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Past, Present and Future of Alexander-Studies: beyond Commonplaces and Alexandrocentrism

Pierre Briant

College de France

The author of these lines has frequently referred to what he thinks to be dead-ends in the History of Alexander the Great, for example in the following words: “Today the history of Alexander has […] reached a crisis point as it has not been sufficiently stimulated by the methodological advances which Greek history has, in the meantime, been able to adopt.  Using the term ‘crisis’ is by no means pejorative - bringing the constituent elements of a crisis into the bright light of day implies that there is a possibility of extricating oneself from it by delineating the positive aspects of an assessment that could be made” (Briant 2009: 79).

In order to get out of this crisis, one of the solutions is to propose an exhaustive balance-sheet of the field. This has never been proposed so far. One of the consequences is that the partial historiographical reflections lack of depth of field. For example, it has been postulated for ages that the scientific history of Alexander was founded by Droysen from 1833 onwards. In fact, recent researches show that “all the chief debates today about how to write the history of Alexander turn out to have already been identified in the pre-Droysen era (Spawforth 2015: xxix; cf. Briant 2017 a-b). If one adds that the studies on the Western and Eastern Alexander Romance have met a remarkable development in the recent years, the time seems to be  ripe for a comprehensive historiographical survey, from Alexander-time down to nowadays.

This study must not be reduced to chronological chapters. It is necessary to understand and to explain why and how, at such and such period, and against such and such political and intellectual backgrounds, the study of Alexander has changed in several directions (Vlassopoulos 2014) . That was the main goal of Pierre Briant in his recent study, Alexandre. Exégèse des lieux communs (Paris, 2016 a-b). He starts from the following observation (p. 557): “The more books on Alexander one reads, the more one gets the impression that you are reading the same book: that gives the reader the (pleasant or irritating) feeling to precede the author on a path devoid of any surprise, carefully marked and bordered”, because this path looks as linking commonplaces to commonplaces.

To make progress in the future, three approaches must be used at the same time:

  1. To spot the commonplaces, which seem to be indestructible;

  2. To get out of the mistaken choice between the pros- and the cons-, i.e. to leave for ever the frustrating and useless debate between “the  Great” Alexander, and the “not so great Alexander”.

  3. Among the most enduring common-places is the one focusing  on the person of Alexander and on his chronology, from his birth to his death. Whatever the media one consults (books, films, comics, etc.), one essential player is systematically left out of  the field: the Achaemenid empire, its peoples, its elites,  its own political, cultural, economic life, etc. On must cease to reduce the history of Macedonian conquest of the East to the person of Alexander. One has now to shift towards a more global history, which includes a space from the Balkans to the Indus within a larger period, from Philipp II and Artaxerxes III to c. 300, in which Alexander is no longer the almighty demiurge.

Session/Panel Title

Reframing Alexandrology

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