The News Couldn’t Be Worse:  My  Escape with Alexander the Great

A detail from a cartoon by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and R. Crumb (The New York Review of Books).

“Thank God our parents aren’t alive to see this,” we murmur every day.

Covid-19 cases are on the rise in Texas, Arizona, California, Florida, North Carolina, and South Carolina, with an increase in hospitalizations; a Trump rally at an indoor venue in Tulsa, Oklahoma, could be a health risk that spreads the virus; a black man was found hanging from a tree  in California;  a black man who had fallen asleep inebriated in a Wendy’s drive-thru in Atlanta ran from the cops and was shot and killed in the parking lot;  protesters burned the Wendy’s to the ground… 

It goes on and on.

I read a lot of fiction, but at the moment I am escaping from the present through biography.  I am in the midst of reading a fascinating biography by Anthony Everitt,  Alexander the Great:  His Life and Mysterious Death. Everitt is a brilliant historian who has written eminently readable biographies of Cicero and Augustus.  Here, he selects some of the most riveting details of Alexander’s life  in elegant prose so clear and entertaining that it rivals the Alexander trilogy of historical novels by Mary Renault.

He portrays Alexander as a shrewd politician and cold-blooded warrior who is equally intent on shaping his legend and expanding his empire.  After conquering Thebes, Alexander can’t decide what penalties the survivors should pay.  He hands it over to a council, who clearly know and carry out Alexander’s wishes.

Everitt writes,

WHAT WAS TO BE done with Thebes, that ancient city of legend and history? This was where Oedipus had ruled, killed his father, married his mother, and blinded himself in expiation. Here too the man-woman seer, Tiresias, had prophesied. Alexander was in two minds, or possibly three. At heart, he favored a severe penalty. This would deter the Greeks from rising again during his absence in Persia and so support the overriding strategic aim which he had also pursued in Thrace….

However, the council finally recommended that the king and hegemon take no more lives, but sell the entire population on the slave market and raze the city. Alexander will have recalled that it was the same penalty his father had imposed on the thriving city of Olynthus in 348. He accepted the judgment and put it into effect. It would be as if Thebes had never existed.

Horrifying!  The council left the famous poet Pindar untouched, though.

Everitt explores the different versions of Alexander’s life in ancient history.  And as a fan of Homer’s Iliad, I am fascinated that Alexander also loved Homer and identified himself as the new Achilles. He visited Troy (then a dilapidated tourist village) to create and solidify his connection to shining Achilles.

I do love Everitt’s writing:  imaginative, fascianting, learned, and fast-paced.

Why You Don’t Want to Know People in the News

You don’t want to know the people in the headlines:  people are not the heroes or villains you read about in the news.

This year I recognized the name of a former student.   There she was in a photograph dramatically accusing someone of sexual harassment.  I said with disbelief to my husband, “Is that Bunny?”*  Sure enough, it was.

Her accusation was plausible, and I felt compassion. l remembered her as a genial girl, a bright, if not brilliant, student. From the little I knew of the students’ social lives– English teachers, appalled by their essays, gossiped about their precociousness and promiscuity–the incident she described could have happened.

In my own school days I would have avoided Bunny, though. Popular girls could be kind one day, vicious the next.   And Bunny needed attention.  She needed to be the center of attention.

One day Bunny came up after class and accused a new student of cheating.  The new girl was smart in a quiet way, and her grades were good. I told Bunny she was mistaken.  I’d sat on my desk and had a clear view of the front of the room where the new girl sat, eyes on her test.   But Bunny reported her to the administration.  I  assured the principal and the counselor that the girl had not cheated. I called the girl’s mother and said she had not cheated.   Yet she was called in front of some student council to be sentenced—to what I don’t know. But I had forgotten the incident entirely until I read the news about Bunny.

What am I to think all these years later? Bunny is an adult now.  Doubtless she has endured sadness and grief. And carried away by the #metoo movement, she probably did not anticipate negative news coverage.

When you have even a slight acquaintance with someone, you realize he or she is not the hero or villain you read about. It’s complicated. It’s difficult to know what direction his or her life has taken.  It’s just a story.  And after a while nobody really cares.

*I have changed her name.