Michael Wood, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great: A Journey from Greece to Asia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. 256, incl. fifty-six color and black-and- white illustrations, eight maps, table of dates, cast of characters, bibliography and index. ISBN 0-520- 21307-6. US$29.95.
Joseph M. McCarthy
Department of History and Department of Education and Human Services, Suffolk University
Those who have seen the television series to which this volume is a companion cannot but have been impressed by the magnitude of Michael Wood's labors, a trek of 20 000 miles by boat, motor vehicle, camel and horse traversing sixteen countries to film the route taken by Alexander in his conquests. If logistics presented fewer problems for Wood than for Alexander, the feat is nonetheless noteworthy. With over fifty documentaries under his belt, Wood is an accomplished film-maker and having studied history at Oriel College of Oxford, is not insensitive to the demands of historical methodology. But the need of the film-maker for dramatic footage seem to have triumphed in the editing process over the historian's need for coherence and completeness. The viewer not acquainted in detail with the history of Alexander's campaigns can have little sense of the rich detail sacrificed to maximize visual impact. The present volume, more soberly written than the script of the film, is much more generous in providing that detail. For example, the film speeds past the siege of Tyre with little more than a few sentences to caption footage of the locale as it looks at present. The account in the book, while still very slight, at least introduces the commanders opposing Alexander and makes some reference to their stake in the proceedings.
Whether viewer or reader, one must keep constantly in mind the fact that the presentation is not about Alexander so much as about Michael Wood seeking to follow Alexander's route and let the terrain provide insight into the disagreements of historians and archaeologists. That noted, a more serious criticism arises. Wood is careful to stipulate that he has consulted modern authors as well as the ancients, to assure us that he is aware of the difficulties presented by the sources and to furnish in his book a short bibliography, the mastery of which would surely afford at least an advanced graduate student mastery of the subject. The problem is not that Wood has not done his homework but that having done it he betrays a weakness for the most colorful account of Alexander's behavior, which usually means the most shocking and scandalous. Once again, the needs of the film-maker trump those of the historian and the operative methodological principle seems to be, 'Si non è vero, è ben trovato.'
The main interest this book holds for professionals is in the attention Wood has given to assessing the terrain and producing educated guesses about unresolved questions about Alexander's route. Of course, Robin Lane Fox has done much the same minus the extensive travel, but Wood dismisses his biography of Alexander as 'a youthful tour de force attacked by some scholars for what one called its "Boys Own" approach to the king.'[] Remarkably, he never even mentions Lane Fox's later The Search for Alexander which is so very like Wood's book in its attention to Alexander's route and even to its choice of illustrations![] In fact, their conclusions are generally similar and equally founded on predecessors such as Sir Aurel Stein.[] The one thoroughly original and useful insight Wood's entire book presents as to route is probably his nomination of a track through the Zagros Mountains that Alexander may have used to outflank the defenders of Persepolis. The real utility in Wood's account is the portrait it paints of the horrific conditions the modern traveler encounters on the route, leading to a keener appreciation of the practical dimensions of Alexander's feat.
In sum, this is a book for a history buff rather than for a professional historian, the sort of book one would gladly recommend to an undergraduate of a layperson whose enthusiasm has been kindled by the video. As is the case with Lane Fox, photographs, whether of the terrain or of ancient art and remains, are striking and well-chosen, but the maps are barely adequate, providing basic information on the direction of Alexander's marches but none on the topography. No battle maps are included, though even speculative ones would have been disproportionately illuminating. As compared to the video, this really does not provide enough additional material or insight to justify the cost. In this case, for once, it may be the better part to say, 'No, but I saw the movie.'
[] p. 246. Reference is had to Boys' Own Paper, a juvenile magazine published between 1879 and 1967 by the Religious Tract Society and circulated throughout the Empire. It presented an array of articles of interest to youngsters, with a preference for tales of heroic adventure and derring- do. Despite the criticism, Lane Fox's Alexander the Great won several prizes and since its original publication in 1973 in London by Allen Lane and in 1974 in New York by Dial Press has been republished worldwide in 1986 by Penguin and in 1997 by The Folio Society.
[] Robin Lane Fox, The Search for Alexander (Boston 1980).
[] See Sir Aurel Stein, On Alexander's Track to the Indus (London 1929; repr. New York 1972; Chicago 1974; Karachi 1975); 'On the Jhelum River Crossing,' Geographical Journal 80 (1832), 131-46; Archaeological Reconnaissances in North- Western India and South-East Iran (London 1937); Old Routes of Western Iran (London 1940); 'On Alexander's Route to Gedrosia,' Geographical Journal 102 (1943) 193-227.