It has been written that "there have been many Alexanders" and it is true that perhaps one of the most documented men in antiquity has given classical scholars more license than usual to study and theorise on his life. The truth is that this has not brought clarity to our picture of Alexander but rather a myriad of characters that we can buy into. In that respect it was a welcome addition to the work on Alexander to find a work of criticism that would cut so deep as to deny Alexander his "greatness".
The simple answer to why was Alexander great, is easy, he was great because he ensured we were told he was great. Alexander took several historians on his campaigns and they ensured his place in history and it is impressive that so ancient a PR machine has lasted so long. The problem is that Grainger was perhaps not equal to the task of toppling the works of Arrian, Plutarch, Curtius or of modern historians such as Ehrenberg or Tarn. This perhaps lies in the way in which this book targets its subject matter.
First up Grainger fails to recognise that Greatness and Goodness are two different things. Even when Alexander was morally reprehensible his actions were still often great by their scope, he still conquered the known world and inspired countless others to try the same.
The second problem with Grainger's work is that he gives into anachronism and misunderstands Macedonian kingship. He criticises Alexander for failing to plan for a succession, he criticises the lack of benevolence shown to the peoples of his empire and fundamentally his statecraft. this runs into two obstacles, Alexanders premature death which denied us an opportunity to see the statesman develop and secondly the Grainger model of rulership seems idealised and far too modern. Macedonian Kingship was a military monarchy and one of extraction for the benefit of the army not a benevolent dictatorship of a settled empire, bread and circuses en masse is a Roman practice rather than the more parochial Greek euergetic model. The truth is if you compare anything to modern standards there is a risk of it falling short it is true of medicine, techonology and in this case statecraft.
However it is important for people like Grainger to write books like this as it keeps history fresh and no opinion should be unwelcome, but at the same time the book itself is a failure in that it is not equal to the subject it tackles nor employs sufficient methodology or assessment.
I found this to be an enjoyable, if short, read. The book covers the period of the rise of Macedon under Philip II, the conquests of his son Alexander, and ends with the collapse of Alexander's empire into its component parts - mainly Antigonid Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire - following on from the wars of the Diadochi. As pure narrative history Grainger's book does the job, however a timeline would have made following events easier.
Grainger's main thesis is that Alexander was far from great, in fact he sees Alexander as a disaster for Macedon and little more a plunderer of the Achaeminid Empire, with no plans for his empire save more conquests. This view is far too simple, for a start Alexander did not live long enough to put a stamp on his empire - who knows what would have happened had he lived longer. The reason why Alexander was great in his and ancient times was the scale of his conquests. Later would-be conquerors and generals would look to him as the supreme example of military genius and achievement. Grainger's attempts to moralise Alexander's brutality and actions is anachronistic and would have not been understood by his contemporaries or the ancient world. Another problem with the work, pointed out by another reviewer, is that Grainger dos not understand Macedonian (or Hellenistic) kingship. Criticism of Alexander's (and other rulers in the book) treatment of his subjects is out of place. Modern ideas of rulership are irrelevant when dealing with the ancient world. Grainger also lays the blame for the collapse of the Macedonian Empire on Alexander's failure to leave an adult male heir. This too seems harsh, as Alexander did, posthumously, produce a son and heir.
Nevertheless, the section dealing with the struggle for the empire is well told and brings to life such rulers as Antigonus Gonatas, Seleucus I, Demetrius and Kassander. Cautiously recommended for a differing, critical view of Alexander.
This is the fourth book by this author that I have read recently, and I have developed a high opinion of his work. This book is targeting a more general readership than some of his academic studies (see further reading list below). The book itself is as well written and researched as the previous ones. The Notes however are mainly straightforward citation references, without as much of the in-depth criticism of the sources you find in the academic volumes, though he still gets a few barbs in: "...on 10 June, 323, he [Alexander], died. Conspiracy theories surround this event: one has it that Antipater organised the assassination all the way from Macedon and involved half the imperial administration in the plot. These can be dismissed as the imaginings of desk-bound historians and over-imaginative novelists"; and he carries on in the footnotes. Philip's death has also attracted attention: "During the celebration of [his daughter's] marriage Philip was murdered. His assassin was Pausanias, a man who had a grievance against Attalos, the uncle of Philip's new queen, a grievance which Philip had refused to deal with... Pausanias ran off, but was chased and killed by members of Philip's bodyguard. Conspiracy immediately comes to mind, probably unnecessarily. Almost everyone of any note in Philip's family and court has come under suspicion, but the main accused are Alexander, Olympias, Antipater and perhaps Parmenion; and superficially plausible cases can be constructed against all of them. There is even one theory which sees a plot by men of Upper Macedon against domination from the original kingdom. None of the theories stands up very well, and the most that can be said is that no one shed tears at the king's killing.... The fact is that the murderer was Pausanias, a man who had nursed a grievance for a year and had been unable to get redress. His abuser had been Attalos, who was away in Asia and was the uncle of Philip's new wife; Attalos was also the sworn enemy of Alexander. In Pausanias's grievance-filled mind, the only available man on whom he could gain revenge was Philip, who had refused to take action. It cannot have been absent from Pausanias' mind that killing Philip would benefit Alexander; perhaps he expected to get away with it. The question of 'cui bono' used to accuse Alexander, is, given Pausanias' state of mind, irrelevant".
