The History Sourcebook:
The Need for Source Criticism:
A Letter from Alexander to Aristotle?
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is dedicated to
making original primary sources available on the Internet. An important aspect of using
primary source material is learning how to critique a source. It is quite
possible, for example, for a source to be invented, to be edited, or to be mistranslated.
Checking into the authenticity and reliability of a source is called source
criticism. The text and commentary here present an example of how sources may be
invented, and misused, and of the way historians respond.
In September 1998 the Republic of
Macedonia website posted the following text on its pages. [See here for
the text as on RoM site]. Here various parts are highlighted for later discussion.
To Aristotle of Stagirus,
director of the school at Athens
My great and beloved teacher, dear Aristotle!
It is a very, very long time since I wrote to you; but as you know I have been
over-occupied with military matters, and while we were marching through Hyrcania,
Drangiana, and Gedrosia, conquering Bactria, and advancing beyond the Indus, I had neither
the time nor the inclination to take up my pen. I have now been back in Susa for some
months; but I have been so overwhelmed with administrative business, appointing officials,
and mopping up all kinds of intrigues and revolts, that I have not had a moment till today
to write to you about myself. Of course, you know roughly from the official reports what I
have been doing; but both my devotion to you and my confidence in your influence on
cultivated Hellenic circles urge me once more to open my heart to you as my revered
teacher and spiritual guide.
I remember that years ago (how far away it seems to me now!) I wrote you an
absurd and enthusiastic letter on the tomb of Achilles; I was on the threshold of my
Persian expedition, and I vowed then that my model for life should be the valiant son of
Peleus. I dreamed only of heroism and greatness; I had already won my victory over Thrace,
and I thought that I was advancing against Darius at the head of my Macedonians and
Hellenes simply to cover myself with laurels worthy of my ancestors. I can say that I did
not fall short of my ideal either at Chaeronea or at Granicus; but today I hold a very
different view of the political significance of my actions at that time. The sober
truth is that our Macedonia was constantly threatened from the north by the Thracian
barbarians; they could have attacked us at an unfavorable moment which the Greeks would
have used to violate their treaty and break away from Macedonia. It was absolutely
necessary to subdue Thrace so that Macedonia should have her flank covered in the event of
Greek treachery. It was sheer political necessity, my dear Aristotle; but your pupil did
not understand this thoroughly then and gave himself up to dreams of exploits like those
With the conquest of Thrace our situation changed: we controlled the whole of
the western coast of the Aegean; but our mastery of the Aegean was threatened by the
maritime power of Persia. Fortunately I struck before Darius was ready. I thought I was
following in the footsteps of Achilles and should have the glory of conquering a new Ilium
for Greece; actually, as I see today, it was absolutely necessary to drive the Persians
back from the Aegean Sea; and I drove them back, my dear master, so thoroughly that I
occupied the whole of Bithynia, Phrygia, and Cappadocia, laid waste Cilicia, and only
stopped at Tarsus. Asia Minor was ours. Not only the old Aegean basin but
the whole northern coast of the Mediterranean was in our hands.
You would have said, my dear Aristotle, that my principal political and
strategic aim - namely, the final expulsion of Persia from Hellenic waters - was now
completely achieved. But with the conquest of Asia Minor a new situation arose: our new
shores might be threatened from the south - that is, from Phoenicia or Egypt; Persia might
receive reinforcements or material from there for further wars against us. It was thus
essential to occupy the Tyrian coasts and control Egypt; in this way we became masters of
the entire littoral. But simultaneously a new danger arose: that Darius, relying on his
rich Mesopotamia, might fling himself upon Syria and tear our Egyptian dominions from our
base in Asia Minor. I therefore had to crush Darius at any cost; I succeeded in doing this
at Gaugamela; as you know, Babylon and Susa, Persepolis and Pasargadae, dropped into our
lap. This gave us control of the Persian Gulf; but so as to protect these new dominions
against possible invasions from the north we had to set out northward against the Medes
and Hyrcanians. Now our dominions stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf but
lay open to the east; I advanced with my Macedonians to the borders of Area and Drangiana, I laid waste Gedrosia, and gave Arachosia a thrashing, after which I occupied
Bactria as a conqueror; and to safeguard these military victories by a lasting union, I
took the Bactrian Princess Roxana to wife. It was a simple political necessity; I had
conquered so many Eastern lands for my Macedonians and Greeks that willy-nilly I had to
win over my barbarous Eastern subjects by my appearance and splendor, without which these
poor shepherds cannot imagine a powerful ruler. The truth is that my old Macedonian Guard
took it badly; perhaps they thought that their old commander was becoming estranged from
his war comrades. Unfortunately I had to have my old friends Philotas and Calisthenes
executed; my dear Parmenion lost his life, too. I was very sorry about this; but it was
unavoidable if the rebellion of my Macedonians was not to endanger my next step. I was, in
fact, just preparing for my expedition to India. I must tell you that Gedrosia and
Arachosia are enclosed within high mountains like fortifications; but for these
fortifications to be impregnable they need a foreground from which to undertake a sally or
a withdrawal behind the ramparts. This strategic foreground is India as far as the Indus.
