I have known for a while that my Alexander reading is skewed in favour of the primary sources. Over the past few years I have read, re-read and re-re-read them in order to get a good understanding of what they had to say about the Macedonian king.
However, the ultimately deficient nature of this approach came into sharp focus recently when I was asked if I could recommend any texts to read about Alexander. All I could think of was Peter Green, Robin Lane-Fox and Michael Wood – historians who I read prior to focussing on Arrian et al in 2013. And to be honest, I think I first read them at the start of my interest in Alexander, c.2007. Way too long ago*.
As a result of this, I decided to try and make 2017 the year in which I would make a concerted effort to read more secondary accounts of Alexander’s life. My second decision was to start that process now, or rather, last week, rather than wait until 1st January. Impatient as ever.
I have a lot of buying to do (my Amazon trolley is starting to heave) but for once I thought I would be sensible and start with a book that was already on my desk waiting patiently to be read – A. B. Bosworth’s Conquest and Empire The Reign of Alexander the Great.
Before I continue I should say that as I write these words I have read the first, biographical, half of the book. The second is made up of Thematic Essays, which I will leave for another day. I will explain the reason for this below.
Bosworth’s name frequently pops up in my Alexander reading. In my mind – and I am sure in reality, too – he is up there with Tarn and Badian as one of the major scholars of the conqueror. Reading his book, therefore, has been a privilege.
I can’t say, however, that it has been particularly enjoyable. On the one hand, Conquest and Empire contains some good insights. On the other, it is written in a very sober to the point of dull fashion. It is not a book to read if you want to get excited about Alexander.
Part of the reason for this is that Bosworth is a sceptic when it comes to Alexander’s greatness. Actually, that’s fine; in fact, it is more than fine, it is important – we need scholars who recognise the truth that not everything Alexander did was wonderful, and that he did not always behave in a ‘great’ fashion; what made the book a bit of a chore to read was Bosworth’s style of writing. Not everyone can write with the infectious enthusiasm of Michael Wood but it’s a shame when they write in such a staid fashion that you feel your enthusiasm being sucked out rather than renewed.
For this reason, I am going to skip Bosworth’s Thematic Essays for now. I’ll come back to them after I have read one or two more books. That will give me time to forget how Bosworth wrote and remember the value of what he wrote. Speaking of which, my favourite chapter of the book is definitely the epilogue where he briefly discusses what happened in the years following Alexander’s death. The insights there helped to make up for what I didn’t like about the rest of the book.
Would I Recommend This Book?
Yes, definitely – but not to someone who had never read about Alexander before. Conquest and Empire is for someone who has already got excited about Alexander’s achievements but now needs to come back down to earth by understanding their cost.
* Of course, I have read other books in the meantime, but not enough
Conquest and Empire front cover: From Amazon