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The Best of the Macedonians: Alexander as Achilles in Arrian, Curtius, and Plutarch

  • Author(s): Vorhis, Justin Grant
  • Advisor(s): Morgan, Kathryn A
  • et al.

This dissertation concerns the connection between Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), the famous Macedonian king, and Achilles, the preeminent Greek hero of the Trojan War. As scholars have long recognized, Alexander’s connection to Achilles represents both a historical and a literary phenomenon: Alexander not only portrayed himself as a second Achilles, but was also portrayed as such by those who wrote about him. While scholars have traditionally concentrated on the connection’s historical dimension, I concentrate in this study on its literary dimension (the Achilles motif), taking Arrian, Curtius, and Plutarch, the three extant Alexander historians with the most developed literary agendas, as the focus of my study. With each historian, I ask two fundamental questions: First, what is the thematic significance of the Achilles motif in the specific passages of each historian’s work in which it appears? Second, what is the thematic significance of the Achilles motif in each historian’s work overall?

This dissertation consists of three chapters, the first on Curtius’ Historiae Alexandri Magni (Histories of Alexander the Great), the second on Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, and the third on Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander. In Chapter 1, I argue that Curtius uses the Achilles motif to highlight Alexander’s moral decline over the course of the work, his transformation, in effect, from the good rex (“king”) of the first pentad to the corrupt tyrannus (“tyrant”) of the second. In Chapter 2, I contend that Plutarch employs the Achilles motif, by and large, to characterize Alexander as a “spirited” man (θυμοειδής), as a man of heroism and ambition, but also passion and emotion. In Chapter 3, I argue that Arrian deploys the Achilles motif as a means of reinforcing his complex portrait of Alexander, a portrait simultaneously encomiastic and Stoic. Based on these three chapters, I draw two main conclusions: first, that the Achilles motif represents a remarkably flexibile literary device; and second, that the extant Alexander historians should, in accordance with recent scholarship, be viewed not as mere compilers of the lost Alexander historians, but as sophisticated artists in their own right.

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