Graeco-Perso-Babylo-Macedonian Dionysus

A review of Alexander the Great: Forming Political Identity in a Multicultural Empire, by Jennifer L. Finn.

This is an impressive work on the socio-cultural and ideological aspects of Alexander the Great and his short-lived empire. It works both as a critical biography of the man, as well as a study of the political, social, intellectual, and cultural contexts of his empire. It is also, impressively, concerned with the legacy of both Alexander and his empire. As a whole, the work is a delicious mixture of both thematic and theoretical issues of identity, culture, and political propaganda, as well as pedantic details of political history and source criticism that is the so-called bread-and-butter of any historian. The mixture manages to hold attention, amuse, and delight.

The dissertation, as it makes clear in the introduction, is placed within a large body of works regarding the life and actions of Alexander the Great. A quote from Ulrich Wilken actually illustrates the point that every Alexander historian creates his or her own Alexander! The work addresses and places itself within the context of famous studies of Alexander, from Albert Brian Bosworth’s military and political work, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) to Richard Stoneman’s more panegyric Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). However, it is significant that it also addresses more alternative studies of Alexander and his contextualization in his contemporary world, particularly the various contributions of Pierre Briant, including his major volume From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbraun, 2002). The use of Mesopotamian documents, including the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries, also distinguishes the work, placing it in the less popular genre of the study of Achaemenid/post-Babylonian Mesopotamia.

The dissertation is organized into six main chapters, along with a seventh chapter which constitutes the conclusion. Chapter one, the introduction, is the “theory” chapter, functioning as a historiography of the study of Alexander, among the most oft-treated subjects of ancient history, as well as a presentation of the main theoretical boundaries of the dissertation. The author distinguishes her work on two fronts: through her use of Mesopotamian documents in addition to the “classical” ones, and through her concentration on Alexander’s creation of what she eventually comes to call a Graeco-Perso-Macedonian kingship. The study of ancient sources follows up on their genealogies and contextualizes their contents. An important part of this is the discussion of the so-called “Official” and “Vulgate” versions of Alexander’s history, both genres written hundreds of years after the actual events, but each having roots in a different set of primary material. The introduction also includes a study of Aeschylus’s The Persians and uses it to argue for the nature of the Achaemenid Empire’s inclusiveness as an imperial policy. The main argument of the introductory chapter, with regard to Alexander, is that Alexander, the king of the Persian client kingdom of Macedon, would not have been unfamiliar with the culture of the Achaemenid Empire and would not have considered it an “alien” culture. The author takes the opportunity to advance the main thesis that Alexander, despite his awareness of the Achaemenid culture, was not attempting to become fully part of that culture, but rather tried to use it to create a “third way,” namely forming a new imperial ideology that was Persian, as well as Graeco-Macedonian.

The dissertation then proceeds to chapter two, which is titled “Philip and Alexander I” (meaning the first part of the discussion of Philip II and Alexander III). This chapter is concerned with the bureaucratic machinery of Alexander’s native kingdom of Macedonia. The majority of this chapter is dedicated to the discussion of purely historical matters. It starts with describing the nature of Macedonian kingship and the modern scholarly arguments about the position of the king and the nobility in the structure of Macedonian power. The author shows her erudition by expertly sifting through the major scholarly arguments and arriving at the most plausible middle ground. A discussion of Philip’s incorporation of the Greek elements in his kingdom forms the basis of a vision of the Macedonian court as a reflection of the Persian one. The author suggests that the “revenge motif” advanced by Philip – as in taking vengeance for the Achaemenid burning of Athens – was a way of creating unity, but clarifies that the court of Philip was not ready for including, or integrating, the Achaemenid court. Instead, it is Alexander that changes the Macedonian court in order to make it ready for that purpose. Alexander allows Greeks to reach high military posts, and creates a cosmopolitan environment which he had probably learned during his tenure in Caria. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to a detailed discussion of the fight over Alexander’s succession, the position of Perdiccas, and the creation of the office of the Chiliarch, inspired by the Persian office of hazarpatish. The basic outcome of this is a re-organization of the Macedonian army, and the army’s role in the successions.

