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Arrian And The Alexander Historians Notes

Classics Notes > Alexander the Great and his early Successors (336 BC – 302 BC) Notes

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Is Arrian's account always preferable to the 'vulgate' tradition?
Arrian's account of Alexander's campaigns has always traditionally been thought of as the best of the extant authors, but this dominance must be challenged especially with regard to his use of sources, his bias as an historian, and how these compare to the other Alexander historians. The vulgate authors certainly have their problems, both stylistic and source based, but so too does Arrian and it cannot be taken for granted that he is always preferable. He probably used two of the best sources available, Ptolemy and Aristobulus, but he could sometimes be prone to misusing this advantage by inaccurate transmission of the original texts. However, taking into consideration the respective advantages and disadvantages of the extant authors it is probably right to say Arrian is, as a complete text, the most preferable; however this must be taken with the caveat that he is not perfect and care must be taken when reading him. This is where the vulgate becomes invaluable, when the rhetoric and exaggeration is stripped away, there is a core of facts which can be used alongside Arrian to check his narrative and add details that he omits (this is particularly true of Diodorus, who is the best of the rest). Arrian declares in his introduction that the sources which he will predominantly rely upon are Ptolemy and Aristobulus; where they agree he will record the narrative with absolute faith in its veracity and where they diverge he will choose the account which is most likely. There are two problems that are immediately obvious in this declared statement of intent; by what criteria will he decide which source is the best when they differ (other than that it would be most shameful for Ptolemy as a head of state to lie, which is perhaps a naive assertion) and also how faithfully did he reproduce his sources even when they were in agreement. Photius writes in his Bibliotheca that Arrian says in the introduction to his much longer and more detailed work, the Bithyniaca, that works such as the Anabasis were merely his practice in handling and sifting large numbers of primary texts and other sources of information; while this does not necessarily mean Arrian made any mistakes in his handling of the Alexander corpus it is still a less than reassuring fact if true. Regardless of whether they stem from the fact that the Anabasis was some sort of practice for Arrian, there are still some clearly visible mistakes in the transmission of his sources. This is usually in instances in which there are two different stories and he has become confused or conflated them, thus creating a third story or presenting one event as two separate events because different sources describe it either with different details or at different points in the narrative. These errors in Arrian come more from his deficiencies as a historian rather than problems with the sources themselves. For example at 1.11.1 he wrongly states that the Macedonian Olympia was held at Aegae and then goes on to say that Alexander held a further festival which lasted nine days at Dium, but all the other sources state that they were always held at Dium. He has clearly misunderstood his sources at some point and come to the conclusion that there must have been two festivals.1 There are more mistakes of this type: at 1.6.1 he claims Alexander makes a pursuit of some 100 kilometres in a day with just the infantry, in 1

Errors in Arrian. CQ 26 (117-139)

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