The remarkable life of Alexander the Great, one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, vividly told by one of the world's leading experts in Greek history. With all the intensity, insight, and narrative drive that made The Spartans such a hit with critics and readers, Paul Cartledge's Alexander the Great: glowingly illuminates the brief but iconic life of Alexander (356-323 BC), king of Macedon, conqueror of the Persian Empire, and founder of a new world order. Cartledge, the distinguished scholar and historian long acknowledged as the leading international authority on ancient Sparta and Greece, brilliantly evokes Alexander's remarkable political and military accomplishments, leads us along the geographical path of his victorious armies, and compellingly charting the tremendous field of this warrior hero's influence.
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November 30, 2006
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Excerpt from Alexander the Great by Norman F. Cantor
The Greek World
Ancient Greece, extending from the kingdom of Macedonia in the north down to the city -- state of Sparta in the south, was a large peninsula or archipelago jutting out into the Aegean Sea. Much of its land was taken up by forests, mountains, and deep valleys -- a topography that made unification of the Greek city -- states difficult.
Up the coast from Sparta lay the rich and artistic city -- state of Athens -- distinguished by its Parthenon, navy, democracy, and opinionated orators -- with the bustling port of Piraeus some ten miles to the southwest. Thebes and Corinth were other city -- states, lying halfway between Macedonia and the well -- disciplined but bellicose Sparta.
The two principal forms of Greek culture stemmed from two periods of Greek history. The first, which could be called the Heroic Age (about 1300 to 800 BC), was an era in which kings like Agamemnon and Menelaus ruled, and their successes and failures were recounted in a grand oral tradition of heroic poetry. These rulers held on to a so -- called shame culture in which honor and dignity were exalted and in which the worst thing was to be disgraced, to be without honor.
Reflecting this societal norm, the ten -- year Trojan War allegedly occurred because a Trojan prince stole Helen, Menelaus's wife, and honor decreed that the king had to go to war to retrieve her. At the end of this period, around 800, in two epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer set down the oral traditions of the war, thus providing the written material for Alexander's obsession with Achilles. Homer's writings were a kind of light at the end of the tunnel of the Greek Dark Age. During this period there had been much jockeying for power among various peoples: the Dorians, the Ionians, and the Mycenaeans.
The years from about 800 to 500 BC are known as the Archaic Age. This was the period during which the city -- state, or polis, was formed and the cities of the peninsula split into separate governmental bodies. This was also a time of great colonization, of Sicily and southern Italy. In art the human form underwent a transformation from an earlier style, in which it had looked almost like a stick figure, to the realistic portrayal of the human form in all its beauty that characterizes Greek art of the Classical Age.
From 500 to 320 BC, Greek -- or at least the Athenian -- culture underwent a radical transformation. In the words of Edgar Allan Poe, this was the period that gave the world "the glory that was Greece." It saw the rise of Athens and the building of the Parthenon as well as the democratic ideals and government of Pericles; the drama of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides; and the philosophical schools of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This period also witnessed the development of the conflict between Persia and the Greek cities that finally ended with the rise of Alexander the Great.
For many years the city -- states had fought one another over territory and commercial privileges in miserable, bloody wars. No one person had ever come along who was strong and ruthless enough to unite these natural enemies; thus there were only two exceptions to these dreadful -- and futile -- internecine conflicts. One was the period in the later fifth century BC when Athens and Sparta united during the Peloponnesian War against the menace of the Persian Empire coming over from Asia Minor. The alliance of Athens and Sparta defeated the Persians in the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. After the war had dragged on for almost ten years, the Greeks forced the battle by advancing full force toward the Persian army and surrounding it.