Chapter three, the second part of the discussion of Philip and Alexander’s Macedonian kingdom, is dedicated to Alexander’s ideology and ideological agenda. This chapter focuses on two case studies in order to illustrate its point. The first one is the idiomatic story of the Gordian Knot. The author, by thoroughly studying both the historical and the cultural aspects of this story, arrives at convincing conclusions regarding both Alexander’s actions and also their reflection in the works of later historians of Alexander, like Diodorus. Her conclusion, in short, is that Alexander is shown as the “amalgamator” of various local mythologies, further strengthening his image as the creator of a hybrid, multi-faceted ideology. The story of the Gordian Knot, through its emphasis on achieving the near impossible and by its placement in Phrygia with the legendary Midas, also presents Alexander as a king who achieved more than his father, and is thus best suited for the task at hand. A second story, that of Alexander’s visit to the Oracle at the Siwa Oasis in Egypt, also serves the same purpose. Alexander shows a clear desire to adopt the local Egyptian cults. At the same time, approaching the oracle works best in Alexander’s self-chosen image as a descendant and reflection of Dionysus. A thorough study of Alexander’s interest in Dionysus and Dionysiac cultic attributes is undertaken here, which contributes to the argument that he was consciously seeking the idea of imperial renewal through these cultic acts. The chapter continues with a discussion of Philip and Alexander’s practice of polygamy. The instance of Alexander’s marriage to Barsine is explored in depth, given the importance of Barsine’s origin as part of the Persian nobility living in the Macedonian court. Other marriages to Roxane, Stateira, and Parysatis are also discussed for their symbolic and diplomatic significance.

The next chapter, chapter four, is the first part of the main body of evidence presented for Alexander’s political and ideological agendas advanced in the course of his conquests. By necessity, the chapter is extensive, starting from Alexander’s victory and his entry into Babylonia. The basic cultural background of Alexander seems to be an interest, indeed a fascination, with the ancient city as the old center of culture, and his embracing of the Babylonian ideal of kingship, which is labelled as already hybrid. A very interesting section is dedicated to contextualization of Babylonia based on the native Mesopotamian sources, most important the “Babylonian” origin myth of Enuma Eliš. As a tale of Marduk and his ascent to the position of the chief of the gods, the Babylonian version of the story sets Babylon up as the cosmic center of the universe, built on the back of the primordial sea/god, Apsu. It is this aspect of Babylonia’s role as the seat of the god Marduk and the center of the cosmos that Alexander is most keen on adopting. His interests in other local myths, including that of Queen Semiramis, are also explored, particularly in a discussion of the contesting versions of the story and the version available through the writings of the Helleno-Babylonian priest Berossus. The suggestion here is that Alexander consciously installs himself as an Assyro-Babylonian king, again amalgamating local mythologies to create an ideology. The chapter then proceeds to a discussion of Cyrus the Great, particularly his conquest and entrance to Babylon. Cyrus is explored through his reflections in the Greek historical works, including Xenophon’s Cyropaedia as well as Herodotus’s Histories. Special attention is also paid to Aeschylus’s Persians and its image of Cyrus. Of particular interest is the discussion of Cyrus’s own imperial ideologies upon his entry into Babylon, mainly explored through his eponymous cylinder. A discussion of the image of Alexander in a Babylonian “Dynastic Prophecy” as well as reference to him in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries deepen the discussion of Alexander’s reception in Babylonia, as well as his own generation of imperial ideologies. An analysis of an Alexandrine Ersätzritual (substitution ceremony) concludes the chapter.

Chapter four also has two appendices. The first of these is an exploration of the archaeology of Babylonia. In this, the author points out different archaeological explorations, as well as opinions, on the archaeology of the city of Babylon in particular. Here she points out arguments such as the possible basis of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the controversial suggestion that it can be based on Nineveh and Sennacherib’s gardens. The appendix serves to deepen our knowledge of Babylon itself and its significance in the world in which Alexander lives. A second appendix presents a succinct chart comparing various passages from the Cyrus Cylinder and the text of Enuma Eliš, illustrating their similarities and the clear influence of the latter on the former.

