Monday, September 29, 2008

Book Review: Alexander the Great Failure

Bryn Mawr Classical Review

John D. Grainger, Alexander the Great Failure. The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

Reviewed by Waldemar Heckel, University of Calgary

The idea of studying Alexander's achievement in context, that is, with reference to what preceded and followed his reign, is certainly a good one. But the discussion of everything from the rise of Macedon to the death of Pyrrhos of Epeiros in 272 BC in the space of 188 pages (excluding the conclusion, notes, bibliography and index) involves certain economies that, as one might guess before even reading the book, will prove detrimental either to the reader's understanding of events or to the author's main argument. As far as the latter is concerned, it is really an assertion, since no serious effort is made to argue the case. The title certainly implies that the failure of the Macedonian conquest and of the empire is directly attributable to Alexander. And this is spelled out in the Preface (p. xviii) . . . .

Later on, the author says "It is worth considering the events recounted in this book from the point of view of the victims, since the normal assumption is that Alexander was a hero, a military genius...", but the amount of space devoted to Alexander's aims, methods, and achievements in the east is less than twenty pages (75-93). And very little is said in these pages about the plight of the victims. Within such limits there is room only for generalizations and a selective presentation of events and outcomes. Of bias in the sources there is nothing (and Grainger admits as much on p. xviii), only echoes of the now familiar refrain of recent Alexander detractors, and the explicit statement "In many ways he was a perpetual adolescent; his superstition, impulsiveness, carelessness with money, extravagant grief over the death of Hephaistion, unwillingness to see that other work needed to be done, love of fighting, all show this" (92). At least, we are spared the comparisons with Hitler and Stalin which have become de rigueur for Alexander detractors (see, e.g., Hanson 2001: 89-90; for a welcome dose of common sense see, however, Rogers 2004: 280-1).

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