The Nature of the “Noble Man”(γενναῖος ἀνήρ) for Alexander the Great, the “Man Who Loved Homer” (φιλόμηρος)

Thomas R. Martin
The greatest crisis in Alexander the Great’s military career came in late 326 BC on the western bank of the Hyphasis (Beas) River in northwestern India. Several months earlier, Alexander had won a great victory over the Indian king Porus. Recognizing his foe’s great valor and dignity even in defeat, Alexander made Porus his ally to support his plan to push his expedition on into central and eastern India. He aimed to go beyond where any Macedonian or Greek general had ever campaigned before, to go beyond where even Dionysus and Heracles had reached in their eastward treks. He longed to surpass everything anyone had ever achieved, to complete an achievement that would turn a man into a god. The crisis threatening this quest confronted him when he discovered that his troops were not just grumbling about the order to cross the river to confront what they feared were even more formidable Indian forces of men and elephants; in fact, the trouble was far worse than just disgruntled complaining, he learned to his surprise and dismay: the men were insisting that they refused to go any further, that they would not march off to the end of the world, as it seemed to them.
Arrian, the ancient historian whose account of Alexander’s expedition is the most highly rated of the surviving sources by contemporary scholars, explains in his description of the crisis (Anabasis 5.25-29) that Alexander’s soldiers had lost their sense of commitment to a leader who seemed to them to take on arduous labor after arduous labor, danger after danger, endlessly. Arrian highlights the dramatic culmination of the confrontation between general and army with two speeches, the first by Alexander and the second by Coenus, one of the army’s commanders. Alexander assembles his generals to address them about the situation, saying explicitly at the very start of his speech that he has brought them together because he wants to persuade them to go on, or to be persuaded by them to turn back. As Plutarch reports, Alexander from his youth always aggressively rejected anyone’s attempt to force him to do anything, but he did appreciate reasoning and could himself be persuaded by reason. [2] It was therefore true to Alexander’s nature to mean what, according to Arrian, he said in the opening of his speech. It therefore makes good sense for us to believe that on this occasion Alexander really did present reasons that, he hoped, would persuade his followers. [3]
After the opening to his speech, Alexander summarizes for the commanders the great things that the army has already accomplished, to persuade them that the army was fully capable of meeting the formidable new enemy awaiting them on the far side of the river. He then begins the second, and longer, section of his speech by describing himself and his accomplishments. He begins this intensification of his attempt at persuasion with a programmatic statement about the “noble man” (γενναῖος ἀνήρ). This obviously refers to himself, but it is surely also meant to extend to the commanders and troops that Alexander hopes his words will inspire to “go beyond” with him on his arduous but glorious quest:

Πέρας δὲ τῶν πόνων γενναίῳ μὲν ἀνδρὶ οὐδὲν δοκῶ ἔγωγε ὅτι μὴ αὐτοὺς τοὺς πόνους, ὅσοι αὐτῶν ἐς καλὰ ἔργα φέρουσιν
(Arrian, Anabasis 5.26.1).
“For my part, I set no limit to exertions for a man of noble spirit, save that the exertions themselves should lead to deeds of prowess” (trans. P. A. Brunt, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1983).

Later in the speech Alexander returns to this theme to sum up his characterization of the kind of man he sees himself as being and wants his men to be, as well:

πονούντων τοι καὶ κινδυνευόντων τὰ καλὰ ἔργα, καὶ ζῆν τε ξὺν ἀρετῇ ἡδὺ καὶ ἀποθνήσκειν κλέος ἀθάνατον ὑπολειπομένους. ἢ οὐκ ἴστε [p. 238] ὅτι ὁ πρόγονος ὁ ἡμέτερος οὐκ ἐν Τίρυνθι οὐδὲ Ἄργει, ἀλλ᾽ οὐδὲ ἐν Πελοποννήσῳ ἢ Θήβαις μένων ἐς τοσόνδε κλέος ἦλθεν ὡς θεὸς ἐξ ἀνθρώπου γενέσθαι ἢ δοκεῖν;
(Arrian, Anabasis 5.26.4-5).
“Exertions and dangers are the price of deeds of prowess, and it is sweet for men to live bravely, and die leaving behind them immortal renown. Or do you not know that it was not by remaining in Tiryns or in Argos or even in the Peloponnese or Thebes that our ancestor attained such renown that from a man he became, or was held, a god?”
(trans. P. A. Brunt, Loeb Classical Library edition, 1983).

