Sunday, September 14, 2008


Version at BMCR home site
John D. Grainger, Alexander the Great Failure. The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007. Pp. xix, 236; maps 5. ISBN 978-1-84725-188-6. $24.95.
Reviewed by Waldemar Heckel, University of Calgary

The idea of studying Alexander's achievement in context, that is, with reference to what preceded and followed his reign, is certainly a good one. But the discussion of everything from the rise of Macedon to the death of Pyrrhos of Epeiros in 272 BC in the space of 188 pages (excluding the conclusion, notes, bibliography and index) involves certain economies that, as one might guess before even reading the book, will prove detrimental either to the reader's understanding of events or to the author's main argument. As far as the latter is concerned, it is really an assertion, since no serious effort is made to argue the case. The title certainly implies that the failure of the Macedonian conquest and of the empire is directly attributable to Alexander. And this is spelled out in the Preface (p. xviii):

So this book aims to discuss how Alexander's empire originated. This requires a consideration of the kingdom of Macedon, and Philip's work there. Then I aim to examine how it was that his empire failed. For it is this which is the most notable result of Alexander's life and work: for all his military prowess, he was one of the world's greatest failures -- and that failure spelt misery and death for countless thousands of people. Not only that, but he brought that failure on himself. His arrogance was largely responsible for his own early death; and he was also responsible for the ultimate failure of his imperial enterprise; for he was king of a society where the king was absolutely central to the well-being of the society as a whole. When the king failed, the Macedonian kingdom imploded, something which had happened more or less every generation for two centuries before him, and happened when he died, and again afterwards. For the good of his people, Alexander needed an adult successor, and he both refused to provide one, and killed off any man who could be seen as one. This was irresponsibility of the most introverted sort, and the consequence was 50 years of warfare after his death, and the destruction of his empire. In the end it brought invasion and destruction also to the inherited kingdom.

Later on, the author says "It is worth considering the events recounted in this book from the point of view of the victims, since the normal assumption is that Alexander was a hero, a military genius...", but the amount of space devoted to Alexander's aims, methods, and achievements in the east is less than twenty pages (75-93). And very little is said in these pages about the plight of the victims. Within such limits there is room only for generalizations and a selective presentation of events and outcomes. Of bias in the sources there is nothing (and Grainger admits as much on p. xviii), only echoes of the now familiar refrain of recent Alexander detractors, and the explicit statement "In many ways he was a perpetual adolescent; his superstition, impulsiveness, carelessness with money, extravagant grief over the death of Hephaistion, unwillingness to see that other work needed to be done, love of fighting, all show this" (92). At least, we are spared the comparisons with Hitler and Stalin which have become de rigueur for Alexander detractors (see, e.g., Hanson 2001: 89-90; for a welcome dose of common sense see, however, Rogers 2004: 280-1).

Not only are Alexander' s actions and their results inadequately discussed, but the book itself is not really about Alexander. To put it simply, the title leads us to suspect that the author will reveal the conqueror's shortcomings and explain why he is, in fact, to be regarded as a failure. But this never happens, and what we get is a book that does a respectable job of narrating the rise of Macedon and the struggles of Alexander's Successors without seriously tackling the issue that the title promises. Certainly, we get some insightful observations on the failure of Macedonian imperialism, but the case against Alexander is so weak and so badly presented that, even if he were a prisoner at Guantanamo, he would surely be acquitted and released for lack of evidence. And, I hasten to add, that I am not denying that there is evidence that can be brought against the "defendant." I merely observe that Grainger has not marshaled such evidence, much less presented it in a cogent manner. In fact, the points raised in the book's conclusion (which I discuss below) are repetitions of those made, with equal vagueness in the brief section devoted to Alexander. On the other hand, nothing is said about the conqueror's substantial contributions to administration and statecraft. What is remarkable is surely not that the man died young and made inadequate provision for the succession but rather that he accomplished so much in the space of his short life, not merely in the military realm but in matters of organization on both a large and small scale.1 Nor should we ignore the fact that, after Alexander's death, the only remaining Argeads were lacking in competence while the most competent of the generals lacked royal blood.

