Wood, Michael. In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.

Berkeley: University of California Press 1997.

Wood is a post-graduate Oxford-trained journalist and film-maker who did a number of specials for PBS in which he tracked historical events in the present-day world. They’re popular history of high quality, and since I’ve been working my way through Mary Renault’s “Alexander” trilogy, this seemed a good way to brush up on what I knew from my own long-ago classical history studies.

He provides background on Macedon and on Alexander’s father, Philip II, who had unified Greece under his rule and was well into planning the liberation of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor when he was assassinated, leaving his son as undisputed king at the age of twenty. It’s not going too far to say that Alexander was a charismatic military genius, since the results of each of his major battles, in which he was nearly always heavily outnumbered, show originality and innovation at every turn. This applies not only to infantry and cavalry tactics but to the new use of siege artillery and even to elephant-combat, which no one west of the Ganges had ever had to contend with before. As the companion volume to the TV series Wood created this is, of course, a heavily illustrated book but the text is also very well done, tracking the Macedonian army along the Mediterranean coast of Asia, down through Palestine and into Egypt, back up into Syria and Mesopotamia, and then into the Persian heartland and on to Sogdia (now Uzbekistan) and India. Along the way, we get detailed treatments of the key battles of Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, and the Hydaspes, with pictures of what and who are there now. (Not much, usually, or perhaps only a steel mill.) Keeping in mind when this book was written, obtaining access to much of the route through Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan wasn’t easy and Woods and his film crew had several times to deal with suspicious border guards and warlords. In any case, he does an excellent job of combining ancient history, current travelogue, and the commentary of 2,200 years’ worth of historians.

My only complaint, really, is the author’s tendency to apply modern morality and humanist ethics to a military conqueror of more than two millennia ago. This is now and that was then. It was a different world with a vastly different world-view. Still, although this isn’t the first book I would recommend on Alexander, and it certainly isn’t the only one, it’s a pretty good overview of nine years that changed the eastern Mediterranean world and culture.

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