Review | Alexander the Great – Philip Freeman

About the Book

In the first authoritative biography of Alexander the Great written for a general audience in a generation, classicist and historian Philip Freeman tells the remarkable life of the great conqueror. The celebrated Macedonian king has been one of the most enduring figures in history. He was a general of such skill and renown that for two thousand years other great leaders studied his strategy and tactics, from Hannibal to Napoleon, with countless more in between. He flashed across the sky of history like a comet, glowing brightly and burning out quickly: crowned at age nineteen, dead by thirty-two. He established the greatest empire of the ancient world; Greek coins and statues are found as far east as Afghanistan. Our interest in him has never faded. 

Alexander was born into the royal family of Macedonia, the kingdom that would soon rule over Greece. Tutored as a boy by Aristotle, Alexander had an inquisitive mind that would serve him well when he faced formidable obstacles during his military campaigns. Shortly after taking command of the army, he launched an invasion of the Persian empire, and continued his conquests as far south as the deserts of Egypt and as far east as the mountains of present-day Pakistan and the plains of India. Alexander spent nearly all his adult life away from his homeland, and he and his men helped spread the Greek language throughout western Asia, where it would become the lingua franca of the ancient world. Within a short time after Alexander’s death in Baghdad, his empire began to fracture. Best known among his successors are the Ptolemies of Egypt, whose empire lasted until Cleopatra. 

In his lively and authoritative biography of Alexander, classical scholar and historian Philip Freeman describes Alexander’s astonishing achievements and provides insight into the mercurial character of the great conqueror. Alexander could be petty and magnanimous, cruel and merciful, impulsive and farsighted. Above all, he was ferociously, intensely competitive and could not tolerate losing—which he rarely did. As Freeman explains, without Alexander, the influence of Greece on the ancient world would surely not have been as great as it was, even if his motivation was not to spread Greek culture for beneficial purposes but instead to unify his empire. Only a handful of people have influenced history as Alexander did, which is why he continues to fascinate us.

391 pages (hardcover)
Published on January 4, 2011
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This book was a Kindle purchase. 

I have always done my level best to avoid reading much about Alexander the Great. The issues I find with him are a few fold. First, I can’t really grasp military stuff. Battle formations and the like don’t do basically anything for me. The best way to get me to fall asleep at night is by talking in detail about battles. I just fundamentally do not care. And let’s be honest here. That’s basically what Alexander the Great is. A whooooooooooole lot of battles. So yeah, I’ve avoided him for this reason alone. 

Secondly, I find a lot of these dudes from antiquity have somehow transcended their humanity and the hero-worship kind of makes me really uncomfortable. I understand the desire and need to admire someone and all their strengths because, let’s be honest here, there’s a lot to admire. However, it seems like these people have been romanticized past the point of believability. Somewhere in all this mess since Alexander’s life, he has stopped being human. 

I can’t even really remember why I decided to read a biography of Alexander the Great, but the desire did fill me up last week and I did my level best to find a biography that was both succinct and well informed, and did away with a whole lot of this hero worship and battle details that so displeases me. I landed on this one by Philip Freeman. And… I really liked it. 

Alexander the Great is a figure who is larger than life. People throughout history have been praising this guy’s name. He accomplished things that just about anyone since then hasn’t been able to accomplish. People in Rome worshipped this guy. Alexander himself thought he was a direct descendent of Hercules. He seemed impossible to stand against. If you went along with him, he’d treat you well, but woe upon those who stood against him. They did not end well (example, Tyre). 

In all honesty, I found (which I expecting, knowing myself as well as I do) the parts of the biography that detailed his daily life, and his life before his battles against the Persian Empire to be the most interesting. These are the places where you find the man behind the myth. I’d also really, really love someone to write a biography of his father, Philip (maybe someone has?) because that guy seems really interesting. He truly paved the way for Alexander to become what he has become.

Macedon was a country that was beset by strife. Philip, Alexander’s father, was taken as a hostage as a youth as a sort of “fair treatment” bribe by the Greeks. Essentially, you play nice over there in Macedon, and we won’t cut Philip’s head off. Philip, however, was taken as a hostage by one of the best soldier generals in the Greek world at the time, and he basically got the best military training in antiquity due to that. This allowed Philip, when he was released, to seize power (by exiling and/or killing his half-brothers), and then rebuild his army from the ground up, bringing all sorts of novel military inventions into the mix, like 18 foot spears and unique formations that made it almost impossible to stand against the soldiers. He took a broken, crumbling nation, and slowly expanded the borders until he had created an empire. Until even the Greeks feared him. 

Insert his son and seven wives into this mix, and you’ve got a real nice setup for empire building. 

There are mysteries, of course. No one knows, for example, if Alexander or his mother had any part in the assassination of Philip, though I personally think it might be one of the least surprising things that have ever happened if, in fact, they did (Philip had divorced Olympias, and claimed Alexander was not his son, so at the point of his death, there was really no love lost here). They had everything to gain by Philip’s death, and not much to lose. That being said, nothing has been proven or could really be concluded one way or the other. 

The other thing is, of course, Alexander’s death. Now, until this point, I’d always heard he had been assassinated. However, at the end of this book, Freeman talks a bit about Alexander’s death. He had a few spells of falling ill throughout his campaign. He’d also struggled with injuries, the most recent one was a collapsed lung in a battle somewhere in India. He had dodged a whole lot of death, but that right there is enough to weaken anyone’s immune system. Then, add to it the fact that he lived in an army camp, and dysentery and malaria were likely as common as blowing your nose, and you’ve got a nice stew for some illness to creep in and do a whole lot of damage. So, while I did at one point think he was likely assassinated, (and maybe he really was, who knows) I also see now that there were a WHOLE LOT of opportunities for an illness to sweep him away, and it’s kind of amazing he lived as long as he did, considering all the battles and risks.

What was, perhaps, the most interesting for me was how cunning Alexander was. He was not really afraid to think outside of the box in any situation, and he seemed to have a grasp on psychology in a way that not many others did. He knew that to mint coins showing his various victories would be a great way to spread word about him around his expanding empire, with very little effort on his part. He was not afraid to deal swiftly and ferociously with those who stood against him, and he seemed to be pretty fair, considering everything. However, the farther out into the world he went, the more he seemed to need constant praise, the more he seemed to drink, the more he believed himself godlike and impenetrable. He seemed outgrow his own humanity. 

It is unfortunate that he left his empire with no true heir, and a book called Ghost on the Throne is going to be one of my next reads, which talks about what happened after Alexander died and everyone in his empire started fighting for a toehold on what he left behind. 

He was quite an amazing man, but I didn’t end up admiring him the way I expected to. He was an empire builder. He was cruel and he was merciful. He was a formidable man with a devious, cunning mind and an eye to expand his borders. He was, however, also stunningly, absolutely human and had plenty of flaws. Perhaps what I loved the most about this biography is how well Freeman told Alexander’s story without getting bogged down in battle formations and the like. The battles were presented, the facts given, no military glorification, which was what I’ve been probably most worried about regarding any read of Alexander the Great. 

Freeman wrote a fantastic biography here. A great starting point and fantastically accessible. Highly recommend. 

4/5 stars


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