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Book Reviews: Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great and the Mystery of the Elephant Medallions, Frank L. Holt, University of California Press, 2003, 198 p.
Reviewer: Nick Welman
This is easily the most inspired book about Alexander that has a appeared in the last few years. Holt focusses only on one small fragment of Alexander's entire career --- the how, why and when of those few excavated Ancient mediallions that show Alexander and his cavalry battling the Indian elephant corps of Poros. But Holt's search for the truth reads like an A-class detective novel. The first sentence of the book reveals it all: "This book aims to solve a great puzzle from the ancient past." And that is what it really is. Holt is guiding his readers along long, narrow and twisting roads, including the work of Charles Darwin for instance, which provides for a really fascinating journey through history. You will get a crash course in numismatics along the way, for a bonus. This is great reading for everyone. There are new aspects to discover for those with a long standing interest in Alexander. But even if you are a freshman, and if you have only read Michael Wood's illustrated 'Footsteps', the 'Elephant Medallions' is a great opportunity to broaden your knowledge in a truly enjoyable way. There is nothing wrong with this book, nowhere: all chapters and paragraphs all well written, to the point, and very amusing. I would figure that this a book not to be missed.


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Alexander the Great; Man and God, Ian Worthington, Pearson Education Limited, 2004, 251 p.
Reviewer: Nick Welman
I would give this sad book a big 'no'. Worthington tries to convince his readers that Alexander was really "The Accursed", instead of "The Great". But Worthington's one dimensional approach was even too much for me to handle. (And I am the one responsible for creating the "Darius III Tribute Website", remember?) Probably nothing in this book will enlighten your perception, unless you enjoy taking a ride on Worthington's negative anti-propaganda. Reading 'Man and God' might feel like a waste of time for all those longing to really understand that decisive confrontion between East and West that raged on 2350 years ago.

Alexander the Great (Life & Times), Nigel Cawthorne, Haus Pub., 2004, 192 p.
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
Nigel Cawthorne is a professional writer rather than an academic, having written such books as “Sex Lives of the Great Dictators” and “Sex Lives of the Hollywood Screen Goddesses”. His book on Alexander should not be dismissed in the light of these lurid titles, however, for it is rather a good little volume. The publisher does not make it clear quite who this Alexander book is aimed at – it would, I suppose, work well as an introduction for the layman, or possibly as an overview for GCSE or even A-level students. It’s not a long book – 130-odd pages – and Cawthorne concentrates, with a few exceptions, on historical events according to the main sources. He adds some references from modern historians (notably Green and Lane Fox), but he also uses some cuneiform evidence. On the whole he makes no attempt to delve into Alexander’s psyche, which is what makes it appealing as a general introduction to Alexander. The book isn’t perfect. Cawthorne makes a few elementary errors, such as translating ‘hetairoi’ as ‘champions’, calling Prometheus a demi-god, and asserting that Alexander successfully introduced proskynesis after Callisthenes’ death. He also relies too heavily on some unproven assertions from the modern writers he uses. This leads to some bold polemics, such as an acceptance that Olympias was implicated beyond doubt in Philip’s murder; for this he references the unlikely stories about Olympias crowning Pausanias’ corpse. He also relies rather heavily on the vulgate; and the nature of the book does not allow a proper critical analysis of the sources. (However, to be fair, I was pleased to see that he omits any mention of Alexander’s alleged encounter with the Amazons.) I enjoyed the use Cawthorne makes of less well-known illustrations, which in itself is a good reason to buy the book. He fleshes out the text with informative ‘extra info boxes’, providing worthwhile source quotes, or additional information on people and events merely touched upon in the main text. It is also the best book I can remember reading for identifying ancient places with their modern equivalents (subject to controversy, of course). It is also appropriate to mention the list of Alexander websites Cawthorne gives at the back of the book, where Pothos gets an honourable mention. This is not the book for detailed study and academic source criticism. As a general overview it serves its purpose very well.

