The Genius of Alexander the Great Book Review Essay
Alexander III of Macedon, widely known as Alexander the Great, is opinioned by some people to have been a ruthless man who only had a thirst for conquest , but according to others he was a man of intellect and “statesmanlike vision” (Hammond Preface). In N.G.L. Hammond’s book The Genius of Alexander the Great, as stated in the preface, he tries to refrain from writing based on his own opinion of Alexander, and instead analyzes the few surviving narratives on Alexander’s achievements in an unbiased manner. He portrays the conquests, struggles, and greatest achievements of Alexander’s career, such as the building of his empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean coast through Asia Minor and the Indus Valley (Hammond Preface).
Hammond’s main goal is to evaluate the life of Alexander and to write an account of him which is as close to the true facts of his profession as one can achieve. Hammond claims that Alexander did more than any other individual to shape the history of civilization, which led to the title of his book. (Hammond preface) But what was it that made Alexander the Great so ‘great’? In the early years of his life, he wanted to achieve glory and excellence, and that dream stuck with him until his death. His ability to establish his positions and to forge an empire like no other led to the creation of his legendary name.
Alexander overcame hardships, such as nationalism and racism, to build his kingdom using intellect and personality. Even at a young age he showed independence and courage when he tamed the wild stallion Bucephalus (Hammond 2). And that was only the beginning of him proving his worth and his leadership qualities. He was an admirable public speaker (Hammond 27), and he showed great amounts of courage and independence in his life time. At his first battle, the battle of the river Granicus, the Persians placed “their excellent cavalry 20,000 strong on the level ground facing the river and their 20,000 Greek mercenary infantry on the hillside above the level ground” (Hammond 65) as a defense mechanism that could not be turned on either side (Hammond 66).
This battle proved his characteristic speed and courage when he formed a line for frontal attack which included Greek Calvary, Thracian cavalry, archers, Paeonian cavalry, the lancers, and the Hypaspists (Hammond 66) and attacked the Persians, prevailing due to his “strength, experience, and lances of cornelwood against javelines” (Hammond 67). He was a military genius, and it was because of this that he was victorious at that first battle. In Hammond’s opinion, Alexander’s “immediate grasp of the tactical situation, his coordination of all arms in a coordinated attack, and his ingenuity in combining the initial assault with the extension of his line upstream to the right were all brilliant” (Hammond 68).
But how had he learned to become so ‘brilliant’ when it came to military? According to the text, he became educated in his military matters when he turned fourteen and attended the School of Royal Pages in 342 B.C.E. (Hammond 4). He took a four year course where he learned liberal arts, horsemanship, and basic subjects of school until he graduated on his eighteenth birthday (Hammond 5). It is because of this education that he received the start of his admirable career. Hammond provides multiple points in his book that show Alexander’s ‘greatness’, such as the Balkan campaign, where he broke through the Haemus Pass, crossed the Danube, and led his army through Wolf’s Pass without losing a single man (Hammond 39); the revolt and capture of Thebes, where his march into Thebes was “so swift that the Thebans did not know of his approach” (Hammond 44); and the battle of Gaugamela, where he defeated Darius III Codomannus and afterwards was acclaimed ‘King of Asia’ by the Macedonians (Hammond 110). During 340 B.C.E., Alexander commanded the Macedonian forces and defeated the Maedi in the Strymon Valley (Hammond 6).
He captured their city and renamed it ‘Alexandropolis’. This was the beginning of his conquering and renaming of cities after himself, adding to his empire. He was liked by many people due to his great gift of friendship (Hammond 5), allowing him to become admired and respected as a leader. There were many events that lead to the death of Alexander, one including the passing of his best friend Hephaestion, which caused Alexander to fast and lay in grief for two days (Hammond 196). Before he died, he believed that if he gave thanks to the gods and prayed, they would hear his thoughts and grant him salvation. Because of this, he did not arrange a transition of power (Hammond 200). However, Alexander did not have the gods on his side as much as he thought he did because on June 10th, 323 B.C.E. he died at the age of thirty-two (Hammond 198).
