I really like history, and I really like ancient history, but Alexander the Great is probably my favorite historical subject. I have a bad habit of finding books about Alexander whenever I wander into a physical or virtual bookstore; I enjoy reading them even though they’re all hypothetically telling the same story and relaying the same facts. Alexander historians have a LOT OF OPINIONS and they disagree most of the time, which keeps it interesting if I ever get tired of the Siege of Tyre and the invasion of Persia (spoiler: I don’t).
If you are interested in reading a book about Alexander, or you have read some but want more, or you have read a LOT and want to tell me how wrong I am, look no further! Listed below are my favorite books on Alexander the Great, whether they’re novels, biographies, or picture books.
If you have Alexander the Great recommendations for me, please share them in the comments!
The Age of Alexander by Plutarch: If you don’t know anything about Alexander the Great, this would be my first nonfiction recommendation. Plutarch was a Roman historian who wrote a few centuries after Alexander, but he was working off of the primary sources (biographies written during or soon after Alexander’s lifetime). That being said, he is an anecdotal writer, so he embellishes where he feels he needs to, and slathers his Roman bias all over everything. Still, it’s a great place to start and pretty entertaining to read. Plutarch knows how to tell a good story. Later biographers tend to use Plutarch and Arrian the most.
The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian: Arrian is probably the best, most comprehensive source in existence for Alexander. Like Plutarch, Arrian was a Roman writer using the primary sources to write his own Alexander biography, but Arrian does his best to accurately record Alexander’s military exploits. Arrian has less fun storytelling than Plutarch, but more accuracy (in relative terms) and lots of specifics military details.
Everyone knows that Alexander the Great didn’t have pupils.
The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus: If you really want to cover all the main secondary sources, you should tackle Rufus as well. He has really strong opinions about Alexander, like the others he slathers his Roman bias all over everything, but he’s a lot closer to the source material than we are. Rufus gets only a half-hearted recommendation from me because he includes a lot of embellished speeches, he is obsessed with Darius (king of Persia) and he kind of hates Alexander.
Note: Other main sources include Diodorus and Justin, but I haven’t read those guys yet.
Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire (Great Courses) by Kenneth Harl: I listened to these lectures but there are DVDs available as well. This is a fantastic and comprehensive run-down of Alexander, his historical context, and his legacy. My only complaint is that Harl has a huge crush on Alexander, and tends to rationalize or justify some of Alex’s less awesome choices. If you like audiobooks, this would be my #1 rec.
Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green: This is the best biography; I want to eat it up. This and the Harl lectures are the best of the more modern biographies I’ve come across so far. Peter Green doesn’t hate Alexander, and he doesn’t love him, but he respects Alexander is a megolomaniac genius and admires his skill in manipulating everything and everyone around him. I subscribe to this view also, in part because of this book.
The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault: This is Mary Renault’s nonfiction treatment of Alexander the Great; see below for her fiction treatment. Like Harl, Renault has a huge crush on Alexander and she will stop at nothing to justify any torture, genocide, or palace burnings that her dear Alex gets up to. Like, relax. Sometimes people do bad things but they can’t be boiled down to that one bad thing.
Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge: This book is repetitive and boring at times, but Cartledge does a great job of analyzing the sources and rejecting the less plausible versions of Alexander episodes. This book isn’t as readable or engaging as some (see Freeman, below), but it is one of the more accurate biographies, and Cartledge has a dry humor that comes out in places.
Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman: If you’re new to Alexander the Great, this is a nice contemporary overview of his life. It’s very readable, but Freeman is not very discriminating with his sources. He’s here for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Stealing Fire by Jo Graham: This book is set after Alexander’s death, but has a lot of flashbacks to various points in his career. It’s told from the perspective of one of Alexander’s officers, who made his way up through the ranks from being a groom. who The plot revolves around the theft of Alexander’s body by one of his generals, and that same general taking over Egypt. You know, the fun stuff. This is a great historical fiction book with some fantasy elements. My main complaint is that Alexander isn’t physically present for most of the events depicted, but his presence is felt throughout by the other characters and in the flashbacks.
Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: These books have a couple of big problems: Mary Renault has a huge crush on Alexander, and the female characters are generally thrown into the whore or witch categories. However, Renault tries to give an accurate, engaging view of what happened and illustrate what kind of man Alexander was personally. He comes across very positively in these books which is problematic in some cases, but as a work of fiction, it is well-crafted. I haven’t read the third book in the trilogy, The Funeral Games, because it’s post-Alexander and I’m not about that.
Alexander the Great by Demi: If I was going to make a picture book version of Alexander, this is what it would look like. Yes, it’s very idealized. Yes, it mostly draws on Plutarch anecdotes which may or may not be have actually happened. But the storytelling is coherent, and as a broad character study, you get the gist of Alexander’s personality and goals. The art is gorgeous, and the use of gold is absolutely perfect. I want to stare at every page for hours. There’s an epic quality to the illustrations that, yes, romanticized, but go big or go home, unless you’re satirizing the guy. He’s Great, after all.
A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott: This is my favorite Alexander novel I have read so far, but it’s an alternate history. This book explores what might have happened if Alexander hadn’t gone to India, had an heir that’s old enough to have a chance once Alexander dies, and various other differences. I don’t recommend reading it if you don’t know much about Alex, because you will be very very confused and probably be convinced that he fought Romans. The book doesn’t make clear if Alex still dies of a fever in Babylon, but it does emphasize that his Empire is stabilized in his lifetime and survives for a long time. It has science fiction undertones, but what I love most about this book is how believable the alternate events are, and how well Scott characterizes everyone believably considering the historical sources. I also love the emphasis on Alexander’s engineers: those guys were smart and crucial to Alexander’s campaigns.