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Alexander The Great (2013)

Alexander the Great (2013)
Rating
4.03 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0141020768 (ISBN13: 9780141020761)
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English
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publisher
penguin uk
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Alexander The Great (2013)
Alexander The Great (2013)

About book: It's taken me months to get through this -- it's a very dense book, with all the controversies worked out on the page in front of you and nothing pat. So having come to the finish I do feel rather like I've been to the ends of the earth with Alexander myself, but it's so very absolutely worth it. It's a wonderfully balanced book, which loves Alexander in a clear-eyed, pragmatic way, and argues against his being a tyrant without needing to romanticise him into someone who intended some sort of brotherhood of man. What it leaves me with, though, is a desire to know more about the many strong and fascinating women around Alexander (and so I wish that Mary Renault had liked women better, and been more willing to portray them positively, given that no-one else will ever write the story of Alexander like she did) -- I want to know more about the sophisticated courtesans, like Thais and Pythionice, who gave Athens up for a life on the road; about Alexander's childhood friend turned lover Barsine (and whether she ever hoped to become his wife); about his wife Roxane; and more, even, about Olympias, so very much like Medea.It's the more important because the impression I get from the book is absolutely that Alexander was bisexual, not homosexual (putting aside the fact that the ancient world didn't have those categories) -- perhaps more oriented towards sexual attachments to women and romantic attachments to men. The surprising and touching thing is that while Hephaistion doesn't appear very much in the book, not least as in admitting that even Alexander's personality is something to be searched for, it can make even fewer pronouncements about what the man he loved was like, you still get a sense of how utterly essential he was to Alexander, how trusted and depended upon, and how much the love that ran between them was a solid bedrock that couldn't be touched by any other passions Alexander might have. One soul in two bodies; he too is Alexander; that's exactly how it was, and no wonder the book says the hardest thing to imagine is what Alexander must have been like after Hephaistion's death.I admit I've not read any other biographies of Alexander, but if you don't know where to start or are only intending to read one, this is the one I would go with, because of its thoroughness and fairness. Now to follow it up with Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire - which looks like a really great depiction of the Wars of the Successors, and all the vicious infighting that resulted in the wake of Alexander's death - and then something about the cultural legacy of the Hellenistic period, especially its impact on poetry and the two-way influence between Stoicism and Buddhism, because that's what I find the most interesting.

While Fox is obviously sympathetic to Alexander (who tends to be a divisive character for classicists) I think this treatment was very fair. I appreciated that Fox would examine the different versions of each story, to try to read between the lines and decide what was true or not, since so much of the "history" was tampered with to suit the author's purposes. I was already familiar with the basic "plot" (like Alexander's life was a carefully charted novel and not, you know, his life) but there were two details that I found fascinating. 1 - Hephaestion might have won the battle of Gaugamela before it even began by striking up a deal with one of Darius' generals. Now, I am fully entrenched in the cult of Hephaestion so of course I love that. I also appreciate Fox calling Hepahestion Alexander's lover throughout the book instead of "dear friend" or "companion" or any other stupid euphemism. Realistic me actually wants to say that we don't know if they were actual physical lovers but, based on Alexander's massive freakout over Hephaestion's death, they were in love, consummated or not. Fangirlish me just wants to squee. And of course I prefer excessive daring when it comes to conjectures about their relationship instead of caution. 2 - Cinnamon. There's a brief paragraph or so on how cinnamon originated in Indonesia which was just there to prove that the world extended beyond India and further than Alexander had ever expected. And I couldn't help wondering what Alexander would have thought if/when he found that out. Would he have despaired, that after his army refused to go any further east, that this spice had traveled more than he had? I'm extremely sympathetic to Alexander too and hardly a scholar but my (probably naive) take on his character that he was an explorer who didn't know any other way. He was raised as a likely successor to the throne in Macedon, taught to fight and wage war. So that's what he did. If he'd been raised only as a noble or a philosopher, maybe he would have been content with traveling and exploring, his ambition only to break every boundary set by Achilles, Herakles, and Dionysus, and stand at the edge of the world.
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Reviews
Sahar Kharrufa
If you dont know much about Alexander, this is not the book for you. It does not so much tell you what he did as give you a critique of the stories about Alexander. It assumes you already know. Many times the author is talking about one event and I find that I am listening to something that doesnt tie up. I then find that he has moved to another event with only a glancing mention. Even when he does go through the event, he does so briefly. You can feel that he wants to pass on quickly to tell you about his own opinion of it. If you want to know about the event itself, look elsewhere.
Caroline
Alexander has always been a fascinating figure to me. Modern society likes to compare him to Hitler and focus on the number of deaths involved in his conquest of the Persian Empire, but you just can't retrospectively judge figures from history with modern morals and ethics. Whatever else he was, Alexander was probably the greatest conqueror, general and explorer in history - to do all he did by the age of 32 is astonishing. One can only imagine what he might have achieved had he lived.This isn't the easiest book to read - it presumes a certain level of knowledge about the world of the Greek Mediterranean, and Lane Fox's sentences do have a tendency to run on, but for the most part he writes clearly and lucidly. He really succeeds in bringing the world of Alexander to life, but he never veers off into imagination or speculation - he constantly reminds readers of how little there is left, how much is still unknown. I would have preferred less emphasis on the battles and more on the day-to-day life, but that's a small criticism. One gets little sense of the character of Alexander or Hephaistion or other of Alexander's Companions, but with so little documentary evidence and at such a great remove in history it would be dishonest of any historian to pretend to such knowledge.
Georgia
Robin Lane Fox took on an extraordinary task in attempting to write a comprehensive narrative account of such an elusive historical figure as Alexander, and although he modestly claims in his preface that "this is not a biography", it is as close as we will ever get to one on Alexander. Indeed, Lane Fox emphasises throughout the difficulty in constructing an accurate picture of Alexander (the book does not "pretend to certainty in Alexander's name"), but he does an astounding and delightful job. His arguments are compelling, and, unlike many others, he does not ignore the profoundly emotional side of Alexander and the emotional impact on Alexander of those closest to him, namely his friend and lover Hephaistion. Indeed, it was refreshing to see Hephaistion appreciated for his military roles and role in Alexander's life, and not merely dismissed as a militarily incompetent brute, as he so often is. Prior to reading this book I had a considerable knowledge of Alexander's life, but Lane Fox's masterpiece has certainly enhanced my understanding of Alexander. I have seen a few reviews that do not recommend this book as an introduction - perhaps understandably so as it is undoubtedly academic - but for anyone wanting a detailed, narrative account comprising Alexander's life and the world of the Successors after his death, I would recommend it without hesitation.
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