I hesitated to buy this book. The topic is not original. There are dozens of novels out there on Alexander and I had already read quite a few of them. Modern historians have been arguing about him, each and every of his deeds, their causes, the size of his army and even the equipment of the various units for at least 150 years. This is because his conquests had such a large impact for centuries after his death but also because, as Christian Cameron reminds us, almost no written source from eye-witnesses has survived to our days (apart from a few fragments here and there), although we know they were several because they are quoted in latter works that largely summarize them. Our closest surviving ancient source was writing over 250 years after Alexander's death. There are additional difficulties with the four main accounts (and a number of episodes scattered in less important sources): there are often not consistent with each other. They also reflect different viewpoints and different (political) interests, depending upon which of the original sources they have relied upon. So, and perhaps to a larger extent than other epic stories, researching and writing on Alexander and his times is a bit like detective work: you try to put together a story than makes sense with what little information is available. This is the rather daunting challenge that Christian Cameron took up.
I believe this book can be reviewed on at least three different levels. The first is to determine whether it is a good read. The second is whether you find Christian Cameron's slant on Alexander convincing. The third is whether, and to what extent, he has been historically accurate, at least as far as we can tell, some 23 centuries afterwards and keeping in mind all the limitations of the sources.
1) For me (and for the other reviewers so far) this book has been a fantastic read. It is one of those "can't let go of it" books that you go through until all hours. This is a 750 plus pages book, but I simply did not feel it.
I particularly liked the way the story was told by Ptolemy to young Satyrus in the gruff, no-nonsense, matter of fact way of the "old" soldier (Ptolemy would have been in his mid to late fourties when supposedly telling the story, old by Ancient standards, if you assume that he was one of Alexander's boyhood ). Note that this is not original (remember Oliver Stone's film on Alexander with Anthony Hopkins/Ptolemy telling the story?). However, it is very well done. One of the strongest things going for this book is that it generally "feels and sounds" real, starting with Ptolemy's tone. This also allows Cameron to tell Alexander's story from Ptolemy's viewpoint (including some boasting) and with Prolemy's views being expressed (and Cameron's views through those of Ptolemy!).
So, not entirely original perhaps, but very well executed and with the added benefit that, since the story is being told to young Satyrus, we get a number of glimpses of Kineas (always my favorite!)and many other characters of Christian Cameron's previous novels on Alexander and the Successors.
2) The second point, whether the author's interpretations are convincing or not, is more difficult because it is largely subjective: it depends on how you reacted to the book, and, to some extent, on how much you knew (or thought you knew!) about Alexander and the Macedonians before you picked up the book.
It worked for me, even when I found that some of Christian Cameron's interpretations were far-fetched. It worked so well, in fact, that I often stopped to check a few things when some of Cameron's slants felt odd to me. Anyway, regardless of whether you actually agree with the points being made, there are delivered in a vey powerful and suggestive way that at least appears to make them convincing. One of the best in my opinion was the Macedonian nobles being portrayed as a tough, ruthless, brutal, murderous bunch of ultra-competitive alpha-males, where anyone of them could quite litterally gut you if you made a poor joke. That's part of what Ptolemy calls the "Macedonian way". However, I couldn't help wondering as to whether the author hadn't been a bit excessive here. This "Macedonian way" made me rather think of a pack a wolves instead of the "band of brothers" and "comrade in arms" that another reviewer has mentioned.
Another very strong point is Cameron's presentation of the modern view of Alexander. This tends to insist more on his personality, his limitations and his failures. For instance, he was outgeneralled a few times and did commit a few strategic blunders. Cameron also reconciles this modern view with the traditional presentation of the invicible, super-human almost godly conqueror and warrior (hence the book's title) which may have been heavily influenced by the lasting effects of Alexander's propaganda. He does heavily suggest (and very well in my view) that Alexander has a somewhat "warped and twisted" personality and shows that this was largely because as a boy he was caught between two characters as strong as Philip and Olympias. In modern medical terminology, Alexander is shown as being an extremely talented but obsessed young man with strong shizophrenic and paranoïd tendances that get worse over time. Alexander always had something to prove, always wanted more and always needed to go one step further. It is this slow slide into tyranny, dictatorship and inhumanity that Christian Cameron describes so well in my view.