A. B. Bosworth, the most prominent recent scholar of Arrian’s account of Alexander, suggests in his discussion of the speeches in Arrian that, although this particular passage probably depends on the contemporary source Ptolemy, these sentiments are not genuinely Alexander’s thoughts but rather reflect the oratorical training of Arrian’s time: “the topos supports Arrian’s flight of rhetoric in V.26, which culminates in the proud claim that a life of hardship for virtuous ends is pleasant in itself and the guarantee of immortality. It was a grossly inappropriate theme to air before officers and men who were soaked, exhausted, and weary with the endless pursuit of glory. Alexander may have been insensitive enough to enlarge upon it in such a bombastic fashion, but we cannot assume it. The evidence so far adduced suggests that the rhetoric is Arrian’s and is more influenced by the declamations of the schools than by the immediate historical context.” [4] The evidence that Bosworth adduces here comes first of all from remarks that the elder Seneca makes about Roman declamations concerning Alexander (Suasoriae 1), but Bosworth also refers to Thucydides (1.23) and Xenophon (Cyropaedia 7.5.80). He does not cite Homer.

In Bosworth’s subsequently published commentary on Arrian’s narrative, he expands on this judgment in his discussion of Alexander’s words at 5.26.1: “This is a critical sentence, epitomizing the philosophy of the speech, that hardship is a necessary condition of achievement, and it is taken to its logical conclusion at 26.4. The sentiment is as old as Greek literature … the dictum reads more like a moralizing topos than anything that can have been voiced in the historical context of the Hyphasis.” The evidence that Bosworth cites here includes first of all Xenophon (Memorabilia 2.1.18-34, a passage that itself refers to Hesiod, Epicharmus, and Prodicus), followed by Thucydides (1.123.1) and Xenophon (Hellenica 5.1.16). Bosworth concludes, “These are passages which must have been familiar to Arrian (cf. also Xen. Cyrop. 7.5.75-80) and possibly inspired him to ascribe the sentiment to Alexander.” [5] He calls 5.26.4 “a memorable climax” whose “elaboration here is certainly Arrian’s own work.” As precedents, he cites Tyrtaeus (F 6.1-2), Simonides (Page, PMG 531), and Horace (Odes 3.2.13). [6] Once again, and despite his apparent allusion to the oldest Greek literature, Bosworth does not mention Homer among the sources that in his view influenced Arrian in composing these central passages in Alexander’s speech.
To evaluate in depth the force of the expression “noble man” (γενναῖος ἀνήρ) in Arrian’s version of Alexander’s speech to his commanders during the crisis on the Hyphasis, it seems necessary to go beyond what Bosworth was able to do in the necessarily limited space available in his commentary. The adjective γενναῖος can mean “noble” in the specific sense of “high-born” (as reported in definition I.1 offered in LSJ9), and Alexander’s referring to himself as “noble” would of course have been accurate in this context: he was a descendent of the royal family of Macedonia. If, however, that had been the only—or even the principal—sense in which Alexander was employing the term in this speech, it would seem to have been a poor choice for his goal of rallying support from disheartened commanders (and therefore from the troops that looked up to them). Trumpeting his own superior lineage, which implied the inferiority of those he wanted to persuade, would have worked against the feeling of shared purpose that Alexander hoped to re-instill in his men. No matter how much “social inferiors” might genuinely respect their “superiors” in a society (ancient Macedonia and Greece) and an institution (the army) that strongly privileged hierarchy, this meaning for “noble” would seem to have been at the very least a tone-deaf rhetorical choice in the circumstances in which Alexander was speaking.
That Alexander links “being a noble man” with doing “fine deeds” suggests that he is expressing a different sense here. The other instances of “noble” (γενναῖος) in Arrian’s narrative of Alexander’s expedition help reveal what that sense was. At Anabasis 1.19.6, Arrian says that Alexander feels pity for the Milesians and Greek mercenaries who are willing to fight to the death rather than surrender because, as they seemed to him, they were “noble and loyal” (γενναῖοι and πιστοί). Here, the soldiers’ “being noble” clearly refers to their courage and loyalty, not to their bloodlines. At 2.3.4-6, as background for Alexander’s visit to Gordion, Arrian tells the story of Midas, the son of the poor man Gordius and a girl of Telmessus. His mother, Arrian adds, came from a line of prophets, but he also reports that his father met her as she is fetching water, which perhaps implies that she was not rich enough to have servants to do this chore for her. In short, Midas’s parents do not seem “noble” in terms of their social standing. Nevertheless, Midas as a grown man is described (2.3.5) as “handsome and noble” (καλός and γενναῖος). Closer to the passage under discussion here, at 5.4.4, Arrian records that the Indians living east of the Indus River were taller than all other men in Asia, the darkest in their skin color of all men except the Ethiopians, and, with respect to the affairs of war, the “most noble” (γενναιότατοι) of the inhabitants of Asia. Bosworth glosses γενναιότατοι here as meaning “physically courageous” and “brave.” [7] He points to Indica 1.1-2, where the “same combination of qualities” (namely, height, bravery, and black skin color) is repeated in connection with the people of the Cophen basin, who are “not as great in their bodies,” “not as good in their spirit (θυμός), and not as black” as the Indians making their homes “inside the Indus.” So, for Arrian, it is clear from this reference, “being good in one’s spirit” is a functional definition of “being noble.”
In his account of Alexander’s great battle with the Indian king Porus, Arrian says that Porus exhibited “great deeds” not only as a commander but also as a “noble” soldier (5.18.4). Even after most of his army was destroyed, Porus kept fighting on, retreating only after having suffered a serious wound. Alexander was moved in his “spirit” (ἐπεθύμησε) to save Porus because he had seen him being a “great and noble” man (μέγας and γενναῖος) in the battle (5.18.6). The connection in Arrian’s account between “being noble” and “spirit” is reiterated, indeed make unmistakable, in the nearby passage at 5.19.4-6 in which the historian presents an epitaph for Bucephalas, Alexander’s personal warhorse. Arrian describes (5.19.5) the animal as “great in size” (μεγέθει μέγας) and “noble” (γενναῖος) in its “spirit” (θυμός). Bucephalas had “shared with Alexander many labors and dangers and had been ridden by no one else, since he had not found any other riders to be worthy.”
