There is a part of me that would very much like to consider myself a polymath – a renaissance man. Although I study veterinary medicine, I do try to spend time in various other hobbies and pursuits, of which one is history (specifically of the Hellenistic variety). As a result of my focus within that focus, the historian Grainger is someone that I’ve actually become quite familiar with.
Grainger has described himself as a sort of independent agent in the field of history, who has a very large catalog of books he has written focusing on either Hellenistic history or more modern developments. While I have not read his works on, for example, Cromwell or Yorktown, I have done so on a number of his Hellenistic histories. Of particular note is his The Roman War of Antiochos the Great, which does a lot toward reopening discussion on a part of history that usually is glossed over. So when I saw that he had recently published a book addressing Alexander the Great, I was curious not so much by the title, but rather by the author.
Arguments that Alexander was not so “great” have been commonplace in college-level history courses for quite some time. My guess is that their origin is due to the end of the imperialist era post-WWII, rather than any actual analysis of history. Without a doubt, the man was – to use modern parlance – a dick. But that was not why he was considered great by the ancient world. He was considered great because he did what any person in that time would have thought heroic: he conquered one of the largest and more powerful states ever. Even his general path of destruction and slaughter was in tune with the definition of hero at the time, which is strikingly different from our modern definition. Grainger, instead takes a different approach to Alexander.
That the Makedonian empire fell apart fairly quickly after Alexander’s death is well known. Even when it could be considered whole, it certainly did not function well. The reasons for this, along with historical context and the importance of the work of Alexander’s father Philip II are the cruxes upon which Grainger bases his book. In fact, that is something that historians of Alexander seem to rarely do: give proper credit to Philip. The author’s argument is that it was Alexander’s failings not as a military leader, but as a leader of state that caused his empire to fall apart. He provides several examples of where Alexander went wrong, but does more than simply list them. Instead, he provides a greater reasoning for it all. For example:
That Alexander failed to provide an heir is well known. He did eventually, but it was so late into his reign that the child that was to be his legitimate heir was way too young for any of his ambitious generals to wait. Anyone can see this, but few would recognize that there was more history behind this, for in Makedonia, dynastic and succession crises were actually the norm. There was a continual cycle where a king would die; the royal family would fight for control of the throne; the victor would then have to pick up from the ashes; and by the time the country had finally recovered the cycle would repeat itself. It was because of this that it wasn’t until Philip and his comparatively long reign that Makedonia was able to place itself as a major regional power. Philip also saw the importance of ensuring that there would be a clear heir to prevent the erasure of all that he accomplished – something that most of Alexander’s successors saw as well. That Alexander did not makes his constant, puerile refusal to seriously consider the consequences of lacking an heir all the more damning in the face of his national history.
Unfortunately, an actual analysis of Alexander’s shortcomings as ruler only lasts for a few chapters.
Grainger’s book ends in 272 BC, which is roughly 50 years after Alexander’s death. This results in a rather tiring look at the history of the region concerned until it’s stabilization into the three major Hellenistic kingdoms. Although he does provide some interesting opinions and observations as well as chapters on what was happening in the greater world at the time (including the events in contemporary China), because of this broader focus, it seems that Grainger fails in sticking to defend his thesis: that of Alexander the great failure. Perhaps he felt that these decades were simply the long-reaching extent of Alexander’s policies and refusal to actually act as a ruler instead of just a military leader; that until the stabilizing in 272, it was simply a continuation of failure. In a way, that is certainly true, but it would seem to me that it could have been summed up in a single chapter; that the focus should have been on Alexander while he was alive. However, I don’t believe you could have gotten an entire book from that, and Grainger probably saw that as well.
There are other problems with the book as well. These tend to be a bit smaller in the grand scheme of things, but they are troublesome enough. The first of which is that Grainger (or his editors) cannot seem to decide whether they want to use transliterated Greek for the names of people or their Latinized equivalents. Here are some examples:
- Δημήτριος is transliterated as Demetrios, or Latinized as Demetrius
- Αντίοχος is transliterated as Antiochos, or Latinized as Antiochus
- Σέλευκος is transliterated as Seleukos, or Latinized as Seleucus
The Latinized forms are commonly used by historians, but the Greek transliterations are becoming more commonplace. Grainger, however, uses both forms not just within the same chapter, not just on the same page, but many times within the same paragraph.
The second problem that Grainger has is simply with his writing. I found that it was generally sloppy and as though it could have had another round of editing. His history is accurate, which it almost always is, but his writing in this book is really quite mediocre. There aren’t any glaring grammatical mistakes, but the sentence structure is awkward. There were some parts that took several readings to make sure I understood what had been written. That is never a good sign.
Overall, Alexander the Great Failure is not the best book you could read on the subject. It’s problems lay not in what it attempts to do, but in that it takes too long to do so and feels unfocused and unpolished. Critical analysis of Alexander should always be welcome as long as it not done by twats in the same vein as people like Ward Churchill. If you are looking for it in this book, however, you might find yourself in the wrong place. I would not go so far as to say that it is a failure itself, but it is hardly a success.