Philip Freeman’s Alexander the Great
(2010) is the biography
of the great Macedonian king, Alexander the Great and a summary of his best-known campaigns. Upon publication, historians and critics praised the book for bringing the history of an ancient king to a new generation of readers. A classical scholar and historian, Freeman teaches Classical and Celtic Studies at Luther College in Iowa. Before becoming a teacher, Freeman studied at Harvard. Freeman loves teaching, seeing it as an extension of his work. He is the author of numerous historical nonfiction books.Alexander the Great
tells the story of Alexander III of Macedon. Educated by Aristotle and a king at only nineteen, Alexander is one of the best known figures from antiquity and arguably the most successful general the world has ever known. Freeman admits that capturing Alexander’s story, from his birth until his death at thirty-two, was no easy task given that Alexander created one of the largest and most powerful empires in history. However, Freeman hopes that Alexander the Great
inspires casual readers and history students alike to learn more about the man behind the myths.
In the book’s introduction, Freeman asserts that Alexander the Great embodies the best and worst of human nature. Through Alexander’s life and military campaigns, we see the great and evil consequences of desire, ambition, power, and sacrifice. Alexander realized his dream of immortality, because we are still talking about him centuries later, but he was also merciless in his pursuit of glory. Alexander paved the way for later western civilizations, but his methods were not always honorable.
Freeman reminds readers that Alexander isn’t unlike his contemporaries, in the sense that ruthless leadership was the only way to survive antiquity. As much as Freeman highlights Alexander’s military successes and hard politics, the book also reveals the complexity of Alexander’s personality, his fears and his disappointments, and how he fits into Classical world history.
Freeman sheds light on Alexander’s upbringing. His father, Philip II, raised him to be a fearless warrior. Alexander had much to live up to—Philip II, after all, united the Greek City States under his leadership. Philip II expected his son to continue his legacy. From the moment Alexander is born, he is groomed for greatness.
Through Aristotle and his various tutors, Alexander is exposed to various languages, philosophies, and ideologies. He has an appetite for new worlds and the unexplored. He also has a deep respect for other cultures and people. More than anything, Alexander dreams of uniting the known world. He plans to do what his father did but on a grander scale. Freeman explains that this is typical of the Classical world—Classical rulers are remembered for their great deeds and triumphs. Leaders are not respected without conquering other territories; everyone wants to be a hero. Alexander is no exception.
When Alexander is nineteen, Philip II is assassinated. Alexander knows that keeping the Greeks united will be a difficult task. To earn their favor and to prove he is a worthy leader, Alexander decides he must acquire new territory immediately. He sets his sights on Darius, King of Persia, who has been a thorn in Greece’s side for many years. Defeating Darius will secure Alexander’s throne.
Alexander is not satisfied with defeating Darius; he wants to be immortalized, a hero. A talented and shrewd leader, Alexander systematically conquers land upon land until there seems to be no stopping him. Freeman dedicates a chapter in the book to each of Alexander’s campaigns, from Egypt to Bactria. Alexander is determined to find the ends of the earth and to conquer everything in between. If anyone is up to the task, it is Alexander. However, as Freeman explains, Alexander’s glory cannot last forever.
Although Alexander has noble intentions, he overstretches his resources. His people are starving, poor, and alienated from their king who is hundreds of miles away. This remoteness and unhappiness breeds descent, and his men lose the will to fight for him. Holding his empire together is not sustainable. Alexander fails to heed the warnings offered by those around him, taking his soldiers on one campaign too many.Alexander the Great
showcases how one charismatic leader can rally an entire empire behind him. However, the book also shows that, when people lose faith in their leader, an empire quickly falls apart. Although what happens to Alexander’s empire after his death is beyond the scope of the book, Freeman does touch on it.
Alexander dies in Babylon without an heir. He doesn’t name a successor, wanting the strongest among his men to claim the throne, and the empire descends into chaos. War consumes Greece for many years after his death. As Freeman’s book reveals, although Alexander’s great deeds are still discussed today, his empire was as fragile as his mortality.