A Macedonian, a Roman, and a Frenchman Walk into India: History and Theatre in Alexandre le Grand 

“Your work is puerile and under-dramatized. You lack any sense of structure, character, and the Aristotelian unities.” – Wednesday Addams, Addams Family Values 

When I started blogging again, I had intentions of talking about what I was reading from time to time, but had never really gotten around to something that might make a good topic here. Or rather, I need to come up with something intelligent to say about them. Work in progress… 

Anyway, currently I’m reading through the complete works of French playwright Jean Racine, which one might think would have little to do with the current bent of this blog, but Racine’s plays are generally classical in subject matter, and as a result, let us circle back on some things we’ve already talked about. Specifically, Racine’s lesser-known drama, Alexandre le Grand, about an episode of Alexander the Great’s conquests in India. 

Jean-Baptiste Racine was born in 1639, and writing plays during the reign of Louis XIV. A contemporary (and sometimes frenemy) of Molière, Racine is one of the great playwrights to emerge out of this zenith of French court culture fostered by the image of Louis as the Sun King. France was the envy of Europe and Racine represented a new form of drama, still tied to the subjects of the past, but focused on, what was for the time, an almost shocking level of staging simplicity. Dramatis personae are kept to a minimum (usually under ten), and scenes change location as little as possible. Despite the usual piles of deaths in his tragedies, violence occurs off-stage and dead bodies are almost never presented. 

This is largely in accordance with the Aristotelian unities referenced by Wednesday in my heading flavor text: the unities of action, time, and place. Ergo, a classical play should have one principal action, take place in a continuous period of no more than a day, and in a single physical location. The attribution of these principles to Aristotle is a bit of a historical misnomer, but in his Poetics, Aristotle does talk about how the essence of tragedy is magnified in impact if it is presented in a compact, unified manner. 

Aristotle (tutor of the young Alexander, btw)

Aside from his devotion to Aristotle, Racine pulls much of his subject material from the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles; most famously for his Andromaque, and Phèdre, but also in Iphigénie, and La Thebaïd.  

Now, the Greek plays are among the greatest Western civilization has ever produced, so you might be wondering why one would bother to read a 17th-century French guy’s take on these same old stories. But sometimes we forget that these weren’t new ideas when Sophocles or Euripides wrote about them, either. These were Greek mythological stories that came from an oral tradition too old to be remembered. We retell great stories again and again because something in them speaks to us, even if they change a little here and there in the retelling. Euripides allows Iphigenia escape her sacrificial death through the goddess Artemis’ divine intervention; Racine follows another mythological tradition and has her escape by substituting the princess Eriphile in her place. 

On the other hand, Racine’s Alexandre is a historical tragedy, rather than a mythological one. Rather than Homer or the Greek tragedians, Racine is mainly drawing from Quintus Curtius RufusHistories of Alexander the Great as his source material. Rufus is a somewhat hazy figure, even this name is only the person we think wrote this Alexander survey. If this is indeed the man, however, he’s a pretty facinating guy. Rufus was from an obscure background, some claim he was the son of a gladiator who was adopted into the noble Curtii family, but the important thing was he was a protégé of the emperor of the time, Tiberius. 

Salvete, internet. I’d rather be somewhere else.

We haven’t really had a chance to talk very much about Tiberius yet (mostly because I need to leave myself something to discuss with you guys once I get closer to having a finished manuscript for the third book in my trilogy), but we can trace the basics without getting too carried away. Tiberius was Octavius’ stepson; his mother was Octavius’ wife, Livia Drusilla, and he was her son from her first marriage. Which is why his full name originally was Tiberius Claudius Nero, as opposed to something that ties him to the Julii like Octavius. 

For reasons that one can only suspect were at least partially personal, Octavius doesn’t adopt Tiberius, nor make him his political heir until Octavius is pretty much literally out of options and out of time. 

YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD!!

But Octavius dies in 14 AD and Tiberius (now – finally – Tiberius Caesar Augustus) becomes emperor. Tiberius’ reign starts out respectably, because he is an intelligent man well-versed in government and military matters from a lifetime of handling both at various levels during Octavius’ tenure. But as he ages, he becomes more paranoid and aloof, which causes friction in Rome that is only exacerbated by him leaving more and more of the day-to-day control of the empire to his praefect of the Praetorian Guard, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, whom virtually everyone hated.  

[Those of you willing to stick it out to the end of my God’s Wife books will get to hear more about Sejanus later, too.] 

