March 24, 2005

Is it not passing brave to be a King and ride in triumph through Persepolis?

Posted in books tagged , , , , , at 2:14 pm by placeinthestars

So since I read Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy over New Year’s, I’ve been on a whole Alexander the Great kick, in case you haven’t noticed.

Aside from Lord of the Two Lands, which I enjoyed when I first read it, and again upon rereading it recently, I haven’t found any good published fiction on the subject (or any that really goes into the parts I’m most interested in, which would mainly be the Alexander/Hephaistion relationship, including the hot mansex), and while there is a tiny amount of good fanfiction, I’ve found the fannish communities here on LJ rather terrifying.

So I turned to non-fiction, of which there is an abundance.

I want to preface this by saying that 1. obviously, I’m not a historian, I don’t play one on television, I have vague recollections of learning some of this in high school social studies a long long time ago, but that’s it. and 2. I’m obviously a fan of the fictional Alexander, but I also get irritated at the attempts to judge someone who lived 2300 years ago by our current/modern standards of behavior and morality rather than trying to understand what was done in the context of the society in which he lived. Which isn’t to say that Alexander didn’t do some awful and horrifying things, that he wasn’t a murderer and a conqueror and all sorts of things that we recognize as being Not of the Good in this day and age (as well as his own), ’cause he did. But he also wasn’t a genocidal maniac, a Stalin or a Hitler. If I can make that distinction, I expect trained historians to be able to. Some of the things that seem obvious to me seem to be either ignored or too easily dismissed by people who want to only see the bad. And maybe I just want to see the good, but I’m not getting paid to write books about it, so it doesn’t matter. But even some of the people who only seem to see the good irritate me, because it looks like they’re turning off their critical faculties on certain issues, and that just is not what I’m looking for in my non-fiction.

I started with Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great (1973, reissued with updates, 2004 [though the updates aren’t flagged]), which is probably the most thorough of the books I read, and a good solid introduction to the subject (though you’d think that if they were reissuing it, they’d fix some of the typos in the text, some of which change the meaning of the text to its opposite), though the maps aren’t easy to read at all, and I like maps. While he doesn’t gloss over Alexander’s flaws and misjudgements or the bad things he did, he definitely falls on the positive-about-Alexander side of the spectrum. I’d recommend it, especially if you’re like me, and iffy on the actual details and the facts.

Next was Mary Renault’s The Nature of Alexander (1975 and some of it out of date now), which is nearly fangirlish in its pro-Alexander stance (and alone among the books I read that gave Hephaistion any kind of credit for being anything other than merely competent, and most of the others barely grant him that). Highly enjoyable if sometimes too willing to give Alexander the benefit of the doubt. You can tell she loves her subject, and that enthusiasm is infectious (even if I weren’t also already a big fan of his *g*), so worth the read, even if I find some of her conclusions a little too pat.

Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography (1974, reprinted 1992, and in need of updating in light of some newer archeological information) is much more critical of Alexander than the first two, but is a gripping read that delves into many of the conflicting accounts of Alexander’s life, and also made me a big fan of Philip of Macedon, who was a brilliant military man and a wily politician. Green attempts to debunk certain myths, fairly successfully, though some of the theories he has struck me as a little… disingenuous, and didn’t seem to give Alexander the credit as a politician and ruler of men I think he may have deserved.

Just one example – I found his take on the execution of Philotas a little hard to swallow – perhaps it’s a function of a post-9/11 world (though Renault seemed to understand it back in 1974) – but not reporting possible plots against the life of the king is treasonous in any age, regardless of whether Philotas was actually involved in the plot. To speculate that Philotas was right to dismiss it as ‘another homosexual quarrel with the usual bitchy accusations: obviously nothing in it’ is just… ridiculous to me. As it’s repeatedly noted, Macedonian politics was a blood sport, and Philotas wasn’t an idiot, so I’d imagine he’d have been smarter than that. Otoh, if it was a plant by Alexander to catch Philotas out, then Philotas shot himself in the foot (as it were) and if he’d reported it, he’d have been hailed as a hero (and Alexander would have had a much harder time getting rid of him). Also, his characterization of Bagoas (of whom I’m not particularly fond as a fictional character), based on nothing but the Orxines incident (which may or may not be true) as a “beautiful yet sinister young man” [QFM] strikes me as a little much, giving him more importance than he probably warrants. Of course, Green also refers to Hephaistion as a dumb brute while in the next breath telling us how Alexander didn’t put up with incompetence in any way, shape or form. So you know, maybe not so dumb, considering the jobs he was given to do over the course of their time together, and his success at them, yeah? so I may be a hephaistion fangirl. shut up.

Anyhow, other than those kinds of quibbles, I’d highly recommend this one to anyone looking for a good background on Alexander and a gripping read. Plus, you’ll come out of it a Philip of Macedon fangirl. ‘Cause he was The Cool. *cough*

Next was Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge (2004). Um, no. Don’t bother. It occasionally has something interesting to say, but mostly he’s all about Alexander being a nasty, bloodthirsty tyrant. Which you know, maybe so. But the one-sidedness of the listing of atrocities (dude, how did Darius get to be king? And what about the butchering of the wounded at Issus? For that matter, how did the Persians – and everyone else ever – build their empire?) was a turn off, and the book is oddly structured, though it hits all the high points (thumbs up to the description of the sieges of Tyre and Gaza) so unless you’re already familiar with Alexander’s story, don’t bother.

Yesterday I finished reading Alexander: The Ambiguity of Greatness, by Guy MacLean Rogers (2004), also not the greatest. He’s highly pro-Alexander, but he makes some odd (to me) assumptions, he seems to take many things that other historians question unquestioningly. The thing that made me skeptical is his assessment that Alexander fell in love at first sight with Roxane. Which just… he wanted her, he couldn’t have her without marrying her (or without causing a lot of trouble he really didn’t need), so he married her. I get that. Completely. And it probably had some political component to it, as well. I just think that if he’d loved her, he’d have spent a little more time with her, you know? Gotten her pregnant sooner, and more often. So it was an interesting read but it made me raise my eyebrows in a few places. Take it with a large grain of salt, even if it does attempt to be more even-handed than say, Cartledge.

Oh, and for a lark, Alexander the Fabulous: The Man Who Brought the World to Its Knees by Michael Alvear, Vicky A. Shecter (2004) is pretty funny in spots, though there are some groaningly bad jokes as well.

I have another handful of books on the way – Plutarch and Arrian and Curtius (all in translation, of course), and that JFC Fuller book, which will probably be over my head, as quite a lot of the military stuff makes me zone out unless I have nifty diagrams and maps to understand it. Will report back when I’m done with that batch, unless the obsession cools.

***

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