Immediately before Alexander’s speech at Hyphasis, Arrian reports at 5.25.1 that the Indians living beyond the river are “noble” (γενναῖοι) in warfare. Finally, at the end of his work in his eulogistic epitaph for Alexander at 7.28.2, Arrian lauds Alexander as “superlatively noble” (γενναιότατος) because he could raise his soldiers’ “spirit” (θυμός), fill them with “good expectations/hopes,” and “make their fears in the midst of dangers disappear through his own lack of fear.”
Arrian’s direct association of Bucephalas with “being noble” corresponds to his frequent use of “noble” (γενναῖος) to refer to animals in his work on hunting game with hounds, the Cynegeticus. A form of this adjective occurs more than twenty times in this relatively short work (5986 words). [8] There, Arrian uses the term to designate the physical appearance of good hunting dogs (see, for example, 6.2). Arrian implies the qualities that “noble” denotes in hunting dogs by recommending that hunters use their hounds who possess that quality to chase large game because those prey are so dangerous to the dogs that they can actually succeed in killing the hounds that pursue them (Cynegeticus 26); he thereby implies that only dogs with this quality are up to the supreme task of putting their lives on the line in order to achieve their goal. Arrian also uses the same adjective to describe “noble hares” (15.1: γενναῖοι λαγῲ). In the case of hunting dogs, it would be possible to argue that “being noble” refers specifically to the bloodline of the hounds created by selective breeding by their human owners, but, hares, being wild rather than domesticated animals, were not bred by human beings; they existed in nature through random breeding. So, their “being noble” could not reflect any specific bloodline. In their case, the adjective could only refer to their qualities as manifested in their appearance and, significantly, their observed behavior when being hunted. A telling indication of the quality of action that Arrian associates with “being noble” in the case of animals is his advice not to take young dogs hunting because the “most noble” (26.2: γενναιότατοι) will kill themselves from running as hard as they can, motivated by their “passionate force” (μένος). Similarly, it is the “largest and most noble” (μέγιστος and γενναιότατος) elephant that serves as the leader of a herd of these wild animals, according to Arrian’s description of India (Indica 13.6). In a remark that reveals how Arrian sees “being noble” as an animal as analogous to “being noble” as a human being, he observes (Cynegeticus 18.1) that “noble” hounds, just like “noble” people, like to be praised!
In Arrian, then, “being noble” seems to mean not so much being the inheritor of a bloodline but rather above all possessing—and acting upon—the qualities in inherent in “spirit.” This surely, then, corresponds to the sense that Arrian has Alexander express in his speech at the Hyphasis. As we have seen, Bosworth argues that the sentiment is almost surely entirely of Arrian’s creation here, Moreover, it can hardly be believed to reflect what Alexander actually thought and said, because it was “grossly inappropriate” to use on this critical occasion. The evidence may indeed be lacking to allow us to decide with certainty whether Arrian put these words into Alexander’s mouth, or whether those words actually go back to, or at least closely reflect, what Alexander truly said; it is of course the usual assumption, and it certainly is reasonable to believe, that the author of an ancient historical narrative is responsible for the precise wording of speeches included in the text.
In this case, however, there are good reasons, both programmatic and specific, for thinking that these sentiments in Alexander’s speech were not the free-floating products of the rhetorical schools of Arrian’s time, with no reference to the actual situation or, more importantly, to Alexander’s characteristic ways of thought and expression. In his brief discussion of Arrian’s procedure in composing the speeches in the Anabasis, P. A. Brunt well expresses the programmatic reason: “Invention [in a speech inserted by the author of the historical narrative] can only be proved where the speaker is credited with statements, true or false, that he could not have uttered. The rhetoric of the historian may also clothe utterances that are in substance ‘authentic’ … A[rrian] would naturally have rewritten a speech he had before him; knowing that it could not represent, any more than his own composition, the actual words of the speaker, he was free to improve on it. He could then, consciously or unconsciously, have inserted what he believed to be true and appropriate to the speaker [emphasis mine] …” [9] This principle of analyzing speeches in Arrian excludes the interpretation that Bosworth presents for Alexander’s speech on the Hyphasis. That is, Brunt’s persuasive precept means that, unless there is strong evidence to the contrary, it is incumbent on us to try to determine if what we read in the speech being considered here seems “true and appropriate” to Alexander, the speaker of the speech.
I suggest that in fact there are two specific reasons to believe that Alexander’s remarks at Anabasis 5.26.1 and 5.26.4 (as quoted above) are “true and appropriate to the speaker.” The first reason is found in the text of Aristotle, the architect of Alexander’s education, while the second, and to my mind compelling, reason comes from the text of Homer’s Iliad, Alexander’s constant companion and resource on his expedition (see below). Scholars disagree about the extent of Aristotle’s impact on Alexander’s ideas and plans, and many indeed downplay the teacher’s effect on his student, usually without, however, explaining what the evidence is for accepting this assertion of Aristotle’s lack of influence. [10] In fact, the ancient evidence, limited as it is, supports the judgment that Alexander, as Richard Stoneman says, was characterized by “a love of learning instilled in him by Aristotle.” [11] One of the subjects that Alexander studied by preference, according to his (somewhat older) contemporary Isocrates, was “rhetoric” (Letter 5: ἡ παιδεία ἡ περὶ τοὺς λόγους). [12] It therefore seems highly relevant to cite here what Aristotle in his treatise on rhetoric says about the meaning of “noble” (γενναῖος):

