The Genius of Alexander the Great


By the time of his death in 323 B.C., Alexander III of Macedonia had built an empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean coast through Asia Minor and into the Indus valley. Even before his sudden death, Alexander had achieved mythical status throughout his kingdom, and in the centuries that followed his life became the subject of countless chronicles and biographies.

N. G. L. Hammond, the foremost expert on ancient Macedonian history, here presents a new account of ...

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By the time of his death in 323 B.C., Alexander III of Macedonia had built an empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean coast through Asia Minor and into the Indus valley. Even before his sudden death, Alexander had achieved mythical status throughout his kingdom, and in the centuries that followed his life became the subject of countless chronicles and biographies.

N. G. L. Hammond, the foremost expert on ancient Macedonian history, here presents a new account of Alexander's fabled career. Based on a thorough analysis of the ancient sources and enriched by a lifetime of research, Hammond's narrative pronounces the Macedonian conqueror a man truly deserving of the title Alexander the Great.

According to Hammond, Alexander was a visionary statesman and general, the force behind a kingdom which rose above racism and nationalism to enjoy peace and prosperity. His intellect and charismatic personality, which earned him the respect, admiration, and devotion of his subjects, also help explain Alexander's endurance as a source of fascination into the present day.

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Editorial Reviews

Bernard Knox
[A] clearly written book, the distillation of a life's work. . . . [Hammond's] careful descriptions of military maneuvers and the diagrams illustrating successive stages of the operations have a clarity that is often sadly wanting in such accounts. -- Los Angeles Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hammond (Philip of Macedon), the greatest living expert on ancient Macedonian history, now offers a brilliant account of the life of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who pacified Greece, destroyed the Persian Empire and brought Greek civilization to the Indus River and beyond. Drawing upon a lifetime of research into and understanding of his subject, Hammond has crafted a superb overview of Alexander's achievements prior to his unexpected death in 323 B.C. The narrative covers the entire span of Alexander's life. Designed for the general reader, the book contains no footnotes and only a brief bibliography for those interested in additional reading. Ancient writers portrayed Alexander both as a genius and as a lustful conqueror. To obtain the truth about Alexander's character, Hammond has included detailed analyses of these authors' work and their probable sources, as well as his own informed opinions about which views are more correct. Hammond concludes that Alexander was indeed "great," overcoming Greek racism and nationalism to forge a cosmopolitan empire that might have enjoyed a long period of peace and prosperity had the king not died suddenly. Readers will delight in descriptions of Alexander's military engagements, diplomacy, humane treatment of conquered enemies (he appointed Persians as provincial governors, to the consternation of his generals and soldiers), his religious preferences and more. This is a classic study of one of history's great figures by the scholar who knows the most about him. BOMC and History Book Club selection. (Mar.)
Library Journal
The works of only a handful of Alexander scholars are intensely anticipated; Hammond is one of them. In his 90th year, he has produced a highly readable account of the ancient world's greatest conqueror. The paucity of references may bother some, but Hammond sends them to his bibliographies in The Cambridge Ancient History 6 (Cambridge Univ., 1994). Hammond does a good job of not losing the reader in a maze of sources; even someone not previously familiar with Arrian and Plutarch will gain new understandings of how and why Alexander acted as he did. There are historians (E. Badian, for one) who would not agree with Hammond's high opinion of Alexander's motives. Nonetheless, the articulate fashion in which Hammond guides the reader through Alexander's life is outstanding. Recommended for academic and large public libraries.-Clay Williams, Ferris State Univ., Big Rapids, Mich.
The Washington Post
Brings the kind of expertise needed to unravel the truths about a figure of legendary grandeur and accomplishment. -- Washington Post Book World
Kirkus Reviews
A solid if unsurprising introduction to history's greatest conqueror by an expert on his life and times.