As the saying goes, one should not "judge a book by its cover." But it is only fair--and, in this case, essential--to judge this particular book by its title: Alexander the Great Failure. Like those who cannot stand the suspense of a good mystery novel, we might start by going straight to the end of the book, to the brief "Conclusion" (pp. 189-93); for here it is that the author actually spells out why he considers Alexander a "failure," something which, despite the title, is either not argued or, at best, not well argued in the main body of the narrative. I select only a few of Grainger's observations, but these are, I believe, the most important ones insofar as they pertain to Alexander's own responsibility for the alleged failure of the empire (which endured in one form or another for three centuries), to say nothing of the homeland (which despite his irresponsible policies remained a power in European Greece until the early decades of the second century).

"The conclusion must be that for the former subjects of the Akhaimenid empire [my emphasis] the Macedonian conquest was a disaster, something they continued to detest after Alexander was dead" (190). Not only is this generalization inappropriate, at least as far as actual detestation is concerned (see below), but similar comments could be made about the Christians of the Near East in the seventh century, though this strong feeling on the part of the vanquished hardly justifies calling the Arab conquest a failure! Of course, it may be said in fairness to the warriors of Islam that they showed more restraint than the army of Alexander.

Grainger continues: "numbers of Iranians left Iran, particularly for India, rather than accept Macedonian rule. This applied to aristocrats such as Barsaentes, the satrap of Arachosia..." (190). Not the best example, I'm afraid, but also the only specific example that the author gives. Barsaentes was a regicide--he had joined Bessos and Nabarzanes in killing Dareios III--and his capture by Alexander would have resulted in well-deserved execution. Beyond that we hear only of craftsmen taking their skills elsewhere (e.g. to India)--as if such migrations can only be the result of "detestation" felt for the conqueror. But the paragraph continues by noting that the Egyptians under the Ptolemies and many of the subjects of the Seleukids did not share this hostility ("This antipathy to Macedonian rule was not an attitude shared by all..." 190). So, in the end, we are no wiser: just who were these disgruntled subjects, besides Barsaentes and some Iranian craftsmen, and what was the real source of their grievances? Nobody likes to be conquered, of course. Only recently certain Quebeckers objected (in all earnestness) to Paul McCartney's upcoming performance at the 400th anniversary of Quebec City, arguing that it was an insult to them that a member of the conquering nation had been selected as an entertainer on this occasion (see and ). Are we now to dismiss James Wolfe as a "failure?" I am not being entirely facetious, for, since Grainger holds Alexander responsible for the disintegration of the empire under the Diadochoi and the Hellenistic Kings, then so too, by such reasoning, could the failure of British (and, later, Canadian) officials to implement those recommendations that called for the assimilation of the French in Canada be laid at the feet of General Wolfe, whose greatest failure was, like Alexander's, to have died young.2

Finally, on the matter of the attitudes (and experiences) of the conquered, Grainger justifies his approach in the following way: "I have chosen to emphasize the negative aspects of the great expedition because it is often described as a time of excitement and achievement, with Alexander as hero" (191). The reader, if he has not already done so, will at some point come to the obvious conclusion that victory and defeat are two different things, and that victors can revel in their successes, enjoy the fruits of conquest and define their own heroes. Of course, Alexander's story was that written by the victors, and there is need of a corrective version. Unfortunately, Grainger does not supply forceful counter-arguments. Instead we are treated to random observations. For example, the campaigns waged in Baktria and India are described as "[t]he hardest, most costly and nastiest fighting of Alexander's wars, and none of the men involved was unaffected by the experience" (191). This is an observation that will be welcomed by those interested in the "face of battle" and "experience of war," but does it negate the view that this was "a time of excitement and achievement"? In fact, one of my close friends, who writes about battlefield trauma, would consider this an exhilarating time for the sort of man who is best described as philopolemos. Does the brutality of the Indian campaign make Alexander less "heroic?" Only in modern, politically correct, terms. The same mentality would unmake the great heroes of the Iliad and the Song of Roland or, for that matter, cause us to dismiss the achievements of "war aces" whose primary claim to heroic status is the number of "kills" with which they were credited.3 Again, lest the reader imagine that I am merely ranting against political correctness or that I am, myself, a cretin who revels in the miseries of others, I wish to offer the (to my mind) unnecessary reminder that the large numbers of enemy dead are themselves the fabrications of the ancient historians on the winning side, who recognized that the Greek, Macedonian and Roman warriors measured success in terms of overwhelming numbers of enemy (viz. foreign) dead, wounded and captured. Many a Roman general was denied a triumph for lack of sufficient slaughter on the battlefield. This was simply how the ancients viewed things, and it is absurd to use their own inflated numbers against them as if they were actually true. The greater the number of the enemy the more impressive the accomplishments of the Alexanders and their ilk, who with their comparatively miniscule forces not only carved out victory with their swords but revealed the true nature of their military prowess by inflicting wholesale slaughter. We are not taken in by these fantasies, nor should we transform them into "truths" in order to serve our own revisionist delusions.

