Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Do I Study Alexander Because He's Cute?

The finest nose:
Alexander the Great on his
horse Bucephalos
by Charles le Brun 1673 (detail)


born 356 B.C. --  died 323 B.C.

= 2300 years older than me

Why does a historian choose a particular subject and hold to it for a lifetime? Why did Oxford historian Robin Lane Fox, and historical fiction writer Mary Renault, for example, choose to "spend so much time with" Alexander the Great? What is there in an historical figure that pulls the researcher on, year after year?

When you spend a lot of time with someone- when you CHOOSE to spend a lot of time with someone: what is going on? Does the historian enter into some type of relationship with the figure? Does Fox come to love Alexander? To envy him? To imagine himself a warrior?

I attended a lecture by a famed scholar of classical antiquity who had just written a book about Alexander. He was asked by the audience why he chose Alexander as his subject. He actually answered-- I do not exaggerate-- with an embarrassed giggle: "The cult of personality!"

He added that Alexander's extreme youth is also what generally fascinates people. My Alexander is the essence of youth.
Actually, the least cute image we
have of him, as he was ill by now.
Alexander, by his official
sculptor Lysippos (Roman copy).

The great thing (well not really so great) about studying Alexander is that there are no surviving original texts (mainly due to the Alexandria Library fire); and only a small handful of texts by men who had read those original texts. Certain events are known, but even these are told from different perspectives. Many sources differ or contradict each other, or outright lie for their own reasons.

 You cannot study Alexander without much speculation. Alexander becomes more a personal quest when you study him. We fill in the blanks the way we choose.

Was Alexander "gay"? Mary Renault's answer is not the same as Fox's. Did Alexander sleep with the conquered King's harem? Or with only three people ever? Was Alexander a nice guy? Was he merciful? A hothead? A drunkard? All these things have been said. Every book you pick up will have their own view. Many sources call him chivalrous, an explorer, a pan-cultural visionary; others call him a conquerer and capricious, wanton slaughterer.

Alexander is whatever you want him to be. My Alexander becomes truly "MY Alexander." 

Richard Burton gets his curls done.
Surely Burton as casting choice
indicated the very pinnacle of 1956 "cute"

All Alexander's biographers, even quotes from those who knew the actual Alexander, say he "cast a kind of spell." In just those words. Not just the rosy glasses of history: his own men felt it. A spell that reaches forward 2300 years, apparently.

Mary Renault (granted, she is accused of sentimentality), suggests that no leader has ever been so beloved by his men. He ruled by their love. He knew the names and personal circumstances of each of his 47,000** men! They followed him 22,000*** miles in 13 years, through ice, sleet, snow, up the unreachable mountains of Afghanistan, through torrential rains of India- all this, before they demanded to go back.

When he was angry with them, they would flock to his tent and weep (tears!) for forgiveness. As Alexander lay dying, some 10,000** of his common soldiers rioted to see him on his deathbed, and filed past him one by one; nearly immobile, he acknowledged each one individually with his eyes. It took hours! When he died, no one in Babylon would light a light. The city went dark.

Historian Fox and filmmaker Oliver Stone
exchange compliments on their hats

Whatever power that was, some is still with us. Historians draw a line "before" and "after" Alexander- yet Alexander's reign was only 13 years. Whatever he tried to establish was undone after his death. Beyond Alexandria- which he built and left behind- much is now just rubble.

Ask a scholar what difference Alexander made, and he'll have things to say; but ask regular people, and they have no clue. For them, his legacy is simply himself. His genius, his drive, his mystery, even his beauty: an aura.

When Oliver Stone planned his film Alexander, he asked Robin Lane Fox to be his historian. Fox agreed but only on two conditions; the most interesting condition: he must be allowed to ride in the calvary! As one of Alexander's Companions- that is, closest men- and always in the first ten onscreen.*

Though as you can see, Fox fortunately proves to look rather Macedonian, don't you think? If you see the movie, be sure to watch for him.

What does Fox's request tell us about this historian? About all historians? When Fox studies Alexander, does he get a vicarious thrill? Has he always wished he had met him, ridden with him, fought with him? As he reads and writes the books, is he an armchair fighter? Is it the fantasy of all war historian's, to actually ride with those long-dead heroes brought to life?  Fox had the unique opportunity to barter for the dream. What other historian was ever so lucky.

