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Monday, July 8, 2013

“Alexander the Great and His Time”, by Agnes Savill

324 pages, Dorset Press, ISBN13: 978-0880295918

Agnes Savill’s book, Alexander the Great and His Time, provides the reader with an in-depth review of Alexander’s most famous battles during his conquest of Asia while attempting also to justify its overly-favorable presentation of the life of this remarkably energetic and successful conqueror of the near east.

To do so, Savill relies heavily on W.W. Tarn, the British classical scholar and a writer, almost to the exclusion of so many other excellent scholars (i.e., Alexander the Great Vol. I, Narrative; Alexander the Great Vol. II, Sources and Studies, both circa 1948). Tarn, in turn, borrows heavily from Arrian (Lucius Flavius Arrianus), a brilliant Greek commander in the Roman army and a friend of the Emperor Hadrian. Arrian selected the writings of Aristobulus and Ptolemy as his primary sources for his own work on Alexander, choosing to exclude much of the negative writings on Alexander that surfaced shortly after his death (predominantly by his detractors, who had their own political motives for vilifying Alexander). Aristobulus and Ptolemy were both contemporaries of Alexander the Great, Ptolemy serving as a distinguished General in the Macedonian Army under Alexander, while Aristobulus may have been a military engineer or a civilian. Following Alexander's death in 323BC, Ptolemy ruled over Egypt (founding the Ptolemaic Dynasty which only ended with the death of Cleopatra) and eventually wrote his memoirs which depicted Alexander in a very favorable light. Neither Ptolemy’s nor Aristobulus’ accounts of Alexander have survived the ages, and Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander is the only reason we know of these first-hand accounts of Alexander.

Savill’s work is rather romanticized, with the rare character flaws and errors of judgment that she does bother to mentioning being explained away with some mitigating explanation for Alexander’s behavior and why it was justified. The reader cannot be sure that he is getting a balanced view of Alexander’s life or if they are getting an idealized perspective; one almost gets the impression from Savill’s writing that Alexander was near perfect and could do no wrong. We are treated to a detailed history of Alexander’s remarkable achievements, his strengths and successes, but never get to really know him because we never see his more human side, the side with blemishes and imperfections.

Savill, however, is unapologetic in her view of mysticism. The author goes to great lengths to point out every instance of Alexander consulting the ancient mystics (who somehow always manage to accurately predict his future). There are no examples given of the mystics ever giving Alexander incorrect or even vague predictions. Savill does confess, later in the book, that she has a personal bias in favor of mysticism. That bias is acutely evident in this book.

In Savill’s view, everything Alexander the Great did IS great: all of the subjugated peoples were so lucky to have been bettered by his rule; all of his motives are unimpeachable; all aspects of his personality, abilities, and deeds are of heroic proportions. The author accepts every positive historical exaggeration and legend of his motives and exploits. All criticisms made in other chronicles (megalomania, greed, alcoholism, mental instability, even simple lapses of judgment) are summarily discarded.

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