|Cheshire's Use of Primary Sources Illuminates Complicated Life of "Alexander the Great"
February 27, 2009
Contact: Bill Giduz
The image of Alexander the Great that Keyne Cheshire selected for the cover of his new book reflects a more complex figure than the conqueror of popular myth. And that’s exactly the point Cheshire wants to convey in his new book, Alexander the Great, published by Cambridge University Press.
|Keyne Cheshire began teaching Classics at Davidson in 2002.|
Rather than depicting Alexander gloriously in battle on his horse Bucephalus, Cheshire selected a painting by the 17th-century Italian artist Ciro Ferri titled “Alexander Reading Homer.” Alexander is depicted lying in bed covered in golden robes reading a book by the Greek poet. A cupid figure emerging from Alexander’s head paints imagined planets interwoven with a banner reading “One World Is Not Enough,” reflecting Alexander’s dreams of boundless domination.
“I love it because it brings out the intellectual side of the man,” explained Cheshire, an associate professor of classics at Davidson.
Alexander was just 19 years old in 336 B.C. when his father was assassinated and the young manascended to the throne of Macedonia. In the next 10 years he embarked on the greatest conquest the world had ever known, becoming ruler of lands from Egypt to India. The oracle at the Oasis of Siwah (in now western Egypt) had even declared him a son of Zeus. His exploits spread Greek culture far and wide, and gave birth to a new epoch, the Hellenistic Age, that endured for more than 300 years.
But Ferri’s painting reveals that Alexander faced struggles off the field of battle as well. At Alexander’s feet sits a tired, grizzled Macedonian soldier turning his head away from his king. Cheshire explained, “Alexander was certainly a savvy general and incredible military strategist, but I believe he was forced into attempting his conquests by circumstances in the Greek world. His campaign was necessary to provide a common endeavor to keep the fractured states of Greece united, to maintain homeland stability. He was pathetic in some ways. He conquered the world, but couldn’t figure out how to rule it.”
But that’s only Cheshire’s opinion. He advises readers that there is conflicting evidence surrounding every episode of Alexander’s life, and encourages students seeking a full picture to consult other ancient accounts and modern scholarship.
Aimed at upper high school and undergraduate students, Cheshire’s book presents Alexander through his translations of ancient writings, primarily excerpts from Plutarch’s biography and Arrian’s history. Though neither was alive during Alexander’s reign, their accounts were constructed from now-lost first-hand histories.
Each excerpt is introduced by a subhead and a few boxed sentences of Cheshire’s notes that flesh out the historical and cultural context of the passage. Certain words and terms in the texts are printed in blue and explained in footnotes at the bottom of the page. Each extract is also followed by questions presented in colored boxes that prompt readers to consider the culture of Alexander’s day, circumstances surrounding his actions, and the different approaches of ancient biographers and historians. The combination of color, subheads, footnotes and questions, along with numerous maps, illustrations and photographs, render the 198-page book inviting and lively. Other useful aids include a timeline, battle plans, a list of extant and lost ancient sources, and glossaries of terms, people, gods and heroes.
|Cheshire teaches a seminar at Davidson on Alexander the Great.|
“It was terrific fun to stitch the book together using various primary sources, even though they often contradict one another,” said Cheshire. “I point [to conflicting accounts] in the notes, and cite the sources for readers to pursue on their own. There’s such a variety of accounts of Alexander that everyone will undoubtedly come out with a unique interpretation.”
Cheshire, who has taught at Davidson since 2002, arrived fairly late to the study of Alexander. It was not until he took a course under classical historian W.J. McCoy in graduate school at the University of North Carolina that Alexander captured his interest. Cheshire then taught a writing seminar about Alexander for first-year students when he was employed at Carleton College. In 2006, a Cambridge University Press editor and personal friend approached him with the idea of covering Alexander for the publisher’s series Greece and Rome: Texts and Contexts. This prompted Cheshire to offer the seminar again at Davidson in 2007 and 2008.
Cheshire is on sabbatical leave from Davidson this year. With funding from the Harvard University Loeb Classical Library Foundation he is writing a book about hymns written by Callimachus in Alexandria, the largest city in the Mediterranean world at that time. He believes that the hymns, which celebrated Greek gods, served the Macedonian rulers of Egypt after Alexander by reinventing Greek traditions on uniquely Egyptian terms appropriate to the new city of first- and second-generation immigrants.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,700 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.