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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great - Steven Pressfield Wouldn't it be neat to have an interview with Alexander the Great in which he tells of his life as a soldier in a very introspective manner. Short of a time machine, this novel provides the next best thing thanks to Steven Pressfield's ability to crawl inside the mind of the world's greatest conqueror. The story as told in Alexander's voice covers the spectrum of language from noble rhetoric to earthy solder's vernacular as it narrates the stories of horror and triumph. The battles are described vividly and concisely. The flow of the narrative congers up within the reader the visceral excitement and fear of an outnumbered military force confident of their ability to prevail in spite of impossible odds.

Their subsequent problems related to trying to govern the conquered territories is also told in a most engaging way. It's interesting to note that some of the problems Alexander faced in the areas we today call Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan had vague similarities to current difficulties in those regions. The winner of the military battles often times is overwhelmed by the subsequent political and cultural conflicts.

How can there be any virtue in something as terrible as war? That was my first response to the book's title. There's enough gore and cruelty described in this book for a 21st Century reader to find it to be an anti-war tale. After the victory over Persia, it was difficult for Alexander to maintain the moral of his army. The virtue of war as seen from his perspective is that it gives men a sense of purpose and a goal to work toward. I think his thinking is summarized in the following quotation from the book in which Alexander reflects on the Battle of Hydaspes, his last major victory.

"Let me speak instead to the significance of the fight. What it meant to me and to the army. It was everything we needed---a contest of heroic scale against a foe who stood his ground and dueled with honor. At conflict's end, the field was ours, indeed, but, far more important, we had preserved our antagonist Porus's life and the lives of as many of his Ksatriyas as possible; we had been able to act toward him and them with integrity and restraint; and we had conquered not only a stubborn and manful foe but our own factious and recalcitrant selves."

A case can be made that Alexander the Great made the greatest impact on human history of any single person. It's difficult to imagine the history of Western Civilization without his exploits. The golden age of Greek may very well have been lost to history if Alexander hadn't made Greek culture the standard for Western Civilization. Without the foundation of Greek culture the Roman Empire may have never existed, at least not as we know it. And without the Roman Empire, what would have been the history of the western world? In that regard, Alexander was successful based on his own goals. The following quote from the book is of Alexander scolding his troops for plundering after the Battle of Issus.

"Do we march for plunder, brothers? Is gold our aim, Like merchants? By Zeus, I will cut my own throat if you tell me you believe that. It is enough to rout the foe, to prove ourselves the greater Brutes? Then build my pyre. I will kindle it myself before yielding to such want of imagination and such deficit of desire. Fame Imperishable and glory that will never die -- that is what we march for! To light that flame that death itself cannot quench. That I will achieve, and by the sword of Almighty Zeus, you will work it with me, every one of you! "

In Mr. Pressfield's parlance, Alexander felt within himself the existence of a "daimon." Alexander's voice returns to reflect on his inner daimon numerous times during the book's narrative. I have subsequently researched that term to try to see what the author, through Alexander's voice, was trying to say with it. It is true that "daimon" is the Greek derivative for the English word "demon." However, in the context of ancient Greek culture it was more likely considered to be an intermediary spirit between humans and the gods. Therefore, Alexander would have perceived it as an inner spirit that provided divine guidance telling him when he needed to take action on certain issues.

One thing I appreciated about the author is that he provided a "Note to the Reader" at the beginning of the book where he acknowledged several places in the book where he deviated from recorded history. He explains that he did it in the interest of the theme and the storytelling. I think Alexander would agree with the changes. At the very least it saves the reader the need to worry about the deviations. Steven Pressfield discusses the relationship between fact and fiction in the writing of historical novels in his author's forum at the following address:
In "message 2" at the above address he gives a specific example from the book, The Virtues of War.

Alexander was very much a tyrant when judged by modern standards. It's interesting to note that the Greeks of Athens and Sparta didn't consider Alexander to be Greek. To them he was Macedonian. When Alexander left Greece to conquer the east, he needed to leave half is forces at home to maintain control of the home country. It's interesting to note how often the tyrant ends up being an outsider to the home country. Some recent examples are; (1) Napoleon was Corsican, (2) Stalin was Georgian, and (3) Hitler was Austrian.