his real motive being the altruistic one of liberating the downtrodden from their oppression under Persia. When I hear this sort of justification for wars in the contemporary world, I trend to see it as window dressing. If this was his real motivation why do I hear about his invading India?
But I am not much of an historian, so I could be wrong. In any case your informative response has persuaded me that Alexander was probably a better conqueror than average. But great?
The truth is that I don’t really believe in great men or in great women. I think we are all just ordinary people – which is a good thing to be. Some may be more talented than others in this or that skill, and some may even be more principled than average, or kinder. Some may accomplish more than the average person does. But it’s only because they are playing on a bigger stage that some people appear bigger than life. Wealth and power on a big stage create the illusion of a quasi-divine nature.
I take the time to respond to your thoughtful and informed comment because I believe the notion of greatness is a dangerous one.
So let us drink to Alexander the Better Than Average.
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Edmund Marlowe 04 November 2019
jedson, I do understand your point about greatness. However, I'm left wondering (really just wondering, not disbelieving) if you yourself fully understand how and why Alexander is usually considered great even in our peace-admiring age? I wonder partly because you are so dismissive of his success, saying that he could hardly fail with the gifts you say he was born with (though plenty of others were born with such gifts, but none of them were thought to have made nearly such effective use of them). I wonder much more though because you seem to think that Alexander is admired today, like Genghis Khan (whom I personally don't admire), because he was a successful conqueror. I don't think many of Alexander's admirers today (and we are legion) admire him for that per se at all. Some of us do admire the most lasting result of his conquests: the dissemination of Greek ideas and culture throughout the Mediterranean, and eventually the world, beautiful and enrichening ideas now taken for granted, but which could easily have been lost without him. But mostly I think Alexander is admired for being historically unique as one who was simultaneously and successfully a dreamer and a man of action. It is personal.