The Medieval Review 14.11.15


Stone, Charles Russell. From Tyrant to Philosopher-King: A Literary History of Alexander the Great in Medieval and Early Modern England. Cursor Mundi, 19. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2013. Pp. 256. $102.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9782503545394 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Coyle Neal
Southwest Baptist University
cneal@sbuniv.edu

Those familiar with modern Alexander the Great scholarship are aware that one of the primary difficulties of the discipline is the question of sources. Specifically, our best sources date from three centuries after Alexander's death. In the span of those three centuries the facts of Alexander's life and character became muddled and mixed with romantic legends, borderline-science fiction, and localized tribal myths, to the point where one can hardly speak of the "real" Alexander at all. [1] However easy it may be to dismiss the Alexander who invents the airplane and submarine, it is impossible to conclude with certainty which historical interpretation of Alexander is the correct one. The patricide? The idealist? The bloodthirsty barbarian? The civilization builder? In From Tyrant to Philosopher-King: A Literary History of Alexander the Great in Medieval and Early Modern England, Charles Russell Stone demonstrates that these difficulties are not unique to modern historiography--they are rather modern versions of vivid and lively debates already evolving in the Middle Ages. Stone sets for himself the goal not of joining "the impressive ranks of biographies of Alexander" but instead of offering:

"a history of the histories of Alexander, the classical texts that were interpolated, redacted, and translated by scholars from the twelfth to the seventeenth century and that account for our modern dichotomous conceptions of Alexander as a disturbingly violent tyrant or a political visionary who established a harmonious, multicultural empire." (2)

This goal is well and truly met in this volume.

From Tyrant to Philosopher-King is broken into three parts. In the first part (chapters 1-3), Stone discusses the manuscripts which form the basis for the knowledge of and legends about Alexander in England in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. He traces the history of these manuscripts and walks us through the few remaining hints as to the identity of the scribes and copyists who had a hand in their creation (particular attention is paid to manuscript London, British Library, MS Royal 13.A.I). Especially interesting in the first chapter is Stone's involved discussion of the relationship between the text of the manuscript and the image of its frontpiece, as well as the place of that frontpiece in the general state of portraiture in England and all the implied subtleties of religion, power, royal imagery, and the imperial person being represented. As the story of these manuscripts unfolds, we begin to see that medieval Alexander scholarship is itself undergoing an evolution. Scholars and copyists are clearly trying to be faithful to their source material while exercising discernment and recognizing the difference between "true history" and romance. Their method and efforts "to distinguish a schema of Alexander texts, those representative of 'true history' and those based on falsehoods, anticipates both the historiographical investigations of the twelfth-century Renaissance and the ad fontes methodology of its humanist owners in the sixteenth century" (15-16).

Stone emphasizes that this effort is no rhetorical or philosophical radical shift; it is rather a gradual correction and gentle emendation of the Alexander narrative, blending together disparate sources as they become available to the copyists across decades and centuries. Over time (and this is emphasized in chapters 2 and 3), we see Alexander's narrative go from one of mystery, tragedy, and romance; to one of bloodshed begetting bloodshed; and finally to one of idealism and light as scholars encountered new manuscripts and as the English political situation shifted. Again, Stone's point is that the medieval view of Alexander is as nuanced and complex as our own, such that the same document could discuss him as both the glorious conqueror and the passionate monster.

In the second part (chapters 4-5), Stone explores the different ways the biography of Alexander was used as an educational device by the moralizing writers of the time. Again, he traces the transitions in the various interpretations of Alexander over decades and centuries through monks and scholars such as Gerald of Wales, John of Salisbury, and John Gower. Again, Alexander can be everything from the drunken lout distinguished by "depravities and excess" (116) to the thoughtful ruler and student of Aristotle. The "mirror for princes" genre gets special focus in this section, as it allows for subtlety in source interpretation on the part of medieval writers. Fate, virtue, and the lessons of history for the present can all be discussed in tandem as the authors draw from their sources in an attempt to encourage contemporary rulers learn from the triumphs and mistakes of the past. And yet this is no naked historical moralizing--even here complexity remains the key to understanding the development of medieval views of Alexander.

Stone's discussion of the fate of medieval Alexander scholarship in the context of the teaching of Aristotelian ethics across Christendom by the likes of Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste is especially interesting. As a more positive interpretation of Alexander's character and rule is encouraged (especially by Jewish tales of the conqueror), Stone traces a concurrent transition in the definition of Aristotelian virtue from meaning "moderation" to meaning something more along the lines of "what one does while in the process of conquering." This development merits further reflection. Frankly, if he hasn't already written it, I would be interested to read something from Stone working out the full nature of this transition and its impact on the moral teaching of the day. As it is presented in this volume, the discussion of the context of John Gower's rebellion against the changing view of Alexander and his [Gower's] insistence that Alexander "embodies a king who sought to fulfill his egomaniacal agenda by terrorizing others and whose legacy is a dark era of history" is alone worth the time it takes to read From Tyrant to Philosopher-King (159).

