From History to Story

What follows is the Author's Note at the end of Book 2: Rise. As it's not yet available with Book 1: Becoming, I post it here primarily for those already familiar with Alexander's story who might like to know why I made the choices that I did.  But be aware there are spoilers for Book 2: Rise, although most of those wouldn't be for readers who know Alexander history. After Rise is published, this page will likely contain links to blogs and other things related to translating history into fiction.

Alexander’s magnetism in life has been rivaled only by his magnetism after death.

He’s generated histories, romances, and biographies, songs and folk tales, moral tales and religious parables, glowing acclamations and rabid damnations stretching from antiquity to the present. This story stands in that long line, albeit with a twenty-first century vista.

By their very nature, stories touch the capacity of the heart, move us in ways visceral as much as intellectual. In French, histoire can mean either history or story, and the same is true of storia in Italian. To tell stories is part of our nature as meaning-seeking, meaning-making creatures. Historical fiction is, therefore, less concerned with who any given historical figure actually was than with who we are now, and what it’s possible for us to become.

The same might be said of our need to pursue history. And while I’d hardly argue there’s no difference between history and fiction, any good historian knows how much supposition goes into her theories about the past. Of historical fiction, novelist Marguerite Yourcenar said over fifty years ago ("Reflections on the Composition," Memoirs of Hadrian, Grace Frick, trans. New York, 1963: 330), what I can only echo now:

Which is not to suggest, as is too often done, that historical truth is never to be attained, in any of its aspects. With this kind of truth, as with all others, the problem is the same: one errs more or less.

So given that perspective on history and fiction, let me touch on a few choices—and in some cases, poetic license—I’ve taken with regard to the “facts.”

I've sometimes used an anecdote that is of dubious historical merit: e.g., the tale of Philip rebuking Alexander for playing the lyre well. A nearly identical story is told elsewhere (by the same author) of Alexander rebuking Philip for “unkingly” interest in the arts. Then, as now, stories circulated less because they were true than because their tellers thought they should be. Internet memes, anyone? I use such anecdotes for characterization, so historical authenticity may take a back seat. It could be true, and “could” trumps “is.”

Regarding the dialogue, Classical Greek is an elegant language, conversation impossible to render accurately without sounding stilted. This left me with two choices: write something that would send readers into fits of giggles or adopt a more modern style. Obviously, I chose the latter, sprinkling it here and there with Greek to remind. It’s a compromise but will have to do.

Political affairs have been downplayed or simplified in the first novel (Becoming), not because they’re uninteresting, but because an author can keep only so many balls in the air at once. I wished readers to become familiar with ancient Macedonia itself before tossing them into the maelstrom of fourth-century politics head-first. Besides, the young Alexander is less attuned to such complexities.

Regarding Myrtalē-Olympias, I’ve made a concerted effort to get away from portrayals of her as femme fatale. Such views are simplistic, ignoring the polygamous nature of the court. Still, apologetics are no more honest than character assassination; like the royal Argead men, she could be ruthless. Treatment of her needs balance, acknowledging her strengths as well as her faults. As she had several names (Polyxena, Myrtalē, Olympias, and Stratonikē), I chose the lesser-known Myrtalē in order to distance her from derogatory historical baggage and Obligatory Snakes. I’ve also sought to portray Alexander as part of a larger, complex family. He wasn’t an only child, although in some novels, a reader might be under the impression he was. Kleopatra’s point-of-view provides ballast to her brother’s.

As for Alexander’s physical appearance, and despite multiple portraits in various mediums from statues to gems to coins, we must beware of idealizing and politicizing. Yet a few features seem consistent: prominent nose, round chin, curved lips, and deep-set eyes beneath a heavy brow. His countenance has been described as both fierce and somewhat feminine (not mutually exclusive), and his hair has been shown from dark blond, to reddish, to medium brown. The strongest tradition calls him fair-skinned with a ruddy complexion, and if the Alexander Sarcophagus and Pella Mosaics can be believed, he was a ginger. He was shorter than average, and walked and spoke fast, his voice unpleasantly harsh and rather deep (barutēs). Giving him “eyes of two colors” is myth, not history; the description comes from late sources of doubtful merit. I simply thought it intriguing. Essential anisocoria, or pupils of differing sizes, occurs in 15% of the population (if not usually so dramatically), and an expanded pupil would have made one eye appear black. The truth is no doubt less colorful. Making him left-handed is also speculation. Statues show him with a spear in the right, but phalanx warfare required the spear to be held so, and wouldn’t reflect handedness for writing. He’d have been trained to fight right-handed, but an ability to switch to the left in the melee would have given a southpaw swordsman a technique advantage.

For the reader’s convenience, the ages of some characters have been conspicuously altered in order to introduce them earlier and let me reduce the number of names floating about. Any story about Alexander will suffer from a large cast of characters, so I tried to use some who might be familiar, such as Ptolemy and Nearkhos. Likewise, Kampaspē (who may, in fact, be a Roman fiction) was also introduced early for an additional woman’s voice, and I sent Alexander to Agriana during his exile, although sources say Illyria, because Langaros figures prominently later in Alexander’s career. Agriana is next to Illyria.