ἔστι δὲ εὐγενὲς μὲν κατὰ τὴν τοῦ γένους ἀρετήν, γενναῖον δὲ κατὰ τὸ μὴ ἐξίστασθαι τῆς φύσεως: ὅπερ ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολὺ οὐ συμβαίνει τοῖς εὐγενέσιν, ἀλλ᾽ εἰσὶν οἱ πολλοὶ εὐτελεῖς (Rhetorica 2.15.3 = 1390b22-24).
“Being well born refers to the excellence of one’s descent, being noble refers to not degenerating from one’s nature; this [latter] quality indeed does not generally occur in the well born; most of them are good for nothing.” (my translation).

Aristotle’s argument here is well explained by William M. A. Grimaldi, S.J.:

“… the chance acquisition of good birth does not automatically ensure for one’s ἦθος the qualities attributed to εὐγένεια. Something further is required. This is called τὸ γενναῖον. While τὸ γενναῖον might in fact also be viewed as a form of τύχη, yet as defined by A[ristotle] it presumes action on the part of the individual endowed with good birth, some form of personal responsibility. This is the clear implication in the specifying phrase (b 23) “to degenerate from one’s own nature.” A certain kind of nature is received by the chance gift of good birth (εὐγένεια). Such a gift, if the individual preserves it by being true to his birth (τὸ γενναῖον), can affect ἦθος. Historically, however, the known facts (b 28-30) point to variance in families of good birth: some continue, some falter. ” [13]

This conclusion is in fact supported by what Aristotle says about the diversity of character observed in animals:

