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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:

“Alexander’s importation and integration of oriental troops into the Macedonian army was a crucial and controversial issue. by the end of 328 he had units of Sogdian and bactrian cavalry, so presumably he was drawing also upon the excellent cavalry of western and central Iran. In 327 he recruited more than thirty thousand young Iranians. Since Greek was to be the lingua franca of the new Empire, replacing the use of the Achaemenids use of Aramaic, he arranged for them to be taught the Greek language as well as the demonstrably supeior Macedonian infantry tactics. when they arrived at Susa in 324, he hailed them as ‘ successors’ – to the Macedonian soldiers understandable consternation” [ 204 ]

Cartledge discusses Alexander’s generalship and his abilities as an adaptive military innovator, building on a his father Philip’s original military reforms or improvising when faced with unexpected difficulties at river crossing or in siege warfare. He misses though an opportunity to explain the dreadful effectiveness in Alexander’s hands of the Macedonian phalanx, a more heavily armed, lightly armored, mobile and deadly version of the original Greek Hoplite formation.  While Alexander and his cavalry garnered most of the glory, the ordinary Macedonian phalanx cut through Persian ranks like an implacable meat grinder, mowing down enormous numbers of the enemy and trodding their dead and dying bodies underfoot. Understandably though, this is a biography of Alexander and not a history of his wars but the real scale of the slaughter Alexander inflicted is given far less attention than the skill with which he inflicted it, or his political and religious policies that came in their wake.

Alexander’s religious sentiments and his mysticism, which spilled over in to his political vision for Asia and for himself as a semi-divine ruler are given much consideration by Cartledge, ranging from his at a distance dealings with subject state Athens, to his “contracting” a relationship with the Egyptian god Ammon, to his ideation with Achilles as a model for himself.  There appears to have been something of a feedback loop between Alexander’s military acheivments, which were truly superhuman, and his growing religious superstitions, both of which fed a kind of megalomania according to Cartledge, and led to Alexander’s unsuccessful demand that his Greek and Macedonian soldiers adopt proskynesis in the Persian style. A more or less blasphemous act of hubris ( though not quite absolutely, as Cartledge explains, given the precedent of the deification of Lysander) that led to a break between Alexander and his most loyal followers. This craving for divinity later was expanded posthumously to fabulous extremes in the traditions of the Alexander Romance, where Alexander the Great becomes a symbolic and heavily mythologized figure for dozens of peoples and regimes. Alexander himself began cultivating the myths.

Cartledge has done an excellent job demystifying one of the archetypal figures of Western history, the man whom other would-be world conquerors had to measure themselves against – reportedly, Julius Caesar wept in despair because Alexander’s glory was beyond his reach. He has also brought out the extent to which Alexander saw himself not as a Westerner, or a Hellene, but as a bridge to the East, a synthesizer of civilizations.

6 Responses to “Book Review: Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great”

  1. fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:


    Sounds like an interesting book, though probably too "modern" for the likes of me. A few points:

    Of course Alexander was a megalomaniac. He imagined he was Alexander the Great. Not mine, unfortunately, quoted from a 1965 biography by the medic/adventurer/writer Peter Bamm. A number of the topics you mention in the review got treated in this book as well, although the book was obviously not intended to be scientific.

    The murder of Kleitos was committed in a moment of drunken fury according to Plutarch. The victim having repeatedly insulted Alexander in the presence of numerous witnesses by accusing him of being a traitor to his own people and preferring servile foreigners to his true friends a violent quarrel arose. Both men had to be restrained when Alexander suddely tore himself loose and killed Kleitos with a spear he literally wrested from an armed guard.
    After the deed Alexander`s remorse was such that he had to be restrained again lest he hurt himself.

    The comparison between Alexander and Stalin frankly diappoints me, like a sodden McDonalds `burger in the middle of a perfect 7 course French dinner, but then, such comparisons are more or less common currency nowadays as I well know. I absolutely fail to see what value the comparison may have, except as an attention-getter for some. Purges were Stalin`s core competence. Alexander (whose empire crumbled immediatedly after his death when he coudn`t hold it together any longer) used them rather sparingly given the historical context and his own personal experience like the murder of his own father or that of his opponent Dareios.