Famed for such works as A History of Greece to 322 b.c. (1959), Hammond (Greek/Bristol Univ.) has distilled a lifetime of Alexander studies into a brief summary for the general reader of what the Macedonian conqueror did and why. To keep it readable, Hammond includes no footnotes; an appendix refers the skeptical reader to the author's more detailed works. Beginning with Alexander's boyhood, the book recounts his amazing military feats in the Balkans, Asia, and Egypt, ending with his premature death of malaria at 32. The prose is dense and many of the facts familiar; even so, the tale's particulars can still inspire gasps of astonishment, as when Alexander successfully leads his army across the lethal desert of Gedrosia. The biographer openly admires his subject, lauding him not only as history's greatest general but as a charismatic and enlightened leader who aimed to foster prosperity and peace. This is never completely believable: Was Alexander really that perfect? Did contempt for other peoples and greed for their wealth play no role in the foundation of his empire? So satisfied is Hammond with Alexander's own conviction of having the gods' favor that he uncritically records stories of fulfilled omens that will be suspicious to anyone who doesn't believe in Zeus. Hammond states at the outset his disagreement with scholars who "pick and choose" among primary sources to support their "disbelief in great men," but he seems all too ready to go to the opposite extreme, denying or rationalizing stories that present Alexander in an unflattering light.

The book succeeds as a summary of facts but not as a convincing portrait; it sounds at times more like a boys' adventure yarn than a true intellectual adventure.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788168888
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Pages: 220

Meet the Author

The late N. G. L. Hammond taught Greek at Bristol University and Clare College, Cambridge University. His many books include Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman and the three-volume A History of Macedonia.
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Read an Excerpt

The Genius of Alexander the Great

By N. G. L. Hammond

The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 1998 University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

Chapter One

The boyhood of Alexander

Philonicus the Thessalian brought to Philip a stallion 'Bucephalus' at an asking price of thirteen talents. So down they went into the plain to put him to the test. The verdict was that he was savage and quite unmanageable. He would let no one mount him, disregarded the voice of any of Philip's company, and reared up to strike at one and all. Thereupon Philip was angry. He ordered the removal of the animal as utterly wild and undisciplined. Alexander was present. 'What a horse they are losing,' he said. 'They cannot handle him because they lack understanding and courage.' Philip at first was silent. But when Alexander persisted time and again and grew impassioned, Philip said, 'Criticise your elders, do you, on the ground that you yourself have a bit more understanding or are better able to manage a horse?' 'This horse at any rate,' Alexander replied, 'I'd manage better than anyone else would.' 'And if you do not manage him, what price will you pay for your rashness?' 'By Heaven,' he said, 'I shall pay you the price of the horse.' There was an outburst of laughter. Then, as soon as the terms of the bet between them were settled in monetary terms, Alexander ran to the horse, took the bridle-rein, and turned him round to face the sun - realising, so it seems, that the horse wascompletely upset by the sight of his own shadow dancing about in front of him.

For a while Alexander ran alongside the horse and stroked him. Then on seeing that he was full of zest and spirit, he quietly cast aside his cloak, made a flying jump, and was securely astride him. For a time he held him back, using a touch of the reins to check the bit, but without pulling or tearing his mouth, and when he saw the horse had rid himself of the fear and was eager for the race, he let him go and actually urged him on with a bolder cry and with the pressure of his leg. At first those who were with Philip were agonised and silent. But when he turned the horse in the correct manner and rode back proud and jubilant, all the others cheered, but his father, it is said, wept a little for joy, kissed him when he dismounted, and said. 'My boy, seek a kingdom to match yourself. Macedonia is not large enough to hold you.'

On my interpretation we owe this vivid account to an eyewitness, one Marsyas Macedon, who was an exact contemporary of Alexander and many years later wrote a book called The upbringing of Alexander. In accordance with the etiquette of the court, King Philip and his chosen Companions were attended daily by some of the Royal Pages; and on this occasion Alexander and Marsyas, both probably in their fifteenth year, were in attendance. Bucephalus, meaning 'Oxhead', so named from the brand-mark on his haunch, was a stallion some four years old. He was 'of large size and noble spirit', as indeed we see him portrayed in the Alexander Mosaic commemorating the Battle of Issus (Plate 12). He had already been broken by his trainer Philonicus. Now he was bridled and available for bareback riding (stirrups and saddle were not to be invented until our Middle Ages) by anyone who wanted to try his paces. His wild and dangerous behaviour daunted everyone except young Alexander.

