Rec-post: Alexander the Great

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!

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A famous mosaic or whatever 

 

Nonfiction

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.

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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.

Fiction

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Alex’s mom Olympias gets a bad rap but at least she got some good coinage out of it.

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.

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These sarissas were 18-feet long so that ancient Macedonians could fit all their enemies on one shish-kabob.

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.

 

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September Reading Wrap-up

My personal favorites from each section are: The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry, Release by Patrick Ness, All Systems Red by Martha Wells, March: Book 2 by John Lewis, and Inuit Mythology by Evelyn Wolfson.

So-called Kids Fiction:

Princess Adventure Stories by the Walt Disney Company (4/5 stars)

Star Wars: Forces of Destiny: Volume 1 by Emma Carlson Berne (3/5 stars)

Smuggler’s Run by Greg Rucka (4/5 stars)

The Weapon of a Jedi by Jason Fry (5/5 stars)

Moving Target by Cecil Castellucci (2/5 stars)

The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling (4/5 stars)

So-called Young Adult Fiction:

The House of Hades by Rick Riordan (5/5 stars)

Release by Patrick Ness (5/5 stars)

So-called Adult Fiction:

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis (5/5 stars)

 

All Systems Red by Martha Wells (5/5 stars)

Taste of Marrow by Sarah Gailey (4/5 stars)

Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell (4/5 stars)

The American by Henry James (4/5 stars)

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (no rating)

So-called Comic Books:

The Wicked and The Divine: Imperial Phase I by Kieron Gillen (4/5 stars)

Mockingbird: My Feminist Agenda by Chelsea Cain (4/5 stars)

Like I’m the Only Squirrel in the World by Ryan North (4/5 stars)

Black Butler volume 19 by Yana Toboso (4/5 stars)

Black Butler volume 20 by Yana Toboso (4/5 stars)

Batgirl: Beyond Burnside by Hope Larson (3/5 stars)

March: Book 2 by John Lewis (5/5 stars)

Buso Renkin volume 1 by Nobuhiro Watsuki (3/5 stars)

Buso Renkin volume 2 by Nobuhiro Watsuki (2/5 stars)

Hawkeye: Kate Bishop: Volume 1: Anchor Points by Kelly Thompson (4/5 stars)

So-called Nonfiction:

Inuit Mythology by Evelyn Wolfson (4/5 stars)

 

The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus (3/5 stars)

 

 

Summer Challenge Wrap-up

Back at the beginning of the summer, I challenged myself to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves for a bit, either because they looked difficult or because I just hadn’t had sufficient motivation to pick them up. I chose two poetry volumes, two nonfiction, and two fiction. Below are my brief thoughts/reviews on them.

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton: Girl had issues but she had a way with words. I love her odd imagery, but less so the weird sex imagery (although I’m sure many people enjoy it). My favorite collections are To Bedlam and Part Way Back and Transformations. I wrote about a couple of her poems here.

Another E.E. Cummings ed. by Richard Kostelanetz and John Rocco: This book tries to show other facets of E.E. Cummings besides his more famous poems; it gives a taste of his prose, translations, and memoir, as well as some of his less-read poems. I liked it as a survey, but I don’t think it collected his best work.

Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research Into Homosexuality by Simon LeVay: This is a really good overview and discussion of the studies and “treatments” of homosexuality done over the last 100 years. It tries to answer the questions “what makes someone  homosexual?” and “Who cares?”I was very ignorant going into this book but it was reasonably accessible and comprehensive.

The History of Alexander by Curtius Rufus: Roman guys sure love their rhetoric! This reads like history for the most part, but with a bunch of headcanon speeches added in; everyone gets pages and pages of monologues. Curtius Rufus really loves Darius and really hates Greeks.

The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus: The trilogy includes Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides, and takes place soon after the events of The Iliad. I can see why mythology was so popular back in the day if plays like this were bringing them to life. Agamemnon returns home to Greece only to discover that his wife isn’t thrilled about his new girlfriend slave or the fact that Agamemmnon sacrificed his own daughter. Shenanigans ensue as various family members deal with the curse laid on them.

The American by Henry James: Like most of Henry James’ work, I’m not certain whether we’re supposed to sympathize with his protagonist or judge him. I certainly don’t like Christopher Newman, and I spent half of the book hoping that Madame de Cintre would destroy him emotionally so that he would learn that she’s not an object to possess, and the other half hoping Newman would destroy a few other people emotionally.

I was glad I challenged myself to read these books, so I’m going to do the same thing for fall. My list is:

  • The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Fiction by Sarah Orne Jewett
  • The Awkward Age by Henry James
  • The Complete Works of Horace
  • Sophocles I: Three Tragedies
  • The Generalship of Alexander the Great by J.F.C. Fuller
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

What about you? Do you try to challenge yourself or approach reading more whimsically? How do you get yourself to read “difficult” books?