Alexander the Great by Norman F. Cantor

June 25, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): “Alexander’s behavior was conditioned along certain lines — heroism, courage, strength, superstition, bisexuality, intoxication, cruelty. He bestrode Europe and Asia like a supernatural figure.”

In this succinct portrait of Alexander the Great, distinguished scholar and historian Norman Cantor illuminates the personal life and military conquests of this most legendary of men. Cantor draws from the major writings of Alexander’s contemporaries combined with the most recent psychological and cultural studies to show Alexander as he was — a great figure in the ancient world whose puzzling personality greatly fueled his military accomplishments.

He describes Alexander’s ambiguous relationship with his father, Philip II of Macedon; his oedipal involvement with his mother, the Albanian princess Olympias; and his bisexuality. He traces Alexander’s attempts to bridge the East and West, the Greek and Persian worlds, using Achilles, hero of the Trojan War, as his model. Finally, Cantor explores Alexander’s view of himself in relation to the pagan gods of Greece and Egypt.

More than a biography, Norman Cantor’s Alexander the Great is a psychological rendering of a man of his time.

Liked:

  • The only thing I liked about this book was its length. Thank god it was short, so I didn’t have to waste more than a few hours of my life on this drivel.

Disliked:

  • The writing style is absolutely terrible. The book reads like a bad thesis, complete with authorial questions that go unanswered, unsubstantiated statements of opinion, and heavy sampling from one source (Peter Green) at the expense of all others. I simply cannot believe this was published as a serious, scholarly work. I am no expert in historical biographies, but even I could tell right from the beginning that something was seriously off about this book.
  • I lost count of how many times the author contradicted himself. First he said that Alexander “never” rode into battle without Bucephalus (his faithful horse), but then just a few pages later, Cantor tells of a time when Alexander did just that because Bucephalus was injured or something. Towards the end of the book, Cantor said Alexander’s army numbered 85,000 at the outset of a desert crossing, and emerged with only 25,000. Later, Cantor said that “at least 25,000” Greek soldiers met their deaths while in Alexander’s command. While “at least 25,000” might be technically correct, I don’t understand why Cantor chose that particular number, given that 60,000 were lost in one episode. Even if there were civilians (i.e. women and children) counted among the 85,000, Cantor’s number just doesn’t make sense.
  • Cantor spent an inordinate amount of time discussing Alexander’s sex life. Why he was fixated on that, I’ll never know. So Alexander had a male lover like most other Greek men of the time. Big deal! I got the feeling maybe Cantor wanted to add some titillation to his book. Again, that’s hardly the stuff of scholars.
  • Does this book add anything to our collective knowledge and understanding of Alexander the Great? Again, I’m no expert, but I’d say not. (And judging by some of the other reviews this work has received, I’m not alone in my opinion.)

Rating:

I used to love Greek and Roman history once upon a time, and thought it would be fun to get back into those subjects again by reading Alexander the Great by Norman F. Cantor. What a mistake that was! Unless you’re intrigued by the idea of a book that reads like the work of an average college student, I’d stay away from this one. Surely there are better, more insightful treatments out there. I give this book 1 star out of 5.

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