Will the real Callisthenes please stand up?

Two books, two authors, a single character: The historical figure of Callisthenes can be played around with in some interesting ways.

Some context.

Alexander the Great, on his conquest of Asia Minor and large chunks of the Levant, Egypt, and so on, took with him a huge retinue, consisting of friends, historians, slaves, and all the various types one such conqueror would be expected to take.

Our investigation today is into the difference between Callisthenes (a historian who traveled with Alexander on campaign) as he is portrayed in Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy and Nikos Kazantzakis’ version of Alexander the Great.

The books are quite different in multiple ways, obviously, although both focus on Alexander’s campaign. The Persian Boy is written from the perspective of Bagoas, the lover of King Darius and eventually Alexander.

Kazantzakis’ book is a child’s story, almost: a very basic retelling of the simple facts of history, through the eyes of a Macedonian grunt named Stephan. A fictional character. It’s suitable for children, but there’s a tinge of the typical Kazantzakis in there for those of us looking for something deeper. (“Freedom!”)

Historically, Callisthenes was Aristotle’s great-nephew. Alexander having been taught by Aristotle, he was encouraged to take the man along on campaign. But as Alexander journeyed further east, and became increasingly Persian in his habits (forcing subordinates to perform the traditional Persian prostration in his presence) Callisthenes began to resent him, and call for a return to typical Hellenistic behaviour, and teaching the younger soldiers on campaign how things were ‘really done’ in Greece, and so on; styling himself a second Socrates and basically corrupting the youth. Alexander had him arrested after a young soldier implicated him in an assassination plot. He either died in prison or was crucified depending on the source material. So much for him in reality. In fiction, Callisthenes expands; he becomes something much more interesting.

Callisthenes appears in both aforementioned books, obviously, as a major player. And the manner in which he was portrayed interested me more than Alexander.

As in War and Peace, Alexander the Great and Napoleon share traits in both fictional and factual accounts. I believe I’ve mentioned this before: both are relegated to the role of natural forces. Conquest is inevitable, the great storm of the conquering hero is sure to dominate the landscape and so on and so on. So they’re quite boring to me at this point. There’s just too much discussion out there already.

But Callisthenes presents an interesting question, in the way he’s been portrayed by Renault and Kazantzakis. Was he a cowardly wannabe-Socrates, tricking the young soldiers of Alexander into a mad and stupid plot? Or was he acting in the spirit of his predecessors, keeping the ancient ideal of freedom alive in the face of an all-powerful conqueror who was becoming increasingly more tyrannical with each passing day?

The fun thing about him in both books is that his actual actions are unchanged. It’s a good example of the effects of frameworks.

(It’s also interesting to note how Kazantzakis, the Greek, insists that Alexander et al are Greeks, while Renault consistently refers to the lot of them as Macedonian. If you’ve ever spoken to a Greek person about Macedonia you’ll know why this is funny.)

For Kazantzakis, Callisthenes is a typical character. A lover of radical Athenian democracy, typified as the character who exists in every Kazantzakis book in some form – that figure who cries ‘Freedom’ as he dies heroically at the hand of some restrictive tyrant. Every Kazantzakis novel is like this – he represented the history of Greece (and of Christianity) as a constant struggle for freedom fought by multiple characters in multiple epochs, and multiple ways (literal fighting, as in the case of The Fratricides, and debate throughout normal life in Zorba, and the sacrifice of Jesus for the freedom of humanity as opposed to Jesus’ personal freedom, and so on.) It’s Kazantzakis’ calling card, his major theme. In his hands, Alexander is almost a tragic hero, who while advancing the cause of Greece slowly starts to change it into something else; and it would be better off (according to him) dead. Callisthenes all but says this, and enacts it, dying after a cry for freedom while locked in prison.

Mary Renault, on the other hand, needed a villain. Or, if not a villain, at least an antagonistic character, to give the protagonist some verve or some conflict. History gave her Callisthenes, and she used him – in The Persian Boy, he is a stooping, old man with a stringy black beard, playing pretend at philosophy while he endangers Alexander’s increasingly fragile hold over both Macedonian and Persian forces. Alexander spends much of the book walking a tightrope between gaining new allies in the East and keeping old ones, and Callisthenes is the supreme agitator in his efforts to see as much of the world as possible. Renault, unlike Kazantzakis, admits that her book can’t focus on everything related to Alexander, and it’s of course told from the perspective of Bagoas, who wouldn’t have been the historian’s biggest fan.

So who was Callisthenes? It’s not a good idea to inspect fiction to answer that. If we were interested in that question we’d look at the primary sources. Obviously. That’s its own investigation for another day. But his portrayal in fiction is interesting because it shows the purposes for which he can be used; Callisthenes can be a hero or villain all without changing a single action. His actions in history were archetypal, it seems, and so they’re able to be contextualised in these two wildly contrasting ways pretty easily. There was a classic story happening there right under Alexander’s nose, the kind of narrative that probably happened millions of times in humanity’s history because it’s such a simple and effective turn of events.

Young conqueror/agent of change learns, grows old, changes world. Old man dislikes change, incites even younger youth, who never understood old world, into wanting to change it back. Young men loyal to both sources. Try to revert world back, discovered by young conqueror/agent of change, betray old man. Old man dies (the note he left was signed ‘Old Father Thames’), and the old world dies with him.

It’s so simple, and so indicative of how humanity used to work that I’m surprised variations of this narrative don’t crop up in the literature more often. It seems like the kind of archetypal sequence that should be in the Old Testament. And yet I haven’t found it there.


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