He had obtained a fever and later lost his power of speech (Hammond 197). Soldiers came into his room and “as the men filed past he was unable to speak but greeted them with his eyes” (Hammond 198). It was suggested that he died of malaria tropica, and other reports said he died of poisoning or alcoholism (Hammond 198). Nicolas Geoffrey Lemprière Hammond, otherwise known as N.G.L. Hammond, was a professor of Greek University of Cambridge (N.G.L. Hammond: Professor…). He was born on November 15th, 1907 and died March 21st, 2001 (N.G.L. Hammond Bio…). He has written multiple books including his first book A History of Greece to 322 B.C.E., Alexander the Great: King, Commander, and Statesman and a three-volume collection titled History of Macedonia. He attended Fettes College and Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge (N.G.L. Hammond Bio…).
In 1954, he became headmaster at Clifton College, and in 1962 he was appointed professor of Greek at Bristol University (N.G.L. Hammond Bio…). He was mainly recognized for his writing of books on Alexander’s life until his retirement in 1973 (N.G.L. Hammond: Professor…). Hammond’s works cited page was limited to books only in English and included Vergina: the Royal Tombs and the Ancient City by M. Andronicos, Coquest and Empire: the Reign of Alexander the Great by A.B. Bosworth, Alexander the Great by R. Lane Fox, and Alexander the Great and the Greeks of Asia Minor by A.G. Heisserer. He incorporated many of the books he himself wrote, such as The Macedonian State. Many of his secondary sources came from London and Oxford. He also used ancient narratives that dated between three and five centuries after Alexander’s career (Hammond preface).
Hammond used writings from Arrian, whom received his information from Ptolemy and Aristobulus. They campaigned with Alexander and were considered to be trustworthy sources according to Hammond (Hammond preface). Hammond also obtained information from Plutarch’s reports, but Plutarch relied on accounts of information from Cleitarchus, a contemporary, which were considered to be untrustworthy because his books contained many errors (Hammond preface). In his opening paragraph, Hammond used an excerpt from Marsyas Macedon’s book The Upbringing of Alexander. Macedon was a contemporary of Alexander and an eyewitness to Alexander’s taming of the horse Bucephalus. One of his sources, Coins of the Macedonians by M.J. Price, was found in a British museum from 1974, and all of his English sources were created throughout the 1900s.
His book includes an appendix in the back which allows the reader to access certain points of information in the text in an efficient way. Hammond does not cite his sources within his text, nor does his book contain any footnotes. He also refrained from using full dates, leaving out B.C.E. and instead just writing dates such as “342.” The author achieved his goal of presenting the evidence that supported Alexander’s goals and exposing his success. In the beginning of the book, as stated in the preface and in the introduction of this paper, Hammond wrote that he wished to not use bias against Alexander, but instead analyze the narratives. In the book, it appeared that Hammond thought very highly of Alexander, as evident by the title of the book The Genius of Alexander the Great.
According to Hammond, Alexander is a genius in the ways he built his empire and fought his battles. He often used the word ‘brilliant’ to describe Alexander’s actions, such as the “brilliant victory” against the Scythians (Hammond 146) and the way he set up his army to win the battle of the river Granicus stating it was “all brilliant” (Hammond 68). Hammond cites all his sources and provides a well written book filled with a great amount of detail and description on Alexander’s life, his battles, his teachings, what he learned, and how he overcame his biggest challenges. He plays out his text in a fashion that is understandable and interesting. He does not drone on about a certain subject, but stays right to the point.