In his handling of the situation Alexander showed an independence of judgement, an understanding of the horse, and a degree of courage remarkable in a boy of his age. It is no wonder that the spectators were in an agony of apprehension, for Alexander was risking his life. It is a measure of that apprehension that Philip is said to have wept for joy when his son returned in triumph. To those who lived to see Alexander in Asia, this event foreshadowed many occasions on which his independence, intelligence and courage brought triumph after triumph. At the time the wager was won by Alexander, and we may assume that Philip paid the price of the horse, which became Alexander's personal possession, was trained as a warhorse and would not accept any other rider. The words attributed to Philip as 'a saying' were probably not historical; for when father and son were dead, men liked to draw comparisons between them. But there is this much truth in the account: Alexander was striving to compete with his father and he was willing to risk his life to that end.

The following incidents and sayings were probably also taken by Plutarch from the work of Marsyas. Whenever news came that Philip had captured a famous city or won a remarkable victory, Alexander used to say to his contemporaries: 'My father, boys, will be the first to win everything; and for me he will leave no great and brilliant action to carry out together with you.' What he wanted as a young boy was not the enjoyment of pleasure or the spending of his wealth but the winning of 'excellence and glory', that is to excel and be recognised as excelling, and to win glory and be acclaimed as glorious. He had no doubt that one day he would be king. Indeed he felt he had to act already in a manner worthy of a king. That is the point of the story that, when the boys in his company asked him whether he would compete in the foot-race in the Olympic Games (for 'he was swift of foot'), he said, 'Yes, if I am to have kings as fellow-competitors.' To some of his companions he may have seemed precocious; for as Plutarch observed, probably citing Marsyas, 'his ambition kept him serious in mind and lofty in spirit'. But he had also a great gift for friendship of the finest kind. For instance, he was very deeply attached to Hephaestion, and he was loyal almost beyond reason to Harpalus, as we shall see. He carried his friends with him in his ambitions; that is why he spoke of winning renown 'together with you'.

In stature Alexander was below the average height for a man of his time. His voice was loud and assertive. He was of a strong and untiring physique. On the march he would practice mounting and dismounting from a running chariot; and it was this strength and his athleticism which enabled him to jump onto the back of Bucephalus. Whereas his father had rugged features and a strongly masculine aspect, Alexander as a youth was remarkable for the softness of his features, the slight protuberance and the melting glance of his eyes, a fair skin and a ruddy complexion. He probably inherited his looks less from his father than from his mother, Olympias (see Plates 1(a) and 15). Until the age of fourteen he was educated at home where life was simple; for there were no slaves and the womenfolk of the royal family cooked the meals and made the clothes. He must have been much influenced by his paternal grandmother Eurydice, who as Queen Mother was held in the highest esteem. She dedicated altars in the city-centre of the old capital Aegeae to 'Eukleia', 'Fair Fame', which was the guiding star of young Alexander, and she composed a delightful epigram which accompanied a dedication to the Muses:

Eurydice, daughter of Sirras, dedicated this (statue probably of Hermes) to her city's Muses, because she had in her soul a longing for knowledge. The happy mother of sons growing up, she laboured to learn letters, the recorders of the spoken word.

Alexander too was devoted to the Muses. The Iliad of Homer was his favourite, he delighted in the works of Pindar, the great tragedians and the dithyrambic poets, and he had a natural love of learning and of reading.

When Eurydice died, Alexander was about fourteen years of age. There was a separate area at Aegeae where women of the royal family were buried, and it was there that Professor Andronicos excavated the earliest and largest vaulted tomb yet known. He dated it late in the 340s and identified it as 'The Tomb of Eurydice'. Alexander will have been at the ceremony of cremation and at the placing of Eurydice's ashes in the main chamber of the Tomb. He must have admired the trompe l'oeil fresco of a facade on its back wall, which created the illusion of a room beyond.

