I’m reading a lot of books on Alexander the Great these days because, well, I’m currently working on a novel about Alexander.
It’s had a long – and mostly unbeknownst beginning. Last year I read two excellent books on the Diadochi period (that is to say, after Alexander’s death): Ghost On The Throne by James Romm and Dividing The Spoils by Robin Waterfield. It was a bloody period, to say the least, with half a dozen of Alexander’s generals warring over his empire in a conflict that lasted two generations and was filled with murder, intrigue and betrayal. Which I thought might make an interesting fantasy backdrop.
I normally do research when I’m writing, and the vast majority of my short stories have an historical influence (the Tulun of Birjand stories – one of which you can find in the Best Of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly – have a pseudo-Arabian slant, set at the time of the Crusades – my Shining Cities stories – which have seen publication in a few places but most notably Beneath Ceaseless Skies – have more than a touch of the Renaissance about them, and other stories have had the flavour of Moslem Spain, medieval China and Celtic Ireland. I like fantasy that has a grounding in reality (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) and that doesn’t have a rose-tinted view of the past.
But the era of the Diadochi is a complex one and Alexander the Great throws a huge shadow over it. So, back to Alexander to try and understand how one man could hold so much power and esteem even after his death.
My first thought was to, once again, adopt a pseudo-historical atmosphere, but the story of Alexander the Great himself is such a fascinating one that I’ve made the decision to try this as a ‘straight’ historical novel – although there are gods and witches and mystics enough in the real thing.
To that end, as I said, I’ve been reading a lot about Alexander the Great.
I’ve read the first third or so of nearly all these books, trying to get a sense of Alexander’s early years and what formed him.
But reading them has made me realize that Alexander isn’t one person, he’s many – and his historical portrayal has changed dramatically over the years.
First up, Harold Lamb’s 1931 Alexander of Macedon: The Journey to World’s End. A heavily fictionalised biography written with skill by a great writer. Lamb dares to do what few straight biography’s would and try to inhabit the mind of Alexander.
Jacob Abbott’s Alexander The Great published in 1876 as part of the Makers of History series is, as you might expect, a very sterling and very Victorian version of Alexander’s Life, emphasising heroics and great deeds, and very Imperialist in its tone.
By the Spear by Ian Worthington, published in 2014, makes the very important point that Alexander’s success was built in part on the success of his father, Philip II, who basically bequeathed the world’s finest killing machine to his son.
Robin Lane Fox’s Alexander the Great (1974) has long been considered the standard biography but Philip Freeman’s Alexander the Great (2011) and Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon (1992) stand comparison with it.
Alexander the Great: A Very Short Introduction by Hugh Bowden (2014) does exactly what is says and is a good broad overview of Alexander’s life and conquests.
The last two are, in their titles at least, polar opposites: N.G.L Hammond’s The Genius of Alexander the Great (1997) (which, I confess I have yet to start) and The Madness of Alexander the Great by Richard Gabriel (2015) which convincingly argues Alexander’s ‘outsider’ status in Macedonia and, like By The Spear, cites Philip II as the architect of the Macedonian Empire, with Alexander as its builder.
I’ve been reading a bunch of other things, too, articles, academic theses and, I confess, Wikipedia. So it’s probably true to say that I’ve developed a little bit of an Alexander obsession.
But, as a wise woman once said ‘don’t write what you know, write about what moves you.’