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Alexander the Great [Paperback]

Philip Freeman
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Oct. 18 2011
In the first authoritative biography of Alexander the Great written for a general audience in a generation, classicist and historian Philip Freeman tells the remarkable life of the great conqueror. The celebrated Macedonian king has been one of the most enduring figures in history. He was a general of such skill and renown that for two thousand years other great leaders studied his strategy and tactics, from Hannibal to Napoleon, with countless more in between. He flashed across the sky of history like a comet, glowing brightly and burning out quickly: crowned at age nineteen, dead by thirty-two. He established the greatest empire of the ancient world; Greek coins and statues are found as far east as Afghanistan. Our interest in him has never faded.

Alexander was born into the royal family of Macedonia, the kingdom that would soon rule over Greece. Tutored as a boy by Aristotle, Alexander had an inquisitive mind that would serve him well when he faced formidable obstacles during his military campaigns. Shortly after taking command of the army, he launched an invasion of the Persian empire, and continued his conquests as far south as the deserts of Egypt and as far east as the mountains of present-day Pakistan and the plains of India. Alexander spent nearly all his adult life away from his homeland, and he and his men helped spread the Greek language throughout western Asia, where it would become the lingua franca of the ancient world. Within a short time after Alexander’s death in Baghdad, his empire began to fracture. Best known among his successors are the Ptolemies of Egypt, whose empire lasted until Cleopatra.

In his lively and authoritative biography of Alexander, classical scholar and historian Philip Freeman describes Alexander’s astonishing achievements and provides insight into the mercurial character of the great conqueror. Alexander could be petty and magnanimous, cruel and merciful, impulsive and farsighted. Above all, he was ferociously, intensely competitive and could not tolerate losing—which he rarely did. As Freeman explains, without Alexander, the influence of Greece on the ancient world would surely not have been as great as it was, even if his motivation was not to spread Greek culture for beneficial purposes but instead to unify his empire. Only a handful of people have influenced history as Alexander did, which is why he continues to fascinate us.

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"Freeman tells us about Alexander's life like a novel—a remarkably interesting novel, to boot."
—Sarah Hann, The Saturday Evening Post

About the Author

Philip Freeman is Qualley Professor of Classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and a former professor of classics at Washington University in St. Louis. He was selected as a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for January 2012. He earned the first joint Ph.D. in classics and Celtic studies from Harvard University, and has been a visiting scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, the American Academy in Rome, and the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, D.C. The author of several previous books including Alexander the Great, St. Patrick of Ireland and Julius Caesar, he lives with his family in Decorah, Iowa. Visit him at

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars Oct. 19 2014
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62 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alexander Was a Man With a Plan Jan. 9 2011
By C.Wallace - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
It seems to me that if Alexander somehow had access to this book during his glory days he would be very pleased. He would probably give author Philip Freeman a big box full of gold coins, for Alexander was well known for lavishing gifts on his loyal soldiers and supporters. He would likely grant Freeman high rank as court historian. Freeman's Alexander is a heroic figure, on the scale of Alexander's personal hero, Achilles. Freeman's Alexander is keenly intelligent, capable of quick, decisive action, and brave to the point of recklessness. He was also very knowledgeable.

Aristotle was his tutor. Alexander himself had mastered such works as Homer's epic poems, Euripides, and Herodotus. He made it a point to carefully study anything that might help him prevail. He eagerly tapped the minds of the many experts he brought with him. He had a brilliant grasp of human nature.

Alexander's soldiers, particularly his fellow Macedonians, adored him and would fight to the death for him. Unlike Achilles, he was not one to sit and pout in his tent as his soldiers died. His soldiers had often seen him lead cavalry charges at massive enemy forces, scale walls in the face of spears and arrows, kill scores of hostile soldiers on the battlefield, and suffer alongside his soldiers from exhaustion, thirst, and extremes of heat and cold. He endured the crossing of mountains, deserts, and raging rivers. He led his armies in an incredible twelve-year campaign that extended his rule from Macedonia and Greece to include the vast Persian empire and regions far beyond. He came to control, after fierce fighting, a substantial portion of India.

Freeman describes many epic battles in a highly readable manner. No dry battle tactics here. Freeman has clearly mastered a vast array of sources, but feels no need to throw in arcane bits here and there. The book includes such diverse topics as Alexander's brutally ambitious mother Olympias, his beloved horse Bucephalas, and the death of Cleitus, Alexander's loyal lieutenant who had once saved him in battle.

Alexander also emerges as a man who could be quite cruel, sanctioning the slaughter and enslavement of many thousands of men, women, and children associated with those who dared to defy him and made his soldiers suffer. Yet, he could be forgiving and very generous. As he extended his rule over a vast realm, he kept many Persian and other native officials in power, if they submitted to his rule. He also respected local customs and religious beliefs.

