Robin Lane Fox’s epic 500 page treatment of the legendary Macedonian king Alexander the Great in one respect mirrors the epic status of Alexander the Great’s life itself: the swathing expanse of Fox’s work is a formal reflection of the sprawling nature of the empire Alexander established, emanating from his native Macedonia in the north of Greece all the way to India. Fox understands, perhaps unconsciously or as a matter of fact, that owing to the scope of Alexander’s empire and also his historical influence, as Fox describes in a concluding chapter of the work, any volume on Alexander must have this same epic quality, so at least to give a sense to the figure.
The highly detailed account of Alexander the Great, from the descriptions of the operations of his army to the court intrigues before he was born involving his father Philip, help create a type of universe for the reader to enter. Namely, the reader unfamiliar with works of history, when first reading this book, may be reminded instead of epic fantasy, in the style of Lord of the Rings, or A Game of Thrones. Fox creates a sweeping narrative that shows how history can be even more epic than our highest fantasy.
As a historian of Alexander the Great, Fox is confronted with the same problems all historians face when writing on the subject: as Fox tells us, there exist no sources which have survived and were contemporaneous with Alexander’s reign. Thus, the historian must use the best secondary sources available, so as to reconstruct Alexander the Great’s life. Fox is honest to the reader and admits that the story remains incomplete, and one of the strengths of the work is that he argues for a particular hypothesis, showing us the logic of why he has reached that conclusion. For example, when Fox tells us about the links of Alexander the Great to the divine world of the Gods in the lore of the time, there is no clear account as to whether Alexander the Great was conceived as a type of truly divine being, a god incarnate.
Fox alerts us to these difficulties, but still offers his own well-argued hypothesis. Hence, because the term “genesis” was used to describe Alexander the Great’s relation to the god Zeus, Fox claims that Alexander was viewed as Zeus’ actual “begotten son.” (150) He ties this in to Greek traditions, such as the Homeric epics so as to further his point. While this in no way is a definitive argument, the reader immediately appreciates that while Fox is arguing for a certain claim, he in no way attempts to present his view as the only answer. This is a recurring approach throughout the work, which introduces the reader to the problems in reconstructing Alexander’s life and some possible hypotheses: the case, of course, remains open.
For example, when discussing the reason behind Alexander’s conquests, Fox gives the amateur historian and the future academic historian the following valuable advice: to discover “Alexander’s motivation needs a little imagination; they will never be certain, as historians can read a man’s documents but can never read his mind.” (230) Fox therefore highlights an important point in writing about history: certainly, while primary sources are clearly crucial to the method of the historian, the existence of merely a text is not enough to reconstruct a given historical moment. Some type of speculative element is always at work in the historian’s method. As Fox shows in this book, this is not a shortcoming, however, to the historian, but rather allows him or her to be as erudite as possible while creating a narrative of an epic and almost mythological scope.
- Fox, Robin Lane. Alexander the Great. London: Penguin, 2004.