Book Review: Alexander the Great Books

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Alexander the Great

Books on Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great lived before the Common Era but he remains to be one of the most important historical figures in history. He is studied in the school textbooks of perhaps all countries in the world. Many look up to him as a hero, a military genius, and almost a divine-like superman, whereas others see him as a brutal tyrant who conquered many places for his own pleasure. In other words, he is one of the greatest figures in history but is also one of the most controversial ones. There are many reasons why he is controversial. People have different perspectives. But part of the reason is also that sources about the life of Alexander the Great are sketchy. It is really hard to make sense of the true character of the person based on second-hand sources (which often disagree with each other) and the bits of archeological remains here and there. Being a historian of ancient eras is a daunting task.

Nevertheless, historians are still fascinated by the character of the Macedonian student of Aristotle who rose to immense power as to conquer the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia Minor toward the East till modern-day territory of India. Some historians write about Alexander just out of curiosity. This is the case, according to his introduction to his book, with Philip Freeman. "I grew up fascinated by this man," Freeman admits, "so I could not resist the opportunity to immerse myself in the ancient and modern sources on his life, to visit sites along his journey, and to imagine him racing his horse Bucephalas across the plains of Macedonia or crossing the deserts and mountains of Iran and Afghanistan."

This curiosity still drives some historians to write about Alexander's life.

This may sound strange but Freeman's curiosity as the motivation to write about Alexander may be the strongest part of his book. He does not lay out a point he tries to prove throughout the rest of the book. There is no introduction, just a short preface. The historians who try to prove usually end up being biased, because they lean toward sources and arguments that support their thesis. Freeman's purpose is to tell a story about Alexander that is readable, both to scholars and casual readers. He acknowledges the difficulty of sifting through sources, and presents the life of Alexander from his birth in Macedonia, through his education in Greece, and his military conquests. Freeman concludes by briefly discussing Alexander's legacy. He argues that spreading the Greek culture was never a goal of Alexander's, but a pragmatic and practical "means of military control over a diverse population."

Freeman nevertheless maintains that Alexander was one of the major reasons why the Greek culture spread to Asia and other parts of the world. Partly because his successors began to employ brutal Hellenization campaigns and partly because the Romans were fascinated by Alexander, transmitting the Greek culture to the later generations. Freeman also notes that for practical reasons, Alexander prepared local rulers in Persia who had to learn Greek and adopt some Greek culture. But Alexander also intermingled with the cultures of people he conquered, using, as Freeman argues, the diplomacy of his father Philip. Freeman also admits that Alexander at times practiced atrociousness in treating his rivals, enemies, and people he conquered. For example, Alexander was capable of ordering "the most horrific tortures imaginable" to extract information from the captured.

But Freeman places that character within the context of the time when such practices were considered the norm. At the end, Alexander emerges as a great character in history whose legacy was one of the major contributions to the formation of the Western Civilization. "We can condemn the death and destruction he left in his wake as he strode across the world like a colossus," he says," but in the end we cannot help but admire a man who dares such great deeds."

In contrast to Freeman, J.R. Hamilton, in his book with the same title but written quarter of a century before Freeman's, lays out his purpose of writing about Alexander and his approach. One of Hamilton's goals is to strike a balance between descriptions of Alexander as the embodiment of evil and as a divine-like hero, by using sources… [END OF PREVIEW]

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