I don’t know how many years it’s been since I read Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield’s great book about Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. But that’s when I realized that Pressfield had a great talent for providing rich detail in telling stories of battles and warfare in the ancient world. This book isn’t any different, and yet it is. Rather than focusing on a specific instance in time, it spends a little over two years with a common soldier from Macedonia who has joined Alexander the Great’s armies in Afghanistan.
The campaign isn’t talked about much in stories of Alexander. We hear about the pitched battles against Darius the Great and the Persian armies all through the Mesopotamian area, and then later his battles in far India, where he was the first to fight against armies using Indian elephants. We hear about Alexander’s wedding to Roxane and how that cements the armies of Greece to those of that region, ending the war there. But showing the battles against the warlords leading up to that point shows us several things. First, it demonstrates Alexander’s uncanny power over his men as a fellow soldier, one that they would follow anywhere. Second, it shows his strategy of blending his army with those he conquered helped him to solidify his conquests and establish the firm Hellenistic influence that impacted that part of the world for centuries to come. Finally, it showed the people of Afghanistan, a race of freedom-loving, independent people who for thousands of years have fought war after war to resist being conquered, and whose nature has never changed.
What made this story special for me was that it was told from the perspective of Matthias, a simple soldier who joined the army long after his older brothers had left to find fame and glory with Alexander. He is thrown in with the muleskinners and is given the task of going to market to buy mules for their campaign. When there are not enough to be purchased, their translator recommends they buy women as porters instead. This begins a relationship between Matthias and one of the women who serves as a porter. The women are treated as worse than slaves, and gives the reader a fresh understanding of what life in Afghanistan must be life today, and that the challenges for women didn’t begin with Islam, which happens half a millenia after this story.
This was a highly entertaining story. The only thing I found myself wishing is that the author had shared his sources of research, which seemed to be extensive. I give it four and a half stars out of five.