Thursday, November 7, 2019


John Boardman, Alexander the Great: From his Death to the Present Day. Lawrenceville: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. 152. ISBN 9780691181752. $29.95.

Reviewed by Timothy Howe, St. Olaf College (

Version at BMCR home site


In Alexander the Great: From his Death to the Present Day, John Boardman offers an engaging study of the evolution of the Alexander the Great mythos from antiquity down to the present day through art, literature, music, and film. Pitched as a story of the afterlife of Alexander of Macedon, Boardman has crafted with intelligence and clarity an account to engage specialist and non-specialist alike. As Boardman acknowledges in the preface, the goal of the work is to map the wider path of the Alexander story, rather than to offer a systematic and detailed investigation of the various traditions. And as one might expect from such a well known scholar of material culture, the book abounds with colour and monochrome plates of paintings, sculpture, mosaics, coins, figurines, and tapestries. Alongside this rich vein of creative material, Boardman also offers a survey of recent Alexander scholarship, though this reflects more his focus on the artistic and literary afterlife than Quellenforschung or the academic quest for the historical Alexander.

The nine chapters of the book trace the story of Alexander's afterlife in roughly chronological order. Chapter One considers the extant Greek and Roman sources but singles out two, Plutarch and Arrian, because, in Boardman's view, their works most influenced the shape of Alexander's afterlife, such as his signature 'yearning' and his quixotic, unstoppable drive. Chapter Two digs into the traditions surrounding Alexander's end to show that a perennial fascination with his death and burial keeps the Alexander story both continually relevant and controversial. Chapter Three surveys the portrait of Alexander, focusing on signature features such as tousled locks, lion skin/elephant's head cap, Macedonian armour and hat and diadem. Chapters Four, Five and Six return to literature and tackle the less 'historical' narratives of the Alexander Romances (Four), the Persian Romance (Five), and the Indian Romance (Six). The next three chapters explore Alexander in post-antique art, literature, music, and film. Chapter Seven surveys the Renaissance, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and Britain, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, and finally twentieth-century Britain. Chapter Eight deals with the twentieth century in general and the introduction of new media for the Alexander mythos—the silver screen and pulp fiction. The final chapter assesses Alexander's influence on later travellers from Marco Polo to Napoleon, Wellington, Arnold Toynbee, and Michael Wood and other recent documentary filmmakers.

Alexander the Great: From his Death to the Present Day is a delightful read and has much to offer anyone interested in the story of the Alexander. Of course, a large benefit of the book is that it draws the readers in so deeply that they are left wanting more. For example, this reader might have wished for more attention both to the reasons why the Alexander story took the particular turns it did through art and literature and to what such turns might mean to us 2350 years after the Great Man's death. But then Boardman would probably say that such questions are themselves simply part of the ongoing, ever twisting and turning Alexander story, a story that Boardman tells and illustrates well.

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