Alexander the Great; A Reader, Ian Worthington (ed.), Routledge, 2003, 332 p.
Reviewer: Nick Welman
I would consider this a rather cheap trick to issue an Alexander book with your name on the cover, without having to write that much. Worthington has assembled some interesting articles written by well known scholars --- some, however, written more than 40 years ago --- and wrapped them up in this volume. One problem is: if you want to know 'when' the article at hand was actually written, Worthington has carefully hidden that information somewhere in his introductory text. Why not be more clear about the actual dating of the excerpts included? Worthington's conclusive article, "How great was Alexander?", exposes the fragility of this collection. It is ill-researched and has received severe critiscism, e.g. by well established scholars like Frank Holt.

Alexander the Great's Art of Strategy, Partha Bose, Gotham, 2003, 287 p.
Reviewer: Nick Welman
If your prime interest is Alexander: skip this one. If you just want to read a fun book about modern management: well, OK. The book's subtitle reads: "The Timeless Leadership Lessons of History's Greatest Empire Builder". Now even the greatest fans of Alexander's campaigns might feel a little hesitant seeing their hero portrayed as an "empire builder". Alexander took over an epic & ancient empire, yes, and he might be unsurpassed as a conqueror, right. But he didn't forge an empire from scratch. This sets the overall tone of this book by Partha Bose. His history of Alexander is twisted and adapted to suit the needs of the author. His Alexander just serves as the vehicle to score points and statements about how to run a modern business company. Historical facts presented by Bose are not always very accurate. The author just as easily switches the scene from Alexander's siege of Halicarnassus to present day management courses at Harvard University within just a few short paragraphs. If you think you would understand more of Alexander by reading this book: forget it.

In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, Michael Wood, 1997
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
I have, I admit, an inherent distate for journalists. I found this text irritating, and his manipulation of facts both past and present to be inexcusable. That said, I still bought the book and the video, for the scenery and the photos alone. And admittedly, it was a bit satisfying to see Mr Wood exhaustedly declare that no one in his right mind would make such a journey ... not a man for epic events. Be aware, too, that there are a few scenes that are representative of places Wood is discussing, not the actual places.

Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
This is the book of the brilliant TV series, wherein Wood followed Alexander's route to India and back. Fascinating largely for the pictures (particularly those of Afghanistan – hard to believe more than 2,000 years have passed since the Macedonians were there), it is very much a personal view and written for a lay audience. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that there are sweeping statements that could cause the occasional raised eyebrow from an Alexander scholar. Not to be missed, however!

(I should point out that, contrary to what the other review says, Michael Wood is a historian, not a journalist. That doesn't mean that his take on Alexander should be read any differently; but in the interests of accuracy ...)

Alexander’s Path, Freya Stark, Overlook Press, 1988
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
Though this book is a travel diary based in Turkey, I found it more interesting than Michael Wood’s book. Ms Stark writes in an almost poetic style that can sometimes become too flowery, but she is a keen observer of people and places. I liked how she would comment on changes taking place that are beginning to destroy old routes and places, reminding us that it may be impossible in future to trace Alexander’s route easily. She wrote this book in 1988 and was already noting that many of the modernizations were destroying the appearance of the land and covering up traces of ancient routes and roads; she noted, too, that the landscape had changed much in the few years between this book and her first diaries written in the 1960’s.. so the text becomes valuable for the glimpses at what may be gone by now. One of the flaws of her writing is her tendency to apply modern moral views to the ancient world, especially as it concerns sexuality.

The Genius of Alexander the Great, N. G. L. Hammond, Duckworth and Co Ltd, 1997
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
Hammond has somewhat suppressed his adulatory approach to Alexander in this book and it reads well. My main complaint in the lack of references and footnotes which, while not a problem for some readers, might irritate those who wish to follow up some of his more sweeping statements. On the whole, though, a good read, and perfectly acceptable for those using it as an introduction to Alexander.

