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The New Books

Multi-reviews | Pressfield, The Virtues of War (novel) | Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past | Mossé, Alexander: Destiny and Myth | Doherty, Alexander the Great: The Death of a God | Foreman, Alexander the Conqueror


"Alexander the greatest" by Victor Davis Hanson, Times Literary Supplement (October 7, 2004). Review article covers Cartledge, Doherty, Mossé and Foreman, locating the recent upsurge of popular and popularizing interesting within the context of Alexander's long dance with fame—good and ill. He plays a little loose, accusing Alexander's policy of the "Brotherhood of Man" of resting "atop millions of corpses" (The "policy" also rests upon some very dubious scholarship). But Hanson's always entertaining to read, and pulls no punches:

"None of the books under review, given their need for haste and a self-confessed desire to time their publications with the movie, is as authoritative as Bosworth's existing biography, as engagingly written as Green's, or as massive as Robin Lane Fox's..."
That said, he praises Cartledge's effort, finds Mossé flawed but intriguing, Foreman a decent non-academic picture-book, and Doherty a pointless exercise in bad methodology. Hanson's article can also be found (for now) on the TLS website. Top 5%

"Alexander, in fiction or fact, has greatness" by David Walton, Milwakee Jornal Sentinel (October 9, 2004). Also here. Poorly written, anti-intellectual[1] review of Cartledge and Pressfield. Pressfield's "narrative is arresting … for its sheer knowledgeability." (Pray-tell, how does Mr. Walton know?) Cartledge gets summary treatment, but should be glad to hear himself "the world's leading historian on Sparta and ancient Greece."[2]

Pressfield, The Virtues of War (novel)

Amazon. The Virtues of War : A Novel of Alexander the Great by Steven Pressfield. New novel makes Alexander the narrator. I predict it will be a big success; the Amazon reviews are uniformly glowing. Pressfield's previous works included The Legend of Bagger Vance and the Thermopylae-drama Gates of Fire. (Random House blurb.)

Steven Pressfield's home page. Includes a long and interesting interview and excerpts from the first chapter and from a section of military maxims. See his FAQs for how he does his research.

Editorial opinion: I haven't ponied up for this one yet, but from the excerpts online I find the whole thing just breathes bogosity and bombast. Ancient historical fiction is hard, and a first-person narrator participant is more so. Robert Graves pulled it off by leveraging his enormous classical learning and control of voice to seduce the reader into suspending belief as an essentially un-ancient narrative unrolled. Graves took advantage of every trick, for example having Claudius write in Greek (quite believably) and for an audience millenia hence, which allowed him to explain Latin phrases and Roman social institutions. Pressfield just slogs through, tossing out Greek words like a first-year grad student, in a voice as authentically ancient as the Little Caesars Pizza cartoon. The "ancient" touch is apparently conveyed by a penchant for 19th-Century words and constructions:

"I was so overcome that I could not stay myself from weeping. My adjutant grew alarmed and begged to know what discomfited me."
The 19th-Century feel is pervasive. The "military maxims" excerpt sounds like Sun Tzu washed through Fenimore Cooper:
"Only this love of glory, which is the seminal imperative of mortal blood, as ineradicable within man as in a wolf or a lion, and without which we are nothing."
Although informative—I didn't know wolves loved glory!—it's about as inspiring as the greek military philosopher Onasander. And that's saying something.

Review of Cartledge and Pressfield: "A novel and a biography explore Alexander the Great" by William Dietrich, Seattle Times (October 24, 2004). Dietrich doesn't have much to say about Cartledge—there's no sign he's read anyone else's efforts—but his review of Pressfield is absolutely correct, so long as you turn everything he says upside down. I have taken the liberty of underlining the point at which I realized this:

"Historical purists may complain that Pressfield glosses over Alexander's homosexual side and his brutality, and virtually ignores such famous episodes as the Gordion knot, the brilliant siege of Tyre, and the capture of a supposedly impregnable rock spire in Afghanistan, where he won his bride, Roxanne [sic]. There are essentially no women in the book, no sex, minimal description of Asian culture, nothing about Alexander's claim he was the son of Zeus, and no mention of his stubborn and unnecessary retreat across waterless desert to punish his own men."
"Doesn't matter."
If you don't care to deal with so many crucial aspects of Alexander's story, why not just be honest about it and drop the "historical" from historical fiction? It's like writing a novel about Present Nixon, but Watergate doesn't happen, he never goes to China, and he's a liberal Democrat.

GayHeroes review by Jay Spears. Spears lights into Pressfield's hetero Alexander:

"To pretend that Alexander is a heterosexual is as eccentric as to portray him as an Italian. Anyone who did so would, once the laughter subsided, be grilled as to what in the world his 'agenda' might be to come up with such a premise. It mars, deforms, and perverts the character of the man portrayed, not because Italians are perverse, but because some semblance of the truth must reside at the core of any legitimate portrait, even in a novel. … Alexander's sexuality is completely irrelevant to the scope of his achievement unless you lie about it."
Although I think Alexander's sexuality should not be shoehorned into the modern gay identity—the problem is in the modern as much as the gay—Spears nicely highlights Pressfield's inconsistencies. The page also includes a brief exchange between Spears and Pressfield's publicist, who—true to his profession—sees all publicity as good publicity. Ancient history guru N. S. Gill's review of Pressfield. Short. Helen South review. Somewhat positive review by's drawing and sketching guru hits at his style.

