Alexander has lent credence to the theory that history is shaped by great men. Because no one was capable of taking his place, the great empire that he established fell apart after his death. His forays into the Far East made little lasting difference to the people there, except that, according to Mercer, he has lived on as a folk-villain in the collective memory of the Afghans. But Persia has never again been the same as it was under Alexander's arch-rival Darius, a change that has had an impact on subsequent history. In modern times, the Shah of Iran considered himself descended from Darius and once held a great celebration for his own birthday in the ruins of Persepolis, Darius's capital city. But the descendants of Darius have never succeeded in re-establishing their country as the world power that it was before Alexander sacked Persepolis.
In 356 B.C., Alexander's story opens in a part of Greece known as Macedon. His parents are Philip and Olympias, the king and the queen. The strange and beautiful Olympias almost convinces her husband that Alexander is not his son, but the son of Zeus, chief of the Olympian gods. Alexander spends his childhood in Macedon under the tutelage of a relative named Leonidas who raises him very strictly and tries to curb his charge's quick temper. When Alexander is thirteen, his education is entrusted to Aristotle, one of the greatest philosophers of all time, but Alexander remains a pupil for only three years. At the age...
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Alexander the Great contains elements commonly found in fiction. The chronological recreation of events constitutes a well constructed plot in which one event depends upon another, with plenty of suspense to maintain the reader's interest. The defeat of the Persian Empire and the destruction of Persepolis serve as the climax, with the action gradually declining as Alexander pushes into India. When his men refuse to march through the Himalayas, the mighty mountains symbolize the end, and a sense of foreboding permeates the narrative. Indeed, Alexander will never see Greece again.
This unusually well-written biography features a mature but clear style that employs a precise vocabulary. Mercer gives credit to his ancient sources and points out their differences. He strives to relate only the facts, mentioning little about myths and legends.
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Alexander the Great has been an attractive hero for scores of generations, as evidenced in many artistic representations. He appears frequently in Roman mosaics and sculptures, medieval manuscripts, and Renaissance paintings. The inherent problem in retelling his story is that he should not be made so attractive that readers overlook his cruelty and treachery. The modern world does not need an Alexander.
Mercer handles such moral issues sensibly. Without resorting to didactics, he provides many examples of the less desirable aspects of his subject's personality. The author portrays a remarkably young, incredibly energetic half-genius, half-madman who changed the course of history. Because not all young adults are perceptive enough to understand the subtleties of Mercer's portrayal, this book best suits those of above average maturity. Readers should be reminded that the social outlook of Alexander's time was very different from that of today. Warfare for its own sake was acceptable, and the treatment of prisoners was not always humane. Women certainly were not afforded the same opportunities that men were, and differences among social classes were much more pronounced. Monarchs often ruled countries according to their whims. Students who recognize the changes brought about by social evolution will most benefit from reading this book.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Alexander the Great suggests that Alexander seeks vengeance against the Persians and does not intend to retain possession of the territory. Why would he seek vengeance? Do you think that he really intends to retain possession of any of the territories he conquers, as the Romans do two centuries later? Does Alexander like conquest for its own sake?
2. What do you think of Alexander's claims that he is a god? Does he expect anyone to take him seriously? Keep in mind that Alexander's religion is far different from today's major religions.
3. Why does Alexander adopt Persian clothing and customs? Why do his men resent these personal changes?
4. Why does Charles Mercer often have to amend the statistics given by the ancient historians?
5. Why is it important for Alexander to conquer Egypt before striking off for the Far East?
6. Before Alexander's death, several rumors spread that he has died and that his death is being kept secret. Why would such an important occurrence be kept secret?
7. Why does Alexander order such an elaborate funeral when his greatest enemy, Darius, dies?
8. Why does Alexander allow his troops to loot Persepolis and to massacre the capital's citizens?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Compare Alexander with some other great conqueror, such as Julius Caesar or Napoleon Bonaparte. How were their motives alike or different? Were their methods similar? How did their ultimate fates differ?
2. Alexandria, the city Alexander founded in Egypt, became an important center of culture and learning. Write a report about the great libraries and important thinkers who flourished there after the time of Alexander. Was he directly responsible for any of these developments?
3. Charles Mercer explains that we owe our knowledge of Alexander to five historians who wrote in the first three centuries A.D.: Plutarch, Arrian, Diodorus, Curtius, and Justin. Read an account of Alexander by one of these historians. Does the report seem reliable? Does the historian acknowledge his sources? How do the accounts judgments differ from those of Mercer's work?
4. Olympias, the mother of Alexander, worships Dionysus, one of the twelve Olympian gods. What were the qualities attributed to Dionysus? How were his rites conducted?
5. Compare several artistic renditions of Alexander from different historical periods. What do they tell us about the artists' attitudes toward Alexander?
6. What does the legend of the Gordian knot reveal about the character of Alexander?
7. When Alexander is about to face Darius and his superior forces in battle, his generals urge him to attack by night, but Alexander refuses, saying,...
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For Further Reference
Andrews, Mary Evans. Hostage to Alexander. New York: Longmans, Green, 1961. A novel about Alexander intended for young adults.
Arrian. The Campaigns of Alexander. Translated by Aubrey de Selincouert. New York: Dorset Press, 1986. By a Roman historian who intended this work to be his masterpiece. Very detailed and very good reading.
Fox, Robin L. The Search for Alexander. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. A new look at Alexander in light of recent archeological findings. Good illustrations with photographs and maps.
Hogarth, D. G. Philip and Alexander of Macedon: Two Essays in Biography. 1896. Reprint. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1971. Not much has been written about Philip. Hogarth's work, an attempt to remedy the situation, is very readable.
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