- Paperback: 672 pages
- Publisher: University of California Press; 1 edition (22 February 2013)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780520275867
- ISBN-13: 978-0520275867
- ASIN: 0520275861
- Product Dimensions: 14 x 4.6 x 21 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 794 g
- Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 68,403 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography Paperback – 22 Feb 2013
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From the Inside Flap
"In every age, cultures both East and West have cast and recast [Alexander] in a variety of heroic molds, although, as demonstrated in Peter Green's impressive biography (a 1974 study published in England and published here for the first time), the myths may well be more admirable than the man."Erich Segal, Washington Post Book World
"Green's portrait will discomfit those who seek consistency in behavior (and those who have already made up their minds about Alexander): it is a complex, multi-dimensioned figure which should appeal to this troubled age."Eugene Borza, The Classical World
About the Author
Peter Green is Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin and Adjunct Professor of Classics at the University of Iowa. He is the author of many books and translations, including Alexander to Actium, the poems of Catullus, and Apollonios Rhodios's The Argonautika, all published by University of California Press.
Eugene N. Borza is Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Pennsylvania State University.
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For an enjoyable look at Alexander, the world he lived in and how he impacted it, this is certainly one of the best secondary accounts I have read. Some have said that Green has been too negative about Alexander. It is all here, the good and the bad and the ugly, thoroughly referenced with source materials. Was Alexander great? This book should help to envision a realistic Alexander, along with other avenues of adventure to last a lifetime.
The book is a bit difficult to get into. Green sketches the situation of Greece at the time: after the conflagration of the Peloponnesian War, Thebes has emerged as the great power of a divided Greece. Macedonia, which with its dialect and autocratic kingship was considered more barbarian than Greek, was a beleaguered outpost. When Philip took over as king, it was under serious threat from all sides. But Philip proved to be an unusually cunning and shrewd political and military operator, developing a trained fighting force that was the best of its age, then picking off his enemies one by one, and emerging as the undisputed master of Greece - uniting it in a patchwork combination of allied coalition and outright military domination. His overwhelming goal was to conquer Asia, i.e. the Persia Empire. Philip was a coarse man, given to drunken revelry and all manner of debauchery, but a survivor in the brutal game of political maneuvering in Macedonia. One of his wives, Olympias, gave birth to Alexander, whose teachers included none other than Aristotle; Philip groomed and trained him for 20 years as his heir, only to be assassinated (possibly with the connivance of Alexander after their overt estrangement). This takes up the first third of the book and is a splendid introduction to the end of the city state experiment in Greece, with all its cultural currents.
When Alexander took over, he was barely out of his teens. Regarded as a figurehead who would not last, he nonetheless quickly displayed a military genius, winning every engagement with a creativity and coolness under pressure that shocked his contemporaries. Of course, all the groundwork his father laid, in particular the crack infantry but also the political superstructure, helped. Still, the ease with which Alexander slipped into the role was nothing short of phenomenal, perhaps a reflection of the dangerous training ground of a life amidst Macedonian courtiers. Even this early on, his innate brutality emerged: when ancient Thebes resisted his rule, he completely destroyed it to set an example and then sold its inhabitants into slavery, an action he would repeat with Tyre and Persepolis, among many others.
His first forays into Asia were under the cloak of liberating the Greek dependencies in Ionia and Cappadocia. Once accomplished, it became vengeance against Darius and, by extension, Xerxes. All the while, as Alexander's army conquered the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to Egypt, he was strapped for cash and one defeat away from bankruptcy and total disaster. However, once Persia was conquered, he became the wealthiest man in the world, gaining an unslakable thirst for further conquest. After a while, his reputation was so strong that most kingdoms offered tribute rather than face annihilation. As becomes clear, he never hesitated to present whatever he needed to gain the upper hand; his was following no other ideological precepts than domination by any means as his disposal. He was the first to bring historians with him on campaign (the first was Aristotle's nephew, last murdered for his big mouth), to produce propaganda directly. Similarly, he propagated his image wherever he went, setting a precedent for the display of power by later conquerors, and founded cities in his name, e.g. Alexandria in Egypt.
Green covers his personal and religious transformation. It is fascinating. Alexander was told by his mother that his father was Zeus, joining him to an illustrious tradition. As his exploits grew in grandeur, he came to regard himself as surpassing first Achilles, then Heracles, and finally Dionysus, the God of wine, who was purported to have founded many city states in Asia. Oracles along the way told him he was a God, which added to his megalomania and eventually increased his isolation. This also coincided with his need to accomodate Asian custom, involving elaborate rituals that the Macedonians found both ludicrous and humiliating when Alexander demanded similar behavior from them. Together, this led to their alienation and dangerous mutinies late in his career, when they forced him to turn back in India - they wanted to go home after 10 years of hardship. In terms of his orientation, Green is discreet: Alexander never showed much interest in women and always preferred male companions.