Hammond does not display his evidence in a chaotic and confusing manner, but instead exhibits the information in a consecutive way. The book begins with his childhood and ends with his death. He labels each section with a title. For example: The Campaign and the battle of Gaugamela (Hammond 103) and Coinage and culture in 336-335 (Hammond 53). There are also illustrations in the text available to the reader such as maps – map of the Alexander city at Ai Khanoum (Hammond 158), sculptures, paintings, and gold medallions. All his pictures are cited on their own citation page (Hammond xii). Hammond provides multiple examples of his text, giving great detail of the actions Alexander partook in. For example, the revolt of Thebes, The war at sea and the siege of Halicarnassus, The crossing of the Oxus, the Branchidae and the failure of Bessus (Hammond 44, 73, 140).
Paul Cartledge is a fan of Alexander, which led him to compose the book Alexander the Great. He starts his book out by saying, “He [Alexander] is one of those very few genuinely iconic figures, who have both remade the world they knew and constantly inspire us to remake our own worlds, both personal and more global” (Cartledge preface). Both Hammond and Cartledge present Alexander as a legendary figure. Cartledge states that “Alexander was in various countries and at various times a hero . . . but he was most famous of all as a conqueror” (Cartledge 1). Hammond agrees with the statement that Alexander was a conqueror by depicting his many battles and many victories as ‘geniuses’. Norman F. Cantor, author of Alexander the Great: Journey to the End of the Earth, also writes Alexander to be a “great figure in the ancient world” (Cantor).
Both these men believe Alexander’s conquests shaped the world in a positive manner. Like Hammond, Cantor wanted to only write a critical assessment of Alexander and his world (Cantor). To all three of these authors, Alexander deserved his title ‘Alexander the Great’ because he had “extraordinary achievements” (Cartlidge), was a “hero of antiquity [that] led an army of Macedonians and Greeks on a route through the Middle East and Central Asia” (Cantor), and had “intellectual brilliance and statesmanlike vision” (Hammond). In an article written by Brooke Allen titled “Alexander the Great – or the Terrible?”, Brooke states that “though he has gone down in history as ‘the Great,’ he might just as easily have been known as ‘the Terrible’” (Allen). Allen talks about how Alexander was known by the Europeans as “the best in the west” because he helped the spread of Hellenic culture, but to the Asians he was “a dispenser of death and destruction” (Allen).
While Hammond describes Alexander as a successful, brilliant conqueror, Allen brings insight into the dark sides of Alexander the Great. According to her, his destruction of Thebes, where he killed all the men and captured the women and children for slavery, was an “atrocity” (Allen). In Hammond’s book, when it came to the death of Alexander’s father Philip, Hammond made Alexander out to be a victim. Hammond wrote that there was more than one intended victim and that “Alexander would surely have been one” (Hammond 29). But in Allen’s article she writes “Many contemporary sources believed Alexander to have been, if not the author of the crime, at least complicit in it” (Allen).
All the battles that Alexander won and the people he had to killed were classified by Hammond as great and powerful, but Allen talks about how these were crimes, such as his massacre of the Branchidae or his execution of the governor of Gaza Batis, where he tied him to a chariot and dragged him around the city’s walls until he was dead (Allen). But whether or not Alexander was a ‘great’ or a ‘terrible’ man depends on who is classifying him. To any student wanting to compose a review or essay on Alexander the Great, this is a highly recommended book.
It has a copious amount of information on Alexander (i.e. his first battle, how and where he learned, his childhood, his adulthood, and his death). Alexander was not just a man who fought in battles; he was a legendary figure whose name can be found as the title of many books and articles. Although he died at the age of thirty-two (Hammond 198), he managed to do more in those thirty-two years than most people could in eighty. He is the only man to conqueror most of the known Western world and his name will continue to live on for many centuries to come.
Allen, Brook. “Alexander the Great—or the Terrible?” Hudson Review; (2005), Vol. 58 Issue 2, p220-230, 11.
Cantor, Norman F. Alexander the Great: the Journey to the End of the Earth. HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. Print.
Cartledge, Paul. Alexander the Great. The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. 2004. Print.
Hammond, N.G.L. The Genius of Alexander the Great. General Duckworth and Co. Ltd, 1997. Print.
“N.G.L. Hammond Bio.” www.in.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov 2012.
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