Denifex's Reviews > Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman
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Mar 25, 2012

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Read in June, 2011

This book was a great introduction to 'the Great' himself, Alexander, and it was with an appropriately modest statement from Freeman that that would be all that he would claim from it.
I myself didn't know a lot about Alexander apart from the size of his empire and his impact on the ancient world, so in seeing this on display as a new scholarly addition to the history of Alexander definitely helps lift Freeman out of the dust of former studies of the Macedonian king. One has to evaluate though whether he adds any new information to the conqueror's story, or instead just takes from other sources to build his chronicle.

I applaud Freeman for doing his military homework this time around; his other book on Julius Caesar was lacking in the broader strategic narrative of war. He definitely does a super job in understanding how Alexander was able to defeat the mighty Persian empire (and its surrounding neighbours) with the unique Macedonian battle formation--inherited from Thebes and his father Philip II--and with Alexander's key procedure in securing his rear guard from his enemies before venturing further into hostile territory. The major battles of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela, along with the guerrilla skirmishes in the northern ends of the campaign, are all given a great amount of detail worthy of an excerpt inside a military playbook on Alexander.
I feel the reader will especially appreciate Freeman incorporating Philip into the story, as it will give a fairer impression of the military and political brilliance of Alexander's father--apart from the usual portrayal as with Val Kilmer in Oliver Stone's "Alexander" as being little more than a drunk--and how it was through his achievements Alexander was to become the colossus of history he is; it was a polite tip of the hat from Freeman to Philip's legacy.

However, most of the key figures of Alexander's life are barely given supporting roles, including Haphaestion and Ptolemy, which leaves one wondering more about Alexander's inner psyche. We're all aware he was motivated by glory and power, but there's always some less obvious side to a myriad character like him. Freeman seems to only mention brief remarks on how he loved his friends dearly and wept at their absences and returns; a more extensive insight into Alexander's relationship with his men would have been a good challenge for Freeman to invest his research with since these were men who were with him all along the way.

What frustrates me the most with Freeman are his only occasional references to dates and seasons throughout the campaign; the narrative simply jumps from one battle to the other, leaving the reader perhaps confused as to how the landscape turns from blistering heat of the desert to the freezing snows of the Hindu Kush, or how the 11-12 years of war all sounded like it was being accomplished under a few months. In order to be a more professional military historian, it can be important to know the dates and just become more familiar with what happened when, instead of the only mention of 'where'. Of course, one could find all these dates in the timeline Freeman lists in the opening pages of the book, but if that's the case, there's little pain in adding it again to the later pages.

There's also some annoyance with Freeman not sifting enough through the more controversial episodes of Alexander's life, including what role (if any) did he have in his father's assassination, and the circumstances surrounding his own death at 33--which modern historians seem to generally agree on malaria. By balancing all accounts of these events, both modern and ancient, Freeman can leave the reader confused without a solid or at least probable opinion on what was most likely to happen, sticking with the one explanation.

Overall, Freeman's book is a noble attempt at simply being a story, not an analysis. As was noted, it serves its purpose of being an introduction, and I'm glad Freeman takes note on the last pages of his book to recommending other authors to look at for those more interested in searching through the particulars of Alexander's life--which I for one, now with a clearer picture in my mind of the Macedonian warlord, will certainly take advantage of.

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