Princeton (2019) h/b 176pp £24 (ISBN 9780691181752)

Fifty years ago I was relying on Greek Art (published 1964) to get me through first year classics; now here is B. still going strong with his latest study of how Alexander has been perceived since his death. In between, of course, there have been scores of books and articles from the Oxford Professor Emeritus but I suspect that few of them can have given him more fun to write.

This one, styled a story not a study, takes us all the way through from Alexander’s death in 323 BC to recent films and the present day—even Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson gets a mention. ‘Perception’ studies (or stories) are revealing as well as fun, though we must heed Bosworth’s magisterial warning: ‘The besetting sin of traditional Alexandrian scholarship has been an obsession with the person of the king, who becomes less a historical figure and more a symbol of contemporary aspirations. In Droysen’s hands he was the embodiment of Prussian imperialism, in Tarn’s a liberal humanitarian’ (Cambridge Ancient History, vol.VI. p.791).

Master general, city-planner, philanthropist, Alexander brought them all under his spell: Michelangelo, Louis XIV, Napoleon, even the last Shah of Persia. In both the Old Testament and the Koran, from Handel to Wagner, in the works of the Renaissance painters and of Hollywood, in the poetry of Hafez and Cavafy, the Alexandrian story runs on. And it is deep in our literature too: in Chaucer, Malory, Marlowe, Dryden, Byron and Kipling as well as in Shakespeare’s Henry V and Hamlet. Along the way he became the first superman: tales modelled on early Greek and heroic legends metamorphosed into medieval fantasies involving flying machines and diving bells. 

What kept powering the many myths? First, he died young, just 33 years old. All political careers end in failure, pronounced Enoch Powell, ‘unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture’. Would the myths have sustained so long, one wonders, had the duller realities of running such an enormous empire intervened? Was Aristotle’s pupil really as good a ruler as he was a warrior? 

Second, his life takes us into the realms of human ambition and its limits: he was the ideal conqueror to whom normal boundaries counted for nothing. B. puts us right on Alexander’s weeping that he had no more worlds to conquer: he wept, in fact, that he had so far yet to conquer one. That’s the appeal that Browning captured so well: ‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ 

Third, he was universal. He was Macedonian but he was also Greek; there were Egyptian, Persian and Indian Alexanders too. He certainly was not seen as any kind of a nationalist: indeed B. reminds us that there were probably more Greeks fighting in the armies against him than in his. On the contrary, successive ages have wanted to see in him as a citizen of the world, a man bringing peace, stability and civilisation in the wake of his victories, a harbinger of the rules-based international order to which we cling today. Lucky generalissimo or ‘protector of men’? This delightful book will encourage you to take another look.

Michael Fallon