There is an extensive glossary and an annotated bibliography. In large part, Freeman looked at sources such as Plutarch and Arrian, which have been thoroughly raked over before. But he builds a lively narrative that reads like an exciting adventure. I knew quite well how Alexander's quest for "world" conquest would end, but I remained enthralled to the end.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Never say never to Alexander May 17 2011
By Dave Schwinghammer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a former history teacher I was familiar with most of Alexander's escapades, but I guess I didn't know he was quite as ruthless as Freeman shows.

There's some question whether Alexander had something to do with the death of his father. Philip was murdered by one of his guards, a former lover, and prior to his death Alexander was somewhat estranged from his father. He also plotted the deaths of many of his generals who had been loyal to his father. Parmenion, Alexander's chief general at the Battles of Issus and Gaugamela, was among that number, and old Antipater who had been left in charge in Greece during Alexander's push into Persia was on the chopping block when Alexander died. He was completely ruthless on the field of battle as well. If a tribe resisted Alexander's takeover, they were all massacred, including women and children.

That's not to say that Alexander did not have a compassionate side. In one instance a soldier who mistakenly sat on Alexander's throne was forgiven. Alexander also suffered sincere remorse after killing a childhood friend in a fit of temper after the man questioned his leadership. Alexander also treated Darius's family with respect after the Battle of Gaugamela.

I was aware of Alexander's tactical prowess at Issus but it was his refusal to accept defeat that was most impressive. There's an episode where his men were slaughtered as they tried to move through a narrow pass just before Persepolis. He found a goatherd who knew of a trail around the pass, but the goatherd insisted an army couldn't make it around. Alexander's army waded through snow up to their chests and came at the Persians from the rear. In another instance the Phoenician town of Tyre was said to be impregnable because of its 19 foot walls and its location a half mile out to sea. Alexander built a causeway out to the city, despite constant assaults from the Phoenician navy.

Freeman downplays Alexander's homosexuality, saying that Alexander would have been surprised it was even an issue with modern readers. The Greeks did not think women were capable of pure love and most were bi-sexual. Freeman does mention Alexander's lover Bagoas, the Persian eunuch, and Alexander's best friend, Hephaestion, is an "intimate companion." Roxanne, the mother of Alexander's heir, is mentioned but she never comes to life.

The Macedonian soldiers were also impressive in an unexpected way. They disapproved of "proskynesis" a Persian tradition of prostrating yourself before the Great King. Defeated Persian people would do this when given an audience. The Macedonian soldiers refused and made sport of Alexander's notion of being the son of Zeus, usually out of earshot. They'll remind you a bit of American soldiers. They were rewarded handsomely for defeating the Persians, but Alexander expected a lot and it didn't look like he'd ever be satisfied.
22 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting Biography Jan. 19 2011
By Eric F. Facer - Published on
Freeman's biography of Alexander the Great will grab you by the throat and won't let go. It's a riveting story that you will be sorry to see come to an end.

Apart from telling the story of Alexander's life well, Freeman does a good job of noting the inconsistencies among the ancient sources and acknowledging that some of that record consists of myth and politically expedient legends. Also, his insights concerning Alexander's motives and character are quite persuasive. And I think he is spot on when he suggests that Alexander didn't simply use religion to advance his political and military objectives; rather, he actually believed the gods were with him.

One shortcoming of the book is the absence of any battle maps. For some of the key military engagements, it would have been nice to have had a couple of drawings showing the deployment of forces and the topography of the battlefield. (For those who want this additional level of detail, I recommend the recently published "The Landmark Arrian." It is exceptional.)

In sum, while I still believe Lane Fox's biography is a bit more scholarly and thorough, you can't beat Freeman's effort for the shear entertainment value. And if you like this book, then pick up Freeman's biography of Julius Caesar. It was quite good.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Alexander was definitely Great Feb. 2 2011
By rck12 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
From the hinterland of Greece, this 21 year old Macedonian "boy king" with 50,000 soldiers, travelled thousands of miles on foot (some horses also) 2,300 years ago, over and through unbelievable obstacles, breath takingly conquering most of the known world. No arm chair general here...Alexander personally fights hand to hand, all the way through 12 years of ancient glory.

This is a book that begs to be read. The author presents a finely told story for you to discover. He also departs occasionally to speak directly to us with clarifications, and intersperses many vignettes of present day interest during the trek.

This would make an Oscar winning Hollywood spectacular, if Cecil B. DeMille was still around....and I read the book almost as fast as it would take to watch the movie.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great book to start with Feb. 28 2011
By Big George - Published on
This was a very well written biography of Alexander. I would recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in Alexander the Great. Ultimately, the author makes the claim that he wants to write it like a story instead of in the normally dry scholarly tone. I would mostly say he succeeds; however, it's not a page turning piece of hybrid fiction that will satisfy all. Allot of historical books are very difficult for "young" students to get through. Here you never feel like you have to stop, and look up to see what in the hell the author is talking about. His dedication at the beginning is to his students and he succeeds in writing an interesting introduction to a fascinating man.
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