02. Monographs on Alexander, 2.02 Life, Alexander - Non Fiction Book, Reviews

Review: “Alexander the Great. His Life and His Mysterious Death” by Anthony Everitt


Hello everyone, thank you for being on Alessandro III di Macedonia, blog on Alexander the Great and Hellenism. Today I’m talking about a book that I have read in its English edition but which has recently been translated into Italian as well. If you look at the start and end dates for reading this book, it’s a long time, but when I started reading it I dropped it after about thirty pages because I couldn’t concentrate given what was happening to me. Then I took it back in my hand and the reading was very fast. Today I’m talking about:

Alexander the Great. His Life and His Mysterious Death

by Anthony Everitt

Penguin Random House, 2019

ISBN: 978-0425286524, 496 pages


An acclaimed biographer reconstructs the life of Alexander the Great in this magisterial revisionist portrait of the stunning rise and mysterious death of the ancient world’s most extraordinary conqueror.
More than two millennia have passed since Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched to every corner of the ancient world, from the backwater kingdom of Macedonia to the Hellenic world, Persia, and ultimately to India—all before his untimely death at age thirty-three. Alexander believed that his empire would stop only when he reached the Pacific Ocean. But stories of both real and legendary events from his life have kept him evergreen in our imaginations with a legacy that has meant something different to every era: in the Middle Ages he became an exemplar of knightly chivalry, he was a star of Renaissance paintings, and by the early twentieth century he’d even come to resemble an English gentleman. But who was he in his own time?
In Alexander the Great, Anthony Everitt judges Alexander’s life against the criteria of his own age and considers all his contradictions. We meet the Macedonian prince who was naturally inquisitive and fascinated by science and exploration, as well as the man who enjoyed the arts and used Homer’s great epic the Iliad as a bible. As his empire grew, Alexander exhibited respect for the traditions of his new subjects and careful judgment in administering rule over his vast territory. But his career also had a dark side. An inveterate conqueror who in his short life built the largest empire up to that point in history, Alexander glorified war and was known to commit acts of remarkable cruelty.
As debate continues about the meaning of his life, Alexander’s death remains a mystery. Did he die of natural causes—felled by a fever—or did his marshals, angered by his tyrannical behavior, kill him? An explanation of his death can lie only in what we know of his life, and Everitt ventures to solve that puzzle, offering an ending to Alexander’s story that has eluded so many for so long.

Anthony Everitt, a former visiting professor in the visual and performing arts at Nottingham Trent University, who has written extensively on European culture, is the author of Cicero, Augustus, Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, The Rise of Rome, and The Rise of Athens. He has as well served as secretary general of the Arts Council of Great Britain. Everitt lives near Colchester, England’s first recorded town, founded by the Romans.

Classificazione: 4 su 5.

Reading time: from November 3, 2021 to February 7, 2022, but the reading actually lasted about two weeks.


Preface: The King Takes a Holiday ix
Contents: xvii
List of Maps: xix

Chapter 1: Goat Kings 3
Chapter 2: The Apprentice 25
Chapter 3: “The Bull Is Wreathed” 53
Chapter 4: The Lone Wolf 76
Chapter 5: First Blood 99
Chapter 6: Undoing the Knot 121
Chapter 7: The Empire Strikes Back 141
Chapter 8: Immortal Longings 161
Chapter 9: At the House of the Camel 191
Chapter 10: “Passing Brave to Be a King” 214
Chapter 11: Treason! 235
Chapter 12: War Without End 267
Chapter 13: A Passage to India 298
Chapter 14: Show Me the Way to Go Home 328
Chapter 15: Last Things 359
Chapter 16: Funeral Games 381
Glossary: 389
Time Line: 391
Acknowledgents: 397
Background and Sources: 399
Notes: 413
Index: 445

After all the books I have read about Alexander (and that I will still want to read) I’m always moved to read about his death. From the very first pages I like Everitt’s writing. Although the author in the descriptions and in the secondary aspects (cultural and historical) is not as detailed as Lane Fox, I like his analyzes very much because he’s lucid, he doesn’t let himself be taken by unconditional enthusiasm towards Alexander but explains the risks that ran the Conqueror. For example, in the case of the Battle of the Granicus, Everitt explains well how the battle took place with a disenchanted description, but also what implications if Alexander’s decision would have had to not fight it. As beautiful as the beginning of the chapters Everitt focuses the reader’s attention on what is the most significant event dealt with in the chapter and at the end pulls a sort of sum of what happened. This initial anticipation, however, is to the detriment of the chronological succession of events.

However, I don’t agree with some of Everitt’s reflections and hypotheses, one above all that Alexander would have orchestrated the mutiny on the Hyphasis because in reality he didn’t want to continue in India. Yes, Everitt says we will never know the truth but, to venture certain speculations he would also have to give some proof of what he says otherwise they don’t make sense, it’s just a pourparler.

The edition of the book graphically and visually speaking is excellent, beautiful: the cover has an image that isn’t the usual one of the Mosaic and is on blue, my favorite color. Inside there are six maps, pages with color photographs, many notes, a good bibliography, the index, the chronology, the glossary. Is also specified the font with its short history in which the book is printed. One thing I didn’t like, however, are the notes: they aren’t at the bottom of the page so as not to weigh down the text but, for those like me who always consult them, having them at the end of the book is inconvenient and above all they are not marked with a small number at the top of the word within the text. We must therefore look at the page number and see the reference of the word. The thing is a bit cumbersome and uncomfortable. Since this is an essay, I think it would make sense to put the footnotes, but I see that it is something that many publishers do more and more often.

Everitt’s book in general is a good read, at a good level of information for the inexperienced reader and with the right reference to ancient sources. However, if the reader is a little more experienced and mostly is looking for a more important analysis of the sources, he won’t find it here. Everitt especially towards the end uses the sources in a somewhat vicious way but they are details. We also understand that the author is a great lover of history but not an academic and that is why I believe Alexander the Great. His Life and His Mysterious Death is an excellent sliding reading for those who want to deepen Alexander the Great, for the general public and who aren’t interested in more in-depth or specialized analysis.


Modern scholars have tried their best to tell the truth about the young Macedonian, but their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.

I gained glory, not without many trials.

Euripides, Andromeda 134

Philip suited the role very well, ruling with a relaxed sense of humor on the surface and adamantine determination underneath. An anecdote epitomizes his style.

He always insisted that the following line from the Iliad was the finest of them all.
He is two things: a good king and a mighty spearman too.

Homer, Iliad 3, 179

A late Roman writer was not far wrong when he observed: “Alexander the Great would not have become great if Xenophon had never existed.”


His contemporaries used to joke: “With every campaign, Philip married a new wife.”

Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 13, 557b

When he saw peacocks for the first time in his life, he was so impressed that he wanted to prevent by law any attack on them.

Being the new Achilles was a perilous and irresponsible enterprise.

A pharaoh was recognized, in a symbolic sense, as son of Amun, chief deity in the Egyptian theogony. He had five official names or titles. Those of Alexander in hieroglyphic inscriptions reflected his military success against the Persians and announced his duty as guardian of Egypt. His throne name was Setep en Ra, mery Amun (“Chosen by Ra and beloved of Amun”). His title in his capacity as the incarnation of the falcon-headed god Horus, Egypt’s tutelary deity, was “The Brave Ruler Who Has Attacked Foreign Lands.” Other titles were “The Lion, Great of Might, Who Takes Possession of Mountains, Lands, and Deserts” and “The Bull Who Protects Egypt, The Ruler of the Sea and of What the Sun Encircles.” His birth name was given as Aleksindres.

Little is said about Bagoas in the ancient histories, and what is said is disobliging. He makes few appearances in these pages, but the reader should bear in mind that he was present all the time, in the shadows, for the rest of the king’s story.

It is impossible to come to a firm judgment on so personal a matter as Alexander’s alcohol consumption and the pressures or stresses that may or may not underpinned it. Even at the time observers had different views on the subject, but we can be sure that Alexander was not an alcoholic. For most of the time he was too busy and faced too many demands to sit around quaffing unmixed wine (a Macedonian custom in an age when wine was weakened with water). Mostly he was on campaign and needed, often round the clock, all the physical energy and mental acuity he could summon.
During intervals of rest and relaxation, Alexander may very well have often drunk in moderation as Plutarch says. However, evidence such as the Cleitus affair shows that on vacation he could be a binge-drinker. He was still in his twenties and, like many young adults throughout the ages, on a day off he liked to drink to get drunk.

To cite a modern scholar, they still loved their “hero, friend, soldiers’ father [and] their threatening, angry, terrorizing, melancholy king.”


Nobody had the first idea what to do now.
The power vacuum created by the king’s unexpected death was testimony to the innocence of his marshals.

Alexander was essentially a soldier, but he was also a serious explorer. If we compare maps of the ancient world, we gain a clear idea of the new geographical knowledge for which he was responsible. In the world picture proposed by Hecataeus of Miletus two centuries before Alexander’s time, the river Ocean wraps round a world disc with nothing much beyond Persia; a century after his death, Eratosthenes allocates nearly half the world to India, identifies the Persian Gulf, and distinguishes the Asian subcontinent from Africa. Alexander had made the world bigger.

We can see that Alexander’s extraordinary skill was to judge the enemy’s intentions simply by looking at how he arranged his troops, scrutinizing the slightest of signs, and making last-minute dispositions (often a clever trap) while he could still communicate with his subordinates.

I hope I have been helpful, have a good day,

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