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Riding with Alexander September 14, 2004

An eminent scholar takes to horseback in the new film

At the University of Oxford's New College, Robin Lane Fox teaches Greek and Latin literature, Greek and Roman history, and early Islamic history. He is perhaps best known for his books The Search for Alexander and Alexander the Great: A Biography. ARCHAEOLOGY's Executive Editor Mark Rose asked him about his most recent project: advisor to the Oliver Stone production Alexander.

How did you become involved in this film?
I first became involved with the film back in March 2002 when co-producer Thomas Schühly rang me during one of my tutorials in my rooms in Oxford University and insisted I should go up to London and meet Oliver Stone. Oliver, in filming mode, does not observe public holidays and so we met in Covent Garden, London, on Good Friday. Seven hours later, we parted, Oliver having put no end of questions about the outlines of the script, then forming in his mind, and me having specified my non-negotiable reward for this advice: a place on horseback in the front ten of every major cavalry charge by Alexander's cavalrymen to be filmed by Oliver on location. I have ridden for years, including in horse-races, but even Oliver was surprised. To his credit, he agreed, and we lived up to the deal, as filmgoers can now see.

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: I doubt if Philip's aims ever went so far in Asia as his ambitious son's. To outshine Philip and all previous conquerors, Alexander wanted so much more. And he was supremely good at it: did the taste for victory in battle become self-feeding?

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Oxford historian and horseman Robin Lane Fox on locale (Jaap Buitendiijk, courtesy Time Warner) [LARGER IMAGE]

What did he die of? Poison, cirrhosis, typhoid, and, most recently, West Nile have been suggested. Do you have a favorite among these?
Alexander fell ill after a drinking party in late May 323. He did not die till June 10. "Poison" was not the cause of death: "slow acting poisons" were probably unknown, and anyone who wished to kill him would have made sure of the job within hours. He certainly drank heavily, but always in company, not as a compulsive lone "alcoholic." I rather doubt it killed him, as he had not lost his energy and physical drive. "West Nile" disease is irrelevant, and supposed evidence for it [crows supposedly observed flying erratically near Babylon] has been misunderstood out of context. 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.

I think his tomb and body were lost forever in city-riots in the later Roman Empire.

Dozens of attempts have been made, by scholars and quacks, to find Alexander's tomb. Andrew Chugg has recently claimed that a bit of massive Ptolemaic-era wall near medieval Alexandria's Rosetta Gate was a fragment of it. Do you concur?
Andrew Chugg has contributed yet more detail to the studies of the possible whereabouts of Alexander's corpse. I am one of many scholars who certainly do not believe his, naturally tentative, suggestions--least of all that Alexander's bones were possibly transferred from Alexandria in Egypt and placed, centuries later, in St. Mark's in Venice. I think his tomb and body were lost forever in city-riots in the later Roman Empire. But the studies of Chugg and others do encourage us all to look again at this old orthodoxy, and already we have newly recovered textual evidence that Alexander's tomb could be said, by some, to be still "on show" in the A.D. 360s, a century or so later than most of us believed. But I certainly do not think we will find it--although in the last 30 years, we have found what is surely the tomb of his father Philip. We have also found clues to deciphering the Bactrian language spoken by his bride Roxane and her father, a sculpture vowed by a worshiper to the dead Hephaestion as a semi-divine hero, a fragmentary Greek inscription mentioning Alexander, new silver coin-types showing war-elephants in his reign, underwater evidence of the lost monuments and palaces of Alexandria-in-Egypt, and even a hint of how to find the missing burial of the great king Cyrus, founding-father of the Persian Empire. All we need now is to relocate the city which Alexander founded in India in honor of his horse, Bucephalas.

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. But they are actors in a drama, not a history book, and I accept that a drama must be all to re-combine events which, correctly, occurred at separated intervals, too far apart to be shown in each correct context.

What would be your concerns in approaching this?
My worry would be either that the film would be undramatic and boring, just one more thing after another, or ignorantly claiming to be "nothing but the history," or totally detached from known history altogether. In fact, I find it tremendously exciting, a real epic drama--Oliver's deliberate, respectful aim.

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. He had thousands of real troops to train, not to confuse.

Throughout, all our concerns were that the team should know the facts (if known at all) and the prevailing scholarly arguments--so that where they departed from them, they did so for good dramatic and "visual" reasons, not through ignorance. Obviously we could not clothe every soldier in real metal--or make statues out of real bronze and marble. But there are dozens of deliberate historical references, which experts and non-experts, I hope, will really be stretched by. They enhance the separate parts of the dramatic web and distinguish them.