Alexander the Great, Richard Stoneman, Lancaster Pamphlets, Routledge, U.K., 1997
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
At 100 pages, this is easily the briefest overview of Alexander available. But it makes a perfect introduction. Stoneman offers the reader everything in easy bites, and throughout the text, while offering the generally accepted view of Alexander, takes the reader through folk tales into modern academic views painlessly. Stoneman will detail a folk tale or Romance story and then offer the confirmation or rebuttal as given by modern academics (usually Borza or Bosworth). He also offers a look at current debates regarding ATG and his times. Though this is not a scholarly book per se, it is a nice addition for someone who wants to get a quick look at Alexander without having to read a dozen academic texts. But I can almost guarantee that, once you read it, you will be looking for the sources listed in the bibliography!

Alexander the Great - the Heroic Ideal, P. Briant (English Trans J. Leggatt), Thames and Hudson /  New Horizons, 1996 (pp.175, 135 illustrations)
Reviewer: Nick Welman
A small, pocket-sized book - the same size as an ordinary DVD box. But if you like Alexander's histories, and you haven't got this one yet ... buy it. It is not the text: the Frenchman Pierre Briant is a good scholar, but his insights are not revolutionary. It is the illustrations: this little booklet offers you far more full-colour impressions of Alexander than any other currently available in print. Most of the artwork dates from Medieval or later times. the 19th century French painter Moreau has his impression of Porus' palace (p.105). Charles le Brun paints Alexander in a true 1674 fashion (p.102). Bazzi has his 1511 Italian painting of the marriage to Roxane (pp.90-91). Almost every page is a feast for the eyes - you only wish the book had been published in a bigger format. It is intriguing to see how Alexander has inspired so many artists over the centuries. Briant's great contribution is that he was able to bring so many works of art together. The chances are that you will take up The Heroic Ideal quite frequently, just to marvel at the images. And then it offers a nice overview of Alexander's era too. At its modest price it cannot be a disappointment - whether you are new to the subject or have been a long-time scholar.

Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy, John Maxwell O’Brien, 1994
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
The premise of this book is that one can follow Alexander's history through an investigation of his relationship with wine – one typically thinks of the murder of Cleitus the Black, the burning of Persepolis and Alexander's famous drunken exchange with his father. An interesting read, but I would recommend that a reader not base his/her entire evaluation of Alexander on it.

Alexander of Macedon 356-323 BC: A Historical Biography, Peter Green, 1992
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
One could come away from this book thinking that Green doesn't really like Alexander very much, but that is too simple a reading. It is a fantastic book and Green elegantly proposes convincing arguments for Alexander's hand in the conspiracy to kill Philip II, and exposes some of the questions surrounding Alexander that other scholars have previously tended to ignore - for example, why Philip suddenly divorced Olympias and repudiated Alexander as his heir. Compare Green's analysis of the sack of Thebes with that of NGL Hammond - an excellent example of how difficult it is to cite hard and fast facts about Alexander's actions and policies.

Alexander and the East, The Tragedy of Triumph, A.B. Bosworth, 1996 (reprints: 1998; 2001)
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
An excellent collection of essays, dealing with Alexander's policies and actions in the eastern areas of his empire. Bosworth fully explores the somewhat less savoury aspects of Alexander's rule, with a focus on his suppression of local peoples. There isn't really much to find fault with in Bosworth's Alexander work, but it might cause some dismay to those inclined to hero-worship unless they temper it with the works of Nicholas Hammond or Robin Lane Fox. However, to those who indulge in unconditional hero-worship it probably won't really matter!

Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great, A.B. Bosworth, Cambridge, 1988
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
Bosworth might well be considered one of the first objective historians of Alexander, although others have followed in his footsteps. He is certainly one of the leading revisionists working in the field today. This book comes in two parts: Part 1 is an overview of Alexander's career; while Part 2 contains some long essays on various aspects of Alexander's life (for example, Alexander's divinity, a brilliant essay). Well worth reading, and pretty much a standard text nowadays.

Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman, N.G.L. Hammond, 1984
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
The late Nicholas Hammond is still considered one of the great Alexander experts, mainly through having been in the field for so long, but he seems always to be under attack nowadays for his rather uncompromising hero worship (which he has, admittedly, tempered more recently). However, this book remains, although rather old, one of the standard books on Alexander and provides a good, though not terribly detailed, resume of the king's career.

The Nature of Alexander, Mary Renault, 1974/1979 (now re-issued as: The Nature of Alexander the Great)
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
You can read this book quickly and gain a good idea of Alexander's history, but it is an old book and akin to hero-worship. Ms Renault knew her subject, but this was not intended as an academic book - which is fine, so long as the reader remembers this!

Reviewer: Nick Welman
Ah, Renault! I must admit that I had never read her 'Nature' until quite recently, while my interest in Alexander goes back for many decades. But I was extremely pleased with this book, as it is so very well written and as it explores paths that few others dared to touch. You can not love, hate, worship or despise Alexander without having read Renault first. As a work of art, this might be the greatest non-fiction study of Alexander.

Alexander the Great, Robin Lane Fox, 1974 (reprint: 1994)
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great was the first academic book about Alexander that I read, and therefore I have a particular fondness for it. A.B. Bosworth described Lane Fox's approach as being to turn the 'search' for Alexander into a Boy's Own story - and there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, for those who are just embarking on their own ‘search’ for Alexander, it makes the book an extremely good travelling companion: easy(ish) to read, with plenty of adventure and intrigue. Lane Fox states at the beginning that the book is not intended as a ‘history’ or ‘biography’ of Alexander, but as a ‘search’. This is important to remember, because there are a number of occasions when he offers us varying accounts of events without reaching a conclusion as to which account might be the true one. Legends are interspersed with historical fact, without always the critical analysis that we would get in other books. But that is not to say that I think this is a bad thing: Lane Fox is only doing what he set out to do. It does mean that the book is comprehensive in its enumeration of the facts, myths and legends surrounding Alexander. I said that Alexander the Great is ‘easy(ish)’ to read. This is because, although Lane Fox’s style is quite easy, I have always had two major complaints about the book. First, his paragraphs are too long. This might seem like a minor gripe, but paragraphs that go on for entire pages (and sometimes more!) force sustained reading, and there is such a wealth of information in the text that such sustained reading can make the narrative hard to follow. A bit more sensitivity towards the reader would have been helpful; and it would not, actually, have been very difficult to change the structure. Second, the notes are not very accessible. I have read the book four or five times now, and I like to think that I know my Alexandrian history and sources pretty well – but I still find the notes and references extremely difficult to follow. Having said all this, I still would recommend the book wholeheartedly. It could definitely do with a revised edition, if Lane Fox were prepared to do one, as a lot of study has gone on since the book was first published in the early 1970s. But, as I have already said, it is an excellent companion to any ‘search’ for Alexander. I formed many of my early opinions from reading it; and, to be honest, it is nice to come back to Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great every once in a while, after the assaults inflicted upon the conqueror by Bosworth, Worthington et al.

Alexander The Great, F.A. Wright, Robert McBride and Co,. 1935
Review needed...

Alexander the Great and His Time, Agnes Savill, Barnes and Noble Inc., 1993
Reviewer: Marcus Pailing
This is a truly awful book. Savill has clearly read Tarn, but it appears that she has read nothing else, and as far as she is concerned what Tarn says is right. There are a number of horribly sycophantic references to Tarn's more outrageous ideas, which have been all but discredited in more recent times. There are also many factual errors - I got so annoyed that I started writing marginal notes in my copy, detailing all the errors she makes. This book is not worth buying!

Alexander the Great, Arthur Weigall, Garden City Publishing, 1933
Review needed...

Alexander the Great In Greek and Roman Art, Margarete Bieber, Argonaut Inc., Chicago, 1964
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
This book features 88 pages of explanatory text with 122 black and white images of Alexander or Alexander-possibles. Photos of statues and coins dominate, with some interesting angles for those who have not had the opportunity to view the items. Though some of the text is dated, the photos alone make the book worth having.

