24 April 2014

Book Review: Envy of the Gods

"...Prevas combines a personal familiarity with the primary historical sources with a personal taste for adventure and desire to see the lands in question first-hand. The product of his works and travel ends up being a combination of historical retelling and travelogue."

Published on 9 JUL 2005 12:00am by Scott Parrino
  1. great civilizations / ancients, background / research material

Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great’s Ill-fated Journey across Asia

In Envy of the Gods: Alexander the Great’s Ill-fated Journey across Asia, John Prevas returns to a formula the author put to good use in his prior works, Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Second Punic War and Xenophon's March: Into the Lair of the Persian Lion. In all of these works, Prevas combines a personal familiarity with the primary historical sources with a personal taste for adventure and desire to see the lands in question first-hand. The product of his works and travel ends up being a combination of historical retelling and travelogue.

In Envy of the Gods, Prevas directs his formula and focus on Alexander and his conquests. Unlike many books on Alexander, though, Prevas’ work focuses exclusively on Alexander’s conquests after his defeat of Darius and the effective conquest of the Persian Empire. Prevas takes as his starting point the triumphant entry of Alexander into Persepolis and writes from there. His work doesn’t cover any of the three-year campaign that brought Alexander to that point: rather, Prevas assumes these events are known by the reader.

There are obvious disadvantages to this approach. It creates an artificial narrative and factual chasm in the work: the pre-conquest Alexander is effectively another, off-stage character whose influence on the events chronicled in the work is opaque. It also minimizes the magnitude of the feat which Alexander achieved: by treating the conquest as simply given, it can give a reader unfamiliar with that part of Alexander’s story an inappropriate sense that this accomplishment was no “big deal, really”. And, finally, there are simply the points regarding background and factual knowledge: the lack of this information in Prevas’ work means that the author assumes the reader has existing knowledge of this information, which can be a risky assumption.

But, with all those obvious disadvantages in mind, there are nonetheless some surprising benefits to Prevas’ approach. 

As a narrative, Prevas has created a classic Greek Tragedy. His Alexander bears an interesting thematic resemblance to Oedipus. Like Oedipus, Alexander begins the story with everything and ends with nothing. Like Oedipus, Alexander is by the end a pale shadow of the great figure he was at the beginning. And, like Oedipus, Alexander is ultimately cast down by his own hubris.

Prevas focuses his tale exclusively on Alexander’s conquests in Asia. The picture which Prevas paints is of an Alexander ever more isolated, arrogant, decadent, and, bluntly, Persian. Prevas makes clear his view, both overtly in his comments and in the manner of his narrative: he believes that, as the campaign progresses, Alexander becomes ever more absolutely corrupted by the absolute power he increasingly wields. Prevas’ focus, for instance, on the proskynesis, the ritual abasement before the Persian king, and Alexander’s increasing desire to see it used by all his subjects, shows that Prevas sees Alexander transforming from Macedonian king to Persian King of Kings, with all the trappings and failings (from a Greek point of view) associated with that role.

In this way, Prevas turns the tale of Alexander into its own classic tale of tragedy, with the effect that it makes Prevas’ work not simply a work of history but, to a degree, a work of classical literature as well.

As history, though, Prevas’ focus has an additional benefit in that it serves to a degree as a corrective to the traditional focus in histories of Alexander. By and large, the conquest of the Persian Empire was such a magnificent feat that it commands the focus of works on Alexander. The campaigns after Alexander left Persepolis are reckoned generally as diversions from the core tale of the Persian conquest. Also, they are viewed as being of questionable strategic value overall and militarily inferior achievements when compared with his victory over the Persians. In that regard, most treatments betray a general bias in favor of set battles between full, professional armies: the Asian conquests tended to be more counter-insurgency operations and, thus, not worthy of the same attention or credit as the Persian conquests. Finally, even in works that don’t seek to cast Alexander in the mold of a tragic protagonist, Alexander unquestionably becomes more absolutist and cruel in his behavior. Quite simply, the later Alexander is not someone we want to dwell on too much.

The net of all this is that, in most books, the campaigns in Asia tend to be covered quickly. And so the factual history of them is either compressed or lost altogether. By focusing on these, Prevas helps to complete a story that is fascinating in its own right.

Prevas’ methodology also gives extra benefit to this treatment: by going to the lands in question and providing current photographs of some of them, Prevas is able to give the reader a true feel for the geography. We can sense how truly foreign these lands were to the Greeks and Macedonians following Alexander. And that point gives further emphasis to the hubris of Alexander: it is only Alexander’s personal quest for glory that leads him to drag his men literally to the end of the known world. It makes the confrontation between Alexander and his troops, which ultimately results in Alexander turning back, all the more poignant. It also leaves the reader thinking that the most likely reason for Alexander’s marching his army through the Gedrosian desert was simple spite on Alexander’s part and a desire to punish and hurt the mutinous troops.

Prevas ends his story with Alexander’s death and his final words to give his Empire “to the strongest”. With that passing, the gods have fully cast down the one whom they envied. And, Prevas leaves us a clear view of a world that has been rent by one man’s nearly mad ambition. Prevas’ Alexander is not a hero to emulate: rather, it is a cautionary tale of the corrupting influence of power.

The book features two good, respectable maps, one of the world as viewed in Alexander’s day and a modern geo-political map showing Alexander’s route. Unfortunately, not all cities cited in the work are on the map, so the reader sometimes must reckon locations for him or herself.

Further supporting material includes a chronology and a “who’s who” in the ancient world, both of which are helpful. The work is well notated and includes a good, annotated bibliography -- an excellent jumping-off point for further reading.

Overall, Prevas’ work is a good telling of the history and life of Alexander from the point of view of tragedy. By design, however, it is not a comprehensive history and so should not be read by someone as a first book on Alexander. But, for those who are interested in Alexander and are familiar with his story, it provides an interesting and refreshing “change up” from the myriad of hagiographies of Alexander that are available. And, it makes a good showing as a work of popular history through its supporting material.

About the Author

Christopher works in information security and as a writer on computer security in the Pacific Northwest. He has been involved in computer games since falling in love with Adventure on the Atari 2600 in the mid-70's and gaming since the first edition of AD&D (Queen of the Demonweb Pits is still the best!). He has an interest in history, military history and strategy and tactics. In addition, he has an interest in philosophy, with a master's on Nietzsche and has written several articles for a London-based philosophy magazine.

Christopher regularly reads more books at once than he should and is currently reading Charles Freeman’s The Closing of the Western Mind, and Calvert Watkins' How to Kill a Dragon. He's partial to turn-based war-games such as Slitherine’s Legion and Chariots of War and HPS Simulation’s Point of Attack 2. He also still dusts DOOM and Heretic/Hexen off from time to time.