Alexander the Great
introduction by Michael Wood
Penguin Books: London & New York, 2004
The Classical historians speak
We have here a chronological arrangement of biographical extracts about Alexander of Macedonia, written by several of his ancient biographers. In Alexander the Great: Selected Texts from Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch, Tania Gergel provides us a narrative of Alexander's life from the earliest major narrative sources available to us today — although these authors all were writing centuries after their subject. The extracts are knit together with a minimum of interstitial material, usually a single paragraph setting the stage for each chapter.
The extracts are each of a few pages or less, and the author's name appears at the end of each of his selections, so we concentrate on the narrative of Alexander's character and campaigns rather than who is telling that section. But these are not synoptic gospels: the authors' coverage, emphasis, and evaluation varies considerably.
The translators are Tania Gergel (for Arrian), John Yardley (for Curtius, 1984), and Ian Scott-Kilvert (for Plutarch, 1973). Gergel's is original to her anthology, the others are reprints. I cannot judge the accuracy of the translations, but as I read I began to wonder about the quality of the translators' renditions into English, after noticing a few minor oddities including one sentence that appeared to be the inverse of what the context called for. When I came to a sequence of words so garbled as to not form an English sentence, I decided that the problem was a lack of a final proofreading pass — a typical scheduling constraint by printed-paper publishers during the last several decades. The inverted-meaning sentence resulted from a single-letter typographical error, as now and not.
That said, the translations provided are quite readable, giving the reader if not really the immediacy of Alexander's own time, at least as close as readers in Classical antiquity could come to the swift conqueror of the Middle East and the Persian Empire, overturner of the old alignment from Greece and Egypt through Persia and Afghanistan to the edge of India. It's a fast-moving story with plenty of detail: conversations, tactical decisions, bravely-fought battles, often grueling geographical hardships en route.
Michael Wood provides a helpful and informative fourteen-page introduction with some historical context and sense of the relevant scholarship. There is a "Glossary of Main Characters" to keep the names straight. There is only one map, for general orientation.
Tania Gergel's Alexander the Great: Selected Texts may be read as a general introduction to Alexander; or the reader may prefer to plunge at once into the standard biography, Peter Green's wonderful Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C.: A Historical Biography. In the latter case, this anthology may supplement as a collection of major sources, albeit entertaining as well as useful.