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Alexander the Great Paperback – Oct 18 2011
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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 PhilipFreemanBooks.com.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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