    From what I know Alexander did not see himself as a Hellene at all, because he was a Mecedonian. We know he was culturally a Hellene, at least partially, but that doesn`t make him one in other respects. The Hellenes and the Macedonians coexisted more or less amiably at Alexander`s court, but they were always conscious of their different mentality and heritage.

  2. YT Says:

    "Julius Caesar wept in despair because Alexander’s glory was beyond his reach." Bet many people were like him at that age…

    But ’tis true that he was the earliest of synthesizers, a bridge to the East. Hence despite his early demise, he truly deserved the title of "the Great".

  3. zen Says:

    Hi fmc,
    Thanks for the Bamm rec – have to look that up tomorrow.
    I agree with you that the murder of Cleitus was an act of drunken rage, not politics and that Cleitus deliberately provoked Alexander – perhaps all the moreso by having some just criticism mixed with his taunts. OTOH, Cartledge gives many instances of murder or probable murder as calculated political acts by Alexander from his earliest days as Philip’s successor to his final days. The scale is, of course, totally different from Stalin’s but what was Parmenion to Alexander but an irritating holdover, a military rival of sorts, a reminder to everyone of the past when Alexander was Philip’s pawn  as a commander(and not even always a favorite). It stretches to make a comparison to Tukhachevskii but like Tukhachevskii, Parmenion and if I recall, his sons, ended up equally dead.
    The Pan-Hellenist vs. Synthesizer identity is a major component of Cartledge’s argument. As you know, the King of Macedon was a Greek to the Greeks but not the Macedonians, Alexander, according to Cartledge, steadily diminished his Pan-Hellenic emphasis as his ambition to become the ruler of Asia came to the fore.

  4. Shaunak Says:

    Would recommend you pick up "The Generalship of Alexander The Great" by JFC Fuller if you haven’t done so already.

  5. fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:


    I do not hink you will find much on Bamm in English. If I am wrong, can you post the links ? He is on German Wiki, though that will not be of much use to you.
    Anyhow, the man had notable career, as WWI volunteer, doctor, sinologist, traveller, ship`s doctor, military doctor in WWII, journalist, essayist and author. His perspective was always that of a humanist and Christian, far from the bogus heroism in fashion at the time. Bamm did active front-line duty in both wars. I cannot resist quoting his reference to this in one of his books: “In the 8th year of war in my existence, a number of ribbons had naturally accumulated on my chest…”

    Parmenion / Kleitos: Philipp was a brutal, nasty sort of man by all accounts and his son was probably right in not trusting his father`s cronies. Some claim that Alexander feared that Kleitos` insults were actually the starting signal for an assassination and acted in putative self-defence. Parmenion`s son was involved in a conspiracy and Alexander did not want to take the risk that the father – who was clearly not involved – wd avenge the son, once the latter had been punished. Parmenion was quite dangerous enough IMO at the time he was killed and not a back number as you imply.   Did Tukhachevskii conspire ? I think not, but he was an able man, and thus dangerous per se for the tyrant. Alexander encouraged able men and took quite a number of them with him, Stalin just couldn´t stand them. Another diffence, not the only one of course.   Frankly, I think both you and – probably – the author reason too much from a 21st century perspective. The men of note at the time were far more impulsive and cd show astonishing magnanimity (Alexander had his share of that) and brutal vindictiveness. The men of Alexander`s court weren`courtiers in the sense in which we now use the expression and quite a number of them felt they cd be king as well or better as he was. Conspiracies were a fact of life then, and prevention was, I admit, not done by gentleness.   Pan-Hellenist vs. Synthesizer is a dichotomy which wd not have been within the scope of Alexander`s thinking. Macedonians, Greeks or Persians were probably equally interesting to him and only a fusion the those cultures and peoples wd have made his empire a lasting reality, had he lived. Beyond that think you are imputing thoughts to him which are not his, but ours.   OT,  but you may have heard of Montesquieu´s theory that Christianity weakened men`s courage and resolve and that the ancients, never having been exposed to it were more manly than we are. Looking at Alexander`s time I find that is an interesting hypothesis.  

  6. theSVK Says:

    Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great are perhaps the two greatest icons of the ancient age. Alexander’s demi God status in pop-art is something which has got to do with two thousand years of mystifying the man’s achievements.

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