Otherwise, the name problem is without easy solution. Greek names simply look odd to English-speakers. Even had I used Anglicized forms, it would have helped a bare handful. My decision to use Greek forms arose from a desire to create ambiance, but I do have an ulterior motive. In trying to bring the world of Alexander closer to our own, I don’t want readers to confuse them. As similar as they seem at times, they were not like us.

Regarding Aristotle’s tutelage of Alexander, at the time, he had yet to earn his reputation. He was only about forty. Nonetheless, the fact the greatest scientific mind of his age played tutor to the greatest military genius has long been a source of romantic conjecture about what he taught, due to a lack of evidence. Alexander remained fond of his old tutor, dutifully sending him botanical specimens from all across Asia, but his political policy showed little Aristotelian influence. Aristotle was likely hired for his prior familiarity with the court.

I’ve skipped the Hermias Affair for reasons of dating and complexity. One may assume it occurred offstage in the year gap between novels. Similarly, Philip’s three-year campaign in east Thrace is only skimmed, and I assume he wasn’t absent from Pella for the entire time, but made occasional, brief returns, even if the sources, notoriously abbreviated, don’t say.

As for Mieza, the site of Aristotle’s school at the base of Mount Vermion below modern Naoussa has been identified, nestled among modern peach groves and vineyards. It still shows ridge cuts along which the ancient stoa ran, and an old quarry looks suspiciously like a miniature lecture hall. It’s highly unlikely the boys lived in the caves themselves, so I’ve proposed an earlier estate on the site of a later Roman villa. The entire area is charming, under-visited, and remains one of my favorite places in Greek Macedonia.

As for the various religious festivals, all have literary references but details remain elusive. We have no evidence for a Dionysic precinct in the location I placed it for Alexander’s initiation, and how such initiations went is far from clear. I built a theoretical rite from clues in Orphic tablets, et al. Gender-segregated, repeating elective cults were fashionable by the fourth century, and Dionysos was hugely popular in Macedonia. Likewise, we have no idea where the Hetairideia was celebrated nor what it entailed. Aigai and Dion are both likely locations. The oath binding king and army with a dog sacrifice is attested by Livy, but as part of a “Xanthika” which included mock combat, although a Hetairideia for a similar purpose is mentioned in earlier Greek sources. The aetiological myth behind Dionysos Pseudanor is related in Polyaenus, but we have no description of how or where any festival occurred. I placed it at a lovely “sacrificial site” with waterfalls, identified on the Arapitsa River in modern Naoussa.

The murder of Philip has become a viper-pit of controversy, eliciting article after article attempting to solve it. For that matter, the last two years of Philip’s life are baffling. Hypotheses on his final marriage, Alexander’s true standing at the court, the timing of the Pixodaros and Pausanias affairs, as well as Attalos’s real influence, present a would-be novelist with a smorgasbord of possibility. Some of my choices are based on what I found probable, whilst others are purely for drama. Certainly Philip’s “counterplot” is my own invention. Another writer would probably tell the tale another way, following a different set of primary evidence. That said, I find little to convince me that either Alexander or Olympias were complicit. Amyntas Perdikka is another story.

A variety of smaller issues merit a word:

Ptolemy’s later claim (or that of Ptolemy Keraunos on his behalf) to be Philip’s bastard offered a path to legitimization for Ptolemaic rule in Egypt and is, thus, likely false. But it’s an intriguing lie. Given Philip’s reputation, he no doubt had several bastards floating about.

Yes, “the finger” was an abusive gesture then as now and meant the same thing. Many of their obscenities would seem shockingly modern, yet they were also literal. So an opinion or idea could be like shit, but nobody would yell “Shit!” after dropping a cup and breaking it.

The amount of wine even younger characters consume might surprise readers, but wine-consumption was normal cultural practice and children had their first taste of (well-watered) wine between three and four. If southern Greeks critiqued the Macedonians for drinking wine “akratos” (unmixed) at symposia, Macedonians did take water in their wine for common use. Or perhaps wine in their water would be more accurate.

Paionians occupied northern areas along the Axios River and west till the Persians drove them out. Most moved into Asia, but some remained. The ethnic identity behind the rich burials at Sindos (or those at Archontiko down to c. 450) is unclear, but the cities of Europos and Idomene certainly retained Paionian ties.

Under Alexander, the Hypaspists were the crack infantry unit fill be by special selection. But according to Philip's contemporaries (Demosthenes and Theopompus), in Philip's day, that unit was dubbed Pezhetairoi--Foot Companions, a courtesy comparable to the Companion Cavalry. Extending the term to the rank-and-file probably belonged to Alexander.

The Sacred Band as a crack unit made up of pairs of pledged lovers, as Plutarch describes them, versus a more traditionally constituted special force, has come under closer scrutiny lately for discrepancies in the evidence. For my purposes here, I continue to follow Plutarch.

Modern revisionist analyses of Chaironeia discount Alexander’s cavalry charge, as “horses won’t run at a line of men with spears,” despite ancient evidence saying otherwise. Sears and Willekes have now shown how such a charge is, indeed, possible, so I follow Diodorus.

