Alexander the Great
by Robin Lane Fox
Dial Press, 568 pp., $15.00
The appearance of a new book of 550 pages on Alexander the Great needs justification. From antiquity to the present day, there have probably been more books written on Alexander than on any other man in history, and the present publication rate in English is about one a year, most of them satisfactory and some (most recently Peter Green’s) both scholarly and well written. The blurb tells us that Fox is a product of Eton and Oxford, in the old Imperial tradition, which certainly seems to qualify him for the job. He is only twenty-eight (the great Theodor Mommsen was thirty-seven when he wrote his History of Rome as a passionate reaction to events in Germany in 1848), and his work is described as “the fullest ever attempted.”
As far as bulk goes, this is certainly true, for the past generation at any rate. What its purpose is will puzzle the reader. Alexander the Great: A Biography, proclaims the jacket—no doubt at the author’s behest. “This is not a biography,” says the first page of the text. Is it a historical account, then? “I am bored by institutions and I do not believe in structures,” the author announces. The confession of faith is fully confirmed by the work. There is almost nothing about Alexander’s administration of his vast conquests, little about the staff work that kept the expedition moving and functioning in countries unknown and unmapped. This is certainly not a historical work.
Whatever he is up to, the author claims total originality, and superior penetration. He has read 1,472 books and articles, and found most of them useless. “The study of Alexander will only advance…when historians make up their own minds and cut free of how others have made up theirs.” (There is no qualification regarding the quality of the minds.) And it appears that “there are only two necessary books for Alexander scholarship.” In other words, 1,470 are unnecessary, and the fact that the author cites them in his notes—works in half a dozen languages on subjects ranging from Indian archaeology to the natural history of elephants—is only a needless parade of erudition.
It will be clear that this is a puzzling book. In the words of the familiar advertisement, the author is a man with a gimmick. The gimmick is, roughly: “I know it all, and it is all no good.” Explicit statements confirm this. No recent Alexander historian in English is ever cited except in obloquy. Milns is “absurd,” a view of Welles is “another of his blunders,” W. W. Tarn is “persistently mistaken both in method and evidence” in his volume of special studies, and “the work has been ignored throughout the writing of this book.”
When Alexander died in Babylon, of disease aggravated by heavy drinking, nearly 2,300 years ago, the industry of producing Alexander books had already been going on for some time. Sure of heroic achievements to come, he had taken a …