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Alexander, Philotas, and the origins of modern historiography*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 September 2013


Alexander the Great was one of the central figures of ancient history as it was understood throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times. This article focuses on a significant change in the way in which he was represented after the arrival of humanist learning in England. While the medieval tradition, based on the Alexander Romance, generally made Alexander an unblemished knightly hero and a minister of God, in the fifteenth century a new way of thinking about him emerged that was influenced by the negative philosophical tradition represented by Seneca and Quintus Curtius. A central feature of such treatments was his cruelty: in earlier authors this was exemplified by the killings of the philosopher Callisthenes and of his childhood friend Cleitus. But in the Renaissance the judgement attached itself instead to the execution of Philotas, reflecting both a new critical approach to history and a new understanding of the legitimacy of kingly power.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2013 

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I would like to acknowledge the benefit I have received from discussing the subjects of this article with my students at Exeter over the past five years, and from comments by the audiences when a version of this paper was given as a Classical Association lecture in Exeter in March 2012, as well as at the conference ‘Discovering the World of Alexander the Great’ at Naoussa, Greece, in November 2012.


1 Stoneman, R., Alexander the Great. A Life in Legend (New Haven, CT, and London, 2008), 199216.Google Scholar

2 Badian, E., ‘The Death of Parmenio’, TAPhA 91 (1960), 324–38Google Scholar (republished in Collected Papers on Alexander the Great [Abingdon, 2012], 3647Google Scholar), is the classic statement. See also Heckel, W., ‘The Conspiracy against Philotas’, Phoenix 31 (1977), 920.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 Sen. Q Nat. 6.23.2.

4 Oros. Historia adversus paganos, 3.18.8–9. Translation from Fear, A., Orosius. Seven Books of History against the Pagans (Liverpool, 2010).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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6 Much of Higden's work was drawn from the Speculum historiale of Vincent of Beauvais.

7 Higden, R., Polychronicon, ed. Lumby, J. R. (London, 1865–86)Google Scholar, iii.443, 449; the version of MS Harley 2261, modernized by me.

8 Mortimer, N., Lydgate's Fall of Princes (Oxford, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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10 Lydgate, J., Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen, H. (London, 1924–7), 4.1317–23.Google Scholar

11 Ibid., 4.1408–21.

12 Michel, L., ‘Introduction’, in Daniel, S., The Civil Wars (New Haven, CT, 1958), 11.Google Scholar

13 The character was also the protagonist of a play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, which was performed in 1759; but the plot is an invented one bearing no resemblance to the historical events.

14 Michel, L. in his edition of Daniel, S., The Tragedy of Philotas (New Haven, CT, 1949), 155–6.Google Scholar

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16 Plut. Vit. Alex. 48; translation from North, T., The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (London, 1579).Google Scholar

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18 Ibid., IV.i, lines 1218–20.

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20 Ibid., IV.ii, lines 1438–49.

21 Ibid., V, lines 1771–80, 1789–94.

22 Whyte, Richard, cited in Weir, A., Elizabeth the Queen (London, 1998), 455Google Scholar. Compare Walter Ralegh's line to the Queen, ‘Fortune [i.e. Essex] hath taken thee away from mee’, cited in Nicholls, M. and Williams, P., Sir Walter Ralegh. Life and Legend (London, 2011)Google Scholar, 143.

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25 Gazzard, H., ‘“Those graue presentments of antiquitie”: Samuel Daniel's Philotas and the Earl of Essex’, Review of English Studies 51 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 444; see also Daniel (n. 14), line 1709.

26 It has been argued, for example, that Achilles in Troilus and Cressida (1601) is a cipher for Essex: Dawson, A. B. (ed.), William Shakespeare. Troilus and Cressida (Cambridge, 2003)Google Scholar, 10.

27 Bate, J., Soul of the Age. The Life, Mind and World of William Shakespeare (London, 2008)Google Scholar, 251.

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29 It was also relevant that John Hayward's Tacitean History of Henry IV of 1600, which concerned the deposition of Richard II, had been dedicated to the Earl of Essex.

30 Ayres, P. in his edition of Jonson, B., Sejanus His Fall (Manchester, 1990)Google Scholar, 16.

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32 Johnson, S., Lives of the English Poets, ed. Hind, L. Archer (London, 1961)Google Scholar, ii.354.

33 Tac. Ann. 2.73.

34 Jonson (n. 30), I.136–47.

35 The entry into Babylon is a rare explicit mention of Alexander in the play, but it is telling that the hero, like Alexander, dies in Babylon, whereas the real Tamburlaine died (in 1405) in Utrar on the River Jaxartes, while leading his army to China. The figure of Alexander lies behind this Tamburlaine, not least in the play's obsession with geography: at Part I, iv. 4. 79–84 Tamburlaine promises to ‘confute the blind geographers’ and replace the ‘triple division’ of the T/O world map, which symbolizes the cosmos as delineated by Alexander, with a modern map.

36 The reader will recognize the quotation from Juv. Sat. 10.365–6.

37 Ayres (n. 30), 13. Fortuna is the presiding deity of Quintus Curtius' history, but his Fortuna is rather different from the medieval concept: it is not a turning wheel but a mark of the steady favour of the gods. For Livy, his good fortune was most evident in that he never had to face a Roman army (see Morello, R., ‘Livy's Alexander Digression’, JRS 92 [2002], 62–85Google Scholar), while Plutarch, in his On the Virtue or Fortune of Alexander, argued that Alexander showed his greatness by triumphing even though Fortune was against him much of the time. Montaigne, ‘On the most excellent of men’, in Essays ii.36, ed. M. Screech (Harmondsworth, 1987), 853–5, makes the same point as Curtius.

38 See Sidney, P., A Defence of Poetry, ed. van Dorsten, J. A. (Oxford, 1966)Google Scholar, 36.

39 Montaigne (n. 37), II.5, ‘On conscience’.

40 The argument of A. Momigliano, ‘George Grote and the Study of Greek History’, inaugural lecture, University College London, 1952, reprinted in Studies on Modern Scholarship, ed. Bowersock, G. and Cornell, T. (Berkeley, CA, 1994), 1531Google Scholar, was that these two historians vied for priority as the ‘first’ modern historian of Greece. The point was drawn to my attention by Robin Lane Fox.

41 Ralegh, W., The History of the World (Oxford, 1829)Google Scholar, preface, ii.viii, vi.

42 Ibid., v.348.

43 Ibid., preface, ii.xlii.

44 Greenblatt, S., Sir Walter Ralegh. The Renaissance Man and His Roles (New Haven, CT, 1973), 2656.Google Scholar

45 Ralegh (n. 41), preface, ii.xliii.

46 Williamson, J., The Myth of the Conqueror. Prince Henry Stuart: a study of 17th century personation (New York, 1978)Google Scholar, is an indispensable account.

47 Ibid., 84.

48 John Chamberlain, cited in Nicholls and Williams (n. 22), 256–7.

49 Book 4, ch. 2; v.315–18.

50 Ibid., v.353.

51 Ibid., v.335.

52 Ibid., v.353.

53 Ibid., v.369, quoting Sen. Q Nat. 6.23.2.

54 Ralegh, v.357.

55 Ibid., v.381.

56 See above, n. 38.

57 Nicholls and Williams (n. 22), 332.

58 Ralegh (n. 41), vii.900.