Kynnanē as a warrior is not feminist exaggeration. Polyaenus relates her single combat, and victory, over an Illyrian queen. If he may have embellished her martial prowess, he didn’t make it up. Illyrian women fought, and certainly Kynnanē’s daughter, Hadea Eurydikē, led armies later during the early Successor Wars.

The Pixodaros Affair has been conspicuously altered. The tale is found in Plutarch alone, who, we must remember, is only as good as his sources. The more I tried to fit in the incident, the clearer it became that everything about it, from motive to timing, is problematic. It makes more sense—both politically as well as in the need for travel time—if the initial overture to Pixodaros occurred while Alexander was in exile.

The Greeks did know of the mongoose but called them “cats.” Likewise, if apricot trees were first brought to Greece after Alexander’s conquest of Persia, dried apricots were common enough in Anatolia (Turkey) to be imported already from Asian city-states. Many crops now grown in the rich fields of lowland Macedonia would have been unknown in antiquity. And of course, citrus (the citron) wasn’t available until after Alexander’s conquests. (Greek cooking without the lemon? I know!)

The oath at Iolaos’s shrine is an historical blank. It existed is all we can say. Certainly no evidence suggests Alexander and Hephaistion ever took it. I simply liked the idea.

Finally, I should address the question of Hephaistion himself.

His and his father’s names suggests the family was of Greek descent. Hēphaistíōn (that spelling) is Attik-Ionian, whilst Macedonian names, Tataki points out, are typically Doric. An inscription from Athens may indicate Athenian familial roots, and a curious curse tablet may connect Amyntor to Pydna. Arrian says Hephaistion was “of Pella,” but the same list also names Leonnatos “of Pella” although we know he came from Lynkestis, so not too much weight can be placed on that origin

Otherwise, we know nothing of Hephaistion’s family, only his father’s name, and that via a patronymic. Due to Hephaistion’s prominence, it’s assumed Amyntor was an Hetairos of the king. We have no evidence for siblings, yet death in warfare wasn’t uncommon (nor death in childhood), and ancient sources rarely give full genealogies unless important to the larger narrative. Certainly, no evidence suggests Hephaistion was descended from the tragic playwright Agathon, but like Euripides, Agathon did leave Athens for Macedonia. I made up the connection. However well-attested Agathon’s attachment to his lover Pausanias, Greek inheritance laws would assume marriage to produce legitimate heirs.

Regarding Hephaistion’s personality and appearance, we know little more than about his family: he was tall and striking-looking, loyal to a fault, sometimes charming and sometimes quarrelsome. According to Curtius, he and Alexander were educated together, probably at Mieza (along with a handful of others), but this is inferred, not certain. The boys I chose for Mieza are, again, more about name reduction than an accurate list.

Later Roman gossip assumed that he and Alexander were lovers. Homoeroticism was a recognized part of ancient Greek and Macedonian society, and between Alexander and Hephaistion, an affair of some depth and duration seems plausible, although the evidence is either diffident or late (e.g., untrustworthy). The best clue may lie in the emotional devastation Alexander experienced upon Hephaistion’s death. If they’d met by the time Alexander went to Mieza, they were friends at least nineteen years—longer than many modern marriages. Even if they were lovers, at least as youths, it would be quite wrong to reduce their relationship to an affair of the gonads. Perhaps the best insight of all comes from Alexander’s own lips: he called Hephaistion “Philalexandros”—friend of Alexander—whilst Krateros was only “Philobasileus”—friend of the king. C’est cela.

As they were about the same age, a love affair between them would have strayed from the Athenian pattern of an older man with a younger boy. Yet Curtius’s “aetate par erat regi” doesn’t mean the same age to the month, nor even year, but does indicate they were coevals, which might argue against any affair. Yet to assume Athenian patterns a norm for all of Greece would be a mistake. Homoerotic attachments in Macedonia, as well as Sparta and Thebes, were rooted in the army, a point often overlooked. We are told explicitly of two Pages under Alexander who were lovers and coevals both: Hermolaos and Sostratos. More egality existed in these pairs whilst maintaining a division of roles. More, people’s ideals rarely match their actual behavior. Flesh and blood resists pigeonholing.

In the end, whatever approach one takes to Alexander, whatever theories one subscribes to, more or less hostile to the conqueror, we are left with the man himself in all his complexity and contradiction. The phenomenon called “Alexander the Great” has evoked vastly different interpretations from his era to ours. It’s tempting to seek internal consistency for his behavior, or to force it when it can’t be found.

Yet no one is consistent. Even more, history itself is distorted by those recording it in order to serve their unique political narratives, whether then or now. Conflicting politics create competing narratives, and histories of Alexander were (and are) especially prone to such distortions. That, in turn, brings us back to where we began: history (like historical fiction) is about who we are now, and what it’s possible for us to become.

So Alexander was neither demon nor god, whatever he wanted to believe about himself. He was a man, capable of cruelty and sympathy, brilliance and blindness, paranoia and an open-handed generosity.

As remarkable as he was, he was human.

And that's what makes him interesting.

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