Alexander’s greatness rises again in newest biography

In “Alexander the Great,” author Anthony Everitt crafts a lucid, readable, and compelling portrait of the celebrated general of ancient times.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death” by Anthony Everitt, Random House, 445 pp.

Back in 2002, Anthony Everitt published a book about the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, whose life represents an embarrassment of riches for a biographer. We have volumes of text from the man’s own hand, carefully preserved for millennia and brimming with almost every conceivable detail about his thoughts, relationships, and preoccupations. It’s likely the fullest record of any single individual from antiquity, and from it Everitt crafted a thoroughly textured portrait. 

Everitt’s newest subject, Alexander the Great, represents the distant opposite end of that spectrum. Alexander wrote copious letters, but none of them survive. He was trailed on many an arduous campaign by court chroniclers, but their work has vanished. Virtually every one of his great generals and aides wrote an account of being an eye-witness to the glorious boy general, but all of those accounts have perished. Diligent historians in succeeding centuries worked with those letters, chronicles, and autobiographies in order to write fresh, first-generation accounts, but those accounts are gone. As Everitt puts it, in heartbreakingly mild terms, “The sources we have are less than adequate and were composed hundreds of years after the fact.”

Less than adequate indeed. Alexander was born in 356 B.C. and succeeded his father, King Philip II of Macedon, when he was 20. In the ensuing decade, he steadily demonstrated the strategic and tactical genius that allowed him to conquer a large swath of his world, leading his hardened Macedonian troops to victory after victory against the sprawling Persian Empire of King Darius III, eventually invading India in 326 B.C. By the time Alexander died in Babylon in 323 B.C., he’d already generated many chronicles and many legends. 

Of that great mass of writing, five thin samples survive and form the basis for the modern-day industry of Alexander biographies, of which Everitt’s is the latest and one of the most engaging. He retells the famous arc of Alexander’s career and, as hinted in the book’s title: “Alexander the Great: His Life and His Mysterious Death,” ending with a twist. Those five surviving samples were written by Diodorus Siculus, from the 1st century B.C., Quintus Curtius Rufus and Plutarch, from the 1st century A.D., Arrian from the 2nd century, and Ammianus Marcellinus from the 4th century. Centuries lay between the time of Alexander and the first substantial histories of that time. 

That’s a challenge for any biographer, and Everitt only makes things more challenging by promising things he can’t possibly deliver. “I shave with Occam’s razor,” he tells his readers. “Of competing solutions to tricky questions, it is often simplest to accept what the ancient historians tell us if it is not obviously wrong.”

But he unblinkingly relates, for instance, the familiar story of how young-boy Alexander, under the stern eye of his father King Philip and his court, impetuously insisted that he could tame the magnificent horse Bucephalas and then proceeds to do so, amazing all the adults present. “[Philip] kissed Alexander when he had dismounted,” Everitt writes, “and is supposed to have remarked: ‘My boy, we’ll have to find a suitable kingdom for you. Macedonia is too small.’” The source Everitt cites for this obvious bit of legend (so carefully echoing childhood-miracle stories from Greek mythology) is Plutarch, who, as noted, wrote 500 years after the fact. In other words, he’d be cut to ribbons by Occam’s Razor. 

Sometimes, Everitt doesn’t even bother to take Occam’s Razor out of its case. He tells us, for instance, that “altogether Alexander was quite a sight on the battlefield,” without mentioning a source, although it’s at least a believable surmise. Less believable is his equally unsourced claim that “so far as having sex was concerned, Alexander was incurious. He showed no signs of attraction to women,”  an odd thing to say about a young man who had three wives. 

“I set myself two cardinal rules,” Everitt writes. “I am blind to the future, and I describe the lives of my characters as though I did not know what was going to happen next.” There’s a strong case to be made that these rules are impossible for any writer to follow, especially when it comes to Alexander. 

But the idea behind such rules, the immediacy of the storytelling, gives Everitt’s account its infectious sense of narrative momentum. “Alexander the Great” won’t unseat the scholarship of magnificent Alexander biographies like those by Robin Lane Fox or Peter Green. But its energy is unflagging, including the verve with which it tackles that teased final mystery about the specific cause of Alexander’s death. Even readers well-versed in Alexander’s story will be fascinated all over again.

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