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The Passion of Uncertainty -- Writer's Poke #385

Why are there so many books written about Alexander the Great? I have at least eleven in my personal library, and I’m sure that I will end up buying even more.

In Paul Cartledge’s introduction to his 2005 biography, he offers what sounds to me like a preemptive apology when he writes that “no explanation is necessary” for why he decided to offer the world another biography on Alexander the Great. While that may be true, it does seem as though the thought crossed his mind, or that at the very least, he knew the thought would cross the minds of others.

Yes, Alexander the Great was, at least for a brief moment in time, King of the World, but how important is he really in the grand scheme of things? His empire, after all, fragmented almost immediately upon his death. On the other hand, his influence on the so-called “known world” was everlasting.

Most modern historians rely on three ancient texts when writing about Alexander: Curtius Rufus’ The History of Alexander, Plutarch’s Nine Lives, and Arrian’s The Campaigns of Alexander. Problematically, Rufus, Plutarch, and Arrian all lived 300 years or more after Alexander. The one advantage these men have over modern historians is their access to more ancient texts that no longer survive, but consider what a disadvantage we face when we attempt to study Alexander. We’re already 2300 years removed from his time, and we rely on primary texts written 300 or more years after his death. How certain can we be about who Alexander the Great was?

Do historians continue to write books about Alexander the Great, because they believe their interpretations of the ancient texts available are really that much better than what’s been offered before? That their interpretations will somehow bring clarity and certainty to the man who claimed to be the Son of God (Zeus)?

How or why does uncertainty contribute to our fascination?

“Although our intellect longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating.” – Karl von Clausewitz


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