Fragment from the "Alexander Mosaic" showing Alexander the Great in battle against Persian King Darius III. Alexander shown on horseback in full armour. A Roman copy of a Hellenistic painting. Original circa 310 BC, Copy circa 1st-3rd century AD. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The boy who would be King of the World

Alex Rowson treats us to glimmering passages of life at Philip II’s court


This article is taken from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the age of 25, Alexander the Great was accorded the title “King of the World”. In the preceding year, he had successfully liberated Egypt and defeated Darius III, the Persian “King of Kings”, dealing a fatal blow to the largest empire in history, which he would soon conquer in its entirety. The Harvard classicist Ernst Badian, reflecting on the fruits of a life defined by scheming, murdering and warring, wrote 2,295 years later that procuring epoch-defining success had resulted in Alexander discovering with “startling clarity the ultimate loneliness of supreme power”. 

The Young Alexander: The Making of Alexander the Great, Alex Rowson (HarperCollins, £25)

Loneliness and alienation pervaded Alexander’s adult life. During one balmy evening, the young king found that he had suffered one too many insults from a general. He took up a nearby sarissa and ran his drunken companion through with the spear. The two had a shared history: at the Battle of the Granicus six years prior, when Alexander was assailed by two Persian satraps, Cleitus had saved him from a death blow by cutting off his assailant’s arm as it came down upon him. 

The violent, cruel killing of a competent general and good friend would be the first time Alexander truly alienated and disgusted those around him. Impetuous and drunk, the magnanimous and level-headed king that his companions had previously taken for granted was thrown into question. 

Such bouts of mindless violence were not usually harbingers of worldly or spiritual success, even for those versed in the violent and war-mongering court of his father, the mighty Philip II of Macedon. But without understanding the dynamics of the court in which Alexander was raised and sought to transcend, without understanding the religious devotions he undertook, or the buildings and companions who had housed and befriended him, one cannot have a full or complete appreciation for the man he became and the times he heralded. 

Year by year, the trappings of boyhood are shed

Despite flashes of violent tempers and cold machinations, Alex Rowson’s young Alexander is a model of near-perfect gregariousness, surrounded by (and delighting in) a litany of companions, tutors and mentors. From his mother, Olympias (who tended to her serpents in the manner in which a park avenue dowager would tend to pugs), Alexander learns of court politics and foreign cultures. His father imparts a grand sense of strategy and recognises Alexander’s spark of brilliance — once declaring Macedonia to be “too small” for his son. The prince’s tutors school him in classical poetry and tactical skills. Year by year, the trappings of boyhood are shed.

The Young Alexander is not simply about the creation of the man himself, but also tentatively edges around the creation of the mythos that would supersede him. Any individual suffixed with “the Great” is imbued with a certain set of qualities that call out to those inclined toward grand strategies, distant times and personal excellence. 

Head of a statue of Alexander, by Leochares, from the Classical period, after 338 BC

Many have tried to capture this elusive and intoxicating appeal of Greatness: Alexander enthusiasts can easily fill a library with the millennia of literature written on the man. Fictional portrayals are fewer, and the most recognisable seem to revolve around Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of an absurdly youthful Olympias.

Instead, Rowson’s book seeks to clarify the myths of Macedonian court. It situates Alexander clearly within the magnificent historic context in which he lived — the diplomatic and military skill needed to maintain (let alone expand) the reach and stability of the state, the military nous required to defeat superior civilisations, the diplomatic forces which encompassed courts — sometimes at the behest of Philip and his son, sometimes leaving them adrift whilst operating at the whims of others.

More pages are dedicated to this world in which Alexander lived than the individual boy himself. We are treated to glimmering passages of a life at Philip II’s court with glimpses of the young Alexander as a young boy of nine leered at by Greek dignitaries at court, as a young man taken out to kill his first boar as a rite of passage, as a small child chastised for being too proficient a musician at the expense of combat skill.

Alexander would remain forever young, dying at 32

Rowson writes of ancient courts with the glee and insight of a delightful and slightly obsessive adolescent. The joy of reading an author with an intricate knowledge of the age is solidified by his ability to communicate it to the reader as if they were witnessing the traditions and rivalries of ancient Macedon, Greece or Persia themselves. So detailed is the tapestry that Rowson weaves of the age and setting that the reader may easily come to understand the military and cultural nuances of the Macedonians and their surrounding states and territories, down to the lisps that separate their accents from those of the Greeks.

Rowson’s background is that of an archaeologist, and archaeological discoveries underpin the book. Masters of the field become celebrities. Their modern archaeological excavations are treated as the turning points that they are: adding colour and texture to some of our hazier sketches of Macedon. Blank, near-forgotten ruins are transformed into schools, temples, slaughterhouses. Dust runs red with blood. 

Alexander would spend the entirety of his youth in a quest for personal excellence, absorbing knowledge from virtually everyone he came across at home and on the march. Notoriously, the only person whom Alexander seemed to fail to learn from was his temporary tutor, Aristotle. Rowson is kinder than most on the young prince’s short-lived relationship with the philosopher: neither man had made a name for themselves at the time they met, neither appreciated (nor had given the other any reason to appreciate) the skills of the other. The two met and passed one another by without making a single mark upon the other: their stories are too incompatible to be entwined. 

Perhaps Alexander would have benefitted from firmer instruction. Any reader will know that the “young” Alexander is a misnomer; Alexander would remain forever young, dying at 32. In the absence of a viable heir, his empire would be left to Kratistos, the strongest, and crumble under the inadequacy of those who sought to replace him. But that is a story for another day.

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