conference report

Monarchy and Power in Ancient Macedonia

The speakers at the conference on the Courts of Philip II and Alexander the Great, Edmonton AB, 2-4 May 2018. I am fourth from the left next to the woman in the yellow dress.

At the beginning of May I attended the conference on the courts of Philip and Alexander at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. I arrived late due to some travel problems, so I can’t talk about Graham Wrightson’s sarissa project down in South Dakota. Most of the intended guests were there, although unfortunately Pat Wheatley from Otago New Zealand had to cancel. (Aside from the Otagonians, there were two of us from Austria, two from Germany, two from Poland, one from South Africa, and the rest from Canadian, American, and British universities).

Quite a few scholars have taken a postmodern approach to Alexander, emphasizing that the vast majority of sources date from Roman times or questioning whether after 200 years of learned scholarship there are any more facts to tease out (Mary Beard’s “Alexander: How Great?” in the New York Review of Books is a good example, even though it contains one or two howlers … if she has ever written up similar ideas in a more careful way, please let me know!)* The papers on Thursday took the opposite view, showing that for a figure in ancient or medieval history, we are quite well informed about Alexander.

Sabine Müller had a very amusing paper about Macedonia in Athenian comedy, with its stereotypes of hard-drinking, fish-eating, rough and tough northerners. Several speakers looked at the Attic orators, and all the gossip about upper-class men in southern Greece which survives. These texts are as blissfully self-centred as the opinion section of a national news magazine, but they have all kinds of stories about who was marrying or bedding whom, who fumbled their speech at a particular embassy or accepted a gift of golden cups, and the different policies which people adopted as Macedonian power grew. Dina Guth looked at stories about the origins of Macedonia, and how in different tellings Macedonia either came into existence at a specific place and expanded by conquest, or was the result of fusing different lands and peoples into something new. This was an important question if you were an Argead king trying to justify your rule and find a modus vivendi with other powerful families. Jeanne Reames used onomastics to try and track down Hephaistion’s family background. In Argead times, names invoking Hephaistus are much more common in Aeolis, Boeoetia, Attica and the Crimea than in northern Greece and Macedonia, which raises the possibility that his family were immigrants. Fred Naiden looked at references to Alexander discussing military problems with his advisors, and said that on a quick look, he could not find a similar list for any general before modern times. While it is hard to pick out fact from slander or apology in stories about Parmenio warning Alexander not to take a risk, or Darius offering to trade peace for half his kingdom, we at least have a great many opportunities to study how Alexander and his companions made decisions. For most kings, we have no sources instead of unreliable sources.
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