by F. S. Naiden (Oxford University Press, 2019)
Soldier, Priest, and God is a twelve chapter biography of Alexander, which, as per the title, tells his story with special reference to Alexander’s expedition to the east, religious observance, and divinity.
Is the book worth your time?
- The focus on Alexander’s religious observance (not religion; Naiden doesn’t go into a discussion of who the Olympian gods were, etc). I can’t think of any other biography that gives this absolutely essential part of Alexander’s identity any significant amount of attention. If you know of any that do, feel very free to let me know.
- Naiden includes tables recording all the ‘acts of sacrifice and related rituals in the Alexander historians and in Strabo’ (p.273) and ‘omens and oracles’ (p.280) in the former. If you are half-interested in the religious side of Alexander, Soldier, Priest, and God is probably worth buying just to have these tables to hand.
- Naiden’s text is accessible. He does not have the light touch of a popular historian (though see below) but tells Alexander’s story clearly enough. Further to this, the text is supplemented by several nice-to-look-at maps and illustrations.
- Yes, Naiden’s text is accessible but it is also a little dull. I was never bored while reading Soldier, Priest, and God but neither was I excited by it. In cricketing terms, Naiden plays with a very straight bat. As a result, while I will certainly keep this book for reference purposes I doubt very much that I will ever think about reading it from start to finish again.
- The text contains the odd easily avoidable error. For example, Naiden states (on p.76) that Sisygambis mistook Leonnatus for Alexander rather than Hephaestion. On Hephaestion, his funeral took place in Babylon, not, as Naiden says (p.235), in Ecbatana*.
- Naiden anglicises Alexander’s name but does not always do the same for the Persians. As a result, you may – like me – find yourself pausing to try and remember or work out who Mazdai, Huxshathra, and Spitamanah are (in case you would like to know, they are Mazaeus, Oxyathres, and Spitamenes).
So, Soldier, Priest, and God may be a little dull in the telling but Naiden does make you think – whether with a raised eye brow or not. For example, he talks about Alexander’s Companions as a ‘cult’ (p.1), mentions that a ‘2008 republication of an inscription proves that Alexander was crowned pharaoh’ (p.5)(my emphasis), accuses Alexander of ‘immaturity’ (p.25) in ordering the assassination of Amyntas IV, and states that the box he put his annotated copy of The Iliad in was previously used to store ‘cream scented with palm wine’ (p.143). What is good, though, is that he provides a very full set of end notes, so if you see a statement that looks debatable or plain wrong, there is a good chance he has mentioned his source(s).
In my first post of this year, I reviewed a review of Soldier, Priest, and God. I found the review on the Book Marks website here. If you click on the link you’ll also see extracts from James Romm’s review at the (paywalled) Wall Street Journal.
Obviously, I would agree with Romm about Naiden’s lack of narrative skill – I think I would call it his lack of a story teller’s touch – but I have to say I didn’t get the impression that Naiden was ‘strangely snarky’ in describing ancient religious beliefs. I’m sorry I don’t have a subscription to the Wall Street Journal to read more about what he says on that point.
With that said, like Romm I did come away from the book ‘as puzzled as ever about the young king who conquered the world.’ though I am not sure I can wholly blame Naiden for that. Yes, any book about Alexander should make us feel afterwards that we have learnt something about him but on the other hand, he will always be ‘other’ to us. The lack of his own words, evidence of his inner thoughts and emotions, and differences in the way we live and perceive things compared to his time have seen to that.
In conclusion: Soldier, Priest, and God has its flaws but there is enough in it to make it a book worth considering if you would like to know about about the religious Alexander the Great.
*I’m going to come back to this point in my next blog post.
Credit Where It’s Due
Front cover of Soldier, Priest, and God: me! I took that photo