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David A. Schwinghammer

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Alexander the Great, book review
By David A. Schwinghammer
Last edited: Friday, June 24, 2011
Posted: Friday, June 24, 2011



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Philip Freeman shows how ruthless (and determined) Alexander the Great really was.



As a former history teacher I was familiar with most of Alexander’s escapades, but I guess I didn’t know he was quite as ruthless as biographer Philip Freeman shows.

There’s some question whether Alexander had something to do with the death of his father. Philip was murdered by one of his guards, a former lover, and prior to his death Alexander was somewhat estranged from his father. He also plotted the deaths of any of his generals who had been loyal to his father. Parmenion, Alexander’s chief general at the Battles of Issus and Gaugamela, was among that number, and old Antipater who had been left in charge in Greece during Alexander push into Persia was on the chopping block when Alexander died. He was completely ruthless on the field of battle as well. If a tribe resisted Alexander’s advance, they were all massacred, including women and children.

That’s not to say that Alexander did not have a compassionate side. In one instance a soldier who mistakenly sat on Alexander’s throne was forgiven. Alexander also suffered sincere remorse after killing a childhood friend in a fit of temper after the man questioned his leadership. Alexander also treated Darius’s family with respect after the Battle of Gaugamela.

I was aware of Alexander’s tactical prowess at Issus but it was his refusal to accept defeat that was most impressive. There’s an episode where his men were slaughtered as they tried to move through a narrow pass just before Persepolis. He found a goatherd who knew of a trail around the pass, but the goatherd insisted an army couldn’t make it around. Alexander’s army waded through snow up to their chests and came at the Persians from the rear. In another instance the Phoenician town of Tyre was said to be impregnable because of its 19 foot walls and its location a half mile out to sea. Alexander built a causeway out to the city, despite constant assaults from the Phoenician navy.

Freeman downplays Alexander’s homosexuality, saying that Alexander would have been surprised it was even an issue with modern readers. The Greeks did not think women were capable of pure love and most were bi-sexual. Freeman does mention Alexander’s lover Bagoas, the Persian eunuch, and Alexander’s best friend, Hephaestion, is an “intimate companion.” Roxanne, the mother of Alexander’s heir, is mentioned but she never comes to life.

The Macedonian soldiers were also impressive in an unexpected way. They disapproved of “proskynesis” a Persian tradition of prostrating yourself before the Great King. Defeated Persian people would do this when given an audience. The Macedonian soldiers refused and made sport of Alexander’s notion of being the son of Zeus, usually out of earshot. They’ll remind you a bit of American soldiers. They were rewarded handsomely for defeating the Persians, but Alexander expected a lot and it didn’t look like he’d ever be satisfied. 

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Reviewed by Jansen Estrup
Excellent as usual, though I wonder what you thought of Mr. Freeman's writing style, and whether he pondered Alexander's ego as part of his conviction that he was 'ordained' (as voices instructed) to rule the world, or perhaps suspected a medical condition. Violent mood swings and impulsive action are nowadays thought of differently than, say epilepsy, which was often considered a divine affliction in antiquity.

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