Before & After Alexander: The Legend and Legacy of Alexander the Great

by Richard A. Billows (Overlook Duckworth, 2018)

Before & After Alexander is split into three main sections. In the first, Billows looks at Philip II’s kingship and shows how he took Macedon from being a backward country on the brink of destruction to being a regional superpower. In the second, he examines the career of Philip’s son, Alexander the Great. And in the third, he discusses the Wars of the Successors and takes the story of Hellenism right up to the fall of the Byzantine Empire in A.D. 1453 and beyond.

Three Pros:

  1. It makes a convincing case for seeing Philip II as the man who made Alexander the Great’s successful career possible. This is important as while Philip is by no means a forgotten figure he does tend to live in Alexander’s shadow. Without him, though – without his reorganisation of the Macedonian army and development of weaponry and tactics -, without his social and economic policies, which increased Macedonian manpower, Alexander would not have been able to challenge much less defeat the satrapal army at the Granicus let alone Darius III at Issus or Gaugamela.
  2. It does something new by taking the story of Hellenism all the way from Philip II to the Renaissance. Further to this, Billows does not limit himself to talking about Hellenism in the context of Christianity but also Islam.
  3. While Billows’s text does not flow quite as smoothly as some writers’, it is still very accessible. The book also comes with End Notes and a Glossary of Greek Terms as well as the more usual maps, genealogies and chronology.

Three Cons:

  1. The section on Alexander comes close to being a hatchet job. After reading it, I had no sense that Billows intended to engage with him. It was as if Alexander existed simply to be criticised and make Philip look good.
  2. Billow’s conclusion is very contentious.

… if not for Philip’s new Macedonia, if not for his unification of Greece, if not for his bold plan to invade and conquer the Persian Empire and spread Greeks, the Greek language, and Greek culture all around the eastern Mediterranean, it is very debatable whether Greek literature and ideas would or could hold the place in western and even Islamic culture that they do.
(Before & After Alexander, pp.301-2)

Philip certainly made Macedon anew. But, he didn’t unify Greece. He didn’t even control all of it; Sparta remained beyond him. True, he could have taken it if he wished, but he didn’t. And the rest of Greece, which he did control, never accepted him as its master. To the best of my knowledge, we do not know that Philip intended to conquer the Persian Empire much less spread Greeks, the Greek language or culture. Recently, I read that his usual modus operandi was to campaign for a season before returning home, then repeat the same process the following year – perhaps going a bit further territorially. Surely, this is what he would have done in Asia Minor.

I think the analysis offered in the chapters above shows clearly that Alexander is one of the most overrated figures in world history. The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip; and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and of turning those lands into viable empire with Greek cities and Greek culture.
(Before & After Alexander, p.302)

Obviously, I disagree that Billows’s analysis succeeds in showing that Alexander was ‘one of the most overrated figures in world history’. His analysis, such as it is, is too one sided and brief to be convincing. However, I do agree that Philip was a great man. For what he did for Macedon he deserves to be called Philip the Great.

Unfortunately, Billows’s book is dedicated to taking the credit away from Alexander for his successes and giving it to Philip for his. Indeed, Billows’s Alexander is not much more than an extension of Philip’s genius; he is not his own man. This is not an accurate way to describe either father or son. Philip II was an excellent general but his greatness comes from the way he rescued and then developed the Macedonian army and state. Alexander’s comes from his military genius. Philip II and Alexander III, therefore, are complimentary figures, not rivals; to see them as such blinds us to the skills and talents of the other.

How much credit can we give Antigonus, Ptolemy and Seleucus? In truth, this is a question I need more time to think about. My first response to it, though, is this:

Antigonus spent most of his time fighting. He founded a few cities but I didn’t get the impression from Billows that he did much more of lasting value than that. I don’t know, therefore, how Billows can criticise Alexander for just fighting and yet be so favourable towards Antigonus. I’ll note here that Antigonus did not found the Antigonid empire in Macedon. The credit for that goes to his grandson Antigonus Gonatas (277 and 272 BC). I wonder if Billows is referring to him? If he is, I don’t know why he is referring to the Antigonus who governed the lands that ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in…’.

Billows says that Ptolemy and Seleucus deserve credit for turning their kingdoms into ‘viable empires’. Alexander’s empire was equally viable. Even though he died childless, Roxane was pregnant, and the empire would have survived had the generals remained loyal. For various reasons, however, they weren’t. It’s fall, therefore, is as much on them as it is on Alexander.

To stay with this quote, Billows states that, ‘Alexander… merely marched through and fought battles in’ the Persian empire; he did not turn ‘those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture.’

There is a sense in which this is correct. Alexander’s main purpose in life was to win glory; to prove himself better than those who came before him (for example, Achilles, Herakles, Cyrus the Great, Semiramis, his own father, etc). He was not primarily interested in establishing Greek cities and culture. He believed in both, however, and so they flourished under him.

We could, perhaps, argue that Alexander is to the Ptolamiac and Seleucid empires what Philip is to Macedon: the founder, the man who paved the way for those who came after him. On a personal note, it is a great shame that Alexander died so young, really only at the end of the first phase of his life’s work. I feel that had he lived longer, we might have seen him develop his kingship to the benefit of Hellenism.

Or maybe he would just have continued fighting. But if he had, he would not have simply marched and fought, marched and fought any more than he did during the first expedition. For while he did not stop nearly often, or long, enough to properly establish Hellenism, we do see him stopping to secure his territory and engaging with his subject people.

For example, in Asia Minor he visits Gordium to see the famous knot; in Egypt, he undertakes a pilgrimage to Siwah; he refuses to let his men loot and pillage many of the places they visit; in India, he goes on a second pilgrimage past Nysa to Mount Meros; in Pasargadae he goes to the tomb of Cyrus the Great to pay his respects.

Often, Alexander had a vested interest in doing some of these things; other times, there was no need. But when we take these actions, and put them together with the knowledge that Alexander also had an abiding interest in literature, and especially philosophy and medicine, we see that there was much more to him that just fighting and marching.

3. Before & After Alexander has a few annoying typos. They don’t detract from the reading but are a nuisance in a book that costs £20.

In conclusion: I would definitely recommend Before & After Alexander to anyone wanting to increase their knowledge of where Alexander came from and where the actions of he and his father ultimately took Hellenism. I can’t recommend the chapter on Alexander himself but it is still worth reading in order to gain an opposite view – which has, after all, been there since Cleitarchus put quill to papyrus – of the man who, for all his faults, is still important enough to have his name in the book’s title rather than his much vaunted father.

Credit Where It’s Due

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