Alexander's strongest emotional attachment was to his mother, Olympias. We have to remember that not only in Macedonia but also in the city-states, the giving of a girl in marriage was arranged by the man who was 'responsible' for her. Commoners used such marriages to strengthen family ties and connections. Kings normally made marriages with, and arranged a daughter's marriage with a member of another royal house for political purposes (or as a cynical writer, Satyrus, put it, 'for purposes of war'). Thus Eurydice, a princess of the royal house of Lyncus, had been given in marriage to Amyntas and lived thereafter in Macedonia. Nor was she the only queen. For the kings and sometimes other males of the royal house practised polygamy in order to ensure a supply of heirs in the direct line and to extend their political connections. Amyntas, for instance, had at least two wives and from them six sons. In the two years 358 and 357 Philip, now in his mid-twenties, took four wives, of whom at least three bore him children. One of the four was Olympias, a princess of the royal house of Molossia, who was given in marriage to Philip by her uncle, Arybbas, the Molossian king. Later writers invented a love-match, which stemmed from a meeting of the young pair at the shrine of the Cabiri on Samothrace; but that is ruled out by consideration of their respective ages. The four wives were treated as equals in queenly prestige.

Olympias had good looks and a fiery temperament. She was intensely religious, sacrificing to the Olympian gods of the Macedonian state and observing the rites of the mystery cults into which she had been initiated. One was the cult of the Cabiri, which was concerned with the fertility of men and animals and with survival after death in the underworld. Offerings were made to the Cabiri as 'The Great Gods' in a circular pit in Samothrace and just outside the city-wall of Pella. Another cult was that of Orpheus, which laid down rules of conduct and promised a happy afterlife to the faithful. The rape of Persephone by Pluto in accordance with Orphic belief was the subject of frescoes in the Tomb of Amyntas and of a painting in the Tomb of Eurydice. A related cult was that of Dionysus, made famous by the Bacchae which Euripides composed and produced in Macedonia. It was remarkable for the orgiastic rites of the women who were possessed by the spirit of the god, and it was said that Olympias was 'inspired and possessed more than any others' and handled huge tame snakes in honour of the god. When Alexander was in Asia, she recommended to him a priestly server who was an expert - like herself - in the Bacchic and Argeadic rites, the latter being those of the Macedonian royal tribe.

Her influence on young Alexander was very great. He grew up profoundly religious with a readiness to believe in the manifestation of the gods in many cults and in many places, and with many names; but as far as we know he did not follow her into the mystery cults of Orpheus and the Cabiri. The bond of affection between them was exceptionally strong. As he was to say later, one tear of his mother cancelled innumerable accusations which had been made in letters by Antipater, his senior marshal. And when a rift developed between his father and his mother, he took her side and together with her left the court. However, strong personality though she certainly was, Alexander was not dominated by her; after he became king he gave her many presents but depended entirely on his own judgement in public affairs.

On attaining the age of fourteen in 342 Alexander entered the School of Royal Pages. Its origin was in the distant past, but such detailed knowledge as we have dates from the reigns of Philip and Alexander. He was one of probably fifty boys, the selected sons of leading Macedonians, who at the age of puberty started on a four-year course and graduated on their eighteenth birthday. During these years they lived at or near the court as boarders, and they received instruction in military matters, especially in horsemanship, and in the liberal arts, of which grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music were the basic subjects. During the last year they served as the king's Bodyguards in battle and as huntsmen on foot, supporting members of the royal family who were required by law to hunt on horseback. See the fresco of the Royal Hunt in Plate 2 and note the statutory uniform of the Royal Page on the extreme right. Physical fitness was essential, and the boys engaged in athletics, gymnastics and wrestling.

The king acted as headmaster, and he alone administered corporal punishment to offenders. For instance, Philip flogged one boy 'unenviably' for falling out of a paramilitary exercise to visit a public house; and in the last year on military service discipline was very strict, even to the extent that a Page was killed by Philip for disobeying orders and laying aside his armour. Philip employed as trainers and teachers capable freemen (not slaves as was often the case in private education at Athens). One of them, Leonidas, a relation of Olympias, was 'a man of stern character' who was described as Alexander's second father and personal professor. He used to examine Alexander's boxes in case Olympias had packed some delicacy for him, and he reprimanded the boy for being extravagant in throwing too much incense on an altar-fire. Alexander evidently regarded him as a Mr Chips, for he later sent him sixteen tons of incense from Egypt.

