Lucius Flavius Arrianus 'Xenophon' (ca. 86 - 160), known in English as Arrian (Ἀρριανός), and Arrian of Nicomedia, was a Roman (ethnic Greek) historian, public servant, a military commander and a philosopher of the 2nd-century Roman period. As with other authors of the Second Sophistic, Arrian wrote primarily in Attic (Indica is in Herodotus' Ionic dialect, his philosophical works in Koine Greek) . His works preserve the philosophy of Epictetus, and include the Anabasis of Alexander, an important account of Alexander the Great, as well as the Indica a description of Nearchus' voyage from India following Alexander's conquest, and other short works. He is not to be confused with the Athenian military leader and author, Xenophon from the 4th century BC, whose best-known work was also titled Anabasis. Arrian is generally considered one of the best sources on the campaigns of Alexander as well as one of the founders of a primarily military-based focus on history.
Arrian was born of Greek ethnicity in the coastal town of Nicomedia (present-day Izmit), the capital of the Roman province of Bithynia, in what is now north-western Turkey, about 70 km from Byzantium (later Constantinople, now Istanbul). He studied philosophy in Nicopolis in Epirus, under the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, and wrote two books about the philosopher's teachings. At the same time he entered the Imperial service, and served as a junior adviser on the consilium of Gaius Avidius Nigrinus, governor of Achaea and a close friend of the future Emperor Hadrian, around 111-114. Very little is known about his subsequent career - though it is probable that he served in Gaul and on the Danube frontier, and possible that he was in Baetica and Parthia - until he held the office of Consul in 129 or 130. In 131 he was appointed governor of the Black Sea province of Cappadocia and commander of the Roman legions on the frontier with Armenia. It was unusual at this time for a Greek to hold such high military command.
In 135, Cappadocia was threatened by an Alan invasion. Arrian later wrote a military treatise called Ektaxis kata Alanōn, which detailed the battle against the Alans, and the Technē Taktikē in which he described how he would organise the legions and auxiliary troops at his disposal, among which legions XII Fulminata and XV Apollinaris. He deployed the legionaries in depth supported by javelin throwers, archers, and horse archers in the rear ranks to defeat the assault of the Alan cavalry using these combined arms tactics. However, Arrians work may have been entirely hypothetical, because there is no historical record of a battle between Romans and Alans that year. During this period Arrian wrote several works on military tactics, including Ektaxis kata Alanōn. He also wrote a short account of a tour of inspection of the Black Sea coast in the traditional 'periplus' form (in Greek) addressed to the Emperor Hadrian, the Periplus Ponti Euxini or "Circumnavigation of the Black Sea".
Arrian left Cappadocia shortly before the death of his patron Hadrian, in 138, and there is no evidence for any further public appointments until 145/6 when he was elected Archon at Athens, once the city's leading political post but by this time an honorary one. It was here that he devoted himself to history, writing his most important work, the Anabasis Alexandri or "The Campaigns of Alexander". He also wrote the Indica, an account of the voyage by Alexander's fleet from India to the Persian Gulf under Nearchus. He also wrote a political history of the Greek world after Alexander, most of which is lost. It is not known when Arrian died.
Arrian is an important historian because his work on Alexander is the widest read, and arguably the most complete, account of the Macedonian conqueror. Arrian was able to use sources which are now mostly lost, such as the contemporary works by Callisthenes (the nephew of Alexander's tutor Aristotle), Onesicritus, Nearchus and Aristobulus. Most important of all, Arrian had the biography of Alexander by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's leading generals and allegedly his half-brother.
Arrian says that Alexander's greatness is worthy of praise and glory, and should be known by future generations. It seems that he wanted to make Alexander a legend-which it is today- through his book.
Arrian had this to say about his work on Alexander:
"No matter who I am that make this claim. I need not declare my name- though it is by no mean unheard of in the world; I need not specify my country and family, or any official position I may have held. Rather let me say this: that this book of mine is, and has been from my youth, more precious than country and kin and public advancement- indeed, for me it is these things."
Arrian's work is to a considerable extent a reworking of Ptolemy, with material from other writers, particularly Aristobulus, brought in where Arrian thought them useful. Ptolemy was a general, and Arrian relied on him most for details of Alexander's battles, on which Ptolemy was certainly well informed. Details of geography and natural history were taken from Aristobulus, although Arrian himself had a wide knowledge of Anatolia and other eastern regions.
Today more interest focuses on Alexander as a man and as a political leader, and here Arrian's sources are less clear and his reliability more questionable. Probably it was not possible for Arrian to recover an accurate picture of Alexander's personality 400 years after his death, when most of his sources were partisan in one way or another. Aristobulus, for example, was known as kolax (κόλαξ), the flatterer, while other sources were hostile or had political agendas.
