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Tue, 15 Jul 2008 15:28:35 -0500
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Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire. By JOHN 
D. GRAINGER. London: Continuum Books, 2007. Pp. xix + 226. Paper, $24.95. 
ISBN 978–18472–5188–6.

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

A CJ Online Exclusive: 2008.07.02

One could be forgiven for sighing in resignation at yet another book on 
Alexander. But despite its cleverly provocative title, John D. Grainger’s 
Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of Macedonian Imperialism is not 
merely another book on Alexander. In fact, Grainger (G.) dedicates only 15 
pages to Alexander and his campaigns. The great conqueror does represent 
his central concern: G. argues that Alexander’s activities in certain 
areas, and inactivity in others, destroyed any chance his successors might 
have had of maintaining the empire he and they had won, thus bringing down 
both Persia and Macedon, a failure that “spelt misery and death for 
countless thousands of people” (p. xviii). To argue this thesis, G. extends 
his view backward and forward in time: five chapters on the growth of 
Macedonian power under Philip and eight chapters on its decline in the 
half-century following Alexander’s death. The result is an interesting 
experiment in periodization, and G. provides a decent overview of the 
political and military development of the Hellenistic world for those with 
a casual interest in the topic. But the book does not offer much in the way 
of new interpretations of the evidence, and some of G.’s claims concerning 
Alexander require more detailed arguments than he provides.

In his opening chapters, G. gives a concise description of Macedonian 
society, especially the nature of Macedonian kingship and the problems it 
posed for those who held the throne. The context is thus set for the 
appearance of Philip, who is clearly the hero of this story: quick to 
recognize what was needed to stabilize the kingdom, Philip made key 
innovations to the traditional institutional structures he inherited. His 
“combination of military genius and diplomatic finesse” (p. 29) transformed 
Macedon in a matter of years from a weak, marginal kingdom to a military 
powerhouse and the major player in Greek affairs. G. argues that from about 
350, Philip intended to attack the Persian Empire; knowing that he could 
not face Persia and Athens together, he aimed for at least Athenian 
neutrality, if not alliance. Why Persia? G. does not answer the question 
directly, although he adduces Isocrates’ call for Philip to lead a 
pan-Hellenic crusade, as well as previous Greek attempts at Asia 
(“Xenophon’s men,” Agesilaus, Pammenes). G. states that “almost every 
successful Greek ruler had aimed to attack Persia, so it was perhaps the 
widespread presumption that Philip would also do so” (p. 40). This 
proposition raises the issue of the Greekness of the ancient Macedonians, 
which G. does not address. One can forgive him for not venturing into such 
stormy waters, but to include Philip among the “Greek rulers” of the 4th 
century begs the question, “Was Philip Greek?”, or at least “Was Philip 
perceived to be Greek?” Three pages later, in fact G., writing from the 
Athenian viewpoint, refers to “barbarian Macedon” (p. 43)—but we hear 
nothing more on this front.

In the next two chapters, G. elucidates well Alexander’s failure to 
recognize the enormity of the task that lay before him. He focuses on the 
questionable decisions, lack of clear intentions, and human cost of 
Alexander’s campaigns, with good reason. But some of G.’s claims suffer 
from inconsistencies and the brevity of his treatment. For example, he 
states several times that Alexander’s use of the satrapal system was no 
more than a stopgap measure, a way of avoiding the difficult question of 
how to govern the empire. This fits with G.’s depiction of Alexander as “a 
grand opportunist” like his father. But G. also notes later on that the 
demise of the Persian satraps upon his return from India “was a blow to 
Alexander’s hopes of a combined Persian-Macedonian government” (p. 88), 
which would seem to indicate that Alexander had put some thought into the 
matter. G.’s avoidance of biography hurts him in this way. If the goal is 
to prove that Alexander failed, who he was must be considered; but G. seems 
to envision Alexander as the same man as his father, stepping into the same 
role as king of Macedon. G. reinforces this notion by introducing Alexander 
only at the moment of Philip’s death and telling us nothing of his 
upbringing. Thus, while Philip comes across as something of an individual, 
Alexander seems very flat, and we get little sense of how his experiences 
in a changing world—as a youth in the new Macedon, as a semi-barbarian 
ruler of the Greek world, and as the conqueror of Persia—might have 
affected him.

It is here, I think, that G.’s experimental structure breaks down. He has 
focused on Macedonian power as a continuity from 370 to 272. The idea is 
good, and contextualizing Alexander and his achievements is a noble goal. 
But the risk, as it turns out, is in giving an overly static view of this 
power and treating the men who attempted to control it as indistinguishable 
parts of the machine. G. is correct in saying that Alexander failed in 
numerous ways to live up to the challenges facing him. But those challenges 
were far greater and more complex than anything previous Macedonian kings 
had dealt with. At the same time, Alexander and the men around him could 
not help being affected by the new horizons they discovered. Perhaps the 
last half of the book could have been condensed to leave more space for 
G.’s arguments concerning Alexander, since the classical scholar will find 
little new in the bare narrative of the Successors, and it may strike the 
casual reader as a laundry list of “one damn thing after another.” G. also 
includes three “World View” interludes, meant to convey an idea of what was 
going on in other parts of the world as the Macedonian empire rose and 
collapsed. But in the confines of a short book such as this, these 
interludes cannot be carried out completely and remain somewhat 

G. notes in his introduction that he does not intend to engage in scholarly 
controversies over details. But the endnotes do contain brief references to 
the basic works; there is a substantial bibliography; and G. often notes 
uncertainties or alternate explanations in the text. He is also familiar 
with the ancient sources and cites them thoroughly. The front matter 
contains a few misprints, but otherwise the text is relatively clean. 
Curiously, the battles of Issos (p. 76) and Gaugamela (p. 80) are described 
but not named, only to be referenced by name later.

University of Notre Dame

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