Eventually, Tiberius gets wise to the fact that Sejanus has basically made himself emperor, and he has him and his inner circle executed. The historian/TMZ beat reporter Suetonius tells us that this leads to a veritable orgy (not the fun kind) of imprisonments and executions that mark the last handful of years in Tiberius’ reign, though Suetonius should always be taken with a metric dump truck-full of salt. Suffice to say, either because of Sejanus’ fall or indirectly because of the unsettled nature of the last years of Tiberius’ rule, Curtius Rufus decides that he needs some time away from Rome. And where he decides to go is Alexandria. 

The Library: imagine that…

Now, the exact dates within which the Histories of Alexander were written is not exactly known, but what is known is that the Library of Alexandria (or what remained of it by the 30s AD) is the final resting place of much of the best secondary source material for Alexander’s campaigns. 

Alexander had an entire unit of his army devoted to historical archiving, which kept detailed records of the daily activities and events throughout Alexander’s years of conquest. The army’s official historian Callisthenes (grand-nephew of Aristotle) used this material to write his histories and commentaries, as did several others, including Ptolemy Soter himself. The Day Journal, as it is known, eventually was lost, but all of the first-generation historians who used it as source material moved the information forward through their own commentaries. Ptolemy was obviously sure to gather all of this, plus any primary sources that survived, and store them in his great library. So Rufus waited out the nadir of Tiberius’ tenure and Caligula’s three-year reign of terror happily buried in his research in the Library, writing about Alexander, and waiting for book-loving Claudius to take over the empire and invite him home. 

The history Rufus ended up writing is a fairly interesting work, one that doesn’t always speak of its famous subject positively. In some ways, it shares a tragedian-style plot sequence: telling the story of Alexander as one of a brilliant, noble young man ultimately corrupted by glory and success. One can begin to see why Racine might use this version of Alexander’s life for a tragedy written in the Greek style. 

Which (finally) brings us back to Racine’s play, Alexandre le Grand. The action of the play concerns the Battle of Hydaspes, which was fought in the Mong, Punjab (now Pakistan) between Alexander and the Indian raaja, Porus (or Poros). Alexander is victorious, but Porus fights him so valiantly and displays such courage in his defeat that Alexander leaves Porus his lands to rule as his satrap, as well as further lands to the southeast. 

In his fight against Porus’ armies, Alexander has the aid of another Indian king, Taxiles, who is also rewarded for this by maintaining control of his own ancestral kingdom, Takshasila, and lavish gifts. 

Side note on names: Porus and Taxiles are the names given by Alexander’s Greek historians to these men. Porus’ exact identity is in some dispute, but Taxiles is an Indian lord named Ambhi, whom the Greeks addressed by a Greek version of the name of his kingdom, Takshasila. Using this logic, some scholars believe Porus was a member of the Purus clan of rulers of northwest India, but this is not certain.

Racine takes this story of Hellenistic romance (small ‘r’, meaning an adventure tale), and turns it into something much more Romance Capital R, by making his play a love story at heart. In addition to Alexander, Porus, and Taxiles, Racine adds two young Indian women: Cleophila, Taxiles’ sister and Alexander’s love interest; and Axiana, an independently ruling rani who is Porus’ ally and the love interest of both him and Taxiles. It’s these royal women who drive the plot, because while there’s a lot of talk of glory and patriotism from the men, most of their decisions hinge on their hearts.

The play opens with Cleophila (whose name, incidentally, means “glory of love”; just as Cleopatra’s name means “glory of her father”) trying to convince Taxiles to switch sides from the Indian resistance to Alexander’s, ostensibly to preserve their kingdom from the mighty conqueror, but mostly because Cleophila has fallen in love with Alexander after being held as a hostage by him before the action of the play. Alexander has been smitten by her, too, and has returned her freedom so that she might sway her brother to accept a satrapy to Alexander rather than fight. Taxiles is a first reluctant to listen to her, because he doesn’t want to betray his friends, Porus and Axiana, the latter for whom he harbors a desperate romantic interest. But Cleophila uses her brother’s longing for Axiana to persuade him that the queen will never choose him over the heroic Porus, so he might as well throw in his lot with Alexander and be in a position to rescue Axiana when the Macedonians inevitably crush the Indian armies. 

The play then moves to Porus and Axiana, joined by Taxiles, who tries in turn to get them to give up their resistance to Alexander, but they are having none of it. Porus and Axiana are proud of their kingdoms and have no intention of giving them up without a fight. This is the scene where Racine shows you how lopsided this love triangle is, because it’s hard to imagine the fiery Axiana settling for the servile and easily-swayed Taxiles.

