I bought this book in 2010 and have recently discovered that it has not been reviewed, although it was released a year before. This is the first volume of three, with the other two dealing with Alexander's sieges and siege engines and his field campaigns. However, this volume also has a couple of pieces towards the end on each of these topics, probably because it is meant to be also a standalone book, as opposed to "episode 1".
Stephen English, who used his master's degree thesis as the basis of this book, has done a decent job in presenting the main features of Alexander's army and reviewing most, if not all, of the issues related to it and which historians have been debating for decades. In this respect, his bibliography, which is significantly longer that what you generally find in Pen and Sword's books and includes some of the older works, shows that he has extensively researched his subject. There are, however, quite a few problems associated with this work.
One knd of issue is that he tends to present certain views as firm conclusions where he is, at best, presenting his own take based on shaky evidence or even on what seems to be the most plausible solution or explanation, in his view. This can lead to some controversial statements such as:
- his presentation of the phalangites as "peltats", because they had smaller shields than hoplites and because he assumes that they had little body protection (i.e. no armour). On the latter point, the issue is more complex that he seems to make it out. They do no seem to have worn metal armour but could perfectly well have had leather armour, which was considerably cheaper to make. Anyway, the phalangites' main function was to be close order line infantry, not light infantry. Anyway, this is one of these issues that historians have been debating for ages, something that English does not even mention
- the Thessalian cavalry's ability to fight with the Macedonian horse lance (a shortter version of the infantry pike). We do know that Macedonian Companion cavalry did use such a lance and the Prodromoi scouts used it as well. Whether, and to what extent the Thessalians did under Alexander is probably no more than an educated guess. They were originally equiped with javelins, just like all Greek cavalry at the time. They could, of course, have been re-equiped, but there is little firm evidence backing such a case
- another, rather strange, assertion is that most Greek mercenaries (including those serving the Great King) were mainly peltasts, as opposed to hoplites. Now this is somewhat (very?) unlikely, if only because the Empire had masses of light infantry of its own and what it seems to have needed and wanted was line infantry. The author also bypasses the reason for this apparent confusion: during the last years and after the end of the Great War between Athens and Sparta, hoplite armour tended to get lighter, in an attempt to both enhance mobility and reduce cost (bronze corslets were frightfully expensive and took a long time to make) without unduly reducing protection. However, cost would clearly NOT have been an issue for the Great King...
There are also a number of other issues that come up throughout the book
- one is a tendancy for anachronisms or somewhat inadequate comparisons, largely because the book is targeted to the general reader. So, for instance, war elephants get compared to German panzers...
- another is a tendancy to make educated guesses and present them as facts or firm conclusions, without acknowledging that they are, at best, assumptions
- a third is to discuss points and present conclusions that the discussion does not really support. The best example of this is the somewhat superficial discussion of Alexander's decision to disband his fleet. Another is the assumption he makes that the ships and crews that Alexander had been provided with were low-quality, in fact the worst that his Allies could come up with. This is possible, of course, but there is no firm evidence backing this kind of statement. It's just another "conclusion" drawn from thin air
- curiously, while the book contains numerous areas where the author is making educated guesses (although he generally does not acknowledge them as such), there is no attempt whatsoever to quantify the army's size during Alexander's reign. The discussion on initial numbers is good. The description and explanations of the various reorganizations are also good, but no sense of magnitude regarding the army's size in, say, Central Asia (after 330), India or during the last year of his reign is even attempted.
So. A good read. A good overall presentation and summary of Alexander's military forces, but only up to a point...