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The History Sourcebook:
The Need for Source Criticism:
A Letter from Alexander to Aristotle?


The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is dedicated to making original primary sources available on the Internet. An important aspect of using primary source material is learning how to critique a source. It is quite possible, for example, for a source to be invented, to be edited, or to be mistranslated. Checking into the authenticity and reliability of a source is called source criticism. The text and commentary here present an example of how sources may be invented, and misused, and of the way historians respond.

In September 1998 the Republic of Macedonia website posted the following text on its pages. [See here for the text as on RoM site]. Here various parts are highlighted for later discussion.

        To Aristotle of Stagirus, director of the school at Athens

My great and beloved teacher, dear Aristotle!

It is a very, very long time since I wrote to you; but as you know I have been over-occupied with military matters, and while we were marching through Hyrcania, Drangiana, and Gedrosia, conquering Bactria, and advancing beyond the Indus, I had neither the time nor the inclination to take up my pen. I have now been back in Susa for some months; but I have been so overwhelmed with administrative business, appointing officials, and mopping up all kinds of intrigues and revolts, that I have not had a moment till today to write to you about myself. Of course, you know roughly from the official reports what I have been doing; but both my devotion to you and my confidence in your influence on cultivated Hellenic circles urge me once more to open my heart to you as my revered teacher and spiritual guide.

I remember that years ago (how far away it seems to me now!) I wrote you an absurd and enthusiastic letter on the tomb of Achilles; I was on the threshold of my Persian expedition, and I vowed then that my model for life should be the valiant son of Peleus. I dreamed only of heroism and greatness; I had already won my victory over Thrace, and I thought that I was advancing against Darius at the head of my Macedonians and Hellenes simply to cover myself with laurels worthy of my ancestors. I can say that I did not fall short of my ideal either at Chaeronea or at Granicus; but today I hold a very different view of the political significance of my actions at that time. The sober truth is that our Macedonia was constantly threatened from the north by the Thracian barbarians; they could have attacked us at an unfavorable moment which the Greeks would have used to violate their treaty and break away from Macedonia. It was absolutely necessary to subdue Thrace so that Macedonia should have her flank covered in the event of Greek treachery. It was sheer political necessity, my dear Aristotle; but your pupil did not understand this thoroughly then and gave himself up to dreams of exploits like those of Achilles.

With the conquest of Thrace our situation changed: we controlled the whole of the western coast of the Aegean; but our mastery of the Aegean was threatened by the maritime power of Persia. Fortunately I struck before Darius was ready. I thought I was following in the footsteps of Achilles and should have the glory of conquering a new Ilium for Greece; actually, as I see today, it was absolutely necessary to drive the Persians back from the Aegean Sea; and I drove them back, my dear master, so thoroughly that I occupied the whole of Bithynia, Phrygia, and Cappadocia, laid waste Cilicia, and only stopped at Tarsus. Asia Minor was ours. Not only the old Aegean basin but the whole northern coast of the Mediterranean was in our hands.

You would have said, my dear Aristotle, that my principal political and strategic aim - namely, the final expulsion of Persia from Hellenic waters - was now completely achieved. But with the conquest of Asia Minor a new situation arose: our new shores might be threatened from the south - that is, from Phoenicia or Egypt; Persia might receive reinforcements or material from there for further wars against us. It was thus essential to occupy the Tyrian coasts and control Egypt; in this way we became masters of the entire littoral. But simultaneously a new danger arose: that Darius, relying on his rich Mesopotamia, might fling himself upon Syria and tear our Egyptian dominions from our base in Asia Minor. I therefore had to crush Darius at any cost; I succeeded in doing this at Gaugamela; as you know, Babylon and Susa, Persepolis and Pasargadae, dropped into our lap. This gave us control of the Persian Gulf; but so as to protect these new dominions against possible invasions from the north we had to set out northward against the Medes and Hyrcanians. Now our dominions stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf but lay open to the east; I advanced with my Macedonians to the borders of Area and Drangiana, I laid waste Gedrosia, and gave Arachosia a thrashing, after which I occupied Bactria as a conqueror; and to safeguard these military victories by a lasting union, I took the Bactrian Princess Roxana to wife. It was a simple political necessity; I had conquered so many Eastern lands for my Macedonians and Greeks that willy-nilly I had to win over my barbarous Eastern subjects by my appearance and splendor, without which these poor shepherds cannot imagine a powerful ruler. The truth is that my old Macedonian Guard took it badly; perhaps they thought that their old commander was becoming estranged from his war comrades. Unfortunately I had to have my old friends Philotas and Calisthenes executed; my dear Parmenion lost his life, too. I was very sorry about this; but it was unavoidable if the rebellion of my Macedonians was not to endanger my next step. I was, in fact, just preparing for my expedition to India. I must tell you that Gedrosia and Arachosia are enclosed within high mountains like fortifications; but for these fortifications to be impregnable they need a foreground from which to undertake a sally or a withdrawal behind the ramparts. This strategic foreground is India as far as the Indus. It was a military necessity to occupy this territory and with it the bridgehead on the farther bank of the Indus; no responsible soldier or statesman would have acted otherwise; but when we reached the river Hyphasis my Macedonians began to make a fuss and say they were too tired, ill, or homesick to go any farther. I had to come back; it was a terrible journey for my veterans, but still worse for me; I had intended to reach the Bay of Bengal to secure a natural frontier in the east for my Macedonia and now I was forced to abandon this task for a time.