It was a military necessity to occupy this territory and with it the bridgehead on the
farther bank of the Indus; no responsible soldier or statesman would have acted otherwise;
but when we reached the river Hyphasis my Macedonians began to make a fuss and say they
were too tired, ill, or homesick to go any farther. I had to come back; it was a terrible
journey for my veterans, but still worse for me; I had intended to reach the Bay
of Bengal to secure a natural frontier in the east for my Macedonia and now I was
forced to abandon this task for a time.
I returned to Susa. I could be satisfied at having conquered such an empire for
my Macedonians and Hellenes. But so as not to have to rely entirely on my exhausted people
I took thirty thousand Persians into my army; they are good soldiers and I urgently need
them for the defense of my Eastern frontiers. And do you know, my old soldiers are
extremely annoyed about it. They cannot even understand that in winning for my people
Oriental territories a hundred times greater than our own country I have become the great
King of the East; that I must choose my officials and counselors from amongst the
Orientals and surround myself with an Oriental court; all this is a self-evident
political necessity which I am carrying out in the interests of Greater Macedonia. Circumstances demand of me more and more personal sacrifices; I bear them without
complaint, for I think of the greatness and strength of my beloved country. I have to
endure the barbarous luxury of my power and magnificence; I have taken to wife three
princesses of Eastern kingdoms; and now, my dear Aristotle, I have actually become a god.
Yes, my dear master, I have had myself proclaimed god; my good Eastern subjects
kneel to me and bring me sacrifices. It is a political necessity if I am to have the
requisite authority over these mountain shepherds and these camel drivers. How far away
are the days when you taught me to use reason and logic! But reason itself bids me adapt
my means to human unreason. At first glance my career must appear fantastic to anyone; but
now when I think it over at night in the quiet of my godlike study I see that I have never
undertaken anything which was not rendered absolutely necessary by my preceding step.
You see, my dear Aristotle, it would be in the interests of peace and order, and
consistent with political interests, if I were recognized as god in my Western territories
as well. It would free my hands here in the East if my own Macedonia and Hellas accepted
the political principle of my absolute authority; I could set out with a quiet heart to
secure for my own land of Greece her natural frontiers on the coast of China. I should thus secure the power and safety of my Macedonia for all eternity. As you see,
this is a sober and reasonable plan; I have long ceased to be the visionary who swore an
oath on the tomb of Achilles. If I ask you now as my wise friend and guide to prepare the
way by philosophy and to justify my proclamation as god in such a way as to be acceptable
to my Greeks and Macedonians, I do so as a responsible politician and
statesman; I leave it to you to consider whether you wish to undertake this task as a
reasonable and patriotic work and one which is politically necessary.
Greetings, my dear Aristotle,
from your Alexander
The text as here is clearly suspicious, as was immediately realized by Jerome
Arkenberg, who posted an inquiry about the text to the Ancien-L discussion list.
Here are some of the general questions that might make a historian, even one who knew
little of the details of Alexander's career, suspicious:
1. Why is no source given for the document?
2. Why was this letter posted on a modern nationalist website? How does it
support the claims of modern Macedonia compared to other political groups/interests in the
3. Why would Alexander be using modern geographical terms such as "Aegean
basin" or showing modern geographical knowledge such as about the "Bay of
Bengal" or the "Coast of China"?
4. Why the constant differentation between "Greeks" and
With a more knowledge of history of texts, the problems with the letter become
even clearer. For instance, it is known that while no certainly genuine letter from
Alexander survives, a number of fake letters were composed during the middle ages. So
perhaps the letter above was a medieval fake (and thus an interesting document in itself)?
