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The Nature of Alexander - Mary Renault

I recently read and enjoyed Mary Renault’s trilogy of novels about Alexander the Great (Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games). I was curious to see her approach the topic from a nonfiction perspective. The Nature of Alexander is her biography of the Macedonian king who managed to conquer Greece, Persia, part of India, and Egypt, creating an enormous empire without ever losing a battle.


Alexander's empire (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


Despite ruling for only thirteen years, Alexander is renowned for his military brilliance. Holding together an empire that vast, with populations of such diverse cultures, languages, and religions, was at least as challenging as conquering it in the first place. He died young without having a clear successor. The power vacuum left after his death created a setting ripe for murders, revolts, and usurpations. The massive empire did not last for long, at least not in the form in which Alexander left it.


Renault can tell a good story. The narrative quality of the biography, which focuses on what is known about Alexander’s interpersonal relationships as much as on his battles, makes it a pleasure to read. Alexander was an interesting character: intelligent, disciplined, and courageously unconcerned with his own comfort and personal safety. He led by example, and his men were (usually) fiercely loyal to him. At times, though, Alexander could be surprisingly emotional. He is described as sulking in his tent for days when his soldiers, exhausted by years of military campaigning, refused to go farther into India.


Renault draws on ancient sources for this biography, particularly Curtius, Arrian, Plutarch, and Ptolemy. There is inevitably a certain amount of historical reconstruction involved, as much information has been lost. The ancient writers often refer to other documents closer to the source that are no longer extant. Many of those writers had an angle they were pushing. There was quite a bit of propaganda, both for and against Alexander, so any biographer has to sift through the details and decide what is most likely to be true.


Renault’s objectivity is questionable at times. She is clearly in the pro-Alexander camp. There are many historical controversies regarding Alexander’s life, such as whether or not he was involved in his father’s assassination or was an alcoholic. There are also accusations of atrocities, such as a story about him ordering that the defeated leader of Gaza be executed by having him dragged behind a chariot by his heels until he died, a grim allusion to Achilles having Hector’s (already dead) body dragged around Troy. Renault calls the story “Athenian propaganda,” which it well could be. Unfortunately, though, her lack of footnoting makes it hard to evaluate her claim that “all good historians have rejected [this] story.”


The retrospective medical analyses of certain events here are unconvincing. The author scrutinizes the death of Hephaistion (Alexander’s best friend and possible lover), twisting and stretching small details in a convoluted fashion seemingly to justify Alexander’s execution of the doctor. Renault seems to come out on Alexander’s side on every dispute, taking great pains to justify his actions and sometimes protesting a little too much.


The Nature of Alexander is an enjoyable biography of a fascinating historical figure. For a more balanced account of Alexander’s life, readers should look elsewhere, but this book is a well-told introduction to the subject.


Alexander and Hephaistion (Source: Wikimedia Commons)