Alexander the Great Books on Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Hamilton notes the biographies of Alexander often reflected the backgrounds of authors who wrote about him. For example, Sir William Tarn, a Scottish gentleman of the British imperial era, characterized Alexander as a chivalrous Greek gentleman with a missionary zeal to spread Greek civilization. In contrast, Fritz Schachermeyr, a German historian who had experienced the rise and fall of the Nazi Germany, described Alexander as a ruthless and cruel ruler, indulged "in deceit and treachery to gain his ends, as a 'Titanic' figure aiming at the conquest of the world."

Both Tarn and Schachermeyr are among the great modern historians of Alexander but even they could not escape personal biases.

The irony of Hamilton's book is that, although he is at pains in his discussion of the difficulty of writing about Alexander and is critical of biased historians, the book starts with a straightforward admission of a bias. Rejecting the claim that Alexander was a disseminator of Greek culture to so-called "barbarians," Hamilton writes: "his heredity and his background are more important; he remained, essentially, Macedonian. This explains his hard drinking (denied, significantly, by Tarn) and, where circumstances called for it, the ruthless elimination of rivals."

Now, the question is what does Alexander's hard drinking or his ruthlessness in eliminating rivals have anything to do with him being a Macedonian? Were they essential Macedonian traits? Were not there any hard drinkers or ruthless eliminators of rivals among Greeks? Were Greeks not capable of it? Hamilton's stereotypical characterization of Macedonians and Greeks borders on racism.

Hamilton's main goal is to argue that Alexander lacked any Hellenizing mission and remained essentially a Macedonian with military skills bestowed upon him by his father Philip and other Macedonians. But his attempt to prove a point weakens his thesis. Hamilton ascribes essential characteristics to Greek and Macedonians that do not do justice to human nature. Part of the reason for this problem is Hamilton's uncritical analysis of primary and ancient secondary sources. The story of Alexander is conveyed to us mostly in the Greek and Roman languages. Romans admired the Greeks, so they were not critical enough with Greek sources. The sources in ancient Greek obviously are biased in favor of Greeks, describing non-Greeks as barbarians and viewing even Macedonians with disdain.

Interestingly, Hamilton comes to similar conclusions about Alexander's legacy that Freeman does. He is also careful in discussing controversial topics such as Philip's murder or the destruction of Persepolis. When the evidences do not point at clear conclusions, Hamilton presents differing views and leaves it up to the reader to decide. But Hamilton's tone, unlike Freeman's, is partial. All of his arguments at the end lean toward his point that Alexander was "essentially" a Macedonian, following Macedonian traits and vices. In fact, both Hamilton and Freeman share the bias of looking at this particular history through the Greek eye. It is hard to fault them because the limited number sources are overwhelmingly Greek or Roman who were also biased in favor of Greeks. Neither of the scholars look at sources in ancient Persian or Hindu or engage the works of Persian and Indian historians.

Both Freeman and Hamilton present Alexander's conquests of Asia Minor and Central Asia from the perspective of the conquerors -- which is the primary weakness of both books. But with Greek sources and recent scholarship, both of them are careful. The only difference is that Hamilton tries to prove a point whereas Freeman wants to tell a story of Alexander that anyone can read. Hamilton writes with an obvious partial and argumentative tone, while Freeman simply tells a story where he remains impartial whether he discusses horrific atrocities or heroic deeds. Perhaps, that was the reason why Freeman does not even list Hamilton's book in the bibliography section (he lists Hamilton's another book). The contributions of neither of them, however, can be discounted, as both of them have important things to say about the life of Alexander the Great.


Freeman, Philip. Alexander the Great. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009.

Hamilton, J.R. Alexander the Great. Pittsburg: The University of Pittsburg Press, 1974.

Philip Freeman, Alexander the Great (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. xxii.

Ibid, p. 323.

Ibid, p. 201.

Ibid, p. 330.

J.R. Hamilton, Alexander the Great (Pittsburg: The University of Pittsburg Press,…

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