Speaking of Taxiles, we move back to his part of the camp and to Cleophila, who’s about to engage in the most unintentionally hilarious scene in the whole play. As alluded to above, this is a historical adaptation, so obviously one doesn’t expect total factual accuracy. But for a playwright who would write out the intervention of Artemis in Iphigénie as “too far-fetched,” he instead treats us to a scene where Alexander’s right-hand man and absolutely-1000%-certain love of his life, Hephaestion, spends pages convincing Cleophila that Alexander loves her and has been doing hardly anything but pining after her since she’s left him. There’s definitely a modern version of this that could be staged with all of Hephaestion’s dialogue as ironic.

Exhibit A
Yeah, definitely just really close friends.

In keeping with the Aristotelian unities, the actual Battle of Hydaspes takes place off-stage, and finally, in the middle of his own damn play, Alexander shows up victorious. To his credit, he does seem genuinely excited to see Cleophila again (though in a modern adaptation, this too could be played ironically, especially since that might even be more in keeping with Rufus’ ambivalent source material). The Indians are defeated, but Porus has escaped and Axiana is Alexander’s prisoner. Alexander gives Taxiles the opportunity to “save” her, by promising the queen her kingdom and her freedom (and Taxiles) if she agrees to become Alexander’s satrap. But Axiana boldly refuses, both Taxiles’ Nice Guy gesture, and when Alexander offers it to her himself. 

Axiana has some of the most forceful dialogue in the entire play, especially in this scene. It’s her who takes Alexander to task for his endless need for conquest, the sea of blood and bondage he leaves in his wake. It’s a surprisingly contemporary speech, one that also seems to beg for a modern staging as much as the relationship between Alexander and Hephaestion does:

Yes, you are invincible:

Is’t not enough that all is in your pow’r?

Why must you cast so many kings in chains?

Make with impunity the whole world groan?

What had so many captured cities done?

Why is Hydaspes cumber’d with our dead?

What have I done to cause the overthrow 

Of him [Porus] who could alone attract my eye?

Did he invade your borders, deluge Greece

With blood? What nations have been roused by us

To rage and opposition against you?

Your glory we admired, we grudged it not.

Charm’d with each other, with our thrones content,

We look’d to find a happier lot than yours:

The only conquest Porus wish’d to win

Was o’er a heart that might have own’d him lord 

This day. Were his the only blood you shed,

That crime your only title to reproach,

Would it not mar your happiness to feel 

You came so far to snap so fair a tie

Between our hearts? Nay, flatter not your soul,

You are a tyrant, nothing else.

Alexander is touched by her words, but it is when Porus is brought to him alive that he demonstrates how much he has missed their point and how little he understands their speaker. In the name of her love for Porus, Alexander tries to get Axiana to convince Porus to submit to him to spare his life. But Axiana rightly points out that a Porus that bows to Alexander the way Taxiles has would not be the man she loves, and she refuses. Alexander, flabbergasted, tries to get Porus to turn on her, saying that she must not love him all that much, to not do this simple thing to save him. But Porus understands his lover just as perfectly as she befuddles the conqueror, and he adores her all the more for responding to Alexander as the defiant rani he loves.

The play is at this impasse when Hephaestion arrives to tell us that Taxiles has died of his wounds inflicted by the duel he and Porus fought to compel the latter’s surrender. Cleophila is aghast and demands that Alexander execute Porus in revenge, but Alexander has at last figured out that to kill a captive as noble and unvanquished in spirit as Porus will only prove Axiana’s assessment of him as a tyrant. He decides therefore to release Porus and Axiana, and restore their kingdoms.

While maybe not a true tragedy, the play ends on this somewhat melancholy note, where no character is happy about the resolution — a feeling that might be shared by its audience. Porus and Axiana might have saved their kingdoms, but they are left begrudgingly at the mercy of Alexander’s largesse, a largesse they know can easily one day be withdrawn. Cleophila has gained Alexander and his love, but lost her brother and is left to brood on the realization that Alexander’s affection might not amount to much in the end. And Alexander gets to display great magnanimity to a handful of rulers he knows he has beaten, but one gets the sense that he can’t shake Axiana’s reproaches from his ears.

But the actual history isn’t much happier: whatever their motivations, the real Porus and Taxiles both survive their encounter with the Macedonians and are installed as Alexander’s satraps in India when he returns west. But this also means that they were among the satraps who would be deposed and killed by Chandragupta’s armies a short time after Alexander’s death, as we discussed in my entry about Greek India. Cleophila’s barely-formed doubts about the limits of Alexander’s protection come home to roost at one time or the other for her, Taxiles, and the others. The play sees this and reminds us that history is messy; and that maybe Racine is right to focus on the devoted love of two people who respect each other as equals, as being the most we might be able to hope for in a world so pressed by forces beyond the control of the individual.

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