ALEXANDER THE GREAT: HIS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
BEFORE AND AFTER ALEXANDER: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Richard A. Billows
Every generation, it seems, creates its own Alexander the Great. Or, as Anthony Everitt puts it at the beginning of his new life of Alexander, “their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.”
Alexander was a giant figure interpreted in various ways even while alive. Following almost immediately upon his death in 323 BCE there were two schools of Alexander biography, often described by scholars as the official and the vulgate. We’re more sophisticated today, but among contemporary historians there are still profound divisions. In the twentieth century the big divide was political, ranging from seeing Alexander as a progressive, unifying figure (Sir William Tarn) to a cruel dictator (Ernst Badian). More recently the split has been between those who accept Alexander as being truly great and others who try to diminish his accomplishments, usually by building up how much he inherited from his father Philip.
I wonder how much, and what, this most recent development in Alexander studies makes him more our contemporary. But I won’t speculate about that here. Suffice it to say that for Richard Billows, in the critical camp, he is “one of the most overrated figures in world history.”
The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip, and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonous, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and turning those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture. Without their efforts, the history and civilization of the lands and cultures of western Asia, Europe, and north Africa would be very different than they are today.
There’s a lot I could push back against here (obviously Alexander didn’t have the opportunity to turn his conquered lands into a viable empire), but given that it’s the final paragraph in Billows’ book it might be better to just quote from the conclusion of Arrian’s biography. In classical times Alexander had his detractors as well, and Arrian wants to fire back at them.
Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are.
Like most scholars in the pro-Philip camp, Billows spends a lot of time talking about the innovations Philip made to the Macedonian army, and he does a first-rate job of this that I think even people who have read around a lot in the area will learn something from. He also goes into the story of the Diadochi (or successors to Alexander) in some depth, which is a complicated story that’s easy to get lost in (though it did get a solid book-length treatment recently in Ghost on the Throne by James Romm). Some of the supporting material, however, is third-rate. The pictures are drawn from Wikimedia Commons, and the introductory maps have mistakes like “Macadonia” and a note saying that Alexander died “in what is present day Baghdad” (Alexander died in Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River, some 80 km south of present-day Baghdad, which is on the Tigris).
I’m not sure we need more biographies of Alexander, but he’s a subject, like Napoleon or Lincoln, that just keeps cruising along. And as I’ve said, each generation has to make a new one, fashioned to some degree in its own image. This started as early as the Alexander Romance, wherein Alexander became the son of a pharaoh to the Egyptians and the brother of Darius to Persian readers. We can all pick and choose. Among modern biographies, I’m very fond of the books written by Peter Green and Robin Lane Fox, each well-written, learned, and opinionated in instructive ways. I don’t think either has been bettered, but Everitt is game for “a new look” that “reflects our own twenty-first-century hopes and fears, most particularly about the nature of power and the fascination – and impermanence – of military success.”
I wouldn’t have thought those concerns particular to the twenty-first century. Indeed, I would have thought them far less particular than they were to the century just passed. Instead, what makes Everitt’s book most of its time is its breezy voice. Everitt is starting to sound a bit like the popular historian Tom Holland, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The breezy style makes him easy to read, but it also carries a lot before it. “His [Alexander’s] life was an adventure story and took him to every corner of the known world.” This is the second sentence. It is not true. Even if we take “the known world” to just mean the Mediterranean Alexander obviously never visited the half of it. Rome and Carthage remained far outside his orbit. But “every corner of the known world” sounds good. Then, on the next page, we’re told, in what I’m sure is a typo, that Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century, which is off by a hundred years.
I think undemanding, general readers will enjoy Everitt’s book. It tells the story in a lively, contemporary fashion. Dramatic action is highlighted, like the scene where the general Cleitus saves Alexander’s life by cutting off the arm of an enemy who was about to administer a coup de grâce. Personally, I don’t think this happened, but it’s a great war story. Then there are chapter titles like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A Passage to India” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As far as interpretation goes, it seems fair enough, but again tends to blow past any caveats. Is it a “fact” that Alexander, facing a mutiny on the Indus, “never had any intention of marching to Ocean”? I think he might have kept going.
We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Alexander of history has kept going, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. I am concerned, however, not so much at the picture of Alexander that is being drawn as the general quality of the biographer’s art. In terms of their scholarship and readability neither of these books seem to me to be an advance on Green or Lane Fox, which are now fifty years old. We’re marching on, but is it an advance?
First published online December 29, 2020. For more on Alexander see my joint review of Guy MacLean Rogers’ Alexander and Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great.