Alexander the Great: A Life in Legend

From The New York Review of Books:

Alexander_italica_s Alexander defeated the Persian armies in three great pitched battles, and the unfortunate Persian king was murdered by his own people. Alexander married an exotic Eastern princess, became King of Kings, and died, not quite thirty-three years old, in Babylon (323 BCE). Some said he died of a particularly violent drinking bout: heavy drinking seems to have been a tradition among the upper class of Macedon, a society by no means famous for its cultural or scholarly interests. News of his death percolated back to Greece. Some refused to believe it. If he were really dead, said one, the whole world would reek of his corpse. But dead he was, and the struggle was on for the succession to his vast realm and fabulous wealth. His generals fought it out, each aiming to keep as much as he could. Alexander’s young son was promptly murdered, and most of his family wiped out. The whole story is a cruel lesson — almost, one might feel, overemphatic in conception — on the vanity of ambition and the nothingness of power.

After a generation of warfare, things settled down. No king had been able to hold on to the whole of Alexander’s empire. Four more or less stable monarchies emerged, among them the Egypt of Ptolemy, a level-headed general, which would last for three hundred years; its last queen was the famous Cleopatra (a Macedonian name). One by one, those kingdoms fell to the rising and irresistible power of Rome. But Alexander lived on, as a figure of fantasy and romance. Sometimes he was a focus for hatred of the Roman conquerors and oppressors. If only Alexander had lived, said many Greeks, he would have conquered these horrible Romans. But Roman writers disagreed: Alexander would have met his match in the sturdy Roman legions!

There is nothing like an early death for creating legends, and Richard Stoneman gives a great many of them learned but lively treatment in his new book.

More here.