This book is Alex Rowson's examination of the early life of Alexander the Great, from his birth to the invasion of the Persian Empire. Most studies of Alexander focus on the great events in the East, so it was interesting to read about his formative years.
Alexander was born around 20 July 356 BC in Pella, which became the new centre of Macedon towards the end of the fifth century BC. I have visited the excavated site, which is a fair way from the coast, so it's hard to imagine the waterfront city it once was. The mosaics are impressive though.
The book is a narrative history, although the author discusses the sources and the archaeology as he goes. I thought this might irritate me, but it doesn't. He goes off on a few other tangents, but again they all add to the story. There is a lot about Macedonian religious rites as they applied to Alexander, remembering that infant mortality was shockingly high by modern standards.
It is impossible to understand Alexander's early years without discussing his father, Phillip. I have always thought he didn't get enough credit for creating the Macedonian army that he used to dominate Greece and much of the Balkans. Alexander reminds me of Napoleon, who didn't create the French military system, but he did develop and use it brilliantly. This book is, in some ways, a history of Phillip as much as Alexander, and none the worse for that. However, Nicholas Hammond's, Phillip of Macedon, is my go-to study of Phillip. Alexander was also tutored by Aristotle, so his intellectual development was not ignored.
There are a few fascinating stories about the relationship between father and son. How Alexander tamed his famous horse, Boukephalas is particularly good. He noticed what others had missed. The horse was spooked by his shadow, so he turned the horse to face the sun. After dismounting to the cheers of the court, Phillip said, 'My boy, you must find a kingdom which is your equal. Macedonia is too small for you.' They later fell out before Phillip's death, forcing Alexander and his mother into self-imposed exile. She was another important influence on him, and fascinating character in her own right. However, they were later reconciled before Phillip's assassination.
Alexander's early campaigns are interesting, particularly those in the Balkans. This was where he honed his military skills under the guidance of his father and other experienced generals. The Thracians were a particularly tough opponent and became an important part of his later armies.
He was at some of the later battles that cemented Macedonian control of Greece, commanding the cavalry wing at Chaironeia. He also had to deal with a rebellion when he took the throne, led by Thebes with Athenian encouragement. He also had to return to the Balkans before he was ready to cross the Hellespont for the campaign against Persia.
While this is not a quick read, it is well-written. It covers the latest archaeology and discusses conflicting sources without a heavy academic style. Well worth a read.
|Got to have a picture of the Macedonian phalanx|