Book Review

New bio gives a human look to a classic conqueror

By Matthew Price
Globe Correspondent / January 18, 2011

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Though he died more than 2,000 years ago, Alexander the Great remains an irresistible subject for biographers. Every age, it seems, must wrestle with Alexander’s legacy. The outline of his life is filled with bold strokes, epic adventures, blood, violence, and daring. By age 30, he had conquered much of the ancient world, from Greece to the frontiers of India. If Alexander was a tribune of Hellenic culture — Aristotle was his tutor — he was also a bloodthirsty conqueror. Alexander’s enemies paid dearly for their resistance: When Thebes revolted against his rule in 335 BC, Alexander sacked and destroyed the city.

Philip Freeman, Alexander’s latest biographer, says we must take Alexander whole. “Alexander was and is the absolute embodiment of pure human ambition with all its good and evil consequences,’’ he writes of the general who helped shape the Western world. The author is a professor of classics, but his account is aimed at readers unfamiliar with Alexander or the world of ancient Greece. Freeman’s approach has its merits. His story is brisk, but he sometimes lapses into bedtime story prose: “There was once a king named Astyages who ruled over the Medes in the mountains east of Mesopotamia.’’ This new account will not supersede Robin Lane Fox’s classic 1973 biography, yet readers looking for an introduction to Alexander will find Freeman an able guide. It should be remembered that Alexander, technically, was not Greek, but Macedonian. Indeed, the Greeks looked down on Macedonia, however much they were powerless to stop the kingdom’s expansion. Alexander, born in 356 BC, consolidated what his father, Philip, had started. When Philip was murdered — speculation remains today about Alexander’s role in his father’s death — the son inherited an expanding realm, vanquished several rivals, and consolidated his rule. As Freeman shows, Alexander, despite his youth — he was only 20 when he became king — was a wily operator who knew when to be politic and when to deploy punishing force. (He resorted to the latter when several Greek cities rose up against Macedonian hegemony.) Alexander was restless (some said foolhardy) and was not content with only regional conquests.

He ventured far afield to take on rival powers, and his travels took him to exotic lands, from the Mesopotamian deserts to the Hindu Kush. The greatest challenge to his power was surely the mighty Persian Empire. Alexander’s campaigns against Persia brought him great glory. Alexander was a master of battlefield tactics, and his hardened Macedonian troops, steeled by years of war, proved themselves every match for the Persians. The Persian Empire, led by the formidable Darius, was not conquered in one day. But Alexander possessed vast reserves of will, and defeated the Persians in a series of bloody engagements. Freeman’s accounts of these battles are lush — much blood is spilled on both sides. Little mercy was shown for wounded men.

Alexander was a canny ruler. As he incorporated more and more territory into his burgeoning empire, he relied on native officials, promising them riches if they proclaimed their loyalty to him. It was an effective strategy. But not everyone in Alexander’s court agreed with his policies. When one of his generals complained, Alexander rashly accused him of taking part in a murder plot; the general was then executed. Freeman does not hero worship Alexander, and does not paper over his subject’s many faults. At times, Alexander can seem like an almost mythic figure, but, as Freeman shows, he was all too human.

Matthew Price, a regular contributor to the Globe, can be reached at


Simon & Schuster, 391 pp., illustrated, $30