I returned to Susa. I could be satisfied at having conquered such an empire for my Macedonians and Hellenes. But so as not to have to rely entirely on my exhausted people I took thirty thousand Persians into my army; they are good soldiers and I urgently need them for the defense of my Eastern frontiers. And do you know, my old soldiers are extremely annoyed about it. They cannot even understand that in winning for my people Oriental territories a hundred times greater than our own country I have become the great King of the East; that I must choose my officials and counselors from amongst the Orientals and surround myself with an Oriental court; all this is a self-evident political necessity which I am carrying out in the interests of Greater Macedonia. Circumstances demand of me more and more personal sacrifices; I bear them without complaint, for I think of the greatness and strength of my beloved country. I have to endure the barbarous luxury of my power and magnificence; I have taken to wife three princesses of Eastern kingdoms; and now, my dear Aristotle, I have actually become a god.

Yes, my dear master, I have had myself proclaimed god; my good Eastern subjects kneel to me and bring me sacrifices. It is a political necessity if I am to have the requisite authority over these mountain shepherds and these camel drivers. How far away are the days when you taught me to use reason and logic! But reason itself bids me adapt my means to human unreason. At first glance my career must appear fantastic to anyone; but now when I think it over at night in the quiet of my godlike study I see that I have never undertaken anything which was not rendered absolutely necessary by my preceding step.

You see, my dear Aristotle, it would be in the interests of peace and order, and consistent with political interests, if I were recognized as god in my Western territories as well. It would free my hands here in the East if my own Macedonia and Hellas accepted the political principle of my absolute authority; I could set out with a quiet heart to secure for my own land of Greece her natural frontiers on the coast of China. I should thus secure the power and safety of my Macedonia for all eternity. As you see, this is a sober and reasonable plan; I have long ceased to be the visionary who swore an oath on the tomb of Achilles. If I ask you now as my wise friend and guide to prepare the way by philosophy and to justify my proclamation as god in such a way as to be acceptable to my Greeks and Macedonians, I do so as a responsible politician and statesman; I leave it to you to consider whether you wish to undertake this task as a reasonable and patriotic work and one which is politically necessary.

Greetings, my dear Aristotle,

from your Alexander

Commentary

The text as here is clearly suspicious, as was immediately realized by Jerome Arkenberg, who posted an inquiry about the text to the Ancien-L discussion list.

Here are some of the general questions that might make a historian, even one who knew little of the details of Alexander's career, suspicious:

1. Why is no source given for the document?

2. Why was this letter posted on a modern nationalist website? How does it support the claims of modern Macedonia compared to other political groups/interests in the area?

3. Why would Alexander be using modern geographical terms such as "Aegean basin" or showing modern geographical knowledge such as about the "Bay of Bengal" or the "Coast of China"?

4. Why the constant differentation between "Greeks" and "Macedonians"?

With a  more knowledge of history of texts, the problems with the letter become even clearer. For instance, it is known that while no certainly genuine letter from Alexander survives, a number of fake letters were composed during the middle ages. So perhaps the letter above was a medieval fake (and thus an interesting document in itself)? These sorts of questions seem to have motivated the comments of Marc Steinberg on the Ancien-l list:

I'd guess that the reference to China probably makes it at least  medieval (and I also wonder if the term camel-driver was used generally  for people in the east before the Arab conquest).  However, it doesn't  sound like any medieval letter to Aristotle I've ever read.  The lack of  anything that would sound fantastic to modern ears (quite common  particularly in medieval letters to Aristotle), the strongly  nationalistic focus that is conveniently in line with the web-site  owners needs, and the justifications of conquest only for defensive   purposes make me suspect its modern.  Also, I've run across this type of   thing before while surfing the web. I've seen a number of highly  questionable Alexander sources that are used to support arguments  ranging from the more obvious nationalistic fights (e.g., Slav vs.  Greek) to the more obscure (e.g., Alexander was really Nordic).

