My first encounter with Alexander the Great history was exactly twenty years back, reading Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s trilogy: Alexander the Great. Manfredi’s depiction of Alexander was dreamlike: a humble king, a brilliant leader and a caring human.
Over the years, I became obsessed with this historical figure that I accumulated numerous books varying from novels to non-fiction work (even murder mysteries set on his military camps. Don’t ask!).This phase lasted the whole of my twenties which turned me into some sort of an expert in ancient Greek and Roman histories (I was the only spectator coming out of the movie 300 seething about the historical inaccuracy of the story and the misrepresentation of Xerxes- the great Persian king- who looked like a drag queen. Needless to say, my grumbling continued on our way home- which my unsympathetic brother found extremely funny!).
Now twenty years later, while browsing the shelves for something to read, I came across a book called Alexander the Great: The Death of a God by Paul Doherty (2003). Unlike Manfredi’s Alexander, Doherty’s one is anything but a demigod. As the title indicates, Doherty’s main focus is answering the centuries-old mystery: what or who killed the thirty-three-year-old king?
He scrutinizes many historical resources that were either written by Alexander’s scribes or by Roman historians almost three hundred years after the conqueror’s death, comparing and contrasting information that not only helps in setting the historical context of his period but also in understanding Alexander’s darker side: the opportunist and ruthless warlord. T
The book is divided into eight parts that cover the political atmosphere during the time of Alexander’s birth in Pella in 356 B.C., his youth being tutored by Aristotle and coming to power at the age of sixteen after the assassination of his father King Philip. Also, his military invasions, influential people in his life until his sudden death in Babylon in 323 B.C. But what could’ve ended the life of the young king? Doherty researches many theories surrounding his death including the most famous ones of excessive drinking and Arsenic poisoning.
This leads to another question: if Alexander was murdered, what could be the reason behind it? Many factors are mentioned such as the dissatisfaction felt by the army marching for eleven years without a break. Not to mention the loss of tens of thousands of soldiers in Alexander’s mad endeavours such as crossing the Gedrosian desert in Baluchistan. Moreover, imposing the new Persian culture in the form of new Persian army recruits, Persian clothing and forced marriages to Persian wives, which outraged the soldiers even further. Besides, wiping out entire cities such as Thebes and Tyre could’ve deepened the grudges against him and hence the attempt on his life.
Alexander could’ve caused his own death by getting rid of whoever he considered a direct threat to his reign- including his father’s old generals and their household; an imprudent decision with unfavourable outcomes. His volatile personality stemmed from his belief of being a demigod and his obsession with omens and seers could’ve influenced his state of mind and hence hastened his death, another theory suggested by Doherty.
The book addresses other important issues such as what happened during and after Alexander’s death, how was his vast kingdom divided between his companions and the whereabouts of the conqueror’s final resting place. Doherty’s depiction of Alexander is real and convincing; unlike many western writers he’s objective and the arguments he presents are convincing and powerful. The book is written in a language that’s both clear and engaging. A page-turner highly recommended for ancient history fans.
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja. email@example.com