The first chapter covers the history of Macedon from 370-359 BC, before the reign of Philip II. The state has almost collapsed from neighbours taking advantage of succession disputes. Macedon has a blood-soaked history of disputed successions, and Philip no doubt learned important lessons from this, as did Alexander. Chapters 2-5 cover Philip's establishment of Macedon as a major power, up to his death in chapter 5 during the 'Conquest of Greece'. Alexander shares chapter 5 and has chapter 6 and 7 to himself. Chapters 8-15 cover the period of the first generation of Successors. There are a Conclusion, Notes, Bibliography, Index and 5 pages of maps.
While the book covers the story of the rise of Macedon and its acquisition of an empire, it does focus in particular on the effect this has on Macedon, often lost or ignored in histories of the early Hellenistic period. The problems of succession are also highlighted, and the many deaths that accompany the event, at Philip's, at Alexander's, at the establishment of the regency in Babylon, at the death of the regent, and at the several subsequent kings of Macedon, successful or not. Eventually Antigonos Gonatas marries a surviving female member of the royal house and spends his reign rebuilding Macedon, which as been invaded and divided several times. The Persians also had the same problem, and Philip's control of Greece co-incided with major dynastic upheavals, which meant there was little Persian intervention: "In 338, Artaxerxes III was murdered on the orders of his vizier, Bagoas, who had been one of the commanders of the invasion of Egypt. Bagoas killed off all Artaxerxes' sons as well, except for Arses, who became the new Great King as Artaxerxes IV. Not surprisingly Arses and Bagoas could not work together, and soon Arses and all his sons were also murdered. A distant member of the royal family was placed on the throne as Dareios III. Well warned, Dareios murdered Bagoas". And so it goes. You'd think that a Jacobean playwright would have found some inspiration here.
The problem the empire and its rulers - actual or hopeful - face is administration. Alexander didn't seem to be interested in establishing an administration (or it was too difficult) - Julius Caesar allegedly faced the same problem, and was going off on a Parthian war so he wouldn't have to deal with it, just as Alexander was proposing to invade Arabia. Eventually Seleukos established control of a large part of the former Akhemenid empire and re-established much of their administration.
Page 193: "...It bears repeating that the accession to power of Alexander on the killing of his father in 336 was the first time in two centuries that a royal succession in Macedon did not see a civil war or a collapse of the state, or both. Even then, Alexander had to drive off invaders and indulge in several murders to ensure peace. It is scarcely surprising that Alexander's own death resulted in civil war and political collapse. The problem was repeated on the deaths of Antipater, Kassander, Kassander's sons, Demetrios and Seleukos. Only the horrifying experience of the Galatian invasions and the careful manipulations and innovations of Antigonos Gonatas ensured that his dynasty succeeded in overcoming the problem for the next century.... The problem lay with the Macedonians. Kassander tried to appoint his successor, but his widow then interfered. The Macedonians whom Kassander ruled were those who had not gone overseas, the traditionalists who disliked any innovation. Only their experience of the Galatian invasion - another drastic winnowing process - finally compelled the abandonment of their indulgence in succession disputes. In the meantime they had, by their self-centredness and obduracy, effectively wrecked their own empire". One of Alexander's murders was Attalos - if you have seen Oliver Stone's film, he is the man with the evil grin at the wedding-feast when Philip banishes Alexander. The man being raped by Philip at the feast is meant to be Pausanias, according to some writers.
An Aside - the Hellenistic period (Philip and Alexander to Actium) can be confusing, especially when there are both Greek and Roman versions of names. I have found that playing historical board games help in learning names & places. The following are particularly useful for this period.
Sword of Rome (GMT Games) Successors (GMT Games) Hannibal (Valley Games) Julius Caesar (Columbia Games) Spartacus (Compass Games) boardgamegeek c*m boardgameguru c* uk
Bought this book randomly as I wanted to know more on the after-alexander period (This book deals 2/3 of his length on the period after the prematured death of Alexander).
I must admit I did not find it an easy read. Some parts are packed with king's names, locations, battles, etc which makes it very hard to follow. I understand the history of that period is not the simplest and clearest but a bit more clarity in the story telling would have been welcome. Not to mention maps, photographs, etc. Some other parts such as "king Demetrios" for instance are easier to read, spaced out and more in depths I found.
Finally, I found the final conclusion of the author rather intestesting and original. It is very true that if you place yourself from the piont of view of the Achemenid Empire, Alexander invasion was a brutal, savageous campaign which ended two century of persian civilisation. According to the author, Alexander did no good to its own people the Macedonians neither as the country collapsed soon after with internal rivalry, Galatian invasions, etc.
Would be a 3 start but a couple of brillant chapters and the conclusion deserve a 4 star.