Something needs to be said about the Macedonian homeland. Here Grainger challenges our credulity, all the while causing us to question his own. "The other victim of Alexander's career was his own kingdom, Macedon, to which we ought to add Greece. Alexander's expedition left Macedon substantially weakened, and its geographical position left it vulnerable to invasion from the north. It had suffered this repeatedly during the previous two centuries, and it was only in Philip II's reign that the kingdom became organized and led in such a way that its resistance to invasion was invariably successful" (190). The only truly serious invasion from the north, that of the Galatians, occurred some forty-three years after Alexander's death, and at a time when the relentless quarrels of the Successors had weakened the state both in terms of manpower and leadership. There is no doubt that the demands of the Asiatic expedition weakened the homeland (on this see Bosworth 1986; cf. Billows 1995)--though it managed nevertheless to suppress the rebellion in the Peloponnese led by Agis III and, with the help of reinforcements from Asia (most of whom intended to be repatriated), made relatively short work of the Greek coalition that had enjoyed initial success in the Lamian War. The Galatian irruption could not have been foreseen, and it may have posed problems even for a leader of Philip II's stature, but by the time of Keraunos, the failure of the Macedonian kingdom to make good its losses in manpower over the intervening two generations can hardly be blamed either directly or indirectly on Alexander's expedition. But Grainger believes that it can: "A warrior kingdom such as Macedon could not sink lower. It was the ultimate result of Alexander's expedition, which meant that his homeland was unable to defend itself" (191). The kingdom survived nonetheless and recovered under the leadership of Antigonos Gonatas, continuing its role as arbiter of Greek affairs. How, then, do we measure the success of a state? And what constitutes reasonable longevity? And for how many generations after the invasion of the Persian Empire were deteriorating conditions still attributable to Alexander and not to the Successors who frittered away the empire's resources in their own quests for personal power and glory?

I have left for last what I regard as the most important issue: Alexander's approach to administration and his duties as king. Grainger alleges that, in a society that depended to such an extent on the person of the king, Alexander was careless about his own life and the matter of the succession. The blurb on the dust-jacket says that "Alexander's death was not unpredictable." A more truthful (and obvious) statement could hardly be made. But what I believe Grainger means is that Alexander's premature death does not come as a surprise. Yet even this is debatable. He did indeed risk his life on numerous occasions, and he had the scars to prove it; he drank heavily, like most Macedonians of his time; in another era, he might even have been a "pack-a-day" smoker. But, even under such circumstances, one cannot reasonably blame him for dying when he did or criticize him for believing that his life would be longer. To say that he was careless about producing an heir is only partially true. Political constraints made it virtually impossible for him to take a Macedonian bride before he left for Asia (see, for example, Baynham 1998a); and the pretense of the "War of Vengeance," as well as the Macedonian attitude towards the king's orientalism, made an Asian bride a "difficult sell." Nevertheless, he did take a bride in Baktria, who produced a child that died at the Hydaspes (Metz Epit. 70) and another born in 323, and he married two Achaimenid princesses in 324. These were marriages of policy, which had the future of the empire in mind, and we cannot fairly criticize the king for not knowing that he would die in 323.

Grainger (89) comments that "Orxines was executed for taking emergency control of a vital satrapy; Kleomenes was promoted for usurping authority; this was a travesty of government." What we are not told is that Orxines traced his lineage back to Kyros the Great and that he plundered his satrapy; his actions were almost certainly a bid for power on the part of someone who considered himself more legitimate than Alexander. How could Alexander not have regarded this as an act of treason?4 Nor is the case of Kleomenes clear cut. What we are not told by Grainger is that Kleomenes was a personal enemy of Ptolemy--in the Babylon settlement he was appointed as Ptolemy's hyparchos (ostensibly as his assistant, but in fact as his minder), just has Meleagros had been made Perdikkas' hyparchos (Arr. Succ. 1.3, 5; Justin 13.4.5, 11)--and that Ptolemy had had him murdered; Kleomenes' methods may have been questionable, but the Egyptian treasury and Ptolemy himself gained from them (Diod. 18.14.1). Hence, whatever is said about his conduct during Alexander's lifetime must be judged in the light of Ptolemy's own bias. The judgments on Orxines and Kleomenes would thus have benefited from a bit of source criticism.

