Written by Daniel Sharp
Everyone knows of Alexander the Great and whilst some idolize him as a great leader, others regard him as a brutal conqueror. This debate is common to all such figures in history, from Alexander through Napoleon and Stalin. Such debates are not likely to be settled anytime soon, but they do indicate one thing: there is an enduring fascination among those who study history for the lives of so-called ‘great men’ (and unfortunately, it usually is only men).
To return to the most elusive of all history’s exceptional leaders – Alexander of Macedon controlled Greece and conquered large swathes of land in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, creating one of the greatest (if least enduring) empires ever seen. His youth is part of his myth – how could one so young do so much so soon? His relationship with his close friend, right-hand man and possible lover Hephaestion is another fascinating aspect of his short life. And of course, his early death, which led to the dissolution of his empire, is the tragic denouement of Alexander’s story.
For anyone who is interested in Alexander, I recommend reading Mary Renault’s (1905-1983) fantastic historical fiction trilogy on his life and death: Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy and Funeral Games. These books were recommended to me this summer, and over those warm months (which included, appropriately, a holiday to Greece) I read them very quickly. They are amongst the most historically accurate and beautifully written books I have ever had the good fortune to encounter – it is a shame Renault’s name is not as famous as other twentieth century authors.
The first book chronicles Alexander’s early life into young adulthood. We are privy to intrigue and warfare and we are witness to the future conqueror’s complex relationship with his parents and his friendship with Hephaestion which grows into love. A lesbian woman, many of whose other works deal with male homosexuality, Renault focuses intensely on the possibly bisexual or homosexual aspect of Alexander’s life (if we can use those terms to describe an ancient Greek without being anachronistic – apologies to Michel Foucault). The books beautifully deal with this central relationship, but it is the first which focuses on it most, and to beautiful effect too. (For philosophy fans, Aristotle, who tutored the young Alexander, is also a character in the book).
The Persian Boy continues Alexander’s story as he becomes king of Macedon and embarks on his campaigns in the east. This book, however, is narrated in the first person from the point of view of Bagoas, the eponymous character, a Persian eunuch who, when Alexander defeats his master, joins the Macedonian and falls in love with him, becoming his lover. We see Alexander’s conquests through Bagoas’ eyes, and what must have been an alien mindset – that of an ancient Persian eunuch – is incredibly naturally evoked by Renault. The conquering, the marriages, the intrigue and the love story(ies) make for an exciting and emotional narrative.
In Funeral Games Alexander is dead, and his empire falls apart. We experience the narrative from various viewpoints as different factions attempt to assert control over the empire, including that of Roxane, his ill-fated Sogdian wife who gave birth to his son, Alexander IV (also ill-fated). This end to the trilogy gives testament to the failures of Alexander to consolidate his empire and clearly delineate a line of succession but also show how great a man he was – he was able to hold all these disparate elements together as he made them travel with him to the edge of the known world. Alexander is godlike and superhuman in these novels – indeed his provenance is rumoured to be divine – and it is hard not to fall in love with this charismatic character. One almost feels as though one were a fellow traveller with Alexander, part of his campaigns, one of the people who worshipped this titan. Indeed, only his own over-exertion and death unravels his empire– no mortal army could stop him.
If this is all somewhat subjective, it is because Renault’s trilogy, whilst very historically astute for a fictive piece, is above all a celebration of Alexander the Great. Renault had a fascination with the man, and in her novels presents a heroic, mythic figure to be worshipped and loved. So if one is not particularly partial to the man (if, say, one was more fascinated by the unfortunate Persians) then it may limit one’s enjoyment of the books. However, they are still worth reading, if only for the exceptional writing, historical knowledge and excellent portrayal of characters they present to the reader.
So, if Mary Renault wanted to write a love letter to Alexander, consider this a love letter to her. Read her and be amazed at her brilliance as I was. Indeed, it is perhaps fitting to give her one of those exaggerated historical epithets, so let’s hear it for Mary the Great.