Having been victorious and having formed a vast empire at the age of only 32, Alexander the Great’s real ‘greatness’ lies in the fact that after two millennia, his history still moves humanity today. It is not a coincidence that an article by the Daily Mail about the extensive historiographical work on Alexander the Great’s last will and testament was read with great interest.
Meanwhile, for Armenians, the article was simply striking, as the image attached to the article displayed text in Armenian. Moreover, the caption of the picture stated,
“The fabled last will and testament of Alexander the Great, illustrated above, may have finally been discovered. A London-based expert claims to have unearthed Alexander the Great’s dying wishes in an ancient text (pictured) that has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ for centuries.” Naturally, the Armenian media responded fervently to the discovery, publishing dozens of articles with the title “Alexander the Great’s will is in Armenian.”
ORER Armenian European Magazine, got in touch with historian David Grant for clarification. As a result, a very informative interview took place, which is presented below. Especially in the part regarding Armenia, the historian introduced us to large sections of his book, including exclusive excerpts.
Anna Karapetyan. – Mr. Grant, several months ago The Daily Mail published an article on your book “In search of the lost testament of Alexander the Great”. Thousands of readers have been informed that you may have found the lost testament. Moreover, they have seen the cited image with a text in Armenian. The image used is a page from one of 80 Armenian manuscripts of Pseudo-Callisthenes’ History of Alexader the Great (The Alexander Romance) that have survived. Would you please clarify the situation? Is there a hint that the will was hidden in the Armenian recension?
David Grant . – The Fabled Last Will and Testament of Alexander the Great has colourful beginnings, and is best known today because of its presence in the final chapter of recension ‘A’ (the oldest) of what is popularly known as the Greek Alexander Romance.
This colourful book of fables most likely started life as a more historic-rooted book named Historia Alexandri Magni, as it was titled in the oldest surviving manuscripts. This highly rhetorical and eulogistic template of Alexander’s deeds was erroneously once credited to the official campaign historian, Callisthenes, and hence is often still termed a ‘Pseudo-Callisthenes’ production. It soon absorbed the thaumata, ‘wonders’, that were attaching themselves to Alexander and in time it metamorphosised into something of this book of fables, popularly referred to today as the Greek Alexander Romance, a multicultural depository of traditions that grew up around the king.
Attributing the Romance in its earliest form to a single author or date remains impossible, but evidence suggests that both the unhistorical and the quasi-historical elements were in circulation in the century following Alexander’s death. The oldest text we know of today, recension ‘A’, is preserved in the 11th century Greek manuscript known as Parisinus 1711; the text is titled The Life of Alexander of Macedon and this most closely resembles a conventional historical work.
Recension A, although poorly written, lacunose, and apparently interpolated, is nevertheless the best staging point scholars have when attempting to recreate an original (usually referred to as ‘α’ – alpha) dating back some 700 or 800 years (or more) before the extant recension A. We cannot discount an archetype that may have been written even earlier still, in the Ptolemaic era; if Callisthenes was once credited with its authorship, the prevailing belief must have been that it emerged in, or soon after, the campaigns.
Through the centuries that followed, the Romance evolved and diversified into a mythopoeic family tree whose branches foliaged with the leaves of many languages, faiths and cultures; more than eighty versions appeared in twenty-four languages. Through the romance genre Alexander’s story finally infiltrated the East in a more permanent way than his own military conquest managed to. He entered the Qur’an texts, reemerging as Dhul-Qarnayn, the ‘two-horned’ who once again raised unbreachable gates to enclose the evil kingdoms of Yâgûg and Mâgûg (Gog and Magog) at the world’s end; the reincarnation, with roots in the Syriac version of the Romance, had its earlier origins in the silver tetradrachms issued by Alexander’s successors that depicted him with rams’ horns. A Persian Romance variant was the Iskandernameh and alongside it Armenian and Ethiopian translations circulated imbuing the tale with their own cultural identities.
