Without question Alexander The Great was one of history’s most fascinating, intriguing and impactful personalities.
But why after hundreds and hundreds of works, ancient and modern, on Alexander (plus several full-length movies), would one write yet another book? The sources remain the same sources, so what can possibly be written about Alexander that hasn’t been written before? Philip Freeman, Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa has successfully managed to breathe new life in his page turning biography, Alexander The Great, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011
Freeman tackles the question of “why another book on Alexander?” immediately in his introductory notes, and his answer is slightly selfish. “I grew up fascinated by this man, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immerse myself in the ancient and modern sources on his life, to visit along his journey, and to imagine him racing his horse Bucephalas across the plains of Macedonia or crossing the deserts and mountains of Iran and Afghanistan.
But most important, I wanted to write a biography of Alexander that is first and foremost a story. My hope is that this narrative is authoritative and yet accessible to those who love history but may never have read a book about Alexander’s life and are not experts on the ancient world”. And indeed Freemans’s work is authoritative in that he avails himself of the extensive sources narrating Alexander. He goes further by providing the reader with a short but highly informative bibliography wherein he explains the development of the primary and secondary sources used by authors covering Alexander over the millennium. The book is divided into eleven chapters following Alexander’s birth, education, rise to power, battles and triumphs: Macedonia, Greece, Asia, Issus, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persepolis, Bacteria, India, Babylon and To the Ends of the Earth. Freeman includes a helpful timeline, a simple list of the Macedonian and Persian kings, a few easy to follow maps of Alexander’s journeys, and an excellent glossary. Alexander’s life from twenty years, until his untimely death twelve years later at age thirty-two, was one of battle after battle across thousands and thousands of miles. Freeman aptly captures those battles by keeping things simple, without extensive military analysis. It could be argued that Freeman has taken a few “literary” liberties in creating an entertaining story; but, even if those liberties do not comport with rigorous standards of academic historical analysis (and again the book certainly avails itself of the widest range of sources) it still a worthwhile read. For through this work the reader gets a riveting picture of the man and his times. One is amply rewarded with a highly readable story that informs and educates. Through Freeman we get a clear picture that Alexander possessed a rare “once in history” combination of: upbringing, training, innovation, ambition, childlike curiosity, innate intellect, ability to think quicker on his feet than others, top-notch education in a broad range of subjects, military acumen, acute skill of improvising, physical strength and agility, tremendous courage, good looks, ability to speak to the common soldier, facility to take advantage of propitious timing, ability to motivate, all wrapped up in a charismatic personality that shone on and off the battlefield. Freeman’s Alexander successfully achieves its goal for those “who love history but may never have read a book about Alexander’s life and are not experts on the ancient world”. But it does more. It is also a treat for those who have previously read about Alexander and are knowledgeable about the ancient world.
And, it can also be highly enjoyable by those who think they do not “love history”.