Arrian was in any case primarily a military historian, and here he followed his great model (from whom he earned his nickname), the terse and narrowly-focused soldier-historian Xenophon. He has little to say about Alexander's personal life, his role in Greek politics or the reasons why the campaign against Persia was launched in the first place. More than 1800 years later, Mary Renault, an admirer of both Alexander and Arrian, wrote an acclaimed biography of Alexander, "The Nature of Alexander," drawing heavily on Arrian's work, as well as the few other sources which are still extant. Renault's work focuses on Alexander's character, motivations, strengths and weaknesses. With its similar title and prominent mention of Arrian in the preface, it may have been intended as a sequel to Arrian's "The Campaigns of Alexander," or simply to fill in the gaps in his account.
Nevertheless, Arrian's work gives a reasonably full account of Alexander's life during the campaign, and in his personal assessment of Alexander he steers a judicious course between flattery and condemnation. He concedes Alexander's emotionality, vanity, and weakness for drink, but acquits him of the grosser crimes some writers accused him of. But he does not discuss Alexander's wider political views or other aspects of his life that the modern reader would like to know more about.
Arrian in his daily life would have spoken the koine, or "common Greek" of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. But as a writer he felt obliged to follow the prevailing view that serious works must be composed in "good Greek," which meant imitating as closely as possible the grammar and literary style of the Athenian writers of the 5th century BC. In Arrian's case this meant following the Attic style of Xenophon and Thucydides. This is somewhat the equivalent of a modern historian trying to write in the English of Shakespeare (although it is unheard of for a modern academic to write in Elizabethan English whereas harking back to the language of the Classical past was rather common practice amongst Arrian's contemporaries). His account of India, the Indica, was written in an equally wooden imitation of the language of Herodotus.
The result is a work which was inevitably stilted and artificial, although Arrian handled the strain of writing 500-year-old Greek better than some of his contemporaries. Xenophon was a good model of clear and unpretentious prose, which Arrian was wise to follow. He considered his Cynegeticon, ("On Hunting"), as an addition to the work of the same name by Xenophon. Modern historians may regret that so many of the earlier works on Alexander have been lost, but they are grateful to Arrian for preserving so much.
Errors in Arrian: Criticism
A. B. Bosworth, a leading expert on Greek history, pointed out several errors in Arrian's work which puts a serious question mark on his reliability. In his monograph titled 'Errors in Arrian' published in a peer-reviewed research journal 'The Classical Quarterly', Bosworth explores the credibility of Arrian's works on the basis of the following:
Credibility of Ptolemy: Arrian's main source
Arrian's reliability is solely based on the reliability of Ptolemy whose own reliability is under serious attack. Bosworth writes that "not only has it been virtually disproved that Ptolemy constructed his history from archival material, but it appears that he inserted his own propaganda to exaggerate his personal achievements under Alexander and to discredit those of his rivals". Bosworth alleges that "Arrian was prone to the errors of misunderstanding and faulty source conflation that one would expect in a secondary historian of antiquity".
Misreading and misinterpretation of primary sources
Pointing out several mistakes and general arbitrariness in Arrian's treatment of his primary sources, Bosworth points out that "Arrian is prone to misread and misinterpret his primary sources, and the smooth flow of his narrative can obscure treacherous quicksands of error".
Bosworth further points out that "Arrian makes it quite plain that his work is designed as a literary showpiece. Alexander's achievements, he says, have never been adequately commemorated in prose or verse. The field is therefore open for him to do for the Macedonian king what Pindar had done for the Deinomenid tyrants and Xenophon for the march of the Ten Thousand". Bosworth implies that "Arrian has in mind Thucydides' famous strictures of histories of the pentekontaetia (Thuc. 1. 97. 2), on which the passage is patently modelled".
Thus it is quite evident that Arrian's real aim is to create a literary eulogy of Alexander on the lines of classical Greek poet-bard Pindar whose work qualifies more as work of creative literature than history.
Other surviving classical histories of Alexander
* The Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus wrote Historiae Alexandri Magni. a biography of Alexander the Great in Latin in ten books of which the last eight survive.
* The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote Library of world history in forty books; of these book seventeen covers the conquests of Alexander.
* The Greek historian/biographer Plutarch of Chaeronea wrote the On the Fortune or the Virtue of Alexander the Great and a Alexander.
* The Roman historian Justin wrote an epitome of the Historiae Philippicae written by Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, in 44 books. Of these books 12 and 13 cover Alexander.