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2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic
very good book well researched on all that is known about alexander the great from his early life.and.his great battles
Published 12 months ago by topaz

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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Compilation, simplification, exaggeration
I had been waiting for this book for a long time because I expected it to be on the Macedonian Empire. It is partly about this, although it is mostly a narrative of Philip II and Alexander III’s reigns, and a somewhat vain comparison between the brilliant “Founding Father” and his talented but flawed “All-Conquering Son” after whose death the...
Published 12 months ago by JPS


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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Compilation, simplification, exaggeration, 27 July 2014
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This review is from: By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (Ancient Warfare and Civilization) (Hardcover)
I had been waiting for this book for a long time because I expected it to be on the Macedonian Empire. It is partly about this, although it is mostly a narrative of Philip II and Alexander III’s reigns, and a somewhat vain comparison between the brilliant “Founding Father” and his talented but flawed “All-Conquering Son” after whose death the Empire fell apart. Needless to say, the author’s conclusion is that the father was “better” than the “son”, inasmuch that he was a great king, and not only a destructive conqueror. The main issue I had was that although the statement may be valid, the case supposed to back it up was simply poor and largely unconvincing.

I had many problems with this book. First, there is little in it that it is really original. While this is not necessarily an issue in itself, it becomes one when the case becomes over-simplified and key elements are omitted. For instance, the author relies heavily on Hammond’s (remarkable) works on Philipp and the Macedonian State. Unfortunately, he omits key elements when drawing on this work, such as how Philip built up an army of professional soldiers through the creation of military colonies, and how he set up many of these in strategic locations and in particular on the new borders of his greatly expanded kingdom. More generally, the author minimises Philip’s role as a strategist and a consummate diplomat, and does not show to what extent his expansion was carefully designed, calculated and executed. Also, while the book does include a section on Philip’s “new model army”, there is very little on his economic reforms although the later were part and parcel of the former.

The picture that is drawn of Alexander is an extreme version of the “modern school”, which started to merge with Badian in the late 1950s and where the “Conqueror’s” deeds were increasingly balanced by his human flaws and limitations. So this book tends to be about “Alexander the Monster” as opposed to the more traditional “Alexander the Hero”, with a strong emphasis on his desperate need to “outdo daddy” in his achievements, and a tendency to belittle these, at times. The point here is that I found the author’s borrowed interpretations almost systematically biased against Alexander, regardless of whether the point made is a good one. This was somewhat of a pity because the case becomes that much less convincing.

Even worse in my view was the existence of oversimplifications and exaggerations that, at times, can even become mistakes. Alexander’s supposed last words, when asked on his deathbed to who he would leave his Empire were NOT “to the best”, contrary to what the author claims, but “to the strongest”, which given the Macedonian warrior ethos is unsurprising and more in line with the “Spear-won land”. The fact that the author could make such a mistake is surprising, to put it mildly. Another point which would have deserved a more in-depth treatment is that of the “Macedonian State” that Alexander inherited, the Macedonian war machine (to paraphrase a recent title) that his father created. This would have led to a discussion of the meaning of the term “Macedonian” which, although indeed a Greek term, did not necessarily at the time have the ethnic meaning that the author seems to believe and which it would take some decades later. As other authors have shown, the populations that Philip integrated within his kingdom (as opposed to the vassal states which acknowledged his supremacy and owed him tribute and men for his campaigns) were of rather mixed ethnic background.

Other simplifications and exaggerations include statements such as Xerxes having “turned tail” and “fled back to Persia” after Salamis leaving Mardonius behind “to rally the demoralised Persian troops”. This seems very questionable. Such statements are not demonstrated and the rather hard time that the Persians gave the Greeks at Plataea certainly shows that there is little evidence to back them up with.

Other “glitches” seem to also partly the result of poor editing. There are numerous repetitions. There are also a few inconsistencies such as between the narrative of Black Kleitos’ murder by Alexander during a drunken brawl and the otherwise useful “cast of principal characters” at the end of the book where you discover that Alexander “killed him in cold blood”.

The book does contain numerous interesting elements, although many of these would have deserved to be discussed further. One is whether it really was clear, at the author seems to imply with the benefit of hindsight, that Alexander’s Empire was failing (or even starting to disintegrate) even before his death. The fact that some satraps were rebelling does not suffice to make such a case, if only because rebellions of satraps were endemic under the Persian Empire.

A related point is the statement that Alexander managed to alienate just about everyone, that is not only his Macedonians, but also the “natives” (essentially the nobles and religious elites). Again, whether Alexander’s efforts at integration were successful or not is a very interesting topic, but it is a bit of a moot one. The author seems to claim that Alexander did not even attempt such integration and was careless about the feelings of the “native” elites just as much as he was about those of the Greeks or the Macedonians (which, at the time at least were NOT the same).

Another interesting point that deserved a better and more thorough treatment was the behaviours of Alexander’s army, whether, over time, they got more bloodthirsty (with their multiple massacres in India in particular) and how this can be explained. Here again, while the explanations are interesting, they are also tentative or even speculative at times.

As can be gathered by this review, I was rather disappointed by this book because, in my view, it does not really deliver the promised goods and I would probably not recommend it as a starting point.

Even the preface’s claim that “this book is the first to consider the achievements of Philip and Alexander within one set of covers” happens to be not quite correct. A quick look at the bibliography will show you that a book with a similar scope has been published in 2012, albeit in German. Three stars, after some hésitations: I almost rated it two stars because it is not "okay", to use Amazon's terminology, although it is not exactly "bad" eiher.

Those wanting to read something better could try Hammond's "The Macedonian State", his biography of Philip and one of the numerous good biographies on his son. My favorite happens to be "Alexander of Macedon" by Peter Green, but there are quite a few other good ones...
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2 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic, 24 July 2014
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very good book well researched on all that is known about alexander the great from his early life.and.his great battles
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