The Young Alexander: the making of Alexander the Great

Review by Matthew Symonds

When we think of Alexander the Great, it is his exploits as an adult that spring to mind. He is the audacious leader who landed an army in Asia at the age of 21 in a bid to bring down the Achaemenid empire. Breathtaking victories and brutality followed, with Alexander’s campaigns leading him into Afghanistan and India, before illness claimed him at Babylon in 323 BC, when he was just 32. But what of the youth who became this man? At first glance, the topic seems to offer slim pickings. As Alex Rowson, an award-winning television producer who has worked on such shows as Time Team and Digging for Britain, puts it, ‘written accounts about his upbringing are sparse and those that do survive are beset by romance, myth and legend’. Rather than be put off, the author more than rises to this challenge, taking readers on an enthralling and enlightening journey through Alexander’s formative years.

There are numerous threads to the ensuing narrative, which weaves together the implications of the ancient histories, the archaeology of the ancient sites involved, snapshots of how the locations appear today, and reconstructions of key moments. It is a winning formula, helped by Rowson’s enchanting turn of phrase and readiness to acknowledge ambiguities and weigh the evidence. The tone is set at the very beginning, when we witness the moment in 1977 that archaeologist Manolis Andronikos discovered an intact tomb that has been attributed to Alexander’s father, Philip II. Among the finds was a tiny ivory face, which resembles portraits of Alexander. Its presence in the tomb seems fitting, as burying Philip was one of Alexander’s first acts as king. As Rowson writes, ‘the discovery provided a visceral snapshot of real events, the moment that he stepped out from beneath his father’s shadow. It was an encounter with antiquity that only archaeology can provide.’

Another example concerns the meeting of two of the most remarkable figures of the era, when Alexander studied with Aristotle. Plutarch places this at Mieza, an ancient city on Mount Vermion, in a sanctuary to the nymphs. A candidate was found in the 1960s, which enjoys a setting that ‘never loses its ability to bewitch’, making it easy to imagine the ‘philosopher and prince setting the world to rights on a hot and humid afternoon’. The dates, though, present a problem, as the sanctuary may not have existed in the 340s, when Alexander studied. A sizable public building complex a few kilometres away presents an alternative venue for Aristotle’s school. This site could accommodate far more students, suggesting Alexander may have trained in a less secluded setting alongside 150 or so other boys.

It is intriguing to speculate about whether Aristotle shared his belief that the great outer ocean enveloping the world would be visible from the Hindu Kush. It was a theory that Alexander tested to destruction in 329 BC, when the world proved much larger – and harder to conquer – than he may have been led to believe. If so, it would powerfully reinforce Rowson’s central thesis that Alexander’s ‘fame may have been secured in Asia, but the man was made in Macedon’. Anyone wishing to understand that man now has the perfect volume to start with.

The Young Alexander: the making of Alexander the Great 
Alex Rowson 
William Collins, £25 
ISBN 978-0008284398