There is no doubting that the Armenian manuscripts were an important part of its development. The Armenian Romance version, for example, backs up the names on the list of conspirators who allegedly poisoned Alexander at Babylon in June 323 BCE, which appear in the Greek Romance, where other versions do not. It may also retain unique details lost in time on other recensions. For example, the mention of an otherwise unattested ‘Europius’ in the Armenian version could be a reference to the ethnic of Alexander’s Bodyguard, Seleucus, who founded the Seleucid dynasty, as he was most likely born in Europus near the Axius River in Macedonia.
But as far as the colourful manuscript that appeared in the Daily Mail, this was an image they retrieved from their own image bank and does not appear in my book, and readers should not be, therefore, deduce, that Alexander’s Will was hidden in the Armernian scrolls. Rather, it has been in plain sight, for 2,000 years.
D.G. – The source of my research has been extensive over the past 10 years, and my bibliography is some 30 pages long as a result. The Romance texts are, in fact, just part of the research. Because Alexander’s Last Will and Testament also appears as the conclusion of the Metz Epitome, a late Roman period précis of Alexander’s campaign in Asia, and to which it did not originally belong. So scholars in recent years have concluded that detail of Alexander’s Will was floating around the Graeco-Roman world as part of an independent document, or pamphlet, before ever entering the Romance texts. Thought to have been issued in the first decade of the wars raging after Alexander’s death, this political pamphlet, which housed a version of Alexander’s Will alongside detail of the conspiracy that it claimed poisoned him at Babylon. This early document was clearly designed to damn the generals fighting for control of the empire whilst forming a coalition of favoured generals against them by granting them inheritances which include royal wives and vast land grants, through the mechanism of the Will.
So the historicity of Alexander’s Last Will and Testament does not come from the Romance, in fact quite the opposite. As one example, in its chapter, Alexander’s death was not immune to the encroaching fabulae and the Romance texts we read today conclude with him addressing Bucephalus, his warhorse standing obediently by his bed. So once this political pamphlet, clearly written by somewhat at the heart of the Macedonian ‘civil war’ that followed Alexander’s death, had been wholly subsumed by the Romance, Alexander’s testament became something of a pariah and unworthy of further consideration. As a result, the biographies, monographs, universal histories and academic studies over the past two millennia have concurred on one key issue: Alexander the Great died intestate and never made a Will. The irony, a positive one for the contention of my book, is that these fanciful romances, so welcomed in the Middle Ages and translated into myriad languages, significantly outsold them all.
A.K. – The ‘Alexander Romance’ is famous for being a collection of fables, where the reality and myths are intertwined. The source also deffers from language to language. How did you differentiate where the historical truth lies, and where the myths and deliberate distortions start?
D.G. -You are correct to state that the Greek Alexander Romance is best described as a book of fables and also to point out that myths and reality are intertwined. I dedicate a chapter to ‘romances’ in general and their colourful genesis for this reason.
The Hellenistic age, in which the Romance developed, saw exotic tales arriving from the fabled lands of Kush to the south of Egypt and from the distant East, carried down the Silk Road with the help of the settlements Alexander had founded or simply renamed along its route. Ptolemaic Egypt had fostered trade eastward as far as India with the help of Arabs and Nabateans, and the resulting contact fertilised Hellenistic literature According to Strabo, the ‘city’ of Alexandria Eschate (‘the furthest’) in the Fergana Valley (A.K.- Alexandria Eschate, also known as Leninabad during Soviet times, is modern-day Khujand in Tajikistan) had brought the Greek settlers and the Graeco-Bactrian Kingdom into contact with the silk traders of the Han dynasty of the Seres. State-employed elephant hunters would disappear into the African interior for months at a time once the Seleucids cut the Ptolemies off from their supply of Indian war elephants; they would return with animals never before seen and which became ‘objects of amazement’. These were all elements that gave the romance compilers their material, originating as it probably did, in Alexandrian Egypt.
But Romances develop on ignorance as well as exploration, and paradoxically, much of the geographical knowledge of the former Persian East was lost in the period between Megasthenes’ eyewitness reports from India in the generation after Alexander (ca. 290s BCE) and the Parthian Staging Posts of Isidore of Charax in the 1st century CE, principally due to the collapse of the Seleucid Empire. (A.K. – In this only piece of work of Greek geographer Isidoros Kharakenos is it written of Tiridates II of Armenia and his rebellion (Armenian: Տրդատ ,spelled Trdat).
