With Oliver Stone’s Alexander (click for trailer) lurking on the filmic horizon, this interview from Archaeology magazine with the film’s chief historian Robin Lane Fox (pictured above with star Colin Farrel) – who teaches Greek and Latin literature, Greek, Roman and early Islamic history at Oxford, AND who appears in the film “on horseback in the front ten of every major cavalry charge by Alexander’s cavalrymen” – is both timely and fascinating:
- We know a lot about Alexander–thanks to Plutarch, Arrian, Curtius, Diodorus Siculus, and other ancient sources–but there are enduring mysteries about him. Why did he set out to conquer Persia, but then just keep going?
Alexander inherited the idea of an invasion of the Persian Empire from his father Philip whose advance-force was already out in Asia in 336 B.C. Philip’s campaign had the slogan of “freeing the Greeks” in Asia and “punishing the Persians” for their past sacrileges during their own invasion (a century and a half earlier) of Greece. No doubt, Philip wanted glory and plunder. Alexander took over the ambition, but for him, “Asia” meant even more than the existing Persian Empire as far as north-west India. He himself meant to conquer all of it, out to the Outer Ocean, the eastern edge of the world. He had no idea of Burma or China or the “Far East.” Perhaps his tutor Aristotle’s ignorant lessons in geography had made the world seem mistakenly small to him. But Alexander also wished to excel as the supreme hero, probably in rivalry with his great father’s glory….
What did he die of? Poison, cirrhosis, typhoid, and, most recently, West Nile have been suggested. Do you have a favorite among these?
…There was no epidemic among other troops or officers, but I incline to malaria, caught (admittedly, only by him) in recent trips down the rivers beyond Babylon. Perhaps his seven wounds (the last, nearly three years before) compounded the problem. The truth is that we do not know, though we do know about the slander and accusations which his successors then circulated.
How can what we do know of Alexander’s extraordinary career be distilled into a screenplay that runs perhaps two hours without reducing events and characters to mere sketches, assuming that they aren’t “cut” entirely?
In only two-and-a-half hours, Oliver knew he had to leave out many major events in Alexander’s restless career. But cleverly, he used Ptolemy, reminiscing and as “voice-over,” who could hint at things the film could not show. And he designed the script as a drama, hung round Alexander’s turbulent youth and his present actions, with Ptolemy speaking for the future. These “parallel stories” are not flashbacks: they are a dramatic, closely woven web, of Oliver’s design, whose aim is a powerful drama. Of course, some events had to be brought forward in time or place and merged with similar ones, so as to be all shown on one (expansive!) location. Oliver knew all these changes, and why the film had made them. He was not making a documentary. He was making an epic drama, but the drama is unusually rooted in history. It has scope, though not the total story. And the major characters have a real dramatic power. These characters are all historical people and broadly they play in their main historical roles–as father, mother, tutor, wife, eunuch, general, and so forth….
Beyond reviewing the screenplay, how big a role did you have in the details–authenticity of costumes and sets, selecting appropriate locations, getting the right elephants, having the Macedonians marching correctly, and so forth?
As design and production began, all the heads of department–sets, clothes, weaponry, décor–came to Oxford University to meet with myself and archaeological experts in their individual areas. Questions then flew to and fro to us all, myself included: our “clothing expert” visited Pinewood [studio] more than 30 times. For months, we answered queries on anything from animal sacrifices to beds or helmets–and advised the team on finding other experts and their books for consultation. We all understood that the separate “parts” of Oliver’s drama must be “color-coded” and decorated to give a distinct feel–and so must the set-buildings, which could not totally depart from audiences’ expectations of Greek or Babylonian imagery. The locations were chosen already by Oliver and Jan Roelfs and their scouts. My book, and advice, encouraged the search for elephants, and their use in war–but their décor was very much a job for the designers. We do not even know whether Indian elephants were decorated or carried “howdahs” [seats with railings] in Alexander’s time. The army-drill was the field of Captain Dale Dye who read my book carefully and consulted many others. I talked often, on and off the set, with Dale who was always well-informed but wary of theories which were still only scholars’ favorite guesses…
For people in antiquity and today the life of Alexander has a legendary, heroic quality to it. But Alexander was autocratic and at times cruel, and his armies killed thousands upon thousands. When does glorification of Alexander, without reference to the less admirable aspects of his career (like the death of his cousin, and potential rival, Amyntas), become mythmaking? Does the movie avoid that?