The Alexandria Project, Stephan Schwartz, Dell Publishing, 1983
Reviewer: Forum Contributor
Being a person of open mind, I am more than willing to read almost anything- even the adventures of psychics seeking the remains of Alexander by alternative routes. This book I leave to the individual to take or leave at face value. It has some interesting bits, anyway, and is sure to please those who so desperately want to believe that we will someday have an opportunity to explore the DNA of Alexander. If nothing else, such books are an amusing read for a free afternoon.

Alexander the Great Rocks the World
Vicky Alvear Shecter, Illustrated by Terry Naughton, Darby Creek Publishing, US $18.95

Reviewer: Karen Wehrstein

This attractive and beautifully-packaged book is a biography of the Alexander the Great, intended for kids of 11 and up. Chock-full of information and illustrations, even-handed and honest about debated aspects, and written to engage the young reader, it's a great introduction, so to speak, to the study of Alexander.

Shecter tells the conqueror's story in a fast-paced and lively style, with frequent injections of humor ("Alexander's mummified body was on its way back to Greece when Ptolemy snatched it... and named himself pharaoh. So you could say that Ptolemy stole Egypt over Alexander's dead body.") For the sake of her youthful audience she weaves in current popular references ("King Darius served the Dark Lord Sauron and sought the One Ring that would give him power over the hobbits and Middle-earth. Oh, wait. Wrong story.")

There is the odd error; Macedon is called a "powerful city," for instance, and the pedagog Leonidas is placed as Spartan, though Plutarch identified him as related to Alexander's mother, who was from Epiros. The author often presents one version or interpretation of events for which more than one alternative is extant, so as to keep the story moving, so that the dedicated Alexandrophile who disagrees with ones she chose might regard them as inaccurate. But aside from that, Shecter is careful about separating fact from legend, clearly labelling the latter as such.

If you're not ready to raise with your child the issue of Alexander's sexuality, and homosexual customs of the ancient Greeks in general, you need not worry. The matter is sidestepped; Alexander and his longtime lover Hephaistion are presented as "inseparable" best friends from childhood; the special attribute of the Sacred Band of Thebes is given as "each fighter swore to fight to the death rather than lose," rather than its being comprised of male couples.

Illustrations not only include the cartoon-like, motion-filled drawings of Terry Naughton and the obligatory maps, but reproduced images including a few I've never seen before. Sidebars containing quotes or other related informational nuggets abound, designed to draw in young readers and create a feel for Alexander's world, so different from their own. And yet some things never change; as a parent you might appreciate the sayings, from notables of the time, that pepper the book, such as: "those who aim at great deeds must also suffer greatly," or "Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but deserving them." In fact, Shecter makes a parable of Alexander's whole story, as neatly encapsulated on the cover blurb: "Ego can make a great leader -- but ego can break one, too." Maybe I'm old-fashioned and crotchety -- and it hasn't been proven to my satisfaction that ego was indeed Alexander's downfall -- but I personally feel kids these days don't hear messages like these enough.

Rather than choosing one side or the other in the great debate of Alexander's character, and setting it down as gospel, Shecter sets out both sides a chapter entitled "Hero -- or Monster?" (aptly accompanied by a Naughton drawing of flaxen-curled Alexander with the proverbial angel shouting into one ear, and devil into the other). I applaud the author's invitation to youngsters to consider, think and debate, rather than unquestioningly accept one interpretation. I also like it when an adult is honest enough to tell a child, "Some things... we just don't know. And probably never will." No biography of Alexander can be truthful and not say that.

Alexander the Great Rocks The World even has readable endnotes, which might well be a young reader's first introduction to this scholarly convention, and a decent index.

All in all, even though I left Shecter's targetted age-group behind a long time ago, I enjoyed it. As other authors have noted, Alexander, being eternally youthful himself, holds a particular attraction for the young. Through works like this, they can be drawn into the broadening and deepening of the mind that comes with learning history.