Διαφέρουσι δὲ καὶ ταῖς τοιαῖσδε διαφοραῖς κατὰ τὸ ἦθος. Τὰ μὲν γάρ ἐστι πρᾶα καὶ δύσθυμα καὶ οὐκ ἐνστατικά οἷον βοῦς, τὰ δὲ θυμώδη καὶ ἐνστατικὰ καὶ ἀμαθῆ οἷον ὗς ἄ-γριος, τὰ δὲ φρόνιμα καὶ δειλὰ οἷον ἔλαφος δασύπους, τὰ δὲ ἀνελεύθερα καὶ ἐπίβουλα οἷον ὄφις, τὰ δ’ ἐλευθέρια καὶ ἀνδρεῖα καὶ εὐγενῆ οἷον λέων, τὰ δὲ γενναῖα καὶ ἄγρια καὶ ἐπίβουλα οἷον λύκος· εὐγενὲς μὲν γάρ ἐστι τὸ ἐξ ἀγαθοῦ γένους, γενναῖον δὲ τὸ μὴ ἐξιστάμενον ἐκ τῆς αὑτοῦ φύσεως. ”
(Historia Animalium Book 1.1 488b12-20, ed. D. M. Balme, prepared for publication by Allan Gotthelf, 2002)
“Animals also differ from one another in regard to character in ways such as these respects. Some are even-tempered, sluggish, and not ferocious, such as the ox; others on the other hand are quick-tempered, ferocious and unteachable, such as the wild boar; others are intelligent and timid, such as the stag, the hare; others are like slaves in their disposition and scheming, such as snakes; others are like free people in their disposition and courageous and well born, such as the lion; others are noble and wild and scheming, such as the wolf. For on the one hand being well born is coming from a good descent; being noble on the other hand is not degenerating from one’s own nature” (my translation).

The philosopher’s culminating point here on the difference between being well born and being noble sums up what Alexander would have learned from Aristotle about what it meant to be a “noble man” (γενναῖος ἀνήρ).

Even if one were to take the extreme (and, in my opinion, unpersuasive) view that in truth Aristotle’s influence on Alexander was too limited for the king to have learned and remembered this meaning of “being noble” from his teacher, there can be no doubt whatsoever that Alexander learned from Homer, above all from the Iliad. Indeed, Alexander’s “greatest treasure” (in the words of Bosworth) was his copy of the Homeric poem. [14] This was the so-called Iliad of the Casket, the edition that Alexander kept with him under his pillow (along with a knife) on his expedition, protected in the box (νάρθηξ) found among the captured treasures of the Persian King Darius III that the Macedonian soldiers who brought it to their king judged to be more precious than any other of Darius’s stunning riches. This copy of the Iliad is said by the ancient sources to have been annotated by Aristotle, Callisthenes, Anaxarchus, and Alexander himself. [15] Alexander specifically called the Iliad his “personal resource for excellence in war” (τῆς πολεμικῆς ἀρετῆς ἐφόδιον). [16] Alexander also had a deep knowledge of the Odyssey: he dreamed that Homer quoted it to him to guide where he should locate the new city foundation that would become Alexandria in Egypt. [17] It is therefore perfectly fitting that Strabo reports that Alexander was a “man who loved Homer” (φιλόμηρος). [18]
For Alexander, then, the locus classicus for understanding the nature of a “noble man” would have been the single, and striking, appearance of γενναῖος in the Iliad:

τὸν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπόδρα ἰδὼν προσέφη κρατερὸς Διομήδης:
 μή τι φόβον δ᾽ ἀγόρευ᾽, ἐπεὶ οὐδὲ σὲ πεισέμεν οἴω. 
οὐ γάρ μοι γενναῖον ἀλυσκάζοντι μάχεσθαι 
οὐδὲ καταπτώσσειν: ἔτι μοι μένος ἔμπεδόν ἐστιν.
(Iliad 5.251-254)
“Argue me not toward flight, since I have no thought of obeying you. No, for it would be ignoble for me to shrink back in the fighting or to lurk aside, since my fighting strength stays steady forever.”
(trans. Richmond Lattimore 1951)

The speaker here is Diomedes, replying to his comrade Sthenelus, who has urged Diomedes to turn back now that he must face a more formidable enemy in the duo of the archer Pandarus and the warrior Aeneas. Athena had given Diomedes “strength from your father” (5.125: μένος πατρώϊον); Diomedes emphatically tells Sthenelus that if they can capture the special horses pulling Aeneas’s chariot, they will win “distinguished fame” (κλέος ἐσθλόν).

