The Virtues of War


Steven Pressfield


Historical Fiction


Date Reviewed:

May 8, 2006

I thought that this book is a bit of a let down, it doesn't measure up to Pressfield's Gates of Fire. In Virtues of War, Alexander the Great recounts his life story. It is after the battle for India, and Alexander is now turning back from the east to rule his new empire. He calls a page into his tent, and relates to him all the events of his life, so this novel is in an autobiographical format. Pressfield seems to have stuck closely to the known events of Alexander's life, I presume that most of the material here is historically accurate. But this constrains the writing - after all, it is is novel - hampering the development plot and character. Indeed, Alexander is the only character in the book. He mentions plenty of generals, but mostly they are limited to battle formations - "General X rode on my left, while General Y led the calvary on the flank." Unlike Gates of Fire, which focused on one epic battle, this book includes many battles, all of which Alexander won. In fact, there are so many battles in Alexander's brief life that Pressfield deletes a lot, for example, the conquest of Egypt. This is probably the best decision, otherwise this would become a giant book describing battle after battle.

At India, Alexander is faced with mutiny of his men - they are tired off the endless campaign, they want to return to Greece and the conquered lands and enjoy the empire that they have won. But Alexander wants to press on the ends of the earth, he needs to cross the river and battle a waiting opponent. The king of the opposition (I think his name was Portus) meets with Alexander on a boat in the river between the two armies. Portus tells Alexander that they should join forces, and he will teach Alexander to be a king. Alexander is enraged by the comment, because he rules most of the known world. Portus explains that Alexander is a like a storm moving across the landscape, invincible, unstoppable but just passing through. Alexander must learn to govern as well as conquer, and Portus is just the man to teach him. Alexander's fury is such that he leaves the parlay session and returns home. The Greeks attack, and of course they win (curiously, Pressfield gives us only a limit retelling of this battle, despite the fact it seems to be the climax of the book. We only read about the battle after the fact, not as it unfolds.)

Earlier in the book, Alexander recounts how he fought Darius, the emperor of Persia, who commanded an invincible army 1 million men strong. But Alexander wins each battle, and eventually he rules the empire. I am unclear what happened to this empire when Alexander dies at the young age of 32. Apparently, it breaks apart into various pieces, and then is absorbed by the Romans in a few hundred years later? I guess Portus was right, Alexander swept across the landscape, but did not build anything enduring, other than his own legend.

I like the descriptions of the battles. Pressfield describes some of the tactics and weapons employeed. The Macedonians have designed a longer spear, this allows them to stand further back from their enemies and strike without being attacked themselves, this innovation was Alexander's father, Philip, who led the Macedonians in the conquest of Greece, it was Alexander who then led them to conquer the known world. Pressfield seems to have researched how warfare was conducted, it sounds authentic when he describes what happens on the field of battle.

Alexander razes a couple of cities - Thebes rises in revolt, and when it is retaken, he has every citizen slaughered as a warning to the other Greek cities that he will tolerate no rebellions. Alexander also slays Black Cleitus, one of his generals, when the man makes some drunken insults.

This book is interesting, but not riveting.