The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire
Pierre Briant (translated by Nicholas Elliott)
Harvard University Press
496pp, 13 colour and 17 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £30/$35

The empire that Alexander the Great built died with him at Babylon in 323 BC but the legend of Alexander has endured for 25 centuries, most recently in films and comicbooks. The history of Alexander in the modern sense is less venerable. The watershed in modern studies of Alexander was the publication, in 1833, of the German
historian Johann Droysen's History of Alexander the Great.

In the mid-20th century, two historians of the ancient world, Elias Bickerman and Arnaldo Momigliano, independently suggested that Droysen had drawn on the work of earlier writers. Bickerman and Momigliano wondered if Droysen's Alexander, and ours too, was a creation of the 18th century. In The First European:
A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire, Pierre Bryant follows this Alexandrine hunch into the labyrinth of Enlightenment scholarship.

History, wrote Cicero, is 'magister vitae', the 'teacher of life'. Enlightenment historians wrote to educate their princes. In 1634, Don Fernando de Biedma addressed his Vita de Alexandro Magno to Philip IV of Spain. In 1681, Jean-Bénigne Bossuet dedicated his Discours sur l'histoire universelle to the Dauphin, the eldest son of Louis XIV of France. The princes also made use of Alexander's model. In an anonymous early 17th-century portrait, Louis XIV, the would-be emperor of Europe, is dressed as Alexander.

As the European empires spread east and south, the image of Alexander recurred. Voltaire, Montesquieu and Robertson sought lessons in empire-building from Alexander. In 1776, Voltaire, in a call for a critical examination of Quintus Curtius Rufus' History of Alexander, criticised the 'modern parrots who repeat ancient words'. The new historians depicted Alexander as the embodiment of rational and benevolent European rule – as the 'first European' – and held him up as an example for the modern European empires.

In Weltgeschichte (History of the World) 1787, the German scholar Christoph Gatterer identified Alexander's defeat of Darius III at Arbela in 331 BC as 'the first time global domination moved away from the Asians and into European hands'. Alexander had subdued the 'tyrants' of the east, and revitalised the decayed polities of Asia. Now, the implicit argument ran, his European heirs should do the same in an Asia crippled by what Marx was to call 'Oriental despotism'.

For reasons that Briant cannot fully explain, it was among the French that the Alexander cult first matured. In 1788, as Russia battered the Ottoman Empire, the Comte de Volney advised that France should support Russia because it had not been 'the most polished of the Greeks who conquered Asia, but the rude mountaineers of Macedonia'. A decade later, in 1798, the European despot Napoleon Bonaparte sought to emulate Alexander by invading Egypt and then pivoting towards Asia; defeated at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon abandoned his army and sailed for France.

Nor does Briant search for the roots of two other significant variations in European attitudes and politics. The British won a large Asian empire in the late 18th century. Yet though British taste looked to Athens after the arrival of the Elgin Marbles, 19th-century British administrators continued to look to Rome, whose imperial governance had been more stable than Alexander's glamorous, but brief, rule. So, while 19th-century Germany produced the greatest scholars of the Orient and the greatest quantity of Alexander biographies, Germany had no empire in Asia. The British and German cases suggest that there was no causal link between fascination with Alexander and Asian empire-building, and that European attitudes to Alexander were variable.

The First European has, like Alexander the Great's empire, both a brilliant beginning and a disorderly end. Briant assembles fascinating evidence that European historians had Alexander in mind, but the question of whether their new image of 'the first European conqueror of the Orient' drove modern European conquerors goes unanswered.
Dominic Green

 

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