Book Review: Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great

” …he was one of the most extraordinary individuals to have ever walked the earth. He above all others deserves to be called, “the Great’.”

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge

Cambridge classicist Paul Cartledge has the rarest of talents among professional historians – the ability to write books that simultaneously appeal to academics and popular audiences alike. Alexander the Great has his trademark “concise depth” that Cartledge also brought to bear in The Spartans and later to Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World; there is enough historiographic “meat” for the scholar and the casual student of history or of war will enjoy Cartledge’s depiction of Alexander as a “ruthless pragmatist”, engaging in calculated gestures of epic magnaminity and brutal murder of his closest comrades in arms with equal certitude. One who, despite his mysticism and growing tyranny, had imperial ambitions that “….can symbolize peaceful, multi-ethnic coexistence”.

Cartledge, despite the above quotation, is not an Alexander-worshipper but a realist or a mild skeptic, rejecting hyperbole and hidden agendas in the ancient sources, which he discusses in detail, along with the more extreme portraits painted of Alexander by modern historians, such as “…the titantic and Fuhrer-like Alexander of Fritz Schachmeyer“. Cartledge’s Alexander is a military genius and an inspirational visionary to be sure, but his icy ruthlessness of calculated murder of potential opponents and superannuated followers like Callisthenes or Parmenion is never far away. Cartledge uses the term “purges” several times in the text and it is appropriate; Alexander, with his suspicions aroused, had the same irrevocable instinct for savage reprisal as did Joseph Stalin. Alexander running through Cleitus the Black with a spear in the midst of a banquet, a man who had saved Alexander’s life, or who ordered the destruction of Thebes was the same Alexander who honored the religions and customs of his conquered subjects and tried to build his Overlordship of Asia on a fusion of Pan-Hellenism and ancient Persia:

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