Book Review: Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography

Book Review: Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography


Hello this is Michael Pratt. I’m here to
recommend Peter Green’s “Alexander of Macedon, 356 to 323 BC: A Political Biography.” This book was published in England in its full-length form in 1974 and
it appeared in the U.S. in 1991, with the most recent edition dating from 2013. I
first read in the early ’90s, soon after its first U.S. appearance, but it still
strikes me not merely as one of the most exciting books on classical antiquity
that I’ve read, but also is one of the most compulsively readable biographies
that I’ve come across. Alexander’s career is pretty strong medicine for people
with delicate sensibilities. He died at the age of 33, having over the course of
just a few years overthrown the Persian Empire and shaken the ancient world from
the Aegean to present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He left ruins and wreckage wherever his army passed, and his massive empire
collapsed into civil war immediately after his early death (which may well
have been brought about by poisoning). But the suffering and destruction that
Alexander left in his wake also gave rise to phenomena as diverse
as the rise of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, which ended with Cleopatra; the
development of a syncretic Greco- Buddhist culture in parts of what are today Pakistan and Afghanistan; and an unprecedented, long-lasting and extremely
consequential diffusion of Greek language and culture. Alexander’s career
may have been short, but his impact was truly seismic. The classicist Peter Green,
who was born in 1924, is exceptionally well qualified to tell this story. After
service with the Royal Air Force in Burma in World War II, Green studied
classics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won a double First. He left
academia to support his family as a journalist and lived in Greece for many
years, translating, teaching, hiking, and sailing. He taught in the Classics
department at the University of Texas at Austin for many years, and published
novels, scholarly studies on classical and Hellenistic subjects, fluent, readable
translations of Greek and Latin poetry (most recently of the Iliad), and biting,
elegant literary criticism. In “Alexander of Macedon,” Green writes with verve and
sardonic wit, and his take on the Macedonian King is bracing. Following the Harvard scholar, Ernst Badian, to whom the book is dedicated, he emphasizes both the human cost of Alexander’s relentless pursuit of glory and the brutal audacity
of the tactics the king used to eliminate his opponents. both in the
ranks of the Macedonian army and within his own own (almost comically horrible)
family. Green outlines strong evidence that it was Alexander, together with his
mother Olympias, who plotted the assassination of Alexander’s father, king
Philip II of Macedon. All of the famous episodes in Alexander’s career are
treated in this book: his studies with Aristotle, his cutting of the Gordian
knot, his stunning victories against Greek, Persian, and Indian opponents, his
burning of Persepolis his crossing of the Hindu Kush and battles with Indian
kings and their elephants. Green recounts it at all with concision, wit ,and a
refreshing realism about the motivations of those who seek power at the expense
of all else. If you’re interested in ancient history, in politics, in the
psychology of power, or simply in a fascinating story told by an outstanding
scholar who also knows how to write vivid prose, you could do worse than to
read Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon

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