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What Made Alex Run? : THE GENIUS OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT. By N.G.L. Hammond . University of North Carolina Press: 220 pp., $29.95

March 09, 1997|BERNARD KNOX | Bernard Knox is the author of numerous historical works, including "The Oldest Dead White European Males & Other Reflections on the Classics" and, most recently, "The Norton Book of Classical Literature," both from W.W. Norton

Starting in May 334 BC, Alexander, the 22-year-old king of Macedon, led his victorious army through four pitched battles, two sieges and innumerable smaller engagements, conquering territory that now goes under the names of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan--all the way to the banks of the Beas River in Pakistan, where he reluctantly turned back, as his troops threatened mutiny. Three years later, in 323 BC, he died in Babylon, probably of malaria, just as he was planning an expedition all the way from Egypt along the North African coast to the Atlantic.

There is no disagreement among historians about the magnitude of his conquests, nor about one of their most important effects: the establishment in what we know as the Middle East of a city-based Greek colonial aristocracy which, under Greco-Macedonian monarchs, imposed its culture on the native peoples. But about the motives and character of the young man who launched and carried out this tremendous enterprise, there has been controversy ever since.

Just before he died, he answered the question put to him by one of his generals--"To whom do you leave your empire?"--with the enigmatic words, "To the strongest." He has been credited in numerous historical analyses with a belief in and a policy establishing "the brotherhood of Mankind" and with "lifting the civilized world out of one groove and setting it down in another." On the other hand, his expedition has been dismissed as a folie de grandeur. As for his character, scholars have compared him to "a young Nazi loose on the Alps" and denounced him as a "ruthless, calculating opportunist" and "a visionary megalomaniac serving the implacable needs of his own all-consuming ego."

In his short lifetime, he seemed to have defied the limits set on human achievement by the gods; after his death, he became the stuff of legend, which grew richer as the centuries passed. And unfortunately for the modern historian, most of the evidence for his career and character comes to us from books written long after his death. The fullest account was composed by the Greek historian Arrian five centuries after Alexander's death, and though he frequently cites the accounts of two members of Alexander's staff--Ptolemy, the general who later took Egypt for his share, and Aristobulus, a military engineer who served with the army--we have no means of evaluating whatever political or personal bias their narratives may represent. The other important late witnesses--Diodorus in the first century BC and Plutarch in the first and second century after Christ--present even more problematical material since Diodorus never cites his sources and Plutarch does so only sporadically. Modern historians have for many years offered conflicting evaluations of the evidence; prominent among them is N.G.L. Hammond, the author of this short, clearly written book, the distillation of a life's work. He already has written a book on Alexander's father Philip and a lengthier study of Alexander, two books on the historical records, a book on the ancient Macedonian state and an authoritative three-volume history of Macedonia (the first alone, the others with collaborators). "At present," he writes in the preface to this book, "it seems appropriate to put my conclusions together and to write an account of Alexander which may claim to be close to the actual facts of his career and the nature of his personality."

Hammond knows not only the historical sources but also the terrain. He has been to many of the battlefields and spent time in the Middle East in World War II. As a young student fresh from Cambridge, he explored on foot the mountain trails of Northern Greece, acquiring fluent modern Greek and a command of Albanian, assets that served him well when, in February 1943, a major in the British army, he parachuted with two other soldiers on Mount Ossa on a mission to blow up an important bridge and to supply and fight with Greek guerrillas operating against the German occupying forces. He remained there until August 1944, eventually acting as commander of the Allied military mission in Greece. This military experience is put to good use in "The Genius of Alexander the Great"; its careful descriptions of military maneuvers and the diagrams illustrating successive stages of the operations have a clarity that is often sadly wanting in such accounts.

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