"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Monday, March 14, 2005

Alexander's next target for conquest: your coffee table
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Alexander the Conqueror
By Laura Foreman
Da Capo, 211 pp, 35 dollars
As Hippocrates, a near contemporary of the subject of Laura Foreman's new book, famously wrote: "Life is short, art is long, the crisis fleeting, experience perilous, decision difficult."
This wisdom is reflected both in the life of King Alexander III of Macedon and in Foreman's biography Alexander the Conqueror.

Alexander's life was certainly short. He died just weeks shy of his 33rd birthday, but his legacy had a long-lasting effect on the world.

Ascending to the throne of Macedon in northern Greece at 20 after his father was assassinated, Alexander conquered an empire that stretched from Greece to modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan and included Egypt, Libya, the Middle East and Persia. He conquered what to him would have been most of the known world in just 12 years. His adventures were unquestionably perilous, and he was badly wounded half a dozen times before his mysterious death, possibly at the hands of a poisoner.

Decisions were rarely difficult for the man who cut the legendary Gordian Knot with a single sword-stroke and went on to fulfill the prophecy that the man who contrived to undo it would become lord of all Asia. He proved himself a master tactician in battle time and again, defeating his enemies with a combination of surprising maneuvers, cunning deception and audacious feats of engineering. Alexander had little capacity for self-doubt and the charisma of a natural leader of men.

But journalist and pop historian Foreman also shows us a man who was obsessed with outdoing his famous father, who presided over numerous massacres and the bloody sacking of cities, and who murdered one of his best friends in a drunken brawl.

Like life, the text of Foreman's book is short, with large type and wide margins. She has proved that art is long by balancing the brevity of her concise but elegant text with a wealth of lavish illustrations: Not a single page goes by without a color photograph of a statue or other artifact depicting Alexander. His lasting legacy of inspiration is reflected in the wide range of color reproductions of paintings from across Europe and Asia. Numerous photographs of battlefields and ruined palaces also serve to bulk up this elegant volume.

This is not a scholarly work, but more of a popular history--classics for the coffee table. Foreman's descriptions of events and critical analysis is fleeting. She often relegates important issues--such as the fate of the citizens of Thebes, one of Alexander earliest and bloodiest conquests, and Alexander's possible role in his father's death--to one- or two-page inserts that interrupt the main text, making it an attractive book to browse through, but a difficult one to sit and read at length.

Nor does she make decisions or draw conclusions about her subject. Instead, she shows the reader a dual view of Alexander, listing his accomplishments, virtues and lasting influence, but never shying away from his occasional misjudgments, murderous excesses or hubris.

Alexander the Conqueror makes no clear judgment about whether the remarkable ancient Macedonian should be remembered as great or terrible: "Having accomplished so much and died so young, Alexander set a standard for achievement that endures to this day...His greatness, therefore, is beyond doubt. His goodness is another matter."

Copyright 2005 The Yomiuri Shimbun

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