Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Mercer perhaps best sums up Alexander the Great's theme in the closing pages, when he quotes from W. W. Tarn's biography of the same title: "For whatever else he [Alexander] was, he was one of the supreme fertilizing forces of history. He lifted the civilized world out of one groove and set it in another; he started a new epoch; nothing could again be as it had been."

Alexander the Great contains unusually good characterizations for a work of nonfiction. Even some of the secondary characters are well drawn. Olympias, Alexander's mother, is the beautiful and mysterious daughter of the king of Epirus, a mountain kingdom near present-day Yugoslavia. She engages in mystical rites, charms snakes, and claims to be descended from Achilles, the famed Greek warrior of the Iliad. Extremely domineering, she soon repels King Philip, frightening him with her reputed powers as an enchantress. The estrangement between Philip and Olympias troubles Alexander, who cannot please one parent without offending the other. Olympias tries to persuade her son that he is a child of the gods, and whether he ever believes this literally, he certainly thinks himself destined for greatness. Olympias's influence upon Alexander continues throughout his life. She advises from him afar during his conquest of Asia, and after his death, she cares for his wife and infant son until she is defeated and murdered in an uprising by a Macedonian faction.

Among Alexander's generals and military followers, only Parmenio develops fully as a character. He acts as a foil to Alexander, as his relationship with the conqueror reveals some of Alexander's personality flaws. Originally one of King Philip's generals, he transfers his loyalty to Alexander and accompanies him on his great march. In the battle at Gaugamela, against Darius III of Persia, Alexander allows a wide gap to form in his own lines. Consequently, Parmenio's troops are surrounded and must request Alexander's assistance. Alexander abandons his pursuit of Darius in order to go...

(The entire section is 832 words.)