90 second book review: Alexander The Great

A quick review of the most recent casualty out of my “to read” pile: Alexander the Great by Lewis V. Cummings.  Short for two reasons: I have to head to the airport in less than an hour (to fly to Germany for 12 hours to present 5 slides to 4 guys to get one question answered…but that’s another story) and because I’m not sure I am taking away any grand themes from this read.
This was added to my read pile a few months back on a monthly trip to Half Price Books.  Unlike most of my other acquisitions there, this title was not on a wish list.  Rather, I have been interested in reading more about Alexander, specifically after having read Persian Fire earlier this year.  I almost looked at it like a sequel ;-).  What I didn’t know when I picked this one up is that it was originally written in the 40s and as a testament to how dumb we (or at least I) have become I found the phrasing a bit difficult to get to.  The challenging phrasing was compounded by all the unfamiliar Greek and Persian place and people names (sometimes I wasn’t sure whether it was one or the other) and a relative scarcity of maps to correlate the advances I was reading about.  Overall this was a rather difficult book for me to get through.  But it was worth doing.
A few ideas that stuck out to me about Alexander and his conquest:

  • It’s amazing how far he went in such a short time.  Persia, Egypt, India and nearly beyond.  Immediately before his death he was preparing for an invasion of Arabia.  I can only imagine how different he modern world would be if he had lived for another decade or two.
  • He was most certainly a psychopath.  Or at least extremely disturbed.  How could you not be with the sort of childhood he had (Aristotle’s tutoring being perhaps the one exception…although he later causes Aristotle of being a sophist, so maybe even that didn’t “take”).
  • Maps are a relative thing.  The cities described in the book don’t exist anymore or have been through several name changes.  The borders don’t exist at all.
  • I’m calling out my own stupidity here, but I will admit that I didn;t realize that he wasn’t Greek.  He was Macedonian.  And calling him a Greek would be like calling someone from the deep south a yankee.
  • He was always very concerned about protecting his flanks and rear.  To accomplish this he would often leave the king of the city he conquered (either through arms or surrender) in charge with the help of a few of his own “military advisors”.  This shows that it wasn’t personal (he didn’t hate the kings) put purely about power.  In some cases he also took hostages from the conquered kings kinsmen with him if he though the king might not follow the advice of his “advisors”.  This struck me as strangely similar to some of the “dotted line” reporting structures in some modern corporations…
  • A note about the book rather than Alexander: this book made me realize (again) how hard it is to really know what happened in history.  Cummings uses extensive footnotes, and half of them point out where the primary sources disagree.  I can’t imagine trying to comb through Plutarch, Arrian, etc and try to figure out who is right.
  • For all his accomplishments, and despite his nearly constant attempts to be worshipped as a god, he was still mortal and was likely killed (according to Cummings) by malaria.  We all live in the same reality.

Favorite anecdote from the book (near the end): he was sailing down the Euphrates and his hat blew off.  One of the crew dove in after it and, afraid that the water would damage it, put it on his head.  Alexander rewarded him with a silver talent for saving his hat and then ordered him to be immediately executed for daring to place the royal symbol on his head.
Favorite quote from the book (beside the speech he gave to the Macedonians at the end which is a direct quote from Plutarch):

He (referring to Alexander) had, consciously or unconsciously, reached the conclusion that every tyrant before and since has at last had to learn, that no man ever ruled any body of people without there consent; that the instant they ceased to give that consent, whether passive or active, that instant they were his masters, and continued to be his masters as long as they could act in unison.

Off to the airport now with a copy of Our Mathematical Universe.  The pattern seems to be history – science – philosophy.  This one should check off two of those categories so it will be back to history when I land.







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