When knowledge is lost, the imagination runs riot. But elements of factual journeys and encounters and the memory of real events remain, even though they are hard to extract from the fabulous.
Alexander’s Will is just one example of how elements rooted in historical fact and truth, may have entered a book of romance. Here the lucid and coherent reporting of the drafting and reading of the Will contrasts in every way to the general tone of the rest of the ‘fabulous’ Romance; even Roxane is, for example, correctly referred to as Alexander’s Bactrian wife whereas she is incorrectly referred to as the daughter of Darius III in the preceding Romance text. (A.K.- Bactria is a historic country that included modern Uzbekistan as well as parts of southern Tajikistan and northern Afghanistan). Much scholarly work over the past century has gone into separating out the historical from the mythical in Alexander’s story. Clearly, there is more work to be done.
A.K.- It is largely believed that Armenia was never conquered by Alexander the Great. After your 10-year research, do you have an answer as to possibly why?
D.G.- I think it is a correct belief that Alexander did not conquer Armenia, although it remains unclear whether Orontes, the Armenian satrap under Darius III who fought for him at Gaugamela, ever made terms with Alexander, or whether the province remained unpacified. (A.K.- “satrap” comes from the old Persian word for governor, “shahrab.” In the dialect of Avestan or Zend in eastern Iran, Orontes’ (or in Armenian Երվանդ Yervand’s) name is pronounced Aruand, which if translated means “Great Warrior”. The decisive Battle of Gaugamela took place in 331 B.C. between the forces of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia on the Gaugamela plain, near the present-day Iraqi city of Erbil.)։ But other parts of the Persian Empire were never occupied as well, part of Cappadocia, for example, and Paphlagonia. Satrapies in the east that of the empire that were later occupied were never successfully ‘pacified’. Alexander never achieved the Pax Persika that the Achaemenid kings knew.
The principle reason Armenia was bypassed was Alexander’s preoccupation with facing the army of Darius III, as he did in the 3 major pitched battles. Even after the last battle at Gaugamela, which saw the end of Achaemenid rule, Darius was still on the loose and heading into the eastern satrapies, and the pretender Bessus, Darius’ former satrap of Bactria next proclaimed himself the new Great King Artaxerxes V and had to be dealt with ahead of any diversional campaigns.
But there are probably other reasons as well. Armenia posed no immediate threat, and the mountainous terrain did not suit the style of warfare Phillip II and then his son, Alexander had perfected. And until the main Persian treasuries in the East were taken, Alexander had insufficient funds for protracted campaigns outside of his immediate goal.
Even after Alexander’s death Armenia was never fully occupied. The infighting between Neoptolemus, who was probably tasked with pacifying Armenia, and Alexander’s former royal secretary, Eumenes of Cardia, meant that Armenia was again largely bypassed (apart from ‘havoc’ Neoptolemus allegedly caused there). (A.K.- Neoptolemus was Alexander the Great’s bodyguard, who after the latter’s death in 323-321 B.C. became satrap of Armenia, however the political power remained in Mithrines’ hands – (Armenian Միհրան Mihran). Eumenes served both Alexander the Great and the latter’s father Phillip II as a royal secretary and archivist. It is said that Eumenes of Cardia killed Neoptolemus with a dagger during the battle)։ It appears Orontes had come to terms with Peucestus, Alexander’s satrap of the eastern provinces centered at Persepolis, who was termed a ‘friend’ of Orontes, which suggest he had reached an accord with Alexander too, despite Alexander attempting to install Mithrines in Armenia after the battle at Gaugamela. (A.K. – Mithrines-Mihran, the son of Orontes-Yervand II, (MιθρένηςorMιθρίνης in Greek), was the Armenian commander of the Persian forces deployed in Sardis, who had voluntarily surrendered to Alexander the Great and been accepted by the latter with great honour and respect. The mockery here, is that at the Battle of Gaugamela, Mithrines-Mihran’s troops fought on the side of Alexander the Great against the army of Darius III, in the ranks of which was also his father, Orontes-Yervand II with his own forces.).
