The book on Alexander was apparently the last that Cantor wrote before he died and was published posthumously. Unfortunately, it is marred by one glaring mistake in the first couple pages: it refers to the wars between the classical Greeks and the Persian Empire as the "Peloponnesian War", when the Peloponnesian war was in fact the war between the Athenians and Spartans several decades later. One could wish that his estate had treated the draft to a proofread by another academic rather than simply sending it off to be printed.
Besides this one lapse, which put me off on rather the wrong foot with the book, it's an enjoyable and accessible read. I'd certainly recommend it for an interested high school student, or any interested adult with little background and little time but wanting to get a feel for Alexander and Hellenistic civilization.
In my momentary loss of faith after reading the first few pages, however, I went and looked up the Amazon reviews of the book. These were rather mixed. Many faulted it for not being a long and scholarly biography -- which strikes me as unsurprising given the book's diminutive size. One, however, was very much a hoot. The reader loved the book, but in great part because he thought it underlined how much greater a leader Alexander the Great was than George Bush:
Alexander, like Achilles, Caesar, King Arthur, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, embodies the spirit of the times and the people of their eras. Alexander and Achilles were heroic; Caesar and Arthur were innovators; Lincoln and Churchill gave words to enhance the decency of great nations.
Lincoln, to cite an example, did not invent democracy in America. However, when he defined democracy as government "of the people, by the people, for the people", he greatly sharpened and enhanced already existing attitudes. Alexander did the same in his time; he did not invent war, but he set an ideal seldom matched and thus established the warrior ideal for much of the Mediterannean. King Arthur does the same with his round table; Churchill gives credit to the British people for stopping Hitler.
Now, consider George Bush with his Texas swagger and flight suit while strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier to announce "Mission Accomplished" as if he were a warrior. Alexander, in contrast to the coddled and well-protected life of Bush, survived numerous serious wounds acquired while leading his troops from the front. Whether it's Bush or Clinton or Reagan, there's a vast difference between Alexander and the perspiration and spin of today's leaders. As Canton aptly shows, it's why "the Great" title is retired.
Intended or not, there are numerous subtle parallels between ancient and modern events in the Near and Middle Easts. Alexander was successful because he responded immediately and brilliantly to local events rather than try to rule from afar; instead of being an ideologue, he worshiped every God he met along the route of his conquests.
Because he was handicapped by "faulty intelligence," when he reached Afghanistan and India he realized it was time to listen to his troops, then "cut and run". Why? To quote Cantor, "One of the old soldiers, a man named Coenis . . . . gave the speech of his life, ending with these words: 'Sir, if there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop'. Instead of trying to stay the course, Cantor says "Alexander sulked for two days but then tried to find a way to make this defeat appear to be a victory."
Cantor offers an intriguing psychological assessment of Alexander; not only was he "the supreme exemplar of that old pagan world" but he also knew how to sulk and then accept the will of his troops. Perhaps that is why there are no modern Alexanders; today we tend to look at his heroism, courage, strength and vision but overlook his ability to sulk.
Now, past question, Alexander was a leader of far greater stature and import to the history of civilization that President Bush. Don't question that for a moment. But that hardly means one would want to live in Alexander's empire or want modern politicians to emulate him. Alexander was, as Cantor amply shows, a man of great abilities, but also a more than borderline psychopath by any modern standard. Even Napoleon, another great leader in whose historical or geographic proximity I have no desire to be, would have been a far preferable leader to actually live under than Alexander.
Indeed, one of the things that interested me very much in Cantor's final chapter was his discussion of how Alexander was a quintessentially pagan figure -- and how the myth of Alexander was modified in the medieval period in order to adapt him to Christian heroic models. Which, in turn, makes me rather curious to dig up some time Fox's Pagans and Christians, which Cantor cites with approval.