Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Book review - Alexander the Great by Peter Green

Alexander the Great by Peter Green

London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1970.                                            ISBN 0297000071

Alexander the Great - the fascination he holds for us has never dimmed, right from the moment he died through to the 21st century - as I write this in 2014 there is a six-part television series being broadcast, hosted by an Australian, looking for the remains of Alexander's Asian empire. This is the latest in many television documentaries, films, and untold books about the man who has variously been seen as a liberator or a devil, and who was indisputably one of the finest military commanders of all time.

Peter Green, in the book under review, has written a concise, well-reasoned account of the life of Alexander as it has come down to us, emphasising Alexander's military prowess, his leadership skills, and also his increasing slide into megalomania and perhaps even madness.

It's incredible to think that by the time he died at the age of 32, Alexander had risen from being the King of Macedonia, considered one of the backwaters of Ancient Greece, to being the major figure in Greece, the Pharaoh of Egypt, the King of Persia and the King of Asia, with an empire that spread from Macedonia in the North, Egypt in the South and as far east as Indus River. The achievement is so amazing it can hardly be believed, and in fact might go some way to explaining why Alexander at the end thought of himself as a God.

There is no doubt that Alexander was a driven man - initially driven to surpass his father (whom he may have had killed), his ostensible reason for war against Persia was to revenge the Persian defeat of Greek forces the century before Alexander's rise to power. Once he defeated the Persians at the Battles of Issus and Gaugamela, he had to think of new reasons to cloak his increasing thirst for conquest - these were various and not very convincing.

Green points out that money was one thing that drove Alexander on. War has always been expensive (look at the billions upon billions recently spent in Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States of America) and Alexander financed his by looting conquered territories of their treasure - treasure he needed not only to feed, equip and pay his troops, but to bribe potential enemies and his Macedonian levies, who grew increasingly bitter about being away from home for so long.

Green is at his best when he writes about the internal workings of Alexander's army - we see that far from being a homogeneous unit, the army was riven with factions and hatreds, which only grew worse as Alexander introduced more and more troops from the Persian Empire into its ranks. In fact Green suggests that Alexander was working on a project to rid his army of Macedonians entirely, in a move to become King of Asia and not merely a Greek conqueror. His adoption of Persian ways of living and ruling estranged him from his most loyal companions, and yet did little to endear him to his conquered peoples.

While Alexander was a brilliant military tactician and strategist, he was a poor administrator. He tended to let his appointed governors and satraps run his conquered territories, with more or less garrisons assigned to them as he saw fit. The amount of treasure embezzled by these men was fantastic, enough for them to employ armies of their own. While Alexander lived these men were kept in check, but as soon as he died they squabbled over the spoils, and in less that a lifetime after his death, Alexander's empire had fallen apart.

His legacy though, is incalculable: one wonders if the Roman Empire would have become what it did without the model of Alexander to show what was possible: he joined East and West in ways that had never occurred before, and even in seemingly simple ways - such as the introduction of cotton to the West - his life changed the way the World lived, and lives.

Green's book is a good introduction to Alexander and his world - relatively short and to the point, with a good bibliography, this edition is in a larger quarto format with plenty of good photographs and some useful maps.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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