Military conquest of thousands of “barbarian” peoples and lands was widely considered glorious–nobody at the time is known to have attacked Alexander for killing “enemy” Indians whom he invaded! “Imperial conquest” of the barbarian world was certainly incorporated in Aristotle’s political and ethical theories. And by Romans later, Pompey or Caesar, hundreds of tribes and cities, if captured, were proudly recorded and paraded. If people surrendered to Alexander, they were spared and their leaders were often reinstated. Often, he himself was received as a “liberator,” replacing a Persian Empire which was not exactly loved by one and all.
When he sacked whole cities who opposed him–Thebes or Tyre–his ferocity shocks us, but it was not outside the conduct of war by other contemporaries: his father Philip did the same, and Greek cities in the past had urged the total destruction, even, of Athens. In India, it was he who invaded an “innocent” land, and then killed women, children, and fugitives of peoples who refused to surrender. But here, too, he was being guided, or used, by other Indian leaders who wanted to do down their enemies–and in his vast army, no more than a fifth would have been Macedonians, while more than half were Orientals, including many Indian recruits, fighting with him. When he arrived, Indian chiefs were fighting one another, or were bitter enemies. When he left, these internal wars were ended–at least until his unforeseen early death.
Historians with our distaste for unprovoked war and killing now cast Alexander as increasingly murderous and exceptionally savage. Their older contemporaries remember Hitler or Stalin. My generation, and later, have also grown up in a post-colonial world: explicitly, at least, Americans never had an empire, anyway. In antiquity, Alexander came to be credited with taming or civilizing barbarian peoples, not least by his many Alexandrias. He was believed to have had plans for an inclusive, “harmonious” kingdom where Macedonians and Iranians would share as a ruling class….
One tricky area in a film adaptation of Alexander’s life is his relationship with Hephaestion. How does the film deal with this? There would be the danger of downplaying it, but wouldn’t there also be a danger of making a Macedonian male-male relationship into a modern one?
Alexander did not have a one-way homosexual orientation, in the prevailing modern use of the term. He had sexual relations with males (including a eunuch) but also with a Persian mistress, his first wife Roxane (mother of his child) and two more Persian wives, too. In youth, his great friend was Hephaestion, and surely the sexual element (frequent between young males, or and older and younger male, in Greek city-states) developed already then. Oliver, Colin, and Jared Leto [who portrays Hephaestion] rightly concluded that sex was not the main element in this love, Alexander’s greatest friendship in his lifetime. But it happened, as authors in antiquity assumed: “Patroclus” to Alexander’s role as a new Achilles. Alexander was not behaving in this way in a “gay,” one-way relationship or counter-culture, nor was he exceptional. The film aims to show a wider love, from boyhood, between the two, and I find it very touching. Correctly, it also shows a sexual element, this time of pure physical desire, between Alexander and the eunuch Bagoas–again, as direct and indirect evidence supports. But no viewer could also miss the sexual charge of Roxane, the woman whom Alexander marries. By avoiding a one-way male-male love-life, the film captures both the “homoerotic” flashes and a boyhood relationship–but also makes it an element, not the element, in Alexander’s nature and his personal appeal.
….As a historian, what do you hope the audience will take away after seeing Alexander?
I hope audiences go away enthralled by the scope of Alexander’s aims and drawn into it all by the drama Oliver has imposed. Film, with today’s special effects, can show vast crowds, armies and cities, giving a stunning sense of scale which archaeology cannot. That scale comes out brilliantly, especially at Gaugamela–but so does the interrelation of great names–Ptolemy, Aristotle, Roxane, Philip–with Alexander, as in his history. I think anyone fascinated by the drama would love to know more about the historical record (and its limits) of the years and people on whom Oliver’s “web” has been imposed. If only, too, they would also learn Greek–and share, like Alexander, in the Homeric epics, the world’s greatest poems, which inspired Alexander too. But their governments will have to restore them to our school curricula, instead of subjects which have never drawn such world-wide audiences or caught such a director’s fascination and taken his cast and team to such lengths, with such respect.
This particular historian likes the movie, anyway.