In the third part of the book (chapters 6-7), Stone discusses the contributions of the English humanists and their use of Greek sources (especially Plutarch). While the humanists did not immediately revise and reform Alexander's reputation, they begin to distrust the traditionally received Latin texts in favor of newly rediscovered Greek texts. The debate increasingly transitions from a contrast between Latin Alexander histories and medieval Alexander Romances, to an understanding of "conflicting attitudes among classical authorities, now both Greek and Roman" (183). The former represented the Latin scholarship of the Middle Ages, the latter that of the (English) humanism of the Renaissance.

These new manuscripts in turn caused Alexander to be seen as a uniter of Greek with barbarian and as a cosmopolitan and enlightened ruler over a brotherhood of man. Of course he still has his faults (especially ambition and hubris), but even these might be rooted in a noble character. Instead of sorcery and witchcraft, Alexander's life is surrounded by the debate between free will and fortune. Instead of arrogance, Alexander exercises courage and boldness on the battlefield. Rather than being an oriental sell-out, Alexander becomes politically savvy and respectful of foreign customs. Forgiveness above all characterizes Alexander's political philosophy, and indeed his whole life in Plutarch's biography. Even Alexander's death is no longer a "tragedy" in the sense that his vices dragged Greece and the world down to destruction, but rather is "tragic" in the sense that his work was left unfinished with no worthy heir. "In the transmission of Plutarch, a novel ideology was established, one based not on a moral reflection of the reasons for Alexander's failure...but on a celebration of what he accomplished and the promise that his success could not simply be emulated... In the age of humanism, Alexander's success could even be surpassed" (193).

The addition of other sources, especially Curtius Rufus, revealed the possibility of an Alexander who was both adventurous and moral (though not necessarily perfect), without relying on historically questionable romances. Which in turn (ironically) led to more interest in the Romances among the royalty, and which in turn led the humanist scholars such as Erasmus to push the more idealized and cautionary aspects of Alexander's tale (201-202).

By 1609, Alexander's history was available both in the original languages and in translation. As noted, discussion and debate over Alexander were no longer over differences in romance versus history, but in differences amongst the classical historians themselves--the same debate which continues today. "Although the classical historians in circulation in the sixteenth century...had effectively replaced late antique and medieval romances as the most pervasive voices on Alexander, they still raised questions of historical credibility" (209). There were still questions of a moral nature concerning his rule, but they were questions that related to what actually happened (or at least what might have happened), questions based on the texts of Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin (Roman) versus Arrian and Plutarch (Greek), rather than Romance vs. History. Which brings the Alexander scholarship of Early Modern England almost back to where it had been in the Middle Ages:

"There is a certain circularity in the Alexander books of the Lumley collection. This oldest, BL MS Royal, 13.A.1, features both the only romance narratives in the library and the first attempt to assert 'true history' over what these romances claimed, while Arrian's Anabasis, the last Greek history of Alexander to reach England, asserted its own authority from the accounts of the conqueror's officers and, in so doing, presented a version of him no less heroic or noble, only less fantastical..." (213)

Stone's overall point (emphasized in the Epilogue) is that the shift in Alexander scholarship was not a stark one. Rather, the early scholars had a nuanced and thoughtful view of Alexander that was not built entirely upon the Romances, just as the humanist writers had an idealized view of Alexander that was not built entirely upon the rediscovered Greek histories. These of course parallel our own conflicting views of Alexander. Is he the enlightened cosmopolitan uniter? Or is he the bloodthirsty despot? It may be that both during the Middle Ages and during our own time, the view of Alexander we take is ultimately more reflective of us than of the historical reality of Alexander's reign. In any case, then as now the conflicting sources continue to inspire arguments about the true legacy and applicability of the lessons of Alexander and his reign to our own time.

Overall, this is an excellent and fascinating book. While some of the descriptions of the manuscripts themselves will likely be more applicable to specialists in the field, the book as a whole (especially the second and third parts) will be of interest to medievalists and Alexander scholars alike.

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Note:

1. A muddling and mixing which has continued through the ancient world and down to this very day. See especially Frank Holt's Into the Land of Bones (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012) for a brief discussion of how this has unfolded in Bactria.



Copyright (c) 2014 Coyle Neal



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