History as we know it is divided into two major groups, those being history and historiographies. History is what is commonly known as facts, such as events that have happened throughout the course of time. An example of history would be that Alexander the Great ruled as king over the Macedonian Empire. A historiography of that would be everything that we know in regards to Alexander’s kingship over the Macedonian Empire. We know that Alexander was king, but everything that we know about his kingship is told to us by historians.
The problem with historiographies is that every historian is going to have a ifferent interpretation of history, and the events that have taken place. The historian Leopold von Ranke said that the “strict presentation of facts, no matter how conditional and unattractive they might be, is undoubtedly the supreme law” for the historian. However, this goal of presenting history strictly as facts has never been achieved, according to Ranke. Despite this, Ranke still believes that it is possible to produce a strict presentation of facts regarding an event that has taken place.
One event in history that we can see has different interpretations made by multiple different historians is Alexander the Great’s solution of the Gordian Knot. The ancient historians, Plutarch, Arrian, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Justin all have different interpretations of Alexander’s solution of the Gordian Knot, but none of them were there to experience this event themself, their historiographies are all considered secondary sources. In regards to the Gordian Knot, we would never be able to tell if the ancient sources produced a strict presentation of facts like how Ranke believed that historians should, or not.
During Alexander’s conquest of Persia, he came to a city called Gordium. This city was famous for the legend of the Gordian Knot. At the acropolis in Gordium there was a wagon tied to a cherry wood post with a knot that was so complex that the ends of the rope could not be seen. Legend says, that whoever was to untie this knot was destined to become the ruler of all of Asia. Alexander desired greatly to untie the Gordian knot and proceed to fulfil the prophecy associated with it. Many ancient historians tell us that Alexander did succeed in undoing the knot, but the story of how varies from historian to historian.
Plutarch, the first of these ancient historians, was born about 50 years after the death of Alexander. His telling of Alexander’s solution of the Gordian Knot is one that does not tell the exact way in which Plutarch believes that the events of the Gordian Knot unraveled. Instead he gives us two possible scenarios in which Alexander untied the knot. Plutarch tells us a version of the story that is widely believed and accepted by the people of his day. He also gives us another version of the story that is told by a man who accompanied Alexander at the Gordian Knot.
The more widely believed version of the story of Alexander and the Gordian knot is know as the vulgate tradition. The version of the story written by Alexander’s companions is known as the official tradition. The vulgate tradition says that Alexander could not find the ends of the Gordian Knot for a while, so instead of untying the knot, Alexander drew his sword and sliced open to reveal it’s ends. This version of the story, the vulgate tradition, was believed by many ancient historians other than Plutarch.
It was also the version of the story that was most popular with the public masses during Alexander’s time. If this version of events was indeed believed by other ancient historians that came efore Plutarch, then they could have possibly gained this knowledge from primary sources that were with Alexander at the Gordian Knot such as villagers of Gordium, or soldiers of Alexander. The vulgate tradition could be the telling of events at the Gordian Knot from people who were actually there to witness Alexander untie it themselves.
Another possibility is that ancient historians fabricated this version of the story for some reason of their own such as propaganda, or personal gain. It would make sense to tell this version of the story if you did not like Alexander’s kingship because then the argument could then e made that Alexander never truly untied the Gordian Knot, and was not the destined ruler of Asia. Either way, it would be quite difficult to deduce whether or not the creators of the vulgate tradition did indeed use primary sources.
It would also be nearly impossible to figu produce a strict presentation of facts about the events at the out if they had the intentions to Gordian Knot like Ranke believed that all historians should strive to do. However, this version of the Gordian Knot story was primarily believed by the masses during Alexander’s time, and it is possible that it was just lore of the day. Whatever the case could be with the vulgate tradition, it is impossible to tell if it in accordance with Ranke’s ideal version of history, that is a strait presentation of facts.
Although the official tradition of the story of Alexander at the Gordian Knot included in Plutarch’s account is acquired from a primary source, it is just as difficult to determine whether or not it is in accordance with Ranke’s ideal telling of history. The official tradition says that untying the knot was easy for Alexander, and that he simply removed a single pin that allowed him to free the wagon. Plutarch cites Aristobulus as a primary ource for the official tradition of belief about the events at the Gordian Knot.