Like other parts of the empire in Alexander’s day, if a region did not rise up in revolt, and nominally suggested ‘allegiance’ (whether any obeisance was paid or not), it might avoid the upheaval of the Macedonian campaign.
Armenia did eventually have some day in broader politics of the region a millennia later. The so-called ‘Macedonian Rennaisance’ the dynasty based at Constantinople broadly spanning 867-1056 CE ruled the Byzantine Empire. Commonly attributed to ‘the Macedonian’, but born in fact to a Thracian peasant family of alleged Armenian origin, the period saw a reinvigoration of arts when the iconoclasms of the Amorian dynasty were reversed for a while.
A.K. – You certainly have your solution of mystery behind Alexander’s death. How is it correct to ask the question – WHO or WHAT killed the 32 year old emperor? (No details, of course, just a teaser, which will make the public more anxious to read your almost 900-page book).
D.G. – The cause of Alexander’s death remains intriguing. What seems clear is that few men in history were ever universally loved to the point where they could rule out assassination and, fewer still could have been as widely resented, feared and hated outside his own campaign headquarters as Alexander by 323 BCE. So it is quite possible Alexander was assassinated. He and his father, Philip, had certainly done their own share to protect their branch of the Argead line in Macedonia
I do address ‘what’ might have killed Alexander in my book and cover the existing theories, but this is not my central contention. My contention is that regardless of whoever or whatever killed him, Alexander did, in fact, draft a succession document which we term a Will, and the political pamphlet that reissued his Will within the next decade, and possible as early as 5 years after his death, is an echo of just that. Because it would have been foolhardy for one of his generals to rely on a completely fabricated succession document to achieve the coalition he sought, as all the major dynastic competitors in the war knew exactly what happened at Babylon.
On the other hand, ‘mainstream’ history credits Alexander with either dying silent, comatose and intestate without making any succession plans, or, in a competing version, he left his empire ‘to the strongest’ or the ‘best of ‘ his men, so inviting them to slug it for control of his empire. Neither are creditable with the Alexander who manipulated the past, the present and as attempting to manipulate the future through a hybrid aristocracy to rule under his half-Asiatic sons.
But the ambition that would have seen his generals poison him, is the very reason they were pressing Alexander to nominate a successor, or successors: they had spent 11 years conquering the riches of a vast empire and they needed a succession document to legitimate their chunk of it. Yet that was not to given in the name of Alexander’s half Asiatic sons, however. So once they had established themselves under the legitimacy of the inherences they received in his Will, and once they had begun to declare themselves kings in their own right, so tearing the fabric of Alexanders original Will apart, the memory of the Will, and its disappearance from the eyewitness histories which were then written, as well as its being swept up by the developing Alexander Romance, was part of the reason no one has given the Last Will and Testament of Alexander any credence since.
A.K. – Usually the historians are very conservative and rarely admit some discoveries with enthusiasm. It may be true in your case as well. What is the reaction of the scientific circles to your book and research?
D.G. – I think it is important to take step back here and compare the media wording with my core contentions and belief.
I have stated that ‘I fully believe in the veracity, or historic truth behind Alexander’s Last Will and Testament’. And I create a robust 900-page case for ‘why’, a case which is unifies many otherwise unexplained strands of his story and which contest the ‘standard model’ of his death and the division of empire than that model which has stood for 2,000 years. To present my case I delve into the biased eyewitness historians and their agenda, and how the later overlay of romance, rhetoric, religion and philosophy have affected what was preserved and how. And Roman-era contemplations on Alexander play a big part in what we read today.
PR is a wonderful asset to have in your arsenal but it is a two-edged sword. My contention has since become worded as ‘David Grant believes he has discovered the fabled Will of Alexander’. But as I have pointed out to the press, it was ‘hidden’ in plain sight all along, and that is the best camouflage of all.
Copyright David Grant, with permission to Armenian European Magazine Orer. Not to be reproduced elsewhere with permission of the author.