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Once Upon A Bookshelf

Where Fiction and Reality Meet

Alexander the Great: Narrative

Author: W.W. Tarn
Originally Published: 1948
Courtney’s Edition: 1979
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Source: Purchased at library sale

The Story

This is the first of two books, written by a University of Cambridge professor, about Alexander the Great. Volume I (this one) takes a general look at Alexander’s life in narrative format, whereas Volume II “contains a number of special studies.”

Volume I has been separated into three parts:

  1. The Conquest of Persia
  2. The Conquest of the Far East
  3. Personality, Policy and Aims

The first two are a general historical look at what Alexander did from the time he succeeded his father on the throne to the time of his death. The third part looks at what the author believes Alexander’s aims and personality were and Alexander’s influence on the world.

The Response

The part that I most enjoyed was the third part (Personality, Policy and Aims), as it took a look at Alexander’s actions and through what he did extrapolated his personality. This shows how he was a mind ahead of his time – practically reinventing the financial model of countries, showed how he (unlike a lot of rulers at his time) had both compassion for people and respect for their culture. It shows his grasp of strategy, through the way that he could successfully face each opponent, even when he had to change his approach due to tactics he had never seen armies use before. He could unite all those who would follow him, and inspired many people throughout centuries to come.

It’s doubtful how successful he would’ve remained had he lived past his 33 years of age – if he would have been able to maintain peace as well as he was at conquering his world – but in those 12 years he was king, he certainly accomplished more than most people could ever claim to!

My favourite passage in the book is as follows, and takes a look at some of the personality that Tarn believes Alexander had:

… there was another side, which cannot be overlooked; a romanticism which was kindled by the exploits of Achilles and Heracles, Semiramis and Cyrus, and burst into flame under the glamour of the East; something too of the mystic which set him apart from others as the man whom Ammon had counseled, and who possibly felt himself an instrument of the gods. From this side of him, obscurely as we see it, sprang what was probably the most important thing about him: he was a great dreamer. To be mystical and intensely practical, to dream greatly and to do greatly, is not given to many men; it is this combination which gives Alexander his place apart in history.

I would have been interested to see what the author would have said about Alexander if this was a more contemporary book – especially how he felt in regards to the suppositions that Alexander liked guys. And I wish Bucephalus was mentioned more than “so this is where his horse died.” Also, it would’ve been a HUGE benefit to have more than just one map at the end of this book, especially when talking about Alexander’s treks across deserts… But those are really the only three things that I didn’t really like about this book. So, I suppose if that’s all I have to complain about, then this was a pretty good book.

The Bottom Line

Not going to be reading the second volume, but did enjoy this. Will be keeping it, and would recommend it to people who wanted to know more about Alexander’s conquering of Asia, Persia, etc.

Other Reviews

Have you reviewed this book on your blog? Let me know and I’ll add your link.

Posted by Courtney Wilson @ 7:02 am September 15, 2010.
Category: Non-Fiction
Book Author(s):

  • Shannon

    There’s this fictionalized book about Alexander’s relationship with his tutor Aristotle by Annabel Lyon. She was interviewed on CBC at some point while I was listening and I’ve wanted to check it out ever since. Sounds like something you might be into as well.