Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.02.30

Carol G. Thomas, Alexander the Great in His World.   Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing, 2007.  Pp. 254.  ISBN 0-631-23246-X.  $32.95.  

Reviewed by Cheryl Golden, Newman University (
Word count: 1009 words

Table of Contents

Carol Thomas' contribution to the voluminous scholarship on the "Great" Alexander III of Macedonia aims to provide an assessment of the world into which Alexander was born and the influence of that world upon his potential as king and conqueror. Thomas explores five themes or agents of influence in the king's world: the physical geography and peoples of Macedonia; Alexander's ancestry, including the dynamics of his parents' marriage; Greece and her influence on Macedonian culture; the role of the military in Macedonian society and politics; and finally, the Persian challenge. Overall, Thomas' work attempts to add a new cultural, quasi-psychological approach to Alexander studies. While this well-written attempt is approachable, ultimately Thomas provides yet another work on the "Macedonian question" and leaves the reader wanting more of the author's take on Alexander himself and a few more examples of how Alexander's "world" influenced and informed his anabasis into Persia.

Thomas' thematic approach is promising, and her discussion of the Macedonian background provides an excellent starting point for the study of Alexander the Great. Through an examination of the hard living required of those inhabiting the harsh terrain and even harsher political and social realities of Philip II's emerging state of Macedonia, Thomas hopes to "look deeply into the circumstances of [Alexander's] world in the belief that we cannot understand individuals apart from the cultures that condition their lives" (x).

The geographical section offers a nice overview of the natural resources, challenges to communication and transportation, and various tribal groups of Macedonia. Throughout this chapter, Thomas conveys the idea that the rugged nature of Macedonia helped shape Alexander's own rugged character. The chapter offers a fine summary of Macedonian resources and the geographic obstacles to unification Philip's military and diplomatic skills overcame. Thomas also makes the keen observation that Macedonia's location as a transitional state between the Greek city-states and Asia could little afford an isolationistic stance if the region was to develop as a strong independent state.

Thomas' chapter on "Being an Argead" is, perhaps, the best of the book. Here, the author has taken a very difficult history, with myriad place and family names, and produced a cogent, readable narrative that makes a complicated topic accessible to the undergraduate reader. Her analysis of Philip and Olympias as the parents of the young man who would one day be king does not disappoint. Her assessment of Olympias, in particular, avoids the temptations to which so many other authors succumb by steering clear of gossipy, salacious snake stories and instead portraying the Macedonian queen as the calculating, political player who gave Alexander a heroic sense of his own destiny.

Thomas' analysis of the military character of Macedonia is successful as well. Once again, the undergraduate student coming to the topic for the first time will find a broad overview of the organization of the Macedonian military, Philip's reforms, and the attendant social and political circumstances.

Thomas is not as convincing, however, in the chapter on Persia. While the general background information on the Persian empire and its position in Asia is solid, Thomas' assessment that there are many similarities between Macedonian and Persian kingship and the realms created by the Argeads and the Achaemenids leaves the unschooled reader with an insufficient respect for the extraordinary complexities of the Persian empire. While Thomas is careful to consider the multifaceted nature of Macedonian culture, the culture of the Persian empire with its various languages, religions, customs, geographic challenges, extraordinary resources, etc. are neglected to the point that the reader might not realize the challenges that the Achaemenid dynasty successfully managed, and that the Argeads, in the persons of Alexander and his successors, could not.

A significant problem for the instructor of undergraduates is the lack of documentation in the work. The author maintains that the publisher (Blackwell) insisted that footnotes and bibliography be kept to a minimum. This is indeed a problem for those college instructors hoping to demonstrate to young historians the importance of footnoting one's sources and showing one's work. Thus, the audience that would most benefit from Thomas' research and writing style is denied access to her process because careful documentation is not manifest.

Thomas' assessment of the world that produced Alexander the Great is a fine introduction to Macedonian history and would serve well as one of several works offered to an undergraduate class studying the history of Alexander. The work is well written and clearly presented, especially in matters of Macedonian marriage alliances, Alexander's pedigree, and the complicated net of political alliances between Philip and various Greek states. Because the book is topically arranged, the narrative and analysis are sometimes repetitious. Again, this element, so common in thematic works, is not a sin but a virtue in a book aimed at an undergraduate audience.

Finally, despite the achievements of the work and its readability, Thomas leaves the reader wanting more. The opening and closing chapters offer a nice -- if brief -- overview of Alexander's life and times. The analysis would be far more useful if Thomas had brought out some key examples or discussed significant periods during which Alexander's world, as she has presented it, affects key decisions or events in his journey through Persia. Thomas teases the reader with the promise of just this from time to time, indicating that "we will see" how such and such a change in policy develops later, etc. Yet we are not given the opportunity. If we could have had another chapter discussing specific examples of how the lessons learned from the rugged terrain of Macedonia, the diplomacy of Philip, the teachings of Aristotle, etc. played out in the extraordinary life of Alexander, the reader would be more satisfied. As it stands, although this work features Alexander's great name in the title, it serves mainly as a work on the Macedonian background, giving us only the essential information about Alexander's military and political career and forcing us to draw our own conclusions as to how this world influenced the events of this most intriguing man's life.

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