Scholia Reviews ns 17 (2008) 6.

Carol G. Thomas, Alexander the Great in his World. Blackwell Ancient Lives. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. xi + 254, incl. 5 maps, 21 plates and 4 illustrations. ISBN 0-6312-3246-X. UK£19.99.

John Atkinson,
School of Languages and Literatures,
University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Thomas’ approach to the study of Alexander the Great in this book was inspired by her experience in research into ‘pre- and proto-historical Greece’, and in leading seminars on Alexander’s conquests, where she has focused on explanatory contextual reasons for Alexander’s success (pp. ixf.). After an introductory chapter (‘Basic facts, generally uncontested, of Alexander’s life’, pp. 9-21), Thomas explores five ‘doors to the nature of this hero’ (p. 192), and a chapter is devoted to each of these topics, starting with Chapter 2, ‘Being Macedonian’ (pp. 22-54). This deals with Macedonia in the broader sense of the territory which Philip II added to the traditional kingdom, and covers the topography and natural economy of Macedonia, with a check list of its assets (p. 32). Thomas then touches on the vexed issues of ethnicity and language, before offering an historical survey of the period from Amyntas I (540-498) to Philip II. She suggests that Alexander learnt from his experience as a Macedonian an appreciation of the importance of natural resources, and a sense of how to use rivers and mountainous terrain to military advantage.

Chapter 3, ‘Being an Argead’ (pp. 55-97), takes the Homeric model of kingship as a starting point for comparison, and then traces the development of the Macedonian model away from dependence on the charisma of each new king, and rather more towards structures that would underpin the kingship (pp. 59-63, cf. 195). The development of hierarchical structures in the Argead system is considered further at pp. 150-57. Thomas justifiably does not go into the level of detail which N. G. L. Hammond essays in particular, in The Macedonian State.[[1]]

The section on Philip sketches the history of his expansion of the Macedonian kingdom, and introduces his dealings with the mainland Greeks. To Thomas’s references on the influence of Philip on Alexander one should add I. Worthington Alexander the Great, and E. A. Fredricksmeyer, ‘Alexander and Philip: Emulation and Resentment’.[[2]] Thomas has a good section on the importance of Olympias’ influence on Alexander, but space given to her career after 323 is not strictly relevant to this study.

Chapter 4, ‘Being a Neighbour of Greece’ (pp. 98-131), sketches the history of Macedon’s dealings with the Greek states in the fifth century and down to Alexander’s day, and provides a useful section on Greek cultural influences on Macedonia (pp. 120-23), with the conclusion that ‘lines of distinction between Macedonian and Greek cultures were blurring long before the Hellenistic Age’ (p. 131).

In Chapter 5, ‘Surviving by Might’ (pp. 132-58), Thomas returns to the issue of the applicability of the Homeric model of kingship. She rightly notes that Agamemnon could not count on the loyalty and obedience of his peers, and Odysseus, as a regional leader, had to regain his own position by eliminating his rivals.

Thomas appears rightly wary of modern reconstructions of the Macedonian constitution and institutions, but she makes the interesting point that the absence of a constitutional base for the Macedonian kingship was somewhat offset by the development -- particularly under Philip -- of a professional army with its own hierarchical structure and career paths, by the use of leaders from different classes and regions of greater Macedonia, by the emergence of a proto-bureaucracy in Pella, and by the king’s use of a circle of advisers. But Thomas may be somewhat exaggerating the extent to which the Macedonian army might be considered professional; paradoxically the mutiny at Opis in 324 may have arisen because the arrival of the 30 000 Epigonoi, trained as professional soldiers, posed a threat to the Macedonian soldiers with their warrior mentality.[[3]]

Chapter 6, ‘Meeting the Distant Threat’, (pp. 159-90), deals with the Macedonian preoccupation with Persia in the period of Philip and Alexander rather than with their neighbours to the west, and considers the level of the Argeads’ knowledge of the Achaemenid Empire. Thomas implies that Alexander set out to invade the Persian Empire (pp. 93, 159, and 189), as opposed to pursuing some more limited objective in Asia Minor, but she stops well short of following P. Cartledge’s line that ‘the invasion of the Persian Empire was Alexander’s inescapable legacy’, or his view that Alexander ‘aimed from the start to conquer at least the existing Achaemenid Empire as a whole’.[[4]]

The final chapter, ‘Reconstructing Alexander’ (pp. 191- 223), draws all the previous material together in a critical survey of Alexander’s life and campaigns, and his creation of a new empire.

A few quibbles and errors might be noted. Thomas strangely claims that Curtius Rufus’ Historiae Alexandri Magni runs out with ‘Alexander’s distribution of governorships in 324 BCE’ (p. 10); and much else in that introduction of the ancient, but not contemporary, sources (pp. 10-12) does not reflect current scholarly opinion. It is scarcely credible that Alexander needed to build a counter-mound 75m high to take the fortress of Gaza (p. 15), pace Arrian 2.27.3. The Rendina pass is not on the river Axios (p. 23), but at the eastern end of Lake Volvi, south west of Amphipolis. On the background to the murder of Philip Arrhidaeus, Thomas appears to have confused the roles of Cassander and Polyperchon (p. 92). Philip’s defeat of Teres and Cersebleptes is usually date to 341, rather than 342 (p. 133). A typographical error that might confuse is Aigia for Aigai (p. 71) on the find-place of a dedication by Alexander’s paternal grandmother, Eurydike.[[5]]

A more general criticism would be that there is too much repetition of material that could have been avoided (for example on the demography of Macedonia, at pp. 49, 87, 135, 150; on Greek colonization, at pp. 100 and 136). Contentious issues are not directly referenced, but there is an annotated bibliography, which also directs the reader to Cartledge’s Alexander (n. 4) for a fuller analytical bibliography.

The book is useful in emphasizing that Alexander did not emerge ex nihilo, and differs from the conventional study of Alexander by focusing on the Macedonian, Greek and Persian contexts in which Alexander emerged, rather than on Alexander’s life. It will also head the student away from the hazards of judging Alexander by anachronistic criteria.


[[1]] N. G. L. Hammond, The Macedonian State (Oxford 1989).

[[2]] I. Worthington, Alexander the Great (Harlow 2004); E. A. Fredricksmeyer, ‘Alexander and Philip: Emulation and Resentment’, CJ 85 (1990) 300-15.

[[3]] Cf. E. Carney, ‘Macedonians and Mutiny: Discipline and Indiscipline in the Army of Philip and Alexander’, CP 91 (1996) 19-44.

[[4]] P. Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (London 2004) 164f.

[[5]] For discussion of the issues surrounding that inscription see Kate Mortensen, ‘Eurydice: Demonic or Devoted Mother’, AHB 6.4 (1992) esp. 163-65.