The Virtues of War (ISBN 9780553382051) by Steven Pressfield is quite an unorthodox book. As opposed to so many history or fiction books, including novels, about Alexander this one lets Alexander speak for himself – a very challenging enterprise.
Steven Pressfield, who I learned to appreciate in his novel The Afghan Campaign clearly warns his readers in the introductory note that he does not follow history according to the strict reports but has arranged the events and facts to better suit his own interpretation, i.e. the true spirit of Alexander as he conceives it.
In this novel, Alexander is talking to Itanes, the younger brother of Roxane who has joined his ranks to be at this stage taken into his close circle of Companions.
It is not a sentimental tale, but a story told from the point of view of a general, a military leader who knows his men inside out. Alexander’s strategies and his awareness of what happens around him in battle without being able to actually see how events unfold outside his own narrow perimeter are almost palpable. Far from being a monotonous monologue, Alexander shares not only his battle memories in facts and figures but also relates other key moments of which there were many. He talks about his soldiers’ experiencing life in Babylon, the conspiracy of Philotas and the ensuing execution of his father Parmenion, the need to reshape his army facing guerilla war in Bactria, and how by the time he reaches India more than half of his Macedonian troops have been replaced by foreign entities. The character of Alexander that transpires is that of a king in all its complexity but also that of a man who realizes he is not perfect and often falls short. Besides, he is very well aware that the attitude and mindset of people in the East is very different from that in
and that he inevitably has
to adapt – something his marshals cannot comprehend. Greece
Hephaistion is well portrayed, always appearing at Alexander’s shoulder while historians generally tune his presence down simply because ancient writers have ignored him for whatever reason (perhaps his story was not juicy enough?). The description of the other commanders like Parmenion, Craterus, Black Cleitus, Ptolemy, Peucestas, Seleucos, Philotas and dozens others is very recognizable.
As in The Afghan Campaign, I marvel at Steven Pressfield’s knowledge of the military and the mindset of the troops in the field and on the march. Looking him up at Wikipedia, I read that his book Gates of Fire (which I have not read – yet) is being taught at Westpoint, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico. He is a man to my heart, knowing that Alexander’s Battle of Gaugamela is still teaching material at Westpoint as well!
I honestly don’t understand why this book is being underrated. This is not just another history of Alexander the Great but a very worthwhile attempt to crawl inside his mind and under his skin. Steven Pressfield made a superb effort to understand how the mind of a great man works. Since Alexander falls within the category of the geniuses, who among us dare criticize when the author lets a genius speak?