view from the hill

A look at the elements and events that come into view from where I'm standing...
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... the stuff that matters in this life. Some flicker and are gone in a matter of hours
only to live in memory, others become life long travelling companions, never far from reach.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Alexander Trilogy

My mother once confessed to me that she named me after Alexander the Great. My brother she named after Richard the Lion Heart. She must have expected great things from us. Mom said it was better to name us after historical figures than after family relations who we might someday meet and not like. There's just too many complications with the living apparently. So, in trying to avoid any undo complications, or the mantle of expectations, I was named after the greatest military general of all time. The boy King who conquered two-thirds of the known world by the time he was 30. No pressure there.

alex1But despite the weight that this name caries with it, I've never known all that much about Alexander the Great. I've got a couple books back in LA that I've dipped into, but for whatever reason, his life has always seemed foreign and intimidating. So, when I found Alexander: Child of a Dream by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, it was like shining light into the past. This is a novel that really takes you in to Alexander's life, we see his friends, his fears and his ambitions. Better yet, it's the first book in a trilogy. I could finally get to know my namesake in a way that's freed from dusty old history books.

The most I'd known about this guy before I read these books was spotty to say the least. But when I dove into these books, all the legends came to life. We get to know his childhood friends who later become his trusted generals. We see him taming the wild horse Becephalus, who was afraid of his own shadow. We're with him when he unites the tribes of Macedonia and Greece, and sets out to conquer the Near East.

alex2In book two, Alexander: The Sands of Ammon, he becomes more driven by the belief in his own divinity, and he just about convinces the rest of his army that he's a descendent of the gods. There's political intrigue and attempted assassinations, glory and near mutinies. We're there as the army enters Babylon when it was the greatest city in the world. We see the military genius that sacked Tyre cross the River Oxus, found Alexandria in Egypt, and be named pharaoh.

And author Manfredi has done some serious homework. He's a historian, journalist, and Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University of Milan. He knows his stuff. He's been to many of the ancient battle sites and the cities that Alexander founded on his expeditions. The novels are infused with detail of what it must have been like to lead an army from the front through unknown lands. I was constantly amazed at the scale of what it takes to feed and move an army of thousands that was more like a travelling city - with doctors, cooks, entertainers, animals, wives and slaves. It was a huge entourage that snaked its way across the Near East when no one had dreamed of doing such a thing before.

I read the first book in the trilogy when we were in New York, the second one in LA, and now part three has followed me here to London, where I've finally finished. I feel like I've lived through the mystery surrounding the murder of Alexander's father, King Phillip. I've also felt the constant threat to Alexander's legitimacy to the throne because his mother was only half-Macedonian.

Earlier this year, I caught some of Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander, on TV. Wood is a bit of an Indiana Jones wanna-be, dressed in his leather jacket, riding in a jeep across the desert sands to all the places Alexander's army travelled. But he does tell the ancient story well. It's one thing to read a great book about Alexander, but to see the actual deserts, mountains and rivers that he crossed is another thing entirely. It's amazing that 2,300 years after Alexander's death, everywhere this TV crew went, they found people with stories to tell, the legends passed down from generation to generation about what Alexander was like when he came through their village. There's a light in their eyes because somewhere in their family's past they have a connection to this mythical man.

It's also amazing to see wars still being fought in the same regions, soldiers still crossing the Tigris or marching through the mountains of Afghanistan. Some things never change.

alex3The last book in the trilogy, Alexander: The Ends of the Earth, is where things start to unravel for the boy King. He wants to push on into India, but his men are dropping like flies. It also doesn't sit well with the soldiers that their leader is adopting the dress and customs of Persia. Alexander may have been a bit ahead of his time. When he conquered lands, he would return the local king to power, to rule in the army's wake. He arranged the marriage of 10,000 of his soldiers to Persian wives in order to solidify peace between two ancient empires. He really was after a new kind of world. But his faithful Macedonian warriors don't appreciate the honoured place that the newly-conquered soldiers occupy.

Still, he manages to lead his men down the Indus and across the burning deserts of the Persian Gulf towards home.

But Alexander dies without an heir, even while he was planning new expeditions to explore Arabia. Power struggles break out between his surviving generals. No one possessed the charisma to lead that Alexander once had, and within a generation all their conquests were in tatters.

He really was one of a kind, and I feel I know the man better because of these novels. Sometimes he tried to unite cultures, other times he left cities in ashes. His drive, often blind, left plenty of enemies in his wake, but he always looked to the horizon. There were always more lands to explore.

Maybe it's best he didn't have a son. Maybe it had to end this way. A name is a powerful thing, and there's no escaping the mantle of expectation, whether from the living or the dead … Alexander is a tough name to live up to. But in my own case, maybe I should cut myself some slack. After all, I'm not the son of a king, and my teacher at school wasn't Aristotle. My mom was just trying to do a nice thing. Plus, I've already lived longer than my namesake. But you never know, I might still end up with my face on a coin.

Check them out here at Amazon.

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