The context of Diomedes’s reference to “being noble,” then, fits with Aristotle’s discussion of the relationship—and the difference—between being well born and acting as a noble man and winning the reward such action earns: Diomedes has the descent that makes him “well born,” but he also has an innate nature based on “strength,” and he will not turn back even in the face of his most dangerous opponents ever because that action would not be “noble.” The reward for this action (which the hero of course assumes will be successful) is a special fame. That kind of fame is of course precisely the reward that Achilles says he would lose if he were to return home to his “beloved fatherland;” he has therefore chosen to stay at Troy, knowing that his decision means his own imminent death. He will thereby earn “immortal fame”:

εἰ μέν κ᾽ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι, ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται: εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ᾽ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν, ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ᾽ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη.
(Iliad 9.412-416)
“[I]f I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my fame shall be immortal; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, my distinguished fame is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.”
(trans. adapted from Richmond Lattimore 1951)

These passages make it clear that the sentiments at Anabasis 5.26.1 and 5.26.4—a “noble man” would not turn back from the challenge of going beyond the Hyphasis River to face even the most dangerous of enemies, that his spirit and strength would drive him to “go beyond,” and that the reward for his taking action would be “undying fame,” the kind of fame that turned a man into a god—are perfectly “true and appropriate to the speaker,” to Alexander the “man who loved Homer.” Indeed, the sentiments, even the very words themselves, are so true and appropriate that it is tempting to speculate that they in fact do go back to what Alexander actually said in his speech.

Even, however, if one persists in the conventional scholarly view that the words of the speech were Arrian’s, not Alexander’s, there is good reason to believe that Arrian chose the particular words that he puts into Alexander’s mouth in this speech because he knew, and wanted to represent with his composition, that Homer’s Iliad was Alexander’s “personal resource for excellence in war.” Like Alexander, Arrian was a “man who loved Homer.” In fact, Arrian self-consciously saw himself as Alexander’s Homer, as he forthrightly explains (Anabasis 1.12.1-5): Alexander, who envied Achilles because the Greek hero of the Trojan War had Homer to celebrate his deeds, had never had an author, in either prose or verse, “lay out his deeds to people in worthy fashion.” Arrian says explicitly that he considers himself “not unworthy” to “make clear to people Alexander’s deeds.” Moreover, Arrian, like Alexander, was deeply familiar with Homer’s epics. At Anabasis 4.1.1, Arrian refers to Homer’s description of the Scythian tribe of the Abii, the “most just of men” (Iliad 13.4-6). [19] At Anabasis 5.6.5 and 6.1.3, Arrian cites Homer’s giving the name Aegyptus to the River Nile (Odyssey 4.477, 4.581, 14.258, 17.427). [20] At Anabasis 5.18.1 and 5.27.8, Arrian’s words describing how troops that are not tired can take over from fellow soldiers who are worn out and keep the victory going recall the words of Homer at Iliad 11.802 and 16.44. [21] At Indica 1.5, the (unemended) text makes Nysa the mountain where Dionysus was raised, just as is said at Iliad 6.133. Arrian even uses Homer as a source for the observations and advice that he gives in the Cynegeticus. There, at 36.1-3, he explicitly cites the archery contest in the funeral games for Patroclus as narrated by Homer (Iliad 23.850-883) for evidence that nothing that men do can turn out well if they neglect to win the favor of the gods for their enterprises, including hunting. He also quotes the Iliad (22.460) without attribution—evidently assuming that his audience was just as familiar as he was with a reference to a grieving Andromache in the Greek world’s most famous text—to describe a female hound running around “ like a mad woman” when the prey escapes (Cynegeticus 25.6). In the same work (15.1), he refers to “fine hares” (γενναῖοι λαγῲ) that “died without fame” (ἀκλεῶς ἀπώλοντο), which alludes to Hector’s words to himself (Iliad 22.304-305) when he realizes that he is doomed by the will of the gods: “Let me not die without great effort and without fame (ἀκλειῶς ἀπολοίμην), but having accomplished something great, something that those to come in the future will learn about.”
Arrian, in short, knew (and evidently loved) the Iliad very well indeed, and even if he invented the words of Alexander at Anabasis 5.26.1 and 5.26.4, he crafted them to link the hero of his narrative with the heroes of Homer. Those words were as “true and appropriate to the speaker” as they could possibly be. [22] Arrian grasped a fundamental truth about Alexander the Great that Peter Green has eloquently expressed: “Ever to strive to the best: the Homeric ideal forms a recurrent leitmotiv, dominating every branch of Alexander’s multifarious activities.” [23] For this reason, we, like Arrian, must always have Homer in mind as an invaluable heuristic tool for unpacking what Alexander meant when he spoke and when he acted. How could it be otherwise? Not only did Homer “educate Greece,” his words represented a sacred text, divinely inspired. [24] Alexander had, in the words of Arrian (Anabasis 7.28.1), “the greatest care for the divine” (τοῦ θείου ἐπιμελέστατος). For the “man who loved Homer,” there could be no more authoritative source than the Iliad for understanding the nature of the “noble man.” The link that Arrian makes unmistakable between Alexander’s sentiments on the bank of the Hyphasis and the heroes of the Iliad, above all Achilles, wonderfully increases the pathos that also links the failure of Alexander’s speech to persuade his army to follow him to “go beyond” and the melancholy that pervades the heroic story told in the Iliad.


