Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.11.17

N.G.L. Hammond, The Genius of Alexander the Great. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 220, 16 halftones, 19 figures. $29.95. ISBN 0-8078-2350-3.

Reviewed by Janet Burnett Grossman, Department of Antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum at the Villa in Malibu,

Word Count: 2,148.

Written for the general reader, this book is a distillation of Hammond's prior scholarship on Macedonia and Alexander.1 Both professional and lay audiences remain fascinated by Alexander the Great. Books and articles appear at a dizzy pace, and exhibitions, even of small scope, draw a public eager to understand the magnitude of his conquests and accomplishments.2

Hammond's approach to his subject is that of the influence of great men on the course of history. It is an approach that has generally fallen out of intellectual currency whereas a contextual approach is more accepted. An underlying assumption in this account is that by reason and deduction one may arrive at the "truth" about Alexander. Hammond states in the preface (pp. ix-x) that this is " an account of Alexander which may claim to be close to the actual facts of his career and the nature of his personality." While Hammond readily acknowledges the main problem facing Alexander scholars, i.e., the nature of the sources with their varying and frequently contradictory portrayals of Alexander and the events that occurred during his lifetime, his account is nevertheless presented as a realistic depiction.

The narratives that have survived were written between three and five centuries after Alexander and were themselves based on the accounts of earlier historians. And, since the survival of even these secondary ancient sources is through the manuscript and copying tradition, one must face the fact that any account of Alexander cannot claim to be "factual." Indeed, the only true primary sources that we do possess are visual, the inscribed portraits of Alexander on the coinage of Lysimachos, one of the successors to Alexander. If one accepts, then, that we can not know who Alexander really was or what actually happened, the book is a highly readable account of a historical figure who is connected with a period of great change and exploration.

While the general organization of the book is a chronological account of the events of Alexander's life, it begins with Plutarch's account of the taming of Bucephalus (Life of Alexander 6). Throughout, neither footnotes nor sources are cited which, while understandable in a popular account, can lead to confusion. On one hand, Hammond seems to want a narrative that appears seamless, yet, on the other hand, he introduces the subject of Plutarch's sources (in this case, Marsyas Macedon) without explaining who Plutarch is (p. 1). The apocryphal account of the taming of Bucephalus sets the tone of this book on the "genius" of Alexander. For Hammond, the youthful incident foretells the future greatness of the conqueror, since even at an early age Alexander exhibited an independence of judgment, an understanding of his adversary (in this case, Bucephalus) and courage. The implication is that this combination of independence, intelligence and courage is the reason for Alexander's accomplishments.

From this introductory chapter on the boyhood of Alexander, Hammond goes back to set the historical context in Chapters 2 and 3, "The World of Philip as king and Alexander as Prince," and "The Influence of Philip," covering the period in Greece between 356 B.C., the year of Alexander's birth, to Philip's assassination in 336 B.C. Chapter 4 deals with the years 336 334 B.C., describing Alexander's campaigns in Thrace and Illyria.

Chapter 5 contains a discourse on sources of information. Hammond begins with the main ancient literary sources on Alexander which, according to him, are Diodorus, Pompeius Trogus (in an abbreviated version by Justin), Plutarch and Arrian. Mention of Quintus Curtius Rufus is omitted entirely.3 Hammond then gives a brief historiographical analysis on the validity of the sources and the methodology of inference that all historians of ancient sources rely upon to find the original sources for these ancient authors. He quickly introduces the Journal of Alexander, which is generally not accepted as a valid source.4 The chapter ends with a brief discussion of the coinage of Philip and Alexander and includes some of the art and artifacts that Hammond considers related to coinage and culture. Unfortunately, Hammond presents as fact the identification of the tombs at Vergina as those of Philip and Alexander IV, an attribution that should not be presented without a hint of the ongoing debate as to the true occupants of these tombs. He also accepts that the series of miniature ivory heads from tomb II are realistic portraits of Philip's family and his close friends, although most art historians are not as certain.5 Hammond further identifies the main figures in the lion hunt fresco in tomb II as Philip, Alexander and Amyntas.6 He also finds Alexander and Krateros represented as the hunters in the pebble mosaic at Pella.7

Chapter 6 describes the beginning of the Asian expedition and the battle at the Granicus river. Hammond presents Alexander as a religious person, emphasizing the connections with Achaean ancestors and cites the Boscoreale fresco as a depiction of Alexander spearing the land of Asia with its personification looking on in acceptance, again not a widely held opinion among archaeologists and art historians.8

Chapters 7-11 cover the episodes against the Persians and the eventual death of Darius in 330 B.C. Hammond's view is that Alexander was certain of his policy at the outset of the Persian campaigns, namely that Asia belonged to him and all its inhabitants were subjects. He was on a mission to bring enlightened leadership to the repressed peoples under Persian rule (p. 71). Hammond takes the view that the burning of Darius' palace at Persepolis was a deliberate decision taken primarily to demonstrate to all Asia that the Greeks were the victors and, secondarily, to encourage loyal Greek states to resist the rebellion that was being fomented by the Spartans (p. 115).

Alexander's advance further east is presented by Hammond as a logical extension of his being now the "Great King." With the defeat of the rebellious Greeks by Antipater, there was no need for personal intervention at home and since he was infusing his forces with fresh Asian troops he could proceed. Hammond handles the controversies over proskynesis as a deliberate policy decision by Alexander in order to win the support of the Medes and Persians so that they would accept his regime and continue to supply his armies (pp. 123-124). Hammond conjectures that Alexander was compelled to proceed as far as India because he was following Aristotle's map of the world in which the Hindu Kush was the east boundary of Asia, and because the gods had foretold that Alexander was to be king of Asia he was obliged to press on (pp. 127-128). A secondary motivation was for scientific exploration and new discoveries.

