Between “fake news” and “alternative facts” and gag orders on scientists, it feels a bit like we’re watching the lights go out one by one in the intellectual world. I read through the news coverage of Sunday’s National Geographic Channel documentary Atlantis Rising, and it was astonishing how little anyone cared about the fake experts, ethical problems, and misleading claims. I couldn’t find a single critical review. Have we really become so inured to fakery that there is no outrage left to spare when a respected name like National Geographic openly engages in it? A supine media, beholden to celebrity, plays along, and as long as the fake experts are out-and-out lunatics like on the History Channel, everyone smiles and nods and pretends it’s OK as long as James Cameron gives his multimillion-dollar seal of approval. To be fair, when NatGeo did the same thing back in 2011, the only reason there was critical uproar is because the archaeologists seen in the film at alleged to the media that Richard Freund had hijacked their findings. By contrast, when NBC aired ancient astronaut documentaries in the 1970s, there was outrage in newspapers, magazines, and even academic journals. Today, we simply expect that everything on TV is a lie that the rubes will believe and the sophisticates will ignore.
This brings me to a story that Microsoft has been promoting in the news feed they stick in their web browser, and which has consequently been making the rounds on social media. A British man self-published a book claiming to have found Alexander the Great’s last will and testament, and he convinced British newspapers to write about his book. The Daily Mail turned their article into a video, and it ended up circulating through Microsoft’s online properties. At no point did anyone involved stop to ask whether the man’s claims were actually true.
David Grant holds a master’s degree in history and claims to have spent ten years contemplating the death of Alexander the Great, which is ten years longer than Alexander spent dying, and sveeral times longer than Alexander’s successors took to deal with his passing. From that decade of study, he came to the conclusion that … wait for it … history as we know it is wrong, academic historians are beholden to an outdated paradigm, and he has discovered the true last will and testament of the Macedonian king.
This last will and testament isn’t too hard to find. It’s part of the Alexander Romance, a collection of fantasies and fables about Alexander assembled in Hellenistic times and reworked many times thereafter. Grant identifies the testament of Alexander included in this romance—long dismissed as a fiction—as the king’s real will. Three different major recensions of the text exist, including a Greek version, an Armenian version with some additions, and a Syriac version that is abridged and somewhat revised. Needless to say, the three versions contradict one another in places.
According to press accounts, Grant argues that the version of the will included in the Alexander Romance is based on a real will that Alexander made but which his successors suppressed. In his account, they did so in order to seize power for themselves. Their enemies, however, leaked the original will and rewrote it in ways designed to favor certain claimants over others, and the fictionalized version ended up in the Alexander Romance. As you can imagine, the evidence is far from convincing. The author openly admits that “The answer lies in part in our analysis of the Macedonian king and in our interpretation of the authority a Will would have carried in the unique position Alexander would have found himself at Babylon in June 323 BCE.” Mostly his case rests on a series of assumptions and parallels with other known texts and events. The book, however, is 850 pages long and not available to me for review, so I do not have the complete story.
For most of modern times, scholars have believed that the testament of Alexander in the Romance is a fiction created anywhere from a few years to a few decades after the king’s death and circulated as part of a political pamphlet, not dissimilar to other hoax testaments like the much later Donation of Constantine, or other hoax documents of Alexander, like the fake letters to Aristotle and Olympia in the Romance itself. Views on the authenticity of the testament have varied, but most believe it was intended as political propaganda (notably Waldemar Heckel), while others suggest it is simply pious fiction created as part of a tract on the death of Alexander. In the middle twentieth century, W. W. Tarn in his massive volume on Alexander explained in detail all of the historical errors, fictitious people, and improbabilities that lead scholars to conclude that “Alexander’s fictitious Testament is not historical evidence for anything.”
However, as Richard Stoneman wrote in his 2004 revision of his 1997 biography of Alexander, not all of the lore associated with Alexander’s death and testament has been seen as fiction: “More recent scholars, notably Schachermyer, Badian and Bosworth, in a return to the view of Wilcken, have argued for an acceptance of the ‘Last Plans’ as a genuine memorandum of Alexander’s.” The Last Plans are a list of orders, recorded by Diodorus (18.4.1-6), supposedly contained in a written memorandum found after Alexander died, including plans to build a giant tomb for his father bigger than an Egyptian pyramid.
In short, Grant isn’t really overturning scholarly consensus so much as taking it beyond the bounds of evidence. There is no evidence that Alexander left a will, and had he done so it should have had more on an impact on history immediately following his death. For that reason, most scholars believe the Romance to record a fictionalized piece of propaganda. It is entirely fitting for the era of fake news and alternative facts that we should encounter an argument for accepting propaganda as history.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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