[ back ] 1. It is a pleasure to dedicate this essay to Gregory Nagy, who, if anyone can, rivals Alexander the Great in his love for Homer and the inspiration that his generously shared knowledge provides for others. I must also express my gratitude to Monica Berti for the improvements to my text that she kindly suggested to me.
[ back ] 2. Alexander 7.1.
[ back ] 3. Quintus Curtius Rufus in his History of Alexander also includes a speech by Alexander at this point (9.2.12-34), but his version, as usual, is quite different from Arrian’s; in fact, Curtius criticizes Alexander for letting his ambition overrule his reason in what he said and did on this occasion. In contrast to the focus on honor earned through ceaseless toil that Arrian has Alexander stress in his speech, Curtius portrays Alexander as attempting to motivate his men by promising them more plunder and expressing his disappointment in a sulky fit of self-pity. Diodorus 17.94.5 briefly mentions a speech by Alexander but offers no details. Plutarch Alexander 62 and Justin 12.8.10-17 make no mention of any speech by Alexander, only of pleas from the army to return home. Curtius, Diodorus, and Justin also describe Alexander as addressing the entire army, not just the commanders.
[ back ] 4. From Arrian to Alexander: Studies in Historical Interpretation (1988), p. 128; for Ptolemy as the probable source, see Bosworth, Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great (1988), p. 133, n. 337; cf. his Alexander and the East: The Tragedy of Triumph (1996), p. 198, n. 50.
[ back ] 5. A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander Vol. II (1995), p. 347.
[ back ] 6. A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander Vol. II (1995), p. 349.
[ back ] 7. A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander Vol. II (1995), pp. 232-233.
[ back ] 8. According to the word frequency information in the Greek and Roman section of the Collections/Texts of the Perseus Project (, this term occurs in the Cynegeticus significantly more frequently than in any other of the numerous Greek texts over 550 words long whose vocabulary is analyzed there.
[ back ] 9. Arrian. History of Alexander and Indica. Vol. 2. Loeb Classical Library. (1983). “Appendix XXVII: Arrian’s Speeches and Letters,” pp. 531-532.
[ back ] 10. See, for example, the opinion of the well-known Alexander scholar Waldemar Heckel, Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of Alexander’s Empire (2009), p. 51: “The relationship between the great philosopher (though at the time [when he taught the teenaged Alexander at Mieza] Aristotle had not yet earned that reputation) and the future world conqueror has captured the imagination of historians and philosophers since antiquity, but it appears that Alexander was not excessively influenced by his teacher’s views and it is doubtful that Aristotle considered his pupil an intellectual prodigy.”
[ back ] 11. Alexander the Great. 2nd ed. (2004), p. 16. The ancient sources for Aristotle as Alexander’s teacher are assembled in Ingemar Düring, Aristotle in the Ancient Biographical Tradition (1957), pp. 284-288. For Alexander’s education and the influence of Aristotle as described by Plutarch, Alexander 7-8.1, see J. R. Hamilton’s discussion of Aristotle’s influence “being traced in the king’s general interest in philosophy” in Plutarch Alexander. A Commentary (1969), pp. 17-18. Anton-Hermann Chroust, in “Was Aristotle Actually the Chief Preceptor of Alexander the Great?,” ch. X in Aristotle: New light on life and on some of his lost works. Volume I. Some novel interpretations of the man and his life (1973), pp. 125-132 (a different version of Chroust’s article in Classical Folia 18 [1966] pp. 26-33), argues that it was only a later invention that Aristotle had served as Alexander’s “preceptor” or “chief tutor,” and that at most Aristotle “gave some occasional instructions to Alexander in one form or another” (p. 132). This interpretation has not won wide acceptance among scholars. For a juxtaposition of Chroust’s conclusion with opposing views, see Raymond Polin, Plato and Aristotle on Constitutionalism. An Exposition and Reference Source (1998), pp. 161-163.
[ back ] 12. On the authenticity of this letter, see Philip Merlan, “Isocrates, Aristotle, and Alexander the Great,” Historia 3 (1954/1955), pp. 60-80; Joseph Stewart Garnjobst, The Epistles of Isocrates: A Historical and Grammatical Commentary (Ph.D. diss. University of California, Santa Barbara 2006), pp. 252-254.
