Alexander the Great

Publication date: October 18, 2011

In the first authoritative biography of Alexander the Great written for a general audience in a generation, classicist and historian Philip Freeman tells the remarkable life of the great conqueror. The celebrated Macedonian king has been one of the most enduring figures in history. He was a general of such skill and renown that for two thousand years other great leaders studied his strategy and tactics, from Hannibal to Napoleon, with countless more in between. He flashed across the sky of history like a comet, glowing brightly and burning out quickly: crowned at age nineteen, dead by thirty-two. He established the greatest empire of the ancient world; Greek coins and statues are found as far east as Afghanistan. Our interest in him has never faded.

Alexander was born into the royal family of Macedonia, the kingdom that would soon rule over Greece. Tutored as a boy by Aristotle, Alexander had an inquisitive mind that would serve him well when he faced formidable obstacles during his military campaigns. Shortly after taking command of the army, he launched an invasion of the Persian empire, and continued his conquests as far south as the deserts of Egypt and as far east as the mountains of present-day Pakistan and the plains of India. Alexander spent nearly all his adult life away from his homeland, and he and his men helped spread the Greek language throughout western Asia, where it would become the lingua franca of the ancient world. Within a short time after Alexander’s death in Baghdad, his empire began to fracture. Best known among his successors are the Ptolemies of Egypt, whose empire lasted until Cleopatra.

In his lively and authoritative biography of Alexander, classical scholar and historian Philip Freeman describes Alexander’s astonishing achievements and provides insight into the mercurial character of the great conqueror. Alexander could be petty and magnanimous, cruel and merciful, impulsive and farsighted. Above all, he was ferociously, intensely competitive and could not tolerate losing—which he rarely did. As Freeman explains, without Alexander, the influence of Greece on the ancient world would surely not have been as great as it was, even if his motivation was not to spread Greek culture for beneficial purposes but instead to unify his empire. Only a handful of people have influenced history as Alexander did, which is why he continues to fascinate us.


Wall Street Journal:
“Here, in vivid and exciting detail, are all the familiar highlights of Alexander’s career: the battles, the tempestuous relationships, the dazzling ambitions, the mysterious death in Babylon. Mr. Freeman’s ambition, he tells us in his introduction, was ‘to write a biography of Alexander that is first and foremost a story.’ It is one he splendidly fulfills.”

Boston Globe:
“Freeman does not hero worship Alexander, and does not paper over his subject’s many faults. At times, Alexander can seem like an almost mythic figure, but, as Freeman shows, he was all too human.”

Saturday Evening Post:
“Freeman details Alexander’s conquests right up until the king’s death, concluding with the redistribution of his empire and the effect of his legacy. Along the way, he explores what drove Alexander’s passions and the battles and conquests that earned him the title “the great.”

The greatest victory of the book, however, is Freeman’s storytelling. This biography stands out from others written about Alexander thanks to its smooth flow and interesting narrative. It is, as Freeman hopes, a history book for those readers who are not already experts on Alexander or his world.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“Historian Freeman (Classics/Luther Coll.; Julius Caesar, 2008, etc.) presents an accessible biography of the young Macedonian king.

The author’s love for his subject infuses this footnote-free narrative with an unfussy breeziness, and readers are sure to come away from Alexander’s story with an essential grasp of the details and understanding of his character.

Freeman portrays the Macedonian people as having a shared language and culture distinct from Greek—to the Greeks’ scorn but Macedonians’ pride. Alexander’s father was the “genius” on whom his son was able to establish his later empire, and the author wisely devotes some initial pages to Philips’s masterly diplomacy, radical restructuring of his army and training of engineers. From his father, Alexander learned the importance of building alliances in the Greek world by marriage and immersion in the local religions. Conceived from his union with the strange, snake-loving daughter of the kingdom of Epirus, Olympias, Alexander was his father’s pride—winning the magnificent but unmanageable horse Bucephalus out of cunning and bravery—as well as his scourge, demonstrating a troubling hubris. However, “the bull [was] ready for slaughter,” as the oracle at Delphi proclaimed to the unknowing Philip, and when he was felled by a dagger, Alexander, at age 20, was swift to consolidate his own power. He won the loyalty of his troops, thanks to his moving rhetoric gained under his Greek tutors, and embarked on quelling rebellion among the Greek cities. His crossing of the Danube, a feat accomplished only Darius of Persia, amazed and inspired his men. From the destruction of Thebes through campaigns into Mesopotamia, Egypt and even India, Alexander was propelled over the next decade, driven by oracles, omens and what Freeman calls pothos, or longing, before he died, possibly by poisoning, still dreaming of his expedition into Arabia.

In a readable, nonacademic narrative, the author capably sketches the powerful legacy of Alexander in spreading the culture of Greece that has proved the foundation for Western civilization.”


“Even before Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his legend had accelerated, aided considerably by his highly effective skills of self-promotion. Classics professor Freeman has written a compact biography that avoids the pitfalls of romanticizing or ‘understanding’ the personality of Alexander. It is a well-written, chronological narrative that allows Alexander’s remarkable career and achievements to speak for themselves. Philips doesn’t ignore the thuggish aspects of Alexander’s efforts, but he does correctly place them within the context of the rather nasty world of both Macedonian and Asian political and military struggles. He also pays ample tribute to Alexander’s father, Philip, whose diplomatic and military skills molded the disparate hill tribes of Macedonia into the dominant power in Greece. Justifiably, it is Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and northern India that forms the bulk of the story and reveals his true genius, including his leadership, expertise in siege warfare, and ability to hold together what evolved into a huge, diverse army. General readers will appreciate this fine account of a man truly deserving of the title ‘Great.’ ”

— Jay Freeman

Book of the Month Club:

“In the enthralling new narrative biography, Alexander the Great, Philip Freeman reveals how this relentless and driven man was able to win against all odds and shape the world in which we still live today…He succeeds in making Alexander accessible as never before. Alexander emerges as a fully fleshed-out figure, and the descriptions of his conquests and battles make for riveting reading.”

“Lean, learned, and marked by good judgment on every page, Alexander the Great is also a roaring good yarn. Philip Freeman has the eye of someone who has walked in Alexander’s footsteps, and he writes with grace and wisdom.”

— Barry Strauss, author of The Spartacus War and professor of history, Cornell University

“Fast paced and dramatic, much like Alexander himself, this is a splendid introduction into one of the most dramatic true stories of history.”

— Adrian Goldsworthy, author of Caesar: Life of a Colossus and Anthony and Cleopatra

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