Elsewhere (88) we are treated to the familiar stories about the executions of Kleandros, Sitalkes, Menidas and Agathon without any comment on their guilt. We are told that they were "accused of a catalogue of crimes by men of the army and by the Medians who accompanied the march." What Grainger fails to add is that these men were serious offenders and that Alexander's punishment of their conduct was the act of a responsible king who had the interests of his subjects at heart. For the last half century these executions have been depicted as part of a Stalinist purge and used to condemn Alexander as a paranoid egomaniac (e.g. Badian 1961). It is a sad reflection on modern commentators that holding criminals accountable for their actions can be treated as a defect. But the simple fact of the matter is that whatever Alexander did--whether it was political marriage, the integration of Persians into the army, the promotion or demotion of satraps--those who are predisposed to do so will put a negative spin on his actions. That he took numerous administrative and financial measures during his brief reign should be clear to anyone who bothers to read the first volume of Berve 1926, and it is almost certainly the case that, if the sources were not entirely focused on the military aspects of Alexander's career, we might know even more about these relatively mundane matters. Nevertheless, the information is available to those who take the trouble to find it. For those who are merely intent upon denigrating the king's achievement, a few generalizations and a sprinkling of rhetoric suffice.

One ought to bear in mind that, without Alexander's conquests, there would have been no empire to lose. Perhaps, it can be argued that Alexander was truly responsible for the decline of the Macedonian kingdom? If so, let someone present that argument and support it with the requisite evidence. But in the meantime we are left with Grainger's book and its deceptive title. It can be summed up in one word: failure.


Badian, E. 1961. "Harpalus," JHS 91: 16-43.

Baynham, E. J. 1998a. "Why didn't Alexander marry before leaving Macedonia?" RhM 141: 141-52.

Baynham, E. J. 1998b. Alexander the Great. The Unique Hitory of Quintus Curtius. Ann Arbor.

Berve, H. 1926. Das Alexanderreich auf prosopographischer Grundlage. Vol. 1. Munich.

Billows, R. A. 1995. Kings and Colonists: Aspects of Macedonian Imperialism. Leiden.

Bosworth, A. B. 1986. "Alexander the Great and the Decline of Macedon," JHS 106: 1-12.

Bosworth, A. B. 1988. Conquest and Empire: The Reign of Alexander the Great. Cambridge.

Hanson, Victor Davis. 2001. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York.

Lane Fox, Robin. 1973. Alexander the Great. London.

Rogers, Guy MacLean. 2004. Alexander. The Ambiguity of Greatness. New York.

Spencer, Diana. 2002. The Roman Alexander. Reading a Cultural Myth. Exeter.


1.   I do not mean to imply that these issues were priorities of the young king. In fact, his planned expeditions to Arabia and North Africa probably reflect a declining interest in consolidation and a continuing passion for conquest.
2.   Both died before reaching the age of thirty-three; Wolfe was marginally younger. Comment on this coincidence, though interesting enough, is superfluous, of course.
3.   And in the last case we are dealing with verifiable data. Is there a man (or woman) alive who would dare to vilify Audie Murphy?
4.   Or should we compare Orxines with the bank robber who was merely borrowing the money? Curtius' account of Orxines' fate (10.1-22-38) is hostile to Alexander and attempts to show that the king was manipulated by the evil eunuch, Bagoas, into condemning an innocent man. It is, however, dangerous to take Curtius' story at face value. It alludes to the pernicious influence of freedmen and delatores on Roman emperors (Baynham 1998b: 42 sees Curtius emphasizing Alexander's "moral decline"; Spencer 2002: 118 remarks that "Curtius' comments on Bagoas' undue influence are slanted toward political rather than sexual corruption"; Lane Fox 1973: 541: "QC 10.1.37f. is merely Roman colouring"); Orxines' transformation into an innocent victim is part of the message and need not be taken as historical truth. A different picture of events emerges from Arr. 6.29, which shows that there was more to Orxines' misconduct than Grainger lets on, and that Bagoas was not his only accuser. There is no doubt that (whatever his intentions) Orxines was guilty of usurpation of power in Alexander's absence and unable to secure his acquittal through bribery (see Bosworth 1988: 154 for a more balanced picture; cf. Lane Fox 1973: 408-9). Earlier Persian rulers had often chosen to treat such acts as indiscretions, but Alexander had a more cynical view of things after he emerged from the Gedrosian ordeal.

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