At times, the "monster" view may however feel a bit overdone, just like Cameron's somewhat exagerated and misleading comparison between Alexander and Hitler (leaving aside the fact that it is totally anachronistic, Hitler was, of course, no general) to make his point that Alexander "was no hero".
On this second level, and even having a few reservations, I can only recognize that Cameron has done a fantastic job.
3) The third point is whether the book's contents are historically accurate, or, to be more precise, to what extent Cameron's story, his view of Alexander and his own interpretations reflect the sources, or at least are not contradicted by them. Here, the assessment is more mixed.
In his notes, Christian Cameron claims that he tries to avoid "altering history as we know it to suit a timetable or plotline." He does not seem to have always practised what he preaches. There are a significant number of instances where he has altered history to fit his plotline. Here are just three examples (but there are many more):
- Kleitos the Black was not one of Alexander's boyhood friends. He was in the same age group as Philotas, about 10 years older, had already served under Philip and has already being made Head of the Royal Squadron when Alexander became king. He did save Alexander's life, especially at Granicus. So Alexander did not murder his boyhood friend.
- Ptolemy was not in command of a taxeis at either Issos or Arbales (or Gaugamela, as some also call it). We know this because the sources actually give us the names of all of the taxiarches for both battles. Ptolemy did command mercenaries at Halicarnassos to "finish off" the capture of the citadels (at least if you believe the sources) but does not seem to have commanded any Macedonian unit until after the execution of Parmenion and Philotas. The same goes for all of Alexander's "boyhood friends" (and, more largely, those of the same age group). Cameron ascribes this to the "stranglehold" that Parmenion and his faction has on all appointments which prevented Alexander from putting all of his friends in commanding positions. While this is very likely to be true, we should also recognize that all of his friends were very young (in their early 20s) and largely inexperienced (despite fighting at Chaeronea and in 335) especially when compared to "Philip's men", some of which had been fighting for over 25 years all over the Balkans.
- The destruction of Tyr, which Cameron presents as Alexander's first case of mass murder, was no such thing. In fact, it was similar to the destruction of Thebes: a number of inhabitants were killed when the city feel (several thousands) but most (30000 according to the sources in the case of Tyr) were sold into slavery. So, not nice and rather brutal and bloody, no Geneva conventions, of course, but hardly the wholesale massacres that would happen almost casually in India
There are other instances where Christican Cameron has chosen an interpretation which fits his plot and which might (or might not) be what happened. There is absolutly no problem with that, to the extent that the author can make his interpretations seem likely. For instance, Memnon's death was an incredible piece of luck for Alexander and the death of Koinos was also rather convenient. There are no claim in the sources that either of them were murdered by anyone although you would certainly not expect such a claim from Alexander. I did sometimes get the impression that, everytime somebody died suddenly, Cameron would suggest foul play. However, it is possible, so why not?
Having said that, Cameron's book is also extremely interesting because of the way he tackles the BIG questions, the ones that historians have argued about for decades. Again, here are a few examples:
- One is the relations between alexander and his father and his take on the battle of Chaeronea against Athens and Thebes, which he presents as Alexander's victory rather than Philip's. In a nuttshell, he opposes the ageing and somewhat drunkard king and the young and overconfident heir to the throne. Here again, you might feel it is a bit over-simplified (and it is), some bits and pieces are omitted (such as alexander's meedling in and undermining of his father's diplomacy), but the story as it is told is very appealing.
- Another is the exact role played by Alexander in the assassination of his father King Philip, whether he knew about the plot (or even was part of it) or not. Given Cameron's take on the "Macedonian way", you can guess what his answer is going to be...
- another is to assess the generalship of Alexander, and the extent he owed his four major victories to the quality of his troops and officers, to luck, to his own merits, or to a complex and shifting mix of all three factors. Christian Cameron strongly suspects the latter and this is very well shown in the book.
- yet another is the total opposition between Parmenion and Alexander in almost all respects, including generalship, character and age.
- another is the tremendous logistical achievement in generally managing to supply his army despite all the difficulties over thousands of miles - although here also there are some exceptions which the book presents
- the last, of course, are the circumstances of Alexander's death.
Anyway, to cut a (very) long story short, this is an excellent and very exciting book, despite a few personal reservations, some of which are perhaps just quibbles. There are a host of reasons to buy thi book and read it, so why not treat yourself to it?