The Young Alexander, by Alex Rowson

Oliver Webb-Carter

Thought everything that could be read about Alexander had been written? Think again.
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When visiting the Royal Tombs of the Argead dynasty at Aigai, Vergina in northern Greece, one descends a slight declining ramp, in bright sunlight with multi-coloured oleander on either side, towards a doorway at the end that is cloaked in darkness. On entering the tombs, now a museum, it is as if entering the Underworld, which in a sense it is. This is the museum that contains the excavated remains of Philip II, and it is one of the most awe-inspiring archaeological sites in the world. In Alex Rowson’s debut, The Young Alexander, the chapter describing the excavation of these extraordinary burials in 1977 by Manolis Andronikos is nothing less than thrilling. By telling the tale of when the Andronikos’ team opens the ceiling of what turns out to be Philip’s burial place, and shafts of light shine in, Rowson manages to take the reader back in time. Such is the power of archaeology.

Rowson’s expertise in the field courses through the book and makes the story of Alexander’s formative years all the richer for it. Of course, Alexander was never old, dying at only 32, and as Rowson concludes he lives on and is still able to provoke political clashes (see the recent disputes between Greece and North Macedonia).

There are plenty of gems here, such as the practice of hunting – hugely influential among Alexander and his Companions (the royal family’s trusted attendants) as preparation for warfare involving tactical preparation, bravery and ruthlessness. Macedonian noblemen could only recline on a couch, after a hard day’s pursuit of a wild boar (which could weigh up to 100kg), if they had delivered the fatal blow themselves without netting. I was amused to read that Kassandros, Alexander’s contemporary and eventual king of Macedonia having murdered Alexander’s mother, wife and young son, was unable to recline until the age of 35 – an indicator of his base character.

Alexander means ‘Defender of Men’ (I know Iranians today find that meaning ironic), and his precocious character was evident from an early age, if the sources are to be believed. It is his relationship with his father I find most fascinating. With Philip campaigning abroad, inevitably Alexander saw much of Olympias, his mother, and her Molossian influence was strong. During a rare return home Philip watched his son play the lyre brilliantly, and immediately ordered a more belligerent regimen.

It was Macedon itself, and Alexander’s exceptional education within, that moulded his character and by interspersing the countryside which the author knows so well (he spent a year in northern Greece in 2019) Rowson has made a significant contribution to the Alexander canon. The young prince’s schooling on the slopes of Mount Vermion by none other than Aristotle, is given added weight from evidence found by Angeliki Kottaridi. The dig is ongoing showing that Alexander is alive and well in Greece.

Oliver Webb-Carter is the Editor of Aspects of History.