Reviewed by David Maclaine
Author Steven Pressfield is the master of the battlefield, and The Virtues of War, his first novel about Alexander the Great, centers firmly on the Macedonian's military genius. It is a first-person account, dictated while his army is stalled on the Indus and near mutiny; the focus of his retrospective is the victories that would eventually bring him to the edge of the known world. After a terse account of Alexander's childhood, Pressfield offers his own version of a battle also treated in Renault's Fire from Heaven when King Philip's Macedonians took the field against the Thebans and Athenians at Chaironea, and won victory with a precisely judged cavalry led by Alexander. This version is far heavier on military details, and far less romantic than Renault's in its treatment of "The Sacred Band," the elite Theban corps said to have been comprised of paired lovers. That's a claim Pressfield dismisses with a few pragmatic lines.
The great strength of The Virtues of War is its detailed inside views of the three great battles that broke the power of the Persians: Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela. In each case we ride into the whirlwind of battle within the mind of Alexander. The dust clouds that create chaos for his opponents cannot dim his inner vision of the armies in motion, drawn into positions according to plan, while his carefully-arrayed Companion cavalry deploy in preparation for yet another decisive charge. There is human interest in the story, especially in the hard decisions the young emperor must make after he begins to lose the hearts of his soldiers; there are episodes that gaze wearily at the high price of victory. But the Alexander whom Pressfield wants us never to forget is the military genius, the man whose unique gifts again and again shape the terror and confusion of battle so the outcome matches his vision. It is an essential book for anyone who cares about ancient warfare. (2004, 348 pages)More about The Virtues of War at Powell's Books, Amazon.com or The Book Depository