Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Indestructible style

A review of The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault (Allen Lane, 1975)

When news of Alexander's death reached Sisygambis, Queen Mother of Persia, she bade farewell to friends and family, turned her face to the wall, and died by fasting. Such is the becoming formality inspired by Alexander, a man with an "indestructible sense of style". Everything he did – at the foot of the brick-and-bitumen walls of Babylon, within the exotic dining halls of persepolis, on the scythed chariots rolling across Asia – was calculated to ensure his immortal fame.

Mary Renault's remarkable historical fiction about the ancient world has enthralled two or more generations of readers. The research that went into the making of Fire From Heaven and is essentially collected in The Nature of Alexander which admirably captures the essence of his pursuit of glory. Her own absorbing style engages our attention throughout, even during the lists of military engagements, and Christina Gascoigne's superb colour photographs create the atmosphere of a lost world.

My only grief is that Ms Renault is of the old school as regards "the psychology of homosexuality". Without blanching she can mouth its worst cliches: "After such a childhood, it is a wonder his heterosexual instincts were not destroyed instead of merely retarded." What a pity that such a sensitive writer should be so taken in by the dogma of her age. The effect upon Alexander of his wicked mother Olympias and his nasty father Darius is virtually impossible to ascertain, and speculations on the basis of the "classic family pattern for homosexuality" are seldom more than 50 percent right. And if, as Ms Renault suggests, the norm for that era was bisexuality rather than heterosexuality, then it's hard to see how Alexander can have been "retarded" for following the norm of his society.

Much of the book is devoted to debunking the anti-Alexander myths created by the Athenian propagandists ("the men of the Academy and the Lyceum, the most influential body of opinion formers in his world") swallowed whole by modern historians. Alexander seldom drank more than any other man of his time; there were no wild debauches; he never lowered himself to committing atrocities for spite; his wit was no more crude than that of any other Macedonian; there was no such mistress as the mythical Barsine. Perhaps he "fell in love" with Roxane, but the infatuation, if any, lasted no more than a month or two, and although he married both her and Stateira for political purposes, "The certainty is that he never became uxorious."

Alexander's constant lovers and most faithful compaions were Hephaestion and the young Persian eunuch Bagoas, both of whom are treated here more fully than in any other biography of Alexander. Bagoas still remains somewhat shadowy because of the paucity of documents, but Hephaestion comes across as an accomplished engineer, fine general and efficient builder of cities to unite the empire. The eastern luxury of Bagoas' Persian court and the death of Hephaestion – resulting in the most magnificent funeral the world has ever witnessed – are downplayed: they are legend-making enough without the superfluity of romantic colouring.

Alexander's heroic achievements, "his passionate generosity, his powerful magnetism, his compelling charm" cannot be dismissed except by the most cynical historian, though his desire to be regarded as a deity in his lifetime had more to do with politics than megalomania. We may of course regret that his entire life was set upon conquering other peoples, but "it is as foolish to apply anachronistic moral standards to this as it would be to condemn Hippocrates for not teaching aseptic surgery. . . . the notion that war was wrong had not yet entered the world." As for his burning of Persepolis, which he himself later realized was a mistake for his reputation, Ms Renault comments wryly: "There is no doubt that a really first-class fire, when no fear for human life intrudes, is one of the great atavistic joys still known to man."

Ms Renault knows as much about the ancient sources as any academic scholar, but in this book "meant for general readers" she allows herself some provocative speculation, for example, about how Alexander may have been poisoned with infected water, and about his non-relationship with his wives and the women in his harem – surely the chastest in Asia. She seems to think that Alexander grew increasingly asexual, and I regret she did not permit he suspicions to be roused by the "royal squires", the teenaged sons of Macedonian aristocrats whom he chose for his bodyguard, or his personally selected army of 30,000 Persian boys with which he may have planned to conquer Rome before his sudden death.

But let Ms Renault have the last word about the "nature" of Alexander:

"To give pleasure, to be surrounded witih gratitude and liking, met a deep need in his nature. . . . he loved profusion as only those can who have been pinched. He loved display; it went with his sense of theatre. All these cravings were fed in Babylon; as the money came in, he would develop his personal style."

(Part of this review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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