Chapter five is dedicated to Alexander’s entry to Susa, the ancient capital of the Elamite Kingdoms and one of the most important royal seats of the Achaemenids. Much of the chapter is dedicated to a summary of the history of Susa from the later second millennium BC to Alexander’s conquest thereof. Discussion of the position of Susa in the Elamite kingdom, its relation with the highland Elamite city of Anshan, and the role of the latter in the rise of the Achaemenids, particularly the origins of Cyrus from Anshan, are a major part of the chapter. Susa is also mentioned as the place where a collection of Mesopotamian wonders were displayed. This is a reference to objects such as the Stele of Naram Sin and the Laws of Hammurabi which had been carried to Susa by Shutruk-Nahhunte I and Shilhak-Inshushinak, the conqueror kings of the Middle Elamite period who had managed to defeat various Babylonian and Assyrian powers. Here, the presence of this impressive booty is connected to the multi-cultural program of the Achaemenid Empire, and of course Alexander’s use of it. Details such as Alexander’s marriage at the Apadana of Susa and the significance of the carving programs at the palace are also used towards the same purpose.

Chapter six, the last chapter, deals with the actual history of Alexander and his conquests. Concentrating on Alexander’s entry into Persepolis, the ritual palace complex of Darius and Xerxes, the early part of the chapter is mostly concerned with the Achaemenid royal ideology. Here the construction and archaeological details of Persepolis, as well as Pasargadae as the palace of Cyrus, are discussed. The main focus of the chapter, however, is on the story of Alexander’s burning of the Persepolis complex. The author identifies the instances of burning initially through archaeology, including details of the buildings, monuments, or specific symbols. The conclusion of this part is that, in fact, specific sections of the palace relating to Xerxes were targeted during the course of fire, possibly as a way of exacting revenge which was an ideology already advanced by Alexander’s father, Philip. The important conclusion from this section, consequently, is that the fire was a premeditated act. This is further corroborated through textual evidence. The last part of the chapter is then dedicated to a symbolic discussion of this deliberate act. A lengthy and detailed discussion of Alexander’s interest in the Dionysian cult, particularly its role as an act of rebirth, is presented in this section. Dionysus is seen as a god who exacts revenge on acts of impiety and in so doing re-establishes order. Alexander’s burning of the monuments associated with Xerxes is thus translated through the Dionysiac cults, with Alexander as a re-born Dionysus.

Chapter seven is the general conclusion of the dissertation. Here the author summarizes her work, while also advancing its main hypothesis in a discussion of the role of Alexander as an agent of change. While she accepts and advances the idea that Alexander considered the differences between the Greeks and Persians to have been artificially constructed, she enforces her suggestion that Alexander was in fact an agent of change. Contrary to Pierre Briant’s theory that Alexander was “the last Achaemenid,” thus denying him any agency in innovation and change, the author argues that he was in fact an independent Graeco-Perso-Macedonian king. While he had high respect for and was fascinated by the great Achaemenid kings and the hybrid culture over which they presided, he brought into being a further amalgamation of cultures by drawing upon but also transforming the established pattern of Achaemenid kingship.

Overall, this is an impressive work, spanning a wide range of sources and secondary studies. The author’s familiarity with the classical sources, as well as her commendable use of Mesopotamian sources, should be held up as an example for future researchers on the subject. The dissertation is an excellent and very welcome step towards creating a more complete picture of the Macedonian conqueror, one that I suspect will portray him as an Egypto-Syro-Phoenicio-Phrygio-Hittito-Babylo-Graeco-Perso-Macedonian King. But there again, I am creating my own Alexander!

Khodadad Rezakhani
Department of History
University of Nevada, Reno

Primary Sources

Diodorus Siculus
Q. Curtius Rufus
Akkadian (Assyro-Babylonian) Tablets

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2012. 308 pp. Primary Advisors: David S. Potter and Margaret Cool Root.


Image: Detail of the Alexander Mosaic. Photograph by Ruthven, 11 January 2005. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply