Friday, July 24, 2015

Book Review: In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great by Michael Wood

     Alexander the Great is one of the most famous conquerors in history, for good reason. He stretched his empire farther than any other, and his military tactics and driven personality have become legend all over the world. Like any legend, however, there are two sides to his story. That’s where Michael Wood comes in.

     I didn’t realize this was the companion book to a BBC special, but as I haven’t seen the special, it was all new to me. Michael Wood, with a team, decided to traverse as closely as possible the route Alexander took on his conquests. Even today it is a long and difficult journey, and to imagine what the Macedonian army went through in a time with less technological advances is mind-boggling.

     Wood is a great storyteller. His description of battles and strategy had me on the edge of my seat. In particular, the section on the battle at Issus and the chaos Alexander brought on Darius was fascinating. He used the famous mosaic to demonstrate the sort of bind Darius was in-he was supposed to be the god-king, but was powerless to help any of his men. Furthermore, he was to be kept alive at any cost, and this has often been passed down through the stories as cowardice.

     This was the unique part of Wood’s book. While he acknowledged the great advances made in culture, science, and math through Alexander’s march across Asia, he shows us the dark side of Alexander’s conquest. As with any war, innocents are killed, and unfortunately Greek thought considered the pillaging and massacres a part of heroic behavior. I was amused to find that Alexander is practically the boogeyman in Iran-a threat to keep children in line. The dispersal of him throughout legends, sometimes seen as a devil figure, and in others as a veritable angel of light, ascending to heaven in a chariot pulled by griffins. Muslims in particular revere him due to the early influence of Greek thought.

     Wood’s own journey is no less fascinating. He has a knack for description and the places he went through sounded beautiful. He was aided by people along the way, many of whom had some story or another about Alexander to share. In many places Alexander is alive and well in people’s memories, not merely a historical figure but a fact of life.

     This is an excellent book, both informative and exceptionally entertaining. It gives a sense of how Alexander has influenced even our present thought and in the end leaves our view of him ambiguous: the man who slaughtered thousands, the man who brought east and west together; the thinker and the warrior, the scientist and the madman.


  1. I've got to read this now. It sounds great. You should also definitely check out Mary Renault's historical fiction books about Alexander.

    1. Well, time to add more books to my massive Goodreads list...