David Sarkies's Reviews > Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox
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Mar 31, 2012

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Read in April, 2009

The greatest conqueror of the Ancient World
31 March 2012

My sister bought me this book for Christmas once since she discovered that I liked the Ancient Greek world, though I must admit that this period is a little later than what I generally am interested in. However my sister is an accountant so she is not to know detailed specifics of my interests in the Ancient Greek world and that my interest generally begins to wane after the death of Socrates. This is not an absolute truth though as during this intervening period we see the rise and decline of the Hellenistic society.
Alexander the Great is a very important person in the development of the Western World. He is one of the very few people that have earned the moniker 'the Great' though one should not be too proud of such a moniker. Granted there was Frederick the Great of Prussia, who began the road that led Germany to become a superpower at the turn of the 20th Century, but there is also Herod the Great. I once asked somebody why he was earned the moniker 'The Great' when the most famous thing that he did was slaughter all of the children under the age of 2 in the region of Bethlehem. There were a few reasons, but as far as I am concerned they really do not cover up the fact that this man killed babies.
However, we are looking at Alexander and not Herod. Alexander's claim to fame, as I hope all of you are aware of, is that he pretty much conquered the Middle East in a very short space of time. Okay Hitler did the same with Europe, but the difference was that Hitler had tanks and planes, whereas Alexander was limited to horses and chariots. There was no real advanced technology with Alexander, but what there was was a change in the nature of military forces and the tactics that he used.
One of the differences was that Alexander had developed a standing army. This was rather new in this period. While other powers, such as Persia, could raise a large army, they were not professional soldiers. Many of them were conscripts that were taken from their lands, given weapons, and told to fight. The same concept existed in Greece, and even with the city of Sparta the nature of the army was the same: their army was not a standing army but rather a city of citizens that are trained as warriors from a very young age. However Alexander's revolution (actually, it was his father Phillip's) was to create the professional soldier. In by creating the professional soldier he could be assured not only that his army would be properly trained but he did not have to worry about soldiers deserting come spring time to return home to plant their crops.
Fox is quite a good author, and after reading this book, when I found another book he had written (The Classical World) I immediately bought it and moved it to the top of my reading list. I have tried a number of books that novelise ancient events, and in many cases have not been too thrilled with them. There was one I read about the Persian Wars and another about the Tyrant of Syracuse. A third one I read was about the first Punic War. However while the history was interesting, I could not find myself getting immersed in the story. However Fox writes as an academic, outlining the historical beliefs of the period, and drawing together a story that way. In many ways it is a story outlining the conquests of Alexander and exploring many of the themes behind it and exploring the character of the conqueror.
Alexander had very big ambitions, but his conquests in many ways were little more than a continuation of the Persian Wars that began with the Ionian Revolt (thought it is funny that Anatolia is referred to as Ionia when in reality Ionia is on the other side of Greece near the Adriatic Sea – at least according to the Lonely Planet guide). While there was quite a long interlude between the defeat at Platea and the conquest of Alexander, there was always a tension between the two powers. Greece had stood up to and defeated the Persians, and while the Persians had backed off somewhat, there was always that ongoing influence in Greek affairs. In a way that threat had to be put out of the way for good and thus instead of simply defending the Greek civilisation from Persian incursions, Alexander went out to put an end to the threat for good. However, one could also consider that it was a lust for conquest. Phillip of Macedon, Alexander's father, had united Greece, but was assassinated. Alexander took the throne, consolidated his kingdom, and then went out as a conqueror to conquer. However he went east, not west (but then I have already explained the reason behind that). Sometimes there is speculation as to what would have come about if he went west, but he didn't, so we do not need to worry (and anyway that was never going to happen because Alexander did not have a problem with Rome).
What Alexander's conquests did was to spread the Greek culture across the Middle East, and this also opened up Europe to the exotic realms beyond the desert, such as India. Even today Alexander is held in high regard among the people of Afghanistan. India became a part of the known world and the Greek language became the universal language. In another way Alexander laid the foundations for another conqueror, Rome, to come and take over, which in turn laid the foundations for the spread of Christianity. However, for a long time, the Middle East was purely Greek, had Greek culture, and spoke Greek. In doing so, Greek became the lingua franca of the region, and resulted in the New Testament being written in the language.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Travelin (new)

Travelin It's interesting that the New York Review of Books just featured an historian's comparison of Alexander's biographies. It suggests that he was never given the title "the Great" until Roman historians starting writing much later. What I find odd is that Aristotle was his tutor but apparently left nothing written about Alexander. I've been wondering about Greek influence on Christianity and was told the efficiency of ancient Greek made Christianity better for proselytization, per your last sentence I think.


David Sarkies The earliest, non-biblical, account of Alexander is Aryian, though I am not surprised that he was not referred to as 'The Great' until Roman times (I believe that there are other titles that they gave certain rulers as well). Interesting point about Aristotle, though I wonder Aristotle had died before Alexander's conquests.


message 3: by Travelin (new)

Travelin It looks as if Aristotle lived one year longer after Alexander's death. I think I just saw that Aristotle's treatise on comedy was lost, so who know what might have happened to political writings.


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