Book Review: Alexander the Great

A new biography by Philip Freeman (Julius Caesar, St. Patrick of Ireland), titled simply Alexander the Great, is now available in trade paperback. This version of Alexander’s story, written for the general reader, is complete and it is often compelling. With a timeline, bibliography, glossary, source notes, maps, illustrations and photographs and an index, the narrative moves briskly along, rarely repeating names, facts and events unless necessary, and it is mostly, if not always, a breathtaking journey. Dr. Freeman, a former classics professor at Washington University in St. Louis who lives and teaches classics in Iowa, presents Alexander’s historic life in essentials, from his birth to the exotic Olympias and his choosing to tame the horse Bucephalas and his studies under Aristotle to taking the Macedonian kingdom at the age of 19, conquering the world for years from Troy to Egypt, Iran, India and Afghanistan and his death at the age of 33.

Alexander’s father, King Philip, gets his due as an overlooked influence; Dr. Freeman writes about Philip’s “revolutionary innovations in warfare” including his creation of coordinated, integrated cavalry and foot soldiers and pioneering use of a corps of engineers. Relying on ancients, and careful throughout the book not to draw conclusions where there are conflicting accounts, he describes young Alexander as a fair-complexioned boy with a ruddy face and piercing eyes who greatly valued self-control and “had about him an air of seriousness well beyond his years.” After his father was assassinated, Alexander set out to begin his legendary military conquests and the author tracks every move, capturing Alexander’s brilliant and bold ideas and actions. Alexander’s “intimate companion,” Hephaestion, described here as Alexander’s “dearest love,” plays a minor role amid the great battles, politics and assassination plots, as Alexander the Great marches across Asia to conquer the Persian empire and beyond.

Breaking chapters into distant lands—Macedonia, Greece, Asia, Issus, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persepolis, Bactria, India, Babylon—Freeman infuses Greek mythology, superstition and historical figures, letting the facts largely speak for themselves, though occasionally he interprets. The best writing comes in the second half, and anywhere the author shares facts about Alexander’s military genius. About Alexander’s treatment of the Uxians, who had the nerve to demand from Alexander a toll to pass through the mountains on the way to Persepolis, Freeman writes that Alexander the Great crushed them in a surprise attack and then took their idea and inverted it: “He left their remaining villages intact with the provision that they would now pay to him as tribute one hundred horses each year along with five times that many transport animals and thirty thousand sheep. In mere days, Alexander and his men had done what the Persian Empire was unable to accomplish in two hundred years.” With such magnificent tales of the great Western warrior he calls “the king of the world,” Philip Freeman’s Alexander the Great contains abundant evidence of Alexander’s extraordinary military ability, concisely assembled and well told.

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