[ back ] 13. ARISTOTLE, RHETORIC II. A COMMENTARY (1988), p. 214. Aristotle continues by giving historical examples of sons of famous fathers who fell far short of their fathers’ achievements, echoing what Homer has Athena say to Telemachus at Odyssey 2.276.
[ back ] 14. A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander Vol. II (1995), p. 74.
[ back ] 15. Strabo, Geography 13.1.27 (C 594); Plutarch, Alexander 8.2, 26.1-2. For Callisthenes and Homer, see Luisa Prandi, Callistene: Uno storico tra Aristotele e i re macedoni (1985), pp. 76-82. Plutarch cites as his source Onesicratus of Astypalaea, who was a member of Alexander’s expedition and wrote a first-hand account (FGrH 134). On Onesicratus, see Truesdell S. Brown, Onesicratus: A Study in Hellenistic Historiography (1949); Lionel Pearson, The Lost Historians of Alexander the Great (1960), pp. 83-111; Andrea Zambrini, “The Historians of Alexander the Great,” in A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, ed. John Marincola (2007), pp. 213-215. Rudolf Pfeiffer, History of Classical Scholarship: From the Beginnings to the End of the Hellenistic Age (1968), pp. 71-72, rejects the evidence that Aristotle made a recension of Homer’s text. He does agree that Alexander “was a true φιλόμηρος and honoured his ancestral hero Achilles as his lifelong model.”
[ back ] 16. Plutarch, Alexander 8.2.
[ back ] 17. Plutarch, Alexander 26.5.
[ back ] 18. 13.1.27 (C 594). Alexander is also called φιλόμηρος by the Byzantine scholar Eustathius, Commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem , ed. M. van der Valk, Leiden 1971-1987, vol. 1, pp. 363 and 727, vol. 4, p. 937; Commentarii ad Homeri Odysseam, ed. G. Stallbaum, Leipzig 1825-1826, vol. 1, p. 266. The only other “men who loved Homer” attested (in the collected Greek texts of the TLG E disk as searched by Diogenes version 3.1.6) are (1) Sophocles, who also earns that designation from Eustathius (Commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem, ed. M. van der Valk, Leiden 1971-1987, vol. 4, p. 144; cf. vol. 1, pp. 303 and 695, vol. 2 pp. 324 and 729, vol. 3, pp. 98, 218, 346, and 382, and vol. 4, pp. 32, 167, 704, and 789), in recognition of the way in which Sophocles was inspired to depict Ajax, in his tragedy of the same name (lines 425-427), speaking of himself in the style of Achilles (Iliad 18.105); (2) Cassander, the son of Antipater and Hellenistic successor king, who wrote out the Iliad and Odyssey by hand (Athenaeus 14. 620b = Carystius of Pergamon FHG, ed. K. Müller, 1841-1870 Paris, vol. 4, frag. 8; Eustathius, Commentarii ad Homeri Iliadem , ed. M. van der Valk, Leiden 1971-1987, vol. 4, p. 937); and (3) Callistratus, a teenager from Pontic Olbia (Borysthenes), an inhabitant of a town where, according to Dio Chrysostom as an eye-witness (Oration 36.9), the people of this barely-Greek speaking community were so crazy about Homer that nearly everyone knew the Iliad by heart.
[ back ] 19. On the questions of the identity and location of this tribe, see A. B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Volume II. Commentary on Books IV-V (1995), pp. 13-14.
[ back ] 20. Cf. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Volume II. Commentary on Books IV-V (1995), pp. 252-253.
[ back ] 21. Cf. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian’s History of Alexander. Volume II. Commentary on Books IV-V (1995), p. 303.
[ back ] 22. It is also worth commenting that if Arrian at Anabasis 5.25-26 was indeed relying on Ptolemy as his source, as Bosworth believes (see above), this would only strengthen the case for thinking that Homer was an inspiration for the sentiments expressed there; Ptolemy grew up at the court of Philip II (Pausanias 1.6.2) and might have been a student of Aristotle along with Alexander. In any case, Ptolemy as the visionary who conceived the plan for the great library at Alexandria, at which Homeric philology was a central activity, was surely a “man who loved Homer” and would have known the epics very well.
[ back ] 23. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C. A Historical Biography (1991) p. 57.
[ back ] 24. Plato, Republic 10.606e refers to “those who praise Homer as the poet who educated Greece.” I am indebted to my colleague, D. Neel Smith, for the insight into Homer as a sacred text.