Chapters 12 and 13 cover Alexander's progress east along the Persian royal road, over the Sher-Dahan pass to Kabul and into Bactria in pursuit of the Persian general Bessus. Hammond stresses troop strength and supply trains. Chapter 14 covers the years 328-327 B.C., and the subjugation of the northeastern area. Hammond sees the killing of Alexander's general Clitus as the culminating act of increasing tensions between the older Friends and the younger Friends. According to Hammond, it was an unfortunate human accident and not the result of Alexander's drunkenness or volatile personality (p. 152).

Chapters 15 and 16 find Alexander in the Indus valley, eventually reaching the Indian Ocean and beginning the westward return. "The conquest of India south of his cities on the Hydaspes within seven months was an amazing example of Alexander's audacity, originality and planning and of his leadership of a multiracial army (p. 175)." H. presents Alexander as one who brought to the warring Indians peace and a model of economic development by his example of river navigation, well digging and harbor dredging. "In Alexander's cities Indians had new opportunities, and their sons were eligible for a Greek form of education." Sounds like the British mandate in modern India according to the British. What, however, did the Indians think? The final two chapters are interpretive, with Chapter 17 a discussion of the political organization of the Kingdom of Asia and the relationship of Asians and Macedonians.

The book ends with four pages devoted to Alexander's beliefs and personal qualities (pp. 198-202). In this book we hear nothing of the drinking, the dissipation, the fornication, anger, violence or excess. The cause of Alexander's death is not drinking and advanced alcoholism, but rather malaria, because this is what may be deduced from the report in the Journal (p. 198). First and foremost, Alexander was a military leader whose destiny was military glory. He was competitive because he was bred to be so. He was an inspiration for others. He believed in the superiority of Greek civilization. He founded cities because it was the best way to spread Greek culture. He was religious and pious. In Hammond's view a measure of Alexander's religiosity is demonstrated by the fact that he had made no arrangements for the transference of power at the time of his death because he believed that through prayer and sacrifice he would live. Alexander was brilliant, bold, intuitive. He had strong emotions, loved his mother, and was loyal to his friends (the killing of Clitus simply a human slip-up). He was truthful and led by persuasion not tyranny. He was visionary. In short, Alexander was a genius.  


1. N. G. L. Hammond, History of Macedonia, vol. 1 (Oxford 1972); vol. 2 co-authored with G.T. Griffith (1979); vol. 3 co-authored with F. W. Walbank (1988); Alexander the Great: King, Commander and Statesman (1st ed. New Jersey 1980; 3rd ed. Bristol 1994); Three Historians of Alexander (Cambridge 1983); Sources for Alexander the Great (Cambridge 1993).  

2. Indeed, four recent reviews have appeared here: BMCR 97.4.7 W. Heckel's review of A. B. Bosworth, A Historical Commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander (Oxford 1995); 97.4.8, Heckel's review of N.G.L Hammond, Sources for Alexander the Great: An Analysis of Plutarch's Life and Arrian's Anabasis Alexandrou (Cambridge 1993); 97.4.25 G. Reger's review of P. M. Fraser, Cities of Alexander the Great (Oxford 1996); 97.7.25, Rigsby's review of A. Small, ed., Subject and Ruler: The Cult of the Ruling Power in Classical Antiquity (Ann Arbor, 1996). Three recent exhibitions include, "Alessandro Magno: storia e mito," Palazzo Ruspoli, Rome, December 21, 1995-May 21, 1996; "The Mythical Quest: In Search of Adventure, Romance and Enlightment," The British Library, London, June 14-September 29, 1996; and "The Making of a Hero: Alexander the Great from Antiquity to the Renaissance," J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, Oct. 22, 1996-January 5, 1997. The problem of keeping up with Alexander literature is addressed by J. Carlsen, "Alexander the Great (1970-1990)," in Alexander the Great: Reality and Myth, Carlsen, et al., eds. (Rome, 1993) pp. 41-52.  

3. A recent monograph on a fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript in the Getty Museum of Vasco da Lucena's Livre des fais d'Alexandre le grant, a French translation of Quintus Curtius' biography of Alexander, is Scott McKendrick, The History of Alexander the Great (Los Angeles, 1996).  

4. For a summary of the controversies over the Journal, see Heckel's review of Hammond's Sources for Alexander the Great, BMCR 97.4.8.  

5. A. Stewart, Faces of Power: Alexander's Image and Hellenistic Politics (Berkeley, 1993), is a complete and recent study on the extant portraits of Alexander. See pp. 45-46 with earlier bibliography on the tombs and the ivory heads.  

6. A paper by Olga Palagia, "Hephaisteion's Pyre and the Royal Hunt of Alexander the Great," given at a recent conference held in Newcastle, Australia, Alexander the Great: History and Romance, identifies the figures in the fresco as Philip III Arrhidaios and Alexander. Palagia follows the attribution of Tomb II to Arrhidaios and his wife Eurydice by Lehmann and Fredricksmeyer (citation and further references on the subject in A. Stewart, Faces of Power (Berkeley, 1993), p. 276 n. 41). The conference papers will be published, edited by A. B. Bosworth.  

7. Now disassociated from the Krateros monument in Delphi. See D. Willers, "Zwei Löwenjagdgruppen des vierten Jahrhunderts v. Chr." Hefte des Archäologischen Seminars der Universität Bern 5 (1979), pp. 21-26.  

8. This does not seem a likely identification. The figure does not resemble any of the accepted portraits of Alexander and is, in fact, female, since there are breasts. It has been suggested that both figures are personifications, perhaps of Asia and Macedonia. See M. L. Anderson, Pompeian Frescoes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1987), pp. 24-29.