Note that this criticism of the text derives from a number of considerations:

1. Marc Steinberg's knowledge of current historical studies of Alexander and sources about him.
2. Consideration of the coherence of the text.
3. Consideration of who is promoting the text, and an estimation of their reasons for doing so.

With a more detailed knowledge of the period, the falsity of the letter becomes even clearer. Peter Green, a major historian of the life of Alexander, posted to the Ancien-L list the following commentary:

>It's certainly not a genuine letter of Alexander to Aristotle, but it might be ancient nonetheless.

Genuine it isn't; but I'm afraid, David, that ancient it isn't either. We know all the (purported) ancient letters of Alexander (including to Aristotle!), and the heavy odds are that none of them are genuine, but  rather ancient forgeries. However: the politest description of this offering is that it's a blatant modern exercise in historical fiction by  someone with a Macedonian axe to grind (please note the source!), who quaintly supposes that all A.'s conquests were carried out in a spirit of self-protection, "for my Macedonia", up to "securing for my own land of Greece [by which time "Greek treachery"   has been forgotten] her natural  frontiers on the coast of China" [sic]. Well, there's something to put  the Great Idea of recapturing Constantinople in the shade!  Let us hope against hope that this piece of nonsense is a joke, spoofing  the Great One's ambitions ad absurdum. But somehow, alas, I doubt it.  Ethnic torch-bearers aren't noted for a sense either of humor or of irony.

If the reference to China wasn't enough, the claim to have laid Gedrosia   waste (before the occupation of Bactria, yet!) should have alerted readers:   Gedrosia was waste to begin with (it's the Makran Coast Range, where  Carter's rescue helicopters went adrift in the sand), and nearly wiped out  the whole of A.'s expeditionary force on the way home.

The history is rubbish, the motives attributed are wildly anachronistic,   the style (as DM rightly saw) bears no relation to Greek, and the  propaganda is palpable. In the last year of his life, as we know from  Plutarch, A. was sneering at Aristotle *and* his tricky philosophy, having earlier knocked off his old tutor's nephew Callisthenes. Caveat emptor.

Note that now the criticism of the text derives from a greater number of issues:

1. The incongruity of the language in the letter with Greek style.
2.A comparison of the letter with other ancient sources on Alexander, such as Plutarch.
3. An explanation of how the text does not even fit the known facts of Alexander's military career.
4. A clear estimation of the agenda of the promoters of the text..

 

Proof the Text is a Fake

Note that all the discussion above is negative - scholars know enough to see that the letter cannot have been real. But that still did not answer the question as to where the text came from. A correspondent reading and earlier version of this file supplied the answer. [the text below has been slightly amended for "flow"]

I am Randy McDonald, a student at the University of Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada and an occasional visitor to your excellent history website.

While examining your  Sourcebook, I found a link to the discussion of the letter ascribed to Alexander the Great. As I was reading the so-called "letter", I couldn't keep myself from laughing at its absurdity. You see, in a recent edition of Harper's -- certainly in 1998, or at the latest, fall of 1997 -- a short story was published. This short story took the form of a series of vignettes related to famous leaders, presumably with the intention of demonstrating the universality of human folly.

In any case, the letter shown at the above address is taken from the last segment of the above short story!

This incident is quite amusing; perhaps you should update your site's commentary on what is, if nothing else, a bold example of just how badly people can, intentionally or otherwise, misattribute a source.

Randy McDonald

Conclusion

In this case then, the falsity of the source is easily established. Even so, a considerable number of different issues were taken into consideration by the various commentators. It is not always this easy: the creators of the letter could have been much cleverer - for instance they could have got their facts correct, and made the language accord more with Greek style. More: the text could have been picked up by other websites without a clear nationalist bias, and could have made it appear a more reasonable text.

The more one progresses in historical research, the more important do questions about the authenticity and reliability of sources become. Always, as Peter Green notes, Caveat Emptor! ("Let the buyer beware!")


Source:


This text is part of the Internet History Sourcebooks Project. The Sourcebooks are collections of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in European and World history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use of the Sourcebook.

© Paul Halsall, November 1998, Updated January 1999
halsall@murray.fordham.edu