The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire
by Pierre Briant, Translated by Nicholas Elliott.
Harvard University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 496 pages, $35.
After Alexander the Great died, a wilderness of legends about the boy-conqueror flourished. In one of these stories, Alexander commissioned a diving bell, made of the finest translucent glass. He had himself lowered into the ocean, to glimpse the teeming depths that philosophy was only just beginning to understand.
For his new book, Pierre Briant has taken the antiquarian scholar’s equivalent of Alexander’s dive. The First European: A History of Alexander in the Age of Empire examines the various historians, philosophers, and scribblers from the “long eighteenth century,” which he defines as lasting from 1665 to 1829. Briant’s tour passes through France, Germany, and England, covering celebrated authors like Defoe, Diderot, and Montesquieu, but also the less-familiar Huet, Droysen, and Heyne. His erudition is tremendous, and the focus of his discussion is granular.
In these pages, Alexander inspires much the same debate that Napoleon does: was he a mass-murdering megalomaniac? Or was he the instrument of some grander force, a supposedly unstoppable imperative like “progress” or “racial supremacy” or “technology”? A parade of Alexanders, dressed in the latest historical analogies and philosophical theories, marches before the reader. For a polemical philosopher enamored of abstractions like “Western civilization,” Alexander is “the apostle,” carrying “the torch of the Greek spirit.” To a philosophe like Voltaire, Alexander and his deeds are useless old coins, which “stay in the cabinets” of dusty antiquarians and numismatologists. Briant’s catalogue of these opinions is exhaustive, but sometimes he remains frustratingly detached from commentary or analysis.
The most interesting sections develop Alexander as an icon of imperialism. The line between curious exploration and political power grab grew very thin indeed, and it was an endeavor sponsored by the reanimated spirit of Alexander the Great. As Briant remarks, “famous explorers (Delisle and d’Anville in France; Rennell in England; Mannert in Germany) were leading figures in the history of Alexander.” The refined scholarship of imperial nations, which sent hundreds of young men abroad to map territories, record languages, and catalog art, could also secure information for the movement of troops, arms shipments, and the financing of client kings. Europe’s fascination with a cosmopolitan, conquering Hellenism helped to launder greed and cruelty.
Briant shows that these scholars fixated on Alexander because they saw him as the prototype bold conqueror, bearing European civilization in his wake. It was a thrill for colonial soldiers and functionaries to reach the same places that the Macedonian army had fought—to stand by the Pyramids, to find the barren ruins of incinerated Persepolis, to look on the Jhelum River where the conquest stopped. Alexander was the trailblazer, not just for himself, but for the European imagination.
Yet for all his novelty, Alexander was eager to enter into the traditions of the peoples he conquered and receive acclaim from them. In Egypt, for example, he was called the son of Ammon; in Persia, he allowedhis subjects to prostrate themselves before him. When he came across the Persian emperor Darius’s body, among the wreckage of his escaping baggage train, Alexander made sure to pull the royal signet ring from the god-king’s hand. He wanted his reign to be stamped with the seals of traditional power. Briant’s book reminds us of the conservative perspective of history—a reminder that power seeks nothing so eagerly as the blessing of tradition.
Greg Morrison lives in Virginia. He comes on Twitter as @exam_times.