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5 of 12 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good, but too self-indulgent to be truly great, 19 Sep 2011
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This review is from: Alexander the Great (Paperback)
This is an improvement on the same author's Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the Conversion of Constantine. Although it adopts the same approach of throwing at the subject everything that the author knows, in this case the finished result remains accessible as it focuses (naturally enough) on the life and experiences of a single man, thus preventing the reader from losing his way in the amount of information conveyed. The format succeeds, too: I was sceptical that a narrative simultaneously covering facts from Alexander's life alongside analyses of his personality could be workable, but I'm fully persuaded that it is. The events described well support the conclusions reached, and for this the author deserves praise. The book is as thorough an account of the life and achievements of Alexander the Great as one is likely to encounter.

What prevents the book from earning a higher rating than three stars is its self-indulgent nature. Robin Lane Fox is candid enough to confess to this, in his preface, and I suppose a man may write a book for whatever reason he wants. However, to be self-indulgent is one thing; to be so self-indulgent as to have to draw attention to it is another, and in the light of such a curious admission any reader is immediately put on the alert as to how this characteristic might be revealed. One is not kept waiting long, for in the early chapters the author cannot resist a number of rather cheap put-downs of Judaeo-Christian religious traditions (even, bizarrely, in a book which has nothing to do with them) in favour of his beloved paganism. These digressions embarrass more than they enlighten, and in such an approach the author rather shoots himself in the foot in a number of ways.

If, for instance, the biblical account of Esther is fiction (page 99), how can it be "evocative" of anything at the Persian court? Is it not then make-believe, pure and simple? The irony of this example is exceptional, given that the Book of Esther is far better attested than the extremely scant primary sources for Alexander's life - a fact which the author, quite rightly, spends some time covering. Likewise, to rubbish the entirely secular Book of Esther while (apparently) believing in talking snakes and revelations from Zeus merely introduces questions of credulity. This is a pity, because Robin Lane Fox has no need to stoop to these levels; but by admitting to self-indulgence, he has rather given the game away and revealed his own prejudices - hence his praise for Alexander's scrupulous observance of pagan rites while attempting to undermine a living religion which helped supplant them. (If he is bitter at the demise of paganism, might one respectfully suggest that he gets over it?) It seems to escape the author's notice that Christianity has not, in fact, ended, and nor does it show any sign of doing so - mere wishful thinking, surely. The book is hereby in danger of becoming another contribution to a modern-day "ABC" - Anything But Christianity. In the light of such prejudice, the "obvious" fabrication of Alexander's meeting with the Jewish high priest is anything but obvious: no evidence at all for this assertion is provided.

It is true that the above forms a relatively small part of a relatively large publication, and the book remains entirely recommendable as a valuable source of information about Alexander the Great, and about the later Hellenistic world in general. However, while we expect a historian to interpret, we do not expect him to spin; and by insisting on these unnecessary self-indulgences Robin Lane Fox unfortunately undermines his own credibility. The impressive volume of material which the writer has collated (unparalleled in any comparable book, I believe) is not enough to expunge the flaws. The wisdom of any historian lies in knowing how best to manage the amount of information he has available and then to present it not to emphasise his opinion of himself, but for the benefit of his readers. Ultimately it is such an approach that will best contribute towards an author's greatness.

The book is marred slightly by errors of grammar and punctuation, which one wishes had been corrected via more proficient proofreading, and another edition of the book would be improved if these mistakes could be addressed. The index, too, would benefit from being more detailed than it is.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 25 Feb 2012 10:37:35 GMT
Musadin says:
This review criticising Robin Lane Fox's 'paganism' (he isn't a 'pagan', he's a highly respected classical scholar) is recommendation enough for me to want to get the book. Looks like it's a five star certainty.

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Mar 2012 09:53:12 GMT
Absolutely, Musadin. You won't regret!

In reply to an earlier post on 8 Jul 2012 13:30:37 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Jul 2012 18:58:35 BDT
Jeremy says:
RLF's scholarship isn't in doubt. But I do find it interesting that you found the review helpful enough to go and try and the book, yet you voted to say that you didn't. If you want a "Like" button (which is a different thing), may I suggest you try Facebook? :-)
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