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Alexander (Colin Farrell), with "bloody" sleeve and styrofoam coffee cup, discusses ancient history with Robin Lane Fox as part of the Macedonian army drills in the distance. (Jaap Buitendiijk, courtesy Time Warner) [LARGER IMAGE]

Were you on locale for any of the filming?
I was not only "on set." In Morocco's desert, for the Gaugamela battle, and in Thailand's jungle, for the elephant battle, I was charging on camera on horseback with Colin and the stars in the front line--galloping for my king, with a long lance and no stirrups. As well as those weeks in the field, I was at Shepperton and at Pinewood [studios]. Oliver always had questions or new ideas, running them at me too all the while. I do not believe any other historical adviser has ever had such a role in a film.

Did you coach any of the actors about their characters?
Many of the actors read my Alexander history book, even on set Oliver directed every inch of their acting, but I discussed on set (or horseback!) the characters of many of them, including Cleitus, Ptolemy, and Hephaestion, and Craterus and Antigonus on foot. The women were so brilliant that sadly, they did not need coaching from me! But Roxane shared her secrets, and at night Colin would talk for hours about his ideas of Alexander, what the histories say and what we did or did not think.

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.

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. He even made the two nobilities [Macedonian and Persian] inter-marry.

There are modern historians, deploring "imperialism," who try to brush these moves away as "pragmatic" or very limited. I think their modern prejudices mislead them, as do many others. Alexander was born a king--he did not overthrow a constitution, like a Hitler. He had no idea of ethnic or racial cleansing. He wanted to include conquered peoples in his new kingdom, Alexander's own, while their fellows, of course, paid tribute and could not rebel. Oliver's film credits Alexander himself with these aims, in my view rightly. But through his friends, fellow-officers, and Ptolemy himself, it also gives us the viewpoints of those who disbelieved him. In real life, Alexander drank long and hard: he killed without much scruple; he must have had a taste for war. Oliver's film shows all these sides, including aspects which even historians in antiquity tried to omit or explain away. Alexander made, and cultivated, his own myth in his lifetime. Oliver shows it, but he himself sees the doom which it brought.

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.

His own mother Olympias was certainly ruthless, impassioned and a force to be considered.

Women played important roles in Alexander's life. He formed relationships with older women whom he treated as surrogate mothers--the Carian noblewoman Ada, Darius' mother--and his bond with his own mother Olympias was very strong. How does the film handle these relationships? Beyond those specific relationships, how are women portrayed in the film in general?
"Surrogate mother" is the wrong term for the older queens whom Alexander met and respected in Asia. Ada, of Caria, "adopted" him, but as a political move, in the local tradition of rulership. Darius' mother was respected, and respected her captor in turn, but never "adopted" him. Alexander could certainly be chivalrous. His own mother Olympias was certainly ruthless, impassioned and a force to be considered. We know she was a keen worshiper of the gods, including Dionysus. We do not know that she dominated her son's deeper psychology, as the woman he really feared. To my mind, it is likely, though, that she encouraged the murder of Philip, her husband. Oliver plays up the drama that Roxane resembled aspects of Olympias, that Alexander was therefore drawn to her--and found her just as hard. In his memories, he was unable, even at the end, to cut free of his mother's hold over him. Who knows? Historians cannot, but the two actresses are, for me, the brilliant supporting performers in the film. Oscars for both of them, please!

Obviously there will be critics out there who will pick out every miscue in the history and archaeology that may creep into the film. How will you respond to them?
The film is not a documentary. It uses historical references and detail as its springboards. These references are frequent, and clever. Obviously, the props, costumes, and décor were designed, from scratch, in an amazing four months. Materials forced compromises--and nothing but known, absolutely certain "authenticity" would have left huge gaps anyway (so we often have to guess) or required impossible materials (bronze, marble, etc.). Critics hunting for "historical errors" are hunting for the wrong category. Total "historicity" was impossible, and would leave big gaps besides. The right approach is to look for the density of historical allusion, and reference--and ask whether if gives a powerful "feel" to the drama. I think it does. I remain amazed by the quick researches and commitment to the known details by every department under Oliver's direction.

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.

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Historian Robin Lane Fox and Oliver Stone exchange compliments over each other's hats. (Jaap Buitendiijk, courtesy Time Warner) [LARGER IMAGE]

For more on Alexander, see "The Forgotten Realm of Alexander" in the November/December issue of ARCHAEOLOGY. Check back here for a review of the film.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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