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Everyone I know who's read Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire considers it one of the best historical novels of all time--and, because it's the kind of book you force upon friends, that's just about every guy I know. When an author gives readers such a gift it seems only fair to give him some loyalty in return. So, although his newest seemed marred by a significant flaw, I kept reading Virtues of War, and that devotion was richly rewarded as in the end the seeming flaw turns out to be the point of the work and illustrates it beautifully.

Oliver Stone's better publicized new film, Alexander, has re-ignited an ago old controversy about the conqueror: did his conquests serve a purpose, spreading Greek Civilization eastwards, or was it simply a matter of conquest for conquest's sake. As Peter Green explained in a recent review essay in The New Republic:
Guy Griffith, my old ancient history teacher at Cambridge, is on record as holding it to be "one of the paradoxes of history (and historiography)" that despite Alexander's extraordinary career, which attracted so many writers, and despite the care that he devoted to the promotion of his own image, he "should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma." In the half-century or so since then, historians have cleared up the picture a good deal, and Cartledge's well-documented account reflects this progress: the profile that emerges is that of a military genius driven by an overwhelming obsession, a pothos, to pursue glory through conquest to the world's end, and take savage reprisals against any who thwarted his will while he was at it. Arrian was surely right: had Alexander lived, "he would not have stopped conquering even if he'd added Europe to Asia and the Britannic islands to Europe." It is almost impossible to think of Alexander in old age. He remains a beacon, an icon, arrested in mid-career, a meteor streaking for all eternity toward an infinite future. The Greeks who cursed him as a barbarous killer in his lifetime, but over the millennia came to see him as the brightest torch-bearer of the Hellenic spirit, are proof enough of that.
There's obviously much a writer of fiction can do with such paradox. The easy way out, for a popular novelist in particular, would be to make Alexander a pleasing action hero and "torch-bearer" of culture. Mr. Pressfield though, to his great credit, takes the far harder route, giving us an Alexander who is a creature of his own selfish ambitions. This Alexander is an anti-hero, which presents challenges to the reader, because we are so disaffected from Alexander's long march of war, and for the author; but, for the reader who sticks with him, Mr. Pressfield offers real rewards.

The conceit of the novel is that Alexander has a demon, a "daimon" in Mr. Pressfield's parlance, which drives him onwards from brutal victory to brutal victory, a virtual being outside himself, preventing him from listening to his better angels. At first, when things are going well and fairly easily, with his army and his officers well-satisfied, the daimon is a relatively subdued presence. But as Alexander's appetite for new territory becomes insatiable and takes them farther and farther afield, until their wars can have only the most tangential relationship to security and interests of their Greek homelands, the army becomes increasingly restive, the commanders disgruntled, and Alexander less capable of holding back the daimon, which takes on the qualities of almost an alternate personality.

I'll try not to give up too much of the endgame, but, in a pivotal scene late in the novel, Alexander is introduced to a gymnosophist, "the 'naked wise men' of India":
"This man has conquered the world! What have you done?" The philosopher replied without an instant's hesitation, "I have conquered the need to conquer the world."
The indictment that Mr. Pressfield hands down is that the unknown Indian's feat is a greater conquest than any of Alexander's.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

See also:

Steven Pressfield (6 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Steven Pressfield Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Steven Pressfield
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Steven Pressfield (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel (Random House)
    -VIDEO: Mini Documentary on Killing Rommel (YouTube)
    -ARTICLE: Bruckheimer Adapting Pressfield’s Killing Rommel (BeyondHollywood, 9/03/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Pressfield (Hugh Hewitt Show)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign ( StevenPressfield.com)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Tribalism is the real enemy in Iraq (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, 6/18/06, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY: Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East (Steven Pressfield, September 11, 2006, ABC News)
    -ESSAY: Theme and Character in the Historical Novel (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, Historical Novel Society)
    -INTERVIEW: The art of the art of war (Steven Martinovich, November 15, 2004, Enter Stage Right)
    -INTERVIEW: Gates Of Fire: Richard Lee talks to Steven Pressfield about his new novel (Historical Novel Society)
    -ARCHIVES: "steven pressfield" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (Ray Palen, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Tony Perry, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steven D. Laib, Intellectual Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Chet Edwards, Defense and National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Paul Katx, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steve Terjeson, Ezine)
    -REVIEW: of Killng Rommel (Norm Goldman, American Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Andrew Lubin, Military Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Mary Ann Smyth, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jeff Valentine, Bella)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (John Boyd, Kliat)
    -REVIEW: of Kiliing Rommel (Michael Lee, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan War ( Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Scott Oden)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign ( N.S. Gill, About.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great http://www.enterstageright.com/archive/articles/1004/1004virtuesofwar.htmBy Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War (Helen South, About.com)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War(Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interes)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great expectations: Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him (Rory Stewart, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Ancient / Classical History: Alexander the Great (About.com)
    Ancient Conqueror, Modern Devotees: The current Alexander fad is likely to reveal little of news value about Alexander and a great deal more about ourselves instead. (EMILY EAKIN, 11/26/04, NY Times)
    To Hellas and Back: ALEXANDER THE GREAT IN MYTHS AND MOVIES. (Peter Green, New Republic)
Guy Griffith, my old ancient history teacher at Cambridge, is on record as holding it to be "one of the paradoxes of history (and historiography)" that despite Alexander's extraordinary career, which attracted so many writers, and despite the care that he devoted to the promotion of his own image, he "should have been handed down finally in history as an enigma." In the half-century or so since then, historians have cleared up the picture a good deal, and Cartledge's well-documented account reflects this progress: the profile that emerges is that of a military genius driven by an overwhelming obsession, a pothos, to pursue glory through conquest to the world's end, and take savage reprisals against any who thwarted his will while he was at it. Arrian was surely right: had Alexander lived, "he would not have stopped conquering even if he'd added Europe to Asia and the Britannic islands to Europe." It is almost impossible to think of Alexander in old age. He remains a beacon, an icon, arrested in mid-career, a meteor streaking for all eternity toward an infinite future. The Greeks who cursed him as a barbarous killer in his lifetime, but over the millennia came to see him as the brightest torch-bearer of the Hellenic spirit, are proof enough of that.

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