In 342 Philip hired Aristotle at a handsome salary to teach 'philosophy', which embraced both practical and theoretical knowledge. Lessons and seminars were held usually in the open air in the sanctuary of the Nymphs near Mieza, a beautiful place with natural grottos in the limestone, which was visited by sightseers in Plutarch's day and still is so visited. The influence of Aristotle on Alexander was profound. Alexander accepted as correct Aristotle's views on cosmology, geography, botany, zoology and medicine and therefore took scientists with his army to Asia, and he was fascinated by Aristotle's lectures on logic, metaphysics, the nature of poetry, and the essence of politics. Above all he learnt from Aristotle to put faith in the intellect. In their personal relationship the boy's admiration developed into a deep affection, and they shared a special interest in establishing the text of the Iliad. No doubt Aristotle hoped to guide the future king in the performance of his duties, even as his own teacher, Plato, had tried to guide the younger Dionysius as the ruler of Syracuse. To that end he wrote for Alexander a treatise On Kingship, which unfortunately has not survived. Whether it had any effect when Alexander came to the throne may be doubted. But in 336, having been elected to command the joint forces of the Greeks and the Macedonians for the war against Persia, Alexander showed his regard for 'philosophy' during a visit to the ascetic philosopher Diogenes by remarking, 'If I were not Alexander, I would indeed be Diogenes.'

To be the son of the headmaster of the School of Pages cannot have been easy for a young boy who had a strongly competitive spirit. That Philip loved his son and admired his courage is clear from the account of the taming of Bucephalus. Alexander probably reciprocated that love; for his father had strong affections, a charismatic personality and cultured interests. That Alexander admired him exceedingly for his achievements goes without saying, for in 342 Philip was the leading statesman in the Greek world and had made his country the leading military power in Europe. From 342 onwards father and son were in close contact. As headmaster Philip guided and observed Alexander's progress, and he developed complete confidence in his son's abilities.

It was probably late in 342 that Persian envoys came to the court in the absence of Philip and were entertained by Alexander. They were impressed by his geniality and the perceptive nature of his enquiries about their country and its ruler. In 340, when Philip was undertaking a major campaign in Thrace, he appointed Alexander to act as his deputy, thereby indicating that he intended Alexander to be his successor if he himself should be killed during the campaign. We are told that Philip had had several sons by his wives, but that some died a natural death and others died in war, presumably as Pages. It may be that Alexander's only male sibling surviving in 340 was Arrhidaeus, who was much the same age but was intellectually retarded. The advancement of Alexander brought special prestige to Olympias, who was marked out as the prospective Queen Mother.


Excerpted from The Genius of Alexander the Great by N. G. L. Hammond Copyright © 1998 by University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
I The boyhood of Alexander 1
II The world of Philip as king and Alexander as prince 9
III The influence of Philip 15
IV Alexander establishes his position in Macedonia, Greece and the Balkans 27
V Sources of information, a rising in Greece and preparations for Persia 41
VI The crossing of the Hellespont and the first victory 59
VII The winning of Asia Minor 71
VIII The battle of Issus and the capture of the Mediterranean coast 83
IX Advance to the East and the battle of Gaugamela 99
X Advance to Persepolis and the situation in Greece 111
XI The death of Darius and the decision to advance to the east 119
XII From Parthyaea to Kabul in Afghanistan 129
XIII The advance to the river Jaxartes 139
XIV The subjugation of the northeastern area in 328-327 149
XV The Indus valley 161
XVI Southern Asia 169
XVII The Kingdom of Asia and the Macedonians 181
XVIII The plans and personality of Alexander 191
Appendix of references to the author's studies 203
Notes on illustrations 205
Chronological table 207
Index 209
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