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CJ-ONLINE  March 2009

CJ-ONLINE March 2009

Subject:

CJ Online 2009.03.01 HECKEL, Conquests of Alexander the Great

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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 
978–0–521–84247–1.

Order this text for $19.00 from Amazon.com using this link and 
benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect-home/classjourn-20


Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
http://classicaljournal.org/reviews.php


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.

JACEK RZEPKA
Institute of History      
University of Warsaw
[log in to unmask]

[[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 
writers.

[[3]] W. Heckel, The Wars of Alexander the Great, 336–323 BC (Oxford, 
2002).

[[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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