Saturday, November 6, 2010


A review of Tania Gergel’s Alexander the Great: the Brief Life and Towering Exploits of History’s Greatest Conqueror as Told by his Original Biographers (2004)

(Rating 4 of 5)

With an introduction by Michael Wood, who in the 1990s produced the BBC series In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, this book was assembled by Tania Gergel who took the work of three famous Alexander the Great biographers—Lucius Flavius Arrianus (Arrian), Plutarch, and Quintus Curtius Rufus—and edited them into a single narrative. All the authors are citizens of the Roman Empire writing centuries after Alexander had died, but they are closer to his time then we are to theirs.

Gergel does an excellent job of taking the best of the three works and making them into one single narrative. The story goes from Alexander’s princely boyhood to the death of the King who was ruler of the all the world that was known to him.

(Phillip, Alexander's father)

For years the Persian Empire had been the greatest threat to the freedom of Greece, the invasions of Darius I and Xerxes the Great had ended the polis or city-state of Greece and led various leagues and counter leagues transforming the culture of Greece from a free collections of city-states into the foundation for an empire. Alexander's father, Phillip, had brought Greece under the thumb of Macedon. Alexander takes the long-standing Greek conflicts, and brings a new war to Persia itself, invading and conquering the greatest power in the ancient world.

(Alexander the Great riding Bucephalus)

The Alexander portrayed in this text is a young man of brilliance and inexhaustible ambition. He is viewed as good person who kind and charitable but becomes corrupted with power and does cruel things even to his closest friends. Although the would later regret some of his actions his remorse comes only after the evil deed is done. Yet his flaws are from the same source as his strengths so it is hard to tell if he could be any other way.

(Alexander the Great)

(Alexander's road to conquest)

“Meanwhile some of the older of his companions, and Parmenion in particular, looked out over the plain between the river Niphates and the Gordyaean mountains and saw the entire plain agleam with the watch-fires of the barbarians, while from their camp there arose the confused and indistinguishable murmur of myriads of voices, like the distant roar of a vast ocean. They were filled with amazement at the sight and remarked to one another that it would be an overwhelmingly difficult task to defeat an enemy of such strength by engaging him by day. They therefore went to the king as soon as he had performed his sacrifice and tried to persuade him to attack by night, so as to conceal from his men the most terrifying element in the coming struggle, that is, the odds against them. It was then that Alexander gave them his celebrated answer, ‘I will not steal my victory.’ Some of his companions thought this an immature and empty boast on the part of a young man who was merely joking at the presence of danger. But others interpreted it as meaning that he had confidence in his present situation and that he had correctly judged the future. In other words, he was determined that if Darius were defeated, he should have no cause to summon the courage for another attempt: he was not to be allowed to blame darkness and night for his failure on this occasion, as at Issus he had blamed the narrow mountain passes and the sea. Certainly Darius would never abandon the war for lack of arms or of troops, when he could draw upon such a vast territory and such immense reserves of manpower. He would only do so when he had lost courage and become convinced of his inferiority in consequence of an unmistakable defeat suffered in broad daylight.” p.70-1

This is a great little book. I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the life of the man who conquered the world before he was thirty—literally!

{Video from the BBC Documentary In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.}

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