Reading Ancient Texts: The Campaigns of Alexander in the Landmark series
By Bernie Langs
“Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel? Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe, Should patch a wall t’ expel the winter’s flaw!” – Hamlet, Act V.I
Shakespeare wrote several plays featuring heroes and heroines from ancient Greece and Rome and often, as in the quote above from “Hamlet”, waxed poetic on the myths and history of the ancient world. The idea that there is much to be gleaned, through a serious approach, from the empires of Greece and Rome was the impetus behind Italy’s surge in the arts, literature, and study during its Renaissance. In addition, a look at handwritten monastic Medieval texts from across Europe quietly exuded such curiosity centuries earlier as well.
From up high upon the perch of our world today, we have a wide chasm to cross back to the ancient world, divided as we are by not just time itself, but the changes in culture and mores in the millennium in between. When reading Cicero’s or Seneca’s letters or Livy’s histories or Plato’s dialogues, one of the initial shocks is that the conversations, philosophies, and the general tone is not at times so very different in how we write, think and converse today. It is my contention that such familiarity is partially a mirage and an attempt to cross the years back to the very day in which these texts were written and try to “see” with the eyes of the ancients the world in which they lived, is to experience an exhilaration on par with a mystery wine-soaked celebration honoring Dionysus.
The actual physical artifacts, wall paintings, architectural ruins, sculptures, vases and so on, are on display in the countries of the ancient world, locally in New York City museums, and grace the pages in photos in countless books. These are the essential supplements to the study of books from past epochs. The Landmark series is publishing a handful of ancient texts accompanied by detailed maps, photos of the lands discussed and other artifacts of interest, and extremely helpful footnotes and sidebars to further elucidate the details of the written word. I am just starting the patient endeavor of reading the series’ “The Campaigns of Alexander” written by the ancient Roman Arrian hundreds of years after the time of Alexander. The edition is edited by James S. Romm, translated by Pamela Mensch, and the series editor is Robert B. Strassler. While reading, I try my best to visualize the mind-set and the times of the Roman world where Arrian stood as well as the Greek and Asian lands where Alexander trekked – no easy task of course and only, at best, a loose subjective experience.
I am reminded that the French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote how a time period is experienced as if its culture is gleaned in collective moments that have been created by historical forces converging from a vast multitude of varying directions. Alexander is often dissected and analyzed in terms of his military strategy, but he also took time to honor the gods in the tradition in which he lived. The way we stand in a forest and look and experience nature is not the very same way that a soldier or general of the ancient world would have seen it. The stars, sky, heavens and earth were in their minds as living breathing forces with real implications for how their lives would unfold. A constellation, for example, would reflect a tradition of myth deeply embedded in the soul of the individual and the collective consciousness (and unconsciousness) of their time.
In the 1970s television situation comedy “Three’s Company,” Jack (John Ritter) opens a restaurant and is furious when a famous newspaper reviewer takes only a few bites of the meal he has cooked and quickly leaves the establishment. Jack is shocked when the newspaper column comes out and the review is glowingly positive. He is later told by the reviewer that he knew in just those few chews that the restaurant’s food was great. In such a way, I have only read 30 or so pages in the Landmark “Alexander” and know it is going to be a long but fabulous trip through time. One might think that juggling maps, footnotes and photos may be too much of a burden for the reader, but you get into a rhythm with it and the excitement of the text is greatly enhanced by what the translator and editors have put together. One can only imagine the time and effort, mixed with a heroic dedication, they have put into these books.
While reading Arrian, I’ll take time to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and once again stand before the Greek bronze helmets and spears, attempt to decipher the messages and myths and stories painted on the many vases from the period, and look in wonder at the vacant, yet expression-filled eyes and faces of the ancient statues, and contemplate this mighty Alexander, who has now “returneth to dust” only to be resurrected by readers of his story to this very day.