@internet -- Review of Bosworth's 'Conquest and Empire'



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If you can read only one book about Alexander the Great, read something other than A. Brian Bosworth's "Conquest and Empire - The Reign of Alexander the Great". Sadly, Bosworth's 1988 doorstop is little more than a hatchet job, wearing the mask of a serious work of scholarship.

The facade is awfully good -- Bosworth's command of his subject is made abundantly clear by the unending flood of footnoted citations of sources both ancient and modern, famous and obscure. The central problem is that, early in the book's Prologue, Bosworth sneers "the history of (Alexander's) reign has all too often been a thinly disguised biography, distorted by the personality and values of its author," and then goes on to promise, "This book is an attempt to analyse Alexander's impact on his world without any preconceived notion of his personality or motives."

And then -- over and over again throughout the work -- he commits the very sins of distortion and preconception that his Prologue so disdains. "Conquest and Empire" thereby becomes an abyssal sump of academic dishonesty and deep and fundamental scholarly hypocrisy. Throughout its more than 300 pages of agate type, Bosworth employs the rhetorical weapons of invidious phraseology and highly selective citation to paint an almost unremittingly dark and sour portrait of Alexander.

Now, mind you, in my book, there is nothing wrong with taking a skeptical or even a studiously negative view of one's subject, just as I have no problem with the opposite approach, so long as the writer is honest about his own prejudices in either case. From my perspective, Bosworth's sin lies in his pretense to objectivity, rather than in his relentless negativity.

Since he burst on the scholarly Alexandrian scene in 1981 with the publication of Volume I of his "A Historical Commentary on Arrian's History of Alexander", Bosworth has been the anointed heir to the throne of his hero and mentor, Ernst Badian. As the enfant terrible of the "Alexander the Bad" school of thought, it is clear that Bosworth finds violence and war in general deeply repugnant on a personal level, and he wears his bias on his sleeve in his every description of Alexander's military encounters and punitive actions.

Unfortunately, he allows his own prejudice in that regard to deeply color both his presentation and his versions of the details of these incidents in what can only be regarded as a calculated betrayal of his claim of objectivity and of the trust of his less-well-informed readers. As one example of this systematic dishonesty -- and it is far from alone -- let us examine his narrative of the closing events of the siege of Tyre.

Apparently because it would undermine his theme of Alexander's savagery, Bosworth fails even to mention Arrian's report of the Tyrian murder of a group of captured Sidonian sailors, whose bodies were then cast into the sea -- an act of sacrilege that would have, for lack of Charon's fee, condemned the victims to wander the Earth as ghosts, instead of their shades being admitted to the Underworld or perhaps even the Elysium Fields. (To discount the story as propaganda would have been one thing -- to omit it entirely, especially in the face of his obsessive footnoting of the most minor negative details, is quite another.) Likewise, he states as fact that Alexander ordered 2000 Tyrians crucified, although that detail appears only in Curtius' and Diodorus' accounts. (Again, to have characterized this incident as probably true would have been one thing -- to state it flatly as a fact is another.)

These are not omissions we would expect from a truly objective scholar -- and particularly not from one so inordinately fond of otherwise-exhaustive, chapter-and-verse citations of the ancient sources on the most picayune details of geographic and other non-military matters.

Worst of all, in my view, although Bosworth cites the work of an incredible array of geographers, historians and other specialists, he never once mentions or alludes to Major General J.F.C. Fuller's seminal analysis "The Generalship of Alexander the Great", even though Bosworth himself goes to great pains to offer his own dissection of the events of each of Alexander's battles, great and small. Since Fuller is the ONLY professional military strategist to have written on the subject -- and his book is well-known and frequently cited by other Alexander historians -- that oversight can only have been purposeful on Bosworth's part, and his substitution of his own analysis without so much as acknowledging Fuller's work can only be viewed as an act of supreme hubris.

Even thought I cannot claim to be a scholar, I believe that the praise that the other reviewers have heaped upon Bosworth here is undeserved. Instead, I think he merits the sternest opprobrium for his intellectual dishonesty and purposefully misleading professions of objectivity.

Likewise, I feel that "Conquest and Empire" is a book that only those who are thoroughly enough versed in the Alexander canon to recognize the hatchet marks should read. For them, it has considerable value, if only for its exhaustive citation of the work of modern geographers. The casual reader would be far better served by even Robin Lane Fox's "In Search of Alexander", which, for all its flaws, at least does not pretend to objectivity.

(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)

(And, yes, I know that Amazon insists that any reviews posted on their site belong to them. Tough shit. I'm a professional writer and they've given me nothing of value in exchange for my work. They're welcome to try to make their copyright claim stick in a court of law. I have a shiny new quarter that says they'll lose.)