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Monday, October 7, 2013

“Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great”, by A. B. Bosworth

352 pages, Cambridge University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0521343206

My dad bought this book from my one Christmas through the History Book Club, and I credit it with being one my many early tomes that launched my love of history. A.B. Bosworth, a Professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia, is one of the leading scholars of late classical and early hellenistic Greek history. He is known particularly for his research on Alexander the Great and the historian Arrian of Nicomedia. This book is not a biography of Alexander's life – Bosworth rightly calls that “undesirable to attempt and impossible to achieve” – but rather a history of his short reign as King of Macedonia. It is one of the best and certainly among the most balanced studies of the great conqueror, which is why it is so widely used in universities around the world.

Alexander the Great is, of course, one of history’s most ambitious and colorful individuals, and he was recognized as such even in antiquity. People have for centuries attempted to find out what he was really like, often creating a personality for him out of thin air or without any caution in using the surviving sources; as a result it is possible to find many dubious “histories” of his reign or “psychoanalytical studies” of the man himself. Bosworth focuses hard on the ancient evidence as it survives and bases his study on that, making footnote references to modern works as appropriate. His grasp of the ancient sources and of modern studies is staggering, and he has a gift for sifting through the masses of conflicting theories and getting down to the core questions: “What do the sources tell us?” “What do we really know about Alexander?” We find that many things about him remain hopelessly obscure, which is precisely why he continues to intrigue us. Bosworth shows that the history of Alexander's reign can be handled in a very balanced and sober way without losing any of the drama, intrigue and fascination that characterize it. We are treated to the best of both worlds in his study.

This book is excellent both for the specialist who needs to reacquaint himself with the broader view of the period, and for the general reader who wishes to learn the basic facts about Alexander's achievements and legacy. Bosworth appeals to both by dividing the book into two parts: a chronological, narrative survey of the period beginning with the legacy of Philip II and ending with the aftermath of Alexander’s death, and a series of thematic chapters which tackle various aspects of Alexander's rule (for example, “Financial Administration”, “Alexander and the Army”, and “The Divinity of Alexander”). The general reader may gain a good knowledge of the chronological spread of the period without having to go into the thematic sections at all, while those who are interested in learning more about the wider context of Alexander's rule can do so in the second part of the book. Either way the reader will come away with a strong grasp of the basic facts and controversies surrounding Alexander’s reign, as well as an appreciation for his extraordinary impact on Western history generally. This is a wonderful book dealing with a fascinating period.

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