I’ve never been terribly keen on Alexander the Great. His was a great but narrow genius, and its direction was not especially noble or useful, as Will Cuppy neatly summarizes in his acerbic epitaph:
Alexander’s empire fell to pieces at once, and nothing remained of his work except that the people he had killed were still dead.
We should not forget that the major output of Alexander’s great war machine consisted of corpses, but when he says that nothing remained of Al’s work, Cuppy is buying zing at the cost of truth. Without him, the greatest scientific and scholarly center of the ancient world would certainly not have been Alexandria, and Egypt would not have been ruled, 300 years after his death, by a Greek-speaking woman named Cleopatra (the name of Alexander’s sister). Greek ideas would probably not have come so to influence Judaism that it spawned a breakaway sect centered on the idea of eternal life in a better world, something traditional Judaism had little interest in. One could go on.
Still, I was not expecting the young Alexander portrayed in Mary Renault’s historical novel Fire from Heaven to be as engaging as he is, and I was surprised to find the book drawing me in with an almost Game of Thrones-like power. Part of the fun is, paradoxically, that we know what the future holds; when envoys from the great Persian Empire arrive while his father is out drilling the troops, little Alex receives them and peppers them with questions. He is puzzled to hear that the Great King commands armies from many subject nations, and wonders how he can talk to the soldiers. “They like it when you know their names,” he explains. The emissaries are amused at the notions of this hillbilly princeling, the reader is amused to think that in a few years he will turn up on their doorstep and crush their Empire.
Another virtue, which Renault shares with GRR Martin and sometimes Homer, is that she draws us into the drama of war without concealing its costs. Here Alexander has just won a border action which the locals perceive as a great battle but for the commanders is just a diversionary tactic:
By the clear lake of Likneidos, the mud of combat settled. Pike and eels picked clean the drifting dead; the crushed lilies slept, to sprout green another year. The white acacia flowers fell like snow in the next fresh wind and hid the blood. Widows mourned, maimed men fumbled at former skills, orphans knew hunger who had never lacked before. …They went, even the widows and orphans, to make thank-offerings at the shrines—the Illyrians, notorious pirates and slavers, might have won. Their gods, regarding their offerings kindly, kept from them the knowledge that they had been a means and not an end. In grief, more than in joy, man longs to know that the universe turns around him.
That is pretty good stuff.
I was also surprised at the finesse and warmth with which she portrays the romance between Alexander and his friend and lover Hephaistion (I didn’t know that her skill in depicting gay male relationships led to rumors that she was really a gay man, rumors that must have surprised her lesbian partner). The book’s sense of the cultural context for this fits with my own understanding: nobody thought it was strange that Al should have a boyfriend, but it was a source of concern that he might not have enough interest in women to father children, and also that he might not be as much of a ‘top’ as was considered suitable for the higher-status partner.
Alexander’s mother Olympios, on the other hand, reads a bit too much like the scheming, power-mad witch of misogynist stereotypes. Renault should perhaps have recognized that her ancient sources were pulling this character from the Central Casting shop of their fears and anxieties. But it is such a rare treat to find a fun book written in stylish English that one would willingly forgive more than this.