Rather than the more complex and difficult task of governing his empire, Green believes that Alexander's only interest was in domination and conquest, with plunder and servitude thrown in. He did nothing, in Green's view, to create wealth in a sustainable way, but rather looted treasuries so that he could keep going to conquer ever greater domains. By the end of his career, he was already finding himself short of cash and surrounded by plotting, corrupt potentates. Indeed, his governing style never evolved beyond the set up of satraps, often the men who were already there or, increasingly, toadies of his own taste. THis meant that the undergirding politico-administrative structure of his empire was weak - it immediately collapsed once he was gone (with notable exceptions). Green examines the various interpretations of his death - as disease or assassination.
The conclusion of the book offers a wonderful historiography of Alexander's image and character. Before the time of Julius Casear, Alexander was viewed as a brutal and cynical conqueror, a hated figure in Greece. When great conquerors became admirable, particularly with the grand stabilizer Augustus, he came to be viewed as a hero to emulate for his audacity, courage, and indomitable will. This image lasted to the Victorian era, when he was portrayed as a man of high ideals as well. More recently, the 20th C has led to yet another view of him, as a totalitarian dictator of ruthless cruelty. Take your pick. Green falls in the latter category and I must say, I found him completely convincing.
I have no criticisms of the text: his prose is fluid, elegant and clear, in the best tradition of British historians. I always trusted his detail completely, which is rare with me. Green skillfully wends his way through what is propaganda, what can and cannot be known, and offers solid interpreations with full awareness of his own limitations. If there is anything that would improve the book, it would be better maps.
Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm. Reading this is like entering a dialogue with a great scholar, but with as much fun as watching a historical film. This is as good a reading experience as Goldsworthy's Caesar. A classic. The best.
The book is probably more appropriate to academic audiences or readers familiar with the ancient world, but I would also cautiously recommend it to newcomers. At some points, Green seems intent on employing "elite erudition" (big words), such as "tergiversation" (def: evasive, tendency to switch sides). I'm no dummy - I have a J.D. from a top law school - but a few times I was lost. Some of his analogies aren't clear to a reader not steeped in ancient Greek history (I never did quite figure out what he meant when he said the Macedonian king's status was like that of a Mycenaean "wanax"). Nevertheless, these problems seem limited to the introduction and parts of the first chapter. As the narrative progresses, the writing becomes much smoother and accessible. By the middle of the book, you'll have trouble putting it down.
The first part of the book - a good 100 pages or 1/5 the total - focuses on Macedonia and Alexander's father, Philipp II. Unique among great historical leaders, Alexander's dad was an impressive ruler in his own right and exerted a powerful influence over Alexander the Great. This section also provides a very useful background to the Hellenistic world before Alexander's conquests.
Green recognizes that Alexander was a brilliant strategist, but also points out his flaws. In doing so, he demystifies Alexander and humanizes him into something we would recognize - a charismatic and brilliant, but flawed leader. Militarily, Alexander had a gift for guessing his opponents' moves and employing psychologically devastating tactics (what we'd call psychological operations). However, Alexander was a poor politician and government manager. After conquering a territory, he would generally either co-opt the local leadership and move on. He seldom stopped to improve public administration or consolidate his holdings. This led to subsequent local rebellions, plentiful usurpers, and ultimately the dissolution of the empire upon his death. And, as a Macedonian, he never really did learn how to get along with the Greeks, whom Alexander often feared would form a fifth front.
Green also shows a refreshing skepticism toward ancient sources, much of which he discounts as propaganda. Sometimes funny, often brash, Macedonian propaganda has helped shape much of our view of history. As such, Green's book necessarily challenges many of the ancient sources and some modern portrayals of Alexander (most notably Oliver Stone's Alexander, Revisited - The Final Cut [Blu-ray]). However, Green never engages in ad hominem attacks against his subject - he comes across as an eminently fair judge of history. He very helpfully proposes alternative interpretations to Macedonian propaganda and is not shy about highlighting gaps in the historical record. For example, Green cites convincing evidence that Darius' army at Issus was as small or smaller than Alexander's - not the 600,000 sometimes cited. Green even argues that Macedonian propaganda covered up Alexanders first - and only - defeat at the first battle of Granicus. The Appendix provides a particularly fascinating insight into his methodology toward ancient sources, recreating a radically different - and somewhat convincing - account of the battle. I think this ultimately provides the reader with a far more interesting and accurate biography of Alexander.
Ultimately, Green claims Hubris led to Alexander's downfall. At some point, Alexander went beyond his mission of defeating the Persian Empire and was consumed by an insatiable "pathos" or curiosity to keep conquering to the end of the world (in modern parlance, "mission creep"). But throughout his journeys, Alexander becomes even more egomaniacal to the point of claiming divine status. He engages in purges of his top officers at the slightest rumor. Perhaps the most devastating indictment is his march through the Gedrosian Desert, when Green claims Alexander took the desert route to set a new record, and as a result lost over 50,000 soldiers, women, and children (that is certainly a different type of record). In the end, power consumes itself.
If you've ever been curious about history's most famous general, I definitely recommend Peter Green's Alexander of Macedon.
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