"The Virtues of War is certainly not an 'easy' read, and there are times when the author asks rather a lot of the reader: "What I abhor most about such obduracy is that it robs me of the occasion to be magnanimous." Language like this comes across as incongruously pompous , especially several sentences after a statement like 'The bastards nearly corked me twice...'"

Sympathetic review by John Boring, Leatherneck magazine.

"... its true worth to a current or former Marine lies in Pressfield's explanation of Alexander's tactics, the way he used his elite forces and in the way he promoted the pride and fighting spirit that carried his soldiers through all of their campaigns. "

"Alexander the Great tells his own story in fictional 'Virtues of War'" by Susan Kelly, USA Today (11/29/04). Positive.

Positive review by Steven Martinovich, from Enter Stage right. Martinovich finds an "exhilarating chronicle of the Macedonian king's campaigns and the pressures that a commander in the field faces."

"Steven Pressfield: Exploring Ancient Greece through Fiction" by Sophia A. Niarchos, Pressfield combines reactionary opinions, eg., Alexander was well-adjusted hetero[3], and a gushy philhellenism ("I can't get mad at any Greek. Athens is just like it was 2500 years ago. It's great."). The really revealing part is his description of his market:

"ex-jocks and people in the corporate world who see themselves fighting the market-share war. There also many readers who are disgusted with the shamelessness of American society and enjoy reading about an era when honor was left."
As Pressfield no-doubt realizes, the averge jock-become-salesman doesn't rummage through airport bookstores looking for warrior-fags.

Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past

Amazon. Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past by Paul Cartledge. New biography of Alexander by renowned classicist Cartledge (The Spartans) draws a favorable review from Publisher's Weekly, but (so far) more tepid responses from Amazon reviewers. Method and structure draw fire:

"If, like me, you are not already familiar with the characters and events of Alexander's life, you will be frustrated as the book jumps from event to event as the author explores the persona of Alexander."

"Alexander the bloody brutal" by Peter Preston, The Observer (August 1, 2004). Review seems untainted by contact with the book, grinding the reviewer's axes instead: "Think Halliburton plus Guantánamo Bay." No thanks!

Salon Magazine "He's hot. He's sexy. And he's been dead for 2,300 years" by Amy Reiter (10/25/04). Reiter gushes over Alexander's new "hot" status—apparently nothing's worth talking about unless there's a movie being made. The bulk of the article, however, is sober interview with Paul Cartledge, author of the just-released Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past. Cartledge does a good job promoting interest while staying to the knowable facts. He bristles at the absurdity of Jolie and Farrell (or Kidman/DiCaprio) as mother and son, and weighs in on Alexander's sexuality and the "loneliness of power." Bush's Iraq policy is contrasted with Alexander's:

Alexander, on the other hand, I think, had a much better idea. Perhaps the most significant thing he did was that very early on, after beating the Persians, he appointed a very senior Persian who had previously been on the other side as one of his governors. He made him governor of Babylon, which was one of the most important provinces in the old Persian Empire, now Alexander's empire. I think that was a key move. requires either registration or irritation.

Mossé, Alexander: Destiny and Myth

Amazon. Alexander: Destiny and Myth by Claude Mossé (translated by Janet Lloyd).

Victor Davis Hanson in his October 2004 TLS multi-book review article, writes:

"Claude Mossé uses the first person too much; much of her analysis is impressionistic rather than logical; and there is no apparent rationale to the presentation of chapters. Yet the book is nevertheless oddly engaging…"

Amazon. French edition Alexandre: La destinée d'un mythe from the French Amazon.

Doherty, Alexander the Great: The Death of a God

Amazon. The Death of Alexander the Great: What or Who Really Killed the Young Conqueror of the Known World? by Paul Doherty. In addition to writing previous novelizations of Alexander's life, Doherty has also tilled similar "who-killed" topics—The Mysterious Death of Tutankhamun, Isabella and the Strange Death of Edward II. So far, Doherty's new book hasn't drawn many reviews—although Victor David Hanson skewers it—but the reactions to his last are instructive:

"We would never allow nondoctors to write medical treatises (one hopes, anyway); yet non-scholars who write on ancient Egypt in general, and Tutankhamun (or the El-Amarna epoch) in particular, are truly a dime a dozen in every respect. … Ignorance of Egyptian language and history are outstanding here, the constant capitalization of epithets (real and imaginary—mostly imaginary) creates a hysterical tone, and the last chapter (fictional) is simply grotesque. One wonderful howler is that there are two references to 'iced melon—where would the Egyptians procure (and keep) ICE, of all things?" (Amazon reviewer)

Victor Davis Hanson in his October 2004 TLS multi-book review article, writes:

"Most Classicists agree that ancient rumours of Alexander's poisoning are not necessarily false … but there really is not enough evidence to pin the plotting on any likely suspect, much less hinge an entire book on the premiss that a reactionary Ptolemy did in his Orientalizing boss." Minimal.

Foreman, Alexander the Conqueror

Amazon. Alexander: The Conqueror: The Epic Story of the Warrior King by Laura Foreman, introduced by Eugene N. Borza.

Victor Davis Hanson in his October 2004 TLS multi-book review article, writes: "Laura Foreman's Alexander the Conqueror is a beautiful picture book" but not a scholarly one.

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