Aristobulus was someone who was with Alexander throughout his conquest of Persia; he was someone very close to Alexander both in court and in life. He was also likely with Alexander in Gordium when he untied the knot. Even if Aristobulus was an eyewitness to these events, there is no way for us to be able to confirm whether or not Aristobulus was telling the truth about what really happened at the Gordian Knot. Although Ranke’s ideal version of history is one in which the people that contribute to what we know about historical vents always tell the truth, that is simply not the case in reality.
Everyone’s motivations are not the same as Ranke’s. Often times people manipulate the truth for a variety of different reasons. It can be speculated that Aristobulus could have manipulated his version of the story of Alexander and Gordian Knot to benefit Alexander in his conquest by further validating him as the rightful ruler of the known world. After all, it would seem that Alexander fulfils the prophecy of the Gordian Knot closer to the original legend if he untied it, rather than if he cut it apart. Although, some argue that by cutting the knot Alexander still fulfilled the prophecy, just with his own unconventional solution.
Another reason for fabricating this version of the story would be for Aristobulus to find favor in the eyes of Alexander by portraying him in the best light possible. Or perhaps Aristobulus was simply ordered by Alexander to tell this version of the story because it was the story that Alexander desirred the world to believe. The possible motivations for Aristobulus to manipulate the truth about the Gordian Knot are endless. However, it is also possible that Aristobulus was telling the truth bout the events he witnessed unfold at the Gordian Knot.
Because of a lack of evidence, it is impossible for us to know if Aristobulus was indeed telling the truth about the events that took place involving Alexander and the Gordian Knot. This means that it is impossible to determine whether the official version of the story is in fact a strict presentation of facts or just a fabricated story created for personal gain. The story of Alexander at the Gordian Knot that Rufus tells us is not much different of the one that Plutarch and Arrian tell. The only difference is that Rufus tells us only one possible rogression of events opposed to Plutarch and Arrian who give us two.
Another slight difference in Rufus’s telling of the story is that Rufus leaves out information about his sources, whereas Plutarch and Arrian both give us the origins of their stories. These differences serve to point out that Rufus could have possibly had different intentions than Plutarch and Arrian. Rufus only gives the vulgate story, but was probably aware of the official tradition and chose to leave it out. Perhaps, Rufus was sure that the vulgate tradition was true and that the official tradition was not. More likely than that, Rufus could have elieved that only mentioning the vulgate story would best suit his personal interests.
Whether his interests were in shaping people’s view of Alexander, or simply writing what was popular at the time, we can never know. Another possibility is that the vulgate tradition was the only version of the story that Rufus had heard. It is also possible that the vulgate tradition was the version of the story that Rufus genuinely believed to be true. Plutarch and Arrian both admitted that there were at least two different tellings of the story. They even tell us that they are not sure of which story is correct.
Rufus’ account on the other hand, presents no such information, instead he conveys a single story and presents it as if he is sure that it is true. Because of the endless possibilities surrounding Rufus and his motivations, it is impossible to say whether or not Rufus’s telling of the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot is a strict presentation of facts like Ranke believes history should be. Justin’s account of the events at the Gordian Knot is similar to Rufus’s account in a lot of ways. Justin only presents the story in the vulgate tradition; he leaves out the official tradition entirely, ust like Rufus does.
This means that similar to Rufus’s account, it is impossible to prove whether or not Justin’s account is a strict presentation of facts. Each one of our ancient sources historical accounts can not be declared to be strictly fact. This does not mean that these ancient historians were seeking to withhold facts or create lies for their personal gain. Although that is a possibility, it is just as possible for these historians have had the same desires for history as Ranke. These historians could have tried their best to give us the closest thing to a strict presentation of facts as they could.
It is impossible for us to determine if any of these ancient historian’s accounts about the Gordian Knot are a strict presentation of facts. However, that does not mean that one of them could not be completely fact. There may be a strict presentation of facts about Alexander and the Gordian Knot, but we would never be able to tell for sure. This does not mean that Ranke’s approach is flawed in any way. In fact, every historian should be searching for the real truth about the past in some way. Without the search for truth we would lose our guidance, and become lost in the darkness of the lies of man.