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Sun, 1 Mar 2009 12:09:33 -0600
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HECKEL, WALDEMAR, The Conquests of Alexander the Great. Cambridge and New 
York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xxii + 218. Cloth, $25.00. ISBN

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at

CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.03.01

From the scholarly perspective, Alexander the Great is perhaps the most
intensely studied individual in the Ancient World. The wider public
invariably admires him as the greatest conqueror of Greco-Roman Antiquity,
yet there are few scholarly treatments of the military aspects of his reign
that focus on campaigns and battles. [[1]] Instead, most modern books on
Alexander’s military target war-gamers and concentrate on weapons and the
organization of the army. [[2]] The history of Alexander’s battles and
maneuvers are thus handed over to willing but amateurish enthusiasts whose
writings are of little scholarly value. A book on Alexander’s conquests
by Waldemar Heckel, one of today’s leading specialists in the field, is
accordingly a welcome development.

It is unnecessary to list all the books and articles by Heckel that have
corrected and enhanced our knowledge of the prosopography of Alexander’s
history. But it is worth noting that his studies in this aspect of the
period are not restricted to purely personal histories, and
that—developing the expertise gained in the course of his
prosopographical studies—Heckel recently turned in more detail to
military history, which was always included in various ways in his
biographies of Alexander’s men, and slightly before the present book he
published an illustrated history of Alexander’s campaigns [[3]] as well
as a medium-sized chapter bearing the same title as the present work for a
Blackwell’s Companion. [[4]] Of these treatments, the book under review
here is the longest and the fullest. Still, as Heckel confesses in his
Preface, his aim is not “to retell in full the story of Alexander’s
conquests.” Nor is this an ordinary scholarly monograph; the author
consciously avoids referring to even the most important previous scholarly
opinions on his topic. Instead, Heckel proposes to discuss how both popular
and professional works exploit traits of Alexander’s personality and the
cruel sides of the conquest to enter contemporary political debates, hence
the sound and repeated criticisms of comparing Alexander to modern
“tyrants” such as Hitler and Stalin.

Despite the Preface, Heckel’s book remains in most regards a traditional
account of Alexander life minus the usual pseudo-psychological
considerations on how power corrupts talented men. The focus is on the best
known battles and campaigns of the great Macedonian king: Granicus, Issos,
Gaugamela, the Indian campaign and Gedrosia. Major political crises (e.g.
the Philotas affair) and Alexander’s general plans (e.g. his policies
towards Persian elites) are analyzed as well. In the latter case, Heckel is
generally balanced and convincing, even where he challenges prevailing
views of modern scholarship, such as the theory that Alexander and his
staff conspired against Philotas. On the other hand, Heckel occasionally
hesitates and avoids a clear statement of his views: thus for example
Alexander’s policy of training Persian units in Macedonian warfare is
described in a way that suggests Heckel’s equal distance from
contemporary interpretations ranging from a full “integration” of the
Persians to making them “a counterbalance” antitagma to the Macedonian
army disappointed at the King’s policies (pp. 139–41). Heckel’s
general conviction seems to be that in 324 BC the Asian cavalry, at least,
was fully integrated into the Companion Cavalry. But their inclusion in the
cavalry might mean that a third structure bearing a noble title of hetairoi
was created, although Heckel himself is aware that the Companion cavalry
was a national force, which was different from the inner circle of
Alexander’s counsellors and friends (in this respect, see a sound gloss
in the Glossary on p. 168), who were also called hetairoi.

When describing the military side of Alexander’s reign, Heckel again
joins a competent narrative with a sound rejection of more hazardous modern
hypotheses (e.g. that there were two battles of Granicus). How much could
be added to this book by its author is shown by handy appendixes treating
Alexander’s officers, the number of his troops, and the administration of
the empire (i.e. the list of known satraps). Heckel is perhaps the most
competent scholar available to write a narrative of Alexander’s conquest
that covers local wars fought by his satraps far from the main theatre of
his victories. These campaigns were essential to a consolidation of
Macedonian supremacy over the former Persian Empire, yet there is no
systematic study of how the Macedonian military (both the army units and
commanders) worked in areas peripheral to Alexander’s main route. Heckel
himself approached these problems in individual entries in his Marshals of
Alexander’s Empire and in his prosopography of Alexander’s reign. [[5]]
Yet no one has put all the data on satrapic achievements together into a
systematic, more or less diachronic account of the conquest. I had hoped
that the book under review would incorporate more data from peripheral
theatres of the conquest, and the fact that Heckel did not exploit his
knowledge of this aspect of Alexander’s age is perhaps my most important
disappointment with it.

In general, however, it seems wrong to complain too much. Heckel has given
us a well-written and sensible book, with a good selection of facts and
problems having to do with Alexander’s reign and the wars he fought. Even
without an overwhelming scholarly apparatus, the book can be still read
with profit by professional historians and classicists, and its views
generally represent a prudent compromise among the most important modern
scholarly opinions. But its primary addressee is the curious layman
interested in (ancient) military history. For such individuals, the book
may prove very attractive, even if it lacks eye-catching pictures,
reconstructions of armament, or the sort of maps and plans that might fully
explain the author’s battle reconstructions. In general, however, the
needs of laymen have been well understood, and the three appendixes and the
glossary seem to be written mainly for them.

Institute of History
University of Warsaw
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[[1]] Except, perhaps, for a well-known book by the retired general and
military theorist J.F.C. Fuller, The Generalship of Alexander the Great
(New York, 1960).

[[2]] They were nonetheless sometimes written by outstanding specialists
such as N.V. Sekunda, whose The Army of Alexander the Great (London, 1981)
is full of inspiring insights into the details of armament and
Alexander’s army, especially as seen through the eyes of Greek tactical

[[3]] W. Heckel, The Wars of Alexander the Great, 336–323 BC (Oxford,

[[4]] W. Heckel, “The Conquests of Alexander the Great,” in A companion
to the classical Greek world, edited by K. Kinzl (Oxford, 2006) 560–88.

[[5]] W. Heckel, The Marshals of Alexander’s Empire (London, 1992); W.
Heckel, Who’s Who in the Age of Alexander the Great: Prosopography of
Alexander’s Empire (Oxford, 2005).

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