Alexander before he grew up
Some of the early stories of Alexander the Great are wonderful. From an early age, he questioned Persian ambassadors not about childish things, like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but about the condition of the armies and roads of the empire. After a dinner, his father berated him for playing the kithara with greater mastery than befitting a prince; he then forced Bucephalus, his famous steed from Thessaly, a horse that no one else could ride.
Aged about 14, he was sent to the city of Mieza to be instructed by Aristotle. When he was 16 and his father had gone on a campaign, Alexander, as regent of Macedon, defeated a barbarian tribe and founded the first city named after him. At 18, he commanded the left wing of the Macedonian army at the Battle of Chaeronea, which ended Greek freedom, then went to the embassy in Athens. A drunken and violent argument with his father at a wedding party caused him to retreat into self-imposed exile. Returning, he again fell out with his father over a diplomatic marriage plan with the family of Pixodarus, a Persian governor of modern Turkey.
Yet these stories are really all our sources tell us about Alexander before he ascended the throne. And can we believe a word of it? Two of these – the Persian ambassadors and the kithara game – are generally considered later inventions, and the historicity of a third – the Pixodarus incident – is also in doubt.
Given this scarcity of material, and in the face of the oft-repeated assertion that a biography can only be attempted on two ancient men – Cicero and St. Augustine – it seems a bold move for Alex Rowson, a producer at success of historical documentaries such as Richard III: The King in the Car Park and Time Team, for writing the life of young Alexander.
Still, Rowson rises to the challenge beautifully, wisely ignoring the doomsayers. His book, The Young Alexander, presses everything that can be gleaned from the stories of the young Macedonian and contrasts them with the actions of better-recorded individuals, primarily Alexander’s father, Philip, and his enemy, the Athenian orator Demosthenes. Generalities are deployed to add depth, such as ancient Macedonian customs and standards of Greek education. Finally, the whole is placed in its physical context: Rowson has a real gift for evoking places, animated by his sharp observations of eyewitnesses.
Academics can be sniffed at by books written by non-academics for a general readership. It’s not always about delicate professional access control. Many popular works fail to engage deeply with ancient evidence or modern scholarship, and peddle theories that are either outdated or eccentric. This is certainly not the case here. Rowson reads classical sources with a critical and discerning eye, and his mastery of recent studies is deeply impressive.
One of the main strengths of this book is its up-to-date archaeology: Rowson not only conveys the hard work of digging and the thrill of discovery, but gives good accounts of evolving archaeological debates.
Not all students of Alexander will agree with everything in this book. At times, Rowson seems a bit overconfident in late literary sources. To take an example: did Alexander really join his father besieging Perinthus and then accompany him on campaigns along the Danube? This quirky theory is based on a line from Justin, who claims that Philip summoned his son, who was 18, to receive his initial training in the field. But Justin, who was writing in the third century AD, is notoriously unreliable and seems to be contradicted by the more generally trustworthy Arrian (admittedly he wrote only a century earlier), who left Alexander in Macedonia. Alexander was 16 at the time of the siege of Perinthus. The fact that Justin gives Alexander’s age as 18 seems to indicate a misplaced reference to his service under his father in Chaeronea. In this case, Rowson may have been influenced by Mary Renault’s novel Fire From Heaven, which gives Alexander some great scenes during the Siege of Perinthus.
The Young Alexander is popular history at its best, engaging and accessible. Supported by serious research, and written with panache, it summons a vanished world: “the sound of hammer and saw emanating from the hangars of ships, stacks of Macedonian wood stacked along their entire length; fishermen setting out on the lake with their flat-bottomed boats, casting nets for the daily catch, throwing perhaps a morsel or two to the pelicans who also call Pella home”.