These sorts of questions seem to have motivated the comments of Marc Steinberg on the
I'd guess that the reference to China probably makes it at least medieval
(and I also wonder if the term camel-driver was used generally for people in the
east before the Arab conquest). However, it doesn't sound like any medieval
letter to Aristotle I've ever read. The lack of anything that would sound
fantastic to modern ears (quite common particularly in medieval letters to
Aristotle), the strongly nationalistic focus that is conveniently in line with the
web-site owners needs, and the justifications of conquest only for defensive
purposes make me suspect its modern. Also, I've run across this type of thing
before while surfing the web. I've seen a number of highly questionable Alexander
sources that are used to support arguments ranging from the more obvious
nationalistic fights (e.g., Slav vs. Greek) to the more obscure (e.g., Alexander was
Note that this criticism of the text derives from a number of
1. Marc Steinberg's knowledge of current historical studies of Alexander and
sources about him.
2. Consideration of the coherence of the text.
3. Consideration of who is promoting the text, and an estimation of their reasons for
With a more detailed knowledge of the period, the falsity of the letter becomes even
clearer. Peter Green, a major historian of the life of Alexander, posted to the Ancien-L
list the following commentary:
>It's certainly not a genuine letter of Alexander to Aristotle, but it might
be ancient nonetheless.
Genuine it isn't; but I'm afraid, David, that ancient it isn't either. We know
all the (purported) ancient letters of Alexander (including to Aristotle!), and the heavy
odds are that none of them are genuine, but rather ancient
forgeries. However: the politest description of this offering is that
it's a blatant modern exercise in historical fiction by someone with a Macedonian
axe to grind (please note the source!), who quaintly supposes that all A.'s conquests were
carried out in a spirit of self-protection, "for my Macedonia", up to
"securing for my own land of Greece [by which time "Greek treachery"
has been forgotten] her natural frontiers on the coast of China" [sic]. Well, there's something to put the Great Idea of recapturing Constantinople in the shade!
Let us hope against hope that this piece of nonsense is a joke, spoofing the Great
One's ambitions ad absurdum. But somehow, alas, I doubt it. Ethnic torch-bearers
aren't noted for a sense either of humor or of irony.
If the reference to China wasn't enough, the claim to have laid Gedrosia
waste (before the occupation of Bactria, yet!) should have alerted readers:
Gedrosia was waste to begin with (it's the Makran Coast Range, where Carter's rescue
helicopters went adrift in the sand), and nearly wiped out the whole of A.'s
expeditionary force on the way home.
The history is rubbish, the motives attributed are wildly anachronistic,
the style (as DM rightly saw) bears no relation to Greek, and the propaganda is
palpable. In the last year of his life, as we know from Plutarch, A. was sneering at
Aristotle *and* his tricky philosophy, having earlier knocked off his old tutor's nephew
Callisthenes. Caveat emptor.
Note that now the criticism of the text derives from a greater number
1. The incongruity of the language in the letter with Greek style.
2.A comparison of the letter with other ancient sources on Alexander, such as Plutarch.
3. An explanation of how the text does not even fit the known facts of Alexander's
4. A clear estimation of the agenda of the promoters of the text..
Proof the Text is a Fake
Note that all the discussion above is negative - scholars know enough to see
that the letter cannot have been real. But that still did not answer the question as to
where the text came from. A correspondent reading and earlier version of this file
supplied the answer. [the text below has been slightly amended for "flow"]
I am Randy McDonald, a student at the University of Prince Edward Island in
eastern Canada and an occasional visitor to your excellent history website.
While examining your Sourcebook, I found a link to the discussion of the
letter ascribed to Alexander the Great. As I was reading the so-called "letter",
I couldn't keep myself from laughing at its absurdity. You see, in a recent edition of Harper's -- certainly in 1998, or at the latest, fall of 1997 -- a short story was published. This
short story took the form of a series of vignettes related to famous leaders, presumably
with the intention of demonstrating the universality of human folly.
In any case, the letter shown at the above address is taken from the last
segment of the above short story!
This incident is quite amusing; perhaps you should update your site's commentary
on what is, if nothing else, a bold example of just how badly people can, intentionally or
otherwise, misattribute a source.
In this case then, the falsity of the source is easily established. Even so, a
considerable number of different issues were taken into consideration by the various
commentators. It is not always this easy: the creators of the letter could have been much
cleverer - for instance they could have got their facts correct, and made the language
accord more with Greek style. More: the text could have been picked up by other websites
without a clear nationalist bias, and could have made it appear a more reasonable text.
The more one progresses in historical research, the more important do questions about
the authenticity and reliability of sources become. Always, as Peter Green notes, Caveat
Emptor! ("Let the buyer beware!")
This text is part of the Internet History
Sourcebooks Project. The Sourcebooks are collections of public domain and
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© Paul Halsall, November 1998, Updated January 1999