Another lifelong lover (erĂ´menos),
Bagoas (courtier)
"The Persian Boy"Artwork: "Bagoas" by theband on deviantart

Did Mary Renault also have an emotional connection with Alexander? Her lively historical fiction trilogy was the fire that lit my interest. When being a lesbian in England was just barely acceptable, she self-exiled: emigrated to live and write freely. Did she she find Alexander an "outsider" like herself? I suppose: banished son, foreign conqueror, philosopher-King, nomadic King.

She loved writing about Greek culture: where same-sex love was normal, not a separate "identity". Or a problem. Her trilogy shines with Alexander’s two male love stories.
In Alexander's time, a normal boyhood love affair ends with adulthood- but supposedly his did not. Renault was probably tickled that Alexander's friends made fun of him for that.

It takes a long time to cast a hero for a movie. After Colin Farrell auditioned eight hours straight, Oliver Stone was certain he'd clinched it. But his choice was often ridiculed. I don't think people appreciate how much the actor Colin Farrell gives the impression one gets from the histories. Almost girlishly handsome but rough, ruddy, weather- and battle-worn, what makes him seem older than he was, but young too. As someone who read Alexander books for a year, I call Farrell an inspired casting choice.

Although MY Alexander is as fresh as a storybook.

but cute as ever

So, WAS he actually cute? Does anybody know what Alexander looked like?

The following description of Alexander is quoted from Robin Lane Fox, "Alexander the Great":

[Background: Alexander's father King Philip II was assassinated; Alexander very suddenly found himself at age 20 the head of his father's army, professional fighting men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. At news of the assassination, hostile tribes on all borders of his country were waiting to strike. Alexander had only been in one battle before this that I know of, & was better known for being such a hothead that his father sent him away for years]:

"To his Macedonians this new king would have seemed, above all else, young. His long hair, fresh clean-shaven skin and nervous energy belonged to the essence of youth, and there was little enough in his past to imply that audacity would now be tempered with discretion. . .

"It is [hard] to be certain what he looked like, for the only descriptions are posthumous, and either designed to suit a view of his character or else derived from his many statues and portraits. . .

Medieval artists certainly
thought Alexander
was cute

"His skin was white on his body, a weathered red on his face; unlike his father and all previous Macedonian kings, he kept his beard clean-shaven, a fashion which enemies called effeminate but which was common among Philip's courtiers. . .

"His hair stood up off his brow and fell into a central parting; it framed his face, and grew long and low on his neck, a style which was in sharp contrast to the close-cropped haircut of athletes and soldiers and was already insulted in antiquity as a sign of moral laxity. . .

The lion hunt (from Pella)
Fair hair and dark eyes:

Alexander is on the left

"In Pella's mosaic of a lion hunt he is shown with fair hair and dark eyes. . . The liquid intensity of his gaze was famous and undisputed, not least because he believed in it himself. . .

Alexander with thunderbolt,
by his official painter Apelles
(Roman copy)
Note his stocky form.
"As for his body, a pupil of Aristotle said that he was particularly sweet-smelling. . . probably, the comment referred to his suspect liking for ointments and sweet spice.

"Like his father, he was a very handsome young man. His nose. . . was straight; his forehead was prominent and his chin short but jutting; his mouth revealed emotion, and the lips were often shown curling. . .

"He walked and spoke fast; . . . by contemporaries, he was believed to be lion-like in appearance and often in temper, and for a young man of streaming hair and penetrating gaze the comparison was apt, the more so as he had been born under the sign of Leo. . .

"The problem, however, is his height, for no painting portrays it. . . When he sat on the throne of the Persian king, he required a table, not a stool, for his feet, and although the throne was designed to be high, this suggests a definite shortness of leg. . ."



*Fox's other condition for being Stone's historian was that the credits should read "and introducing Robin Lane Fox." Stone was not allowed by contracts to do this.

**Do not quote me on any of these numbers.
***Actually the 22,000 includes the miles they traveled back again.

No comments: