The Field Campaigns of Alexander the Great by Stephen English

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

When I received the book I opened it with mixed feelings. While not bad, the two previous books from Pen & Sword that I reviewed for UNRV (Great Battles of the Hellenistic World by Joseph Pietrykowski and Hellenistic and Roman Naval Warfare 336BC - 31BC by J. D. Grainger) were not what I expected.

Thus opening The Field Campaigns of Alexander the Great I was full of doubts but soon began to be re-assured:the book, third in a series which I have not previously read, is the publication of a thesis by Stephen English which was written under the direction of a reputed scholar, thus guaranteeing a certain degree of quality to the work.

In his previous two books English first studied the composition of Alexanderís army and how it conducted sieges before turning here to the way the Macedonian leader conducted his operations and his battles. The title is in fact a bit misleading because while the general context of each of the main campaigns is indeed presented, the book is mainly about the tactics used in the great battles.

Thus rather than looking precisely at the why of the movements (like explaining why did Alexander choose to go first for the coasts and then inland), English looks at how they were made, what geographical constraints applied to the march and the choice of the battle-sites, and how Alexander planned for those battles and won them.

The books opens with an introduction on the sources available to reconstruct Alexanderís operations and their main limitations, including elements of quellenforschung, or the art of determining the sources of our sources. These reduce the lot to two main historical traditions, the one based upon Ptolemy and another based upon Callisthene, with a third less important one that did its best to discredit the old general Parmenion.

My aim here is not to provide you with a detailed presentation of the rest of the content, because in the end it could easily be summarized in much fewer lines than were written by English since the book is in large part a defence of the authorís view that all of Alexander main battles are in fact the application of a single battle-plan slightly updated to take changing circumstances into account.

This main theme is repeated in each of the chapters, when the author makes his conclusions on the event just analysed, and also shown in large maps of the various phases of the battles (usually three to four maps per battle) to further convince the readers.

Yet while ancient sources are analysed in details and critical passages translated by the author, modern discussions of the subject are rarely mentioned (with the exception of battle sites identification). Still the amount of modern references in the notes is much higher than what Iíd seen in the previously reviewed books and the final bibliography richer.

One question I asked myself at the end of my reading was whether or not the fact I had not read the previous books by the author hampered my judgement on this book. In the end I think that while some points were indeed made in the previous books (and sometimes references to them are made by English) most of the analysis was self standing and that while greater understanding might come from reading them it was not a requirement to evaluate The Field Campaigns of Alexander the Great.

Thus what is, in the end, my opinion? Iíd say that while different from the others Pen & Sword books I read Iím still not happy for it did not convince me of itís main thesis because it was probably not argued in a scientific enough way, like it probably (and hopefully...) was in the original academic work. Iím under the impression that English did a rather good work on rewriting his prose to better suit the P&S collection but has maybe lost too much in the process, thus this feeling of incompleteness that I canít seem to shake off.

For the reader who wants to discover Alexanderís great battles this book will probably be too much of a book with a point to make to be a good introduction, but for those who already have some knowledge of the topic it could be an interesting read leading to others in order to make oneís own opinion on the value of Mr Englishís views.

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