Lucius Flavius Arrianus 'Xenophon' (ca. 86 - after 146), known in English as Arrian (Ἀρριανός), and Arrian of Nicomedia, was a Roman historian (of Greek ethnicity), a public servant, a military commander and a philosopher of the Roman period. As with other authors of the Second Sophistic, Arrian wrote primarily in Attic. 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 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, he repelled an Alan invasion by successfully organizing 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 and defeated the assault of the Alan cavalry using these combined arms tactics. During this period Arrian wrote several works on military tactics, including Ektaxis kata Alanōn, which detailed the battle against the Alans, and the Technē Taktikē. 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's work 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 had this to say about his work on Alexander:
"This I claim; and never mind who I am; never mind my name although it is not unknown among men; never mind my country, or my family, or any rank I have held among compatriots. I would rather say: for me, this book of mine is country, kindred and career, and it has been so since my boyhood."
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.