This superb work of non-fiction aimed at an MG or early teen audience is written with so much verve and flair that I found myself racing through as if it were a fictional adventure story. From the opening scene of the 20 year-old, newly appointed King Alexander, hurling his spear into Persian territory as a symbolic act of intent, I was utterly hooked. The author, Dominic Sandbrook, presents his learning and research with a lightness of touch that is sure to engage his target audience and will likely be enjoyed by many adults too.
Alexander the Great is one of those historical names that many of us are familiar with but, unless we have studied classics, probably have a sketchy knowledge of his life and achievements. As someone who dropped history before O level in order to study sciences, I learnt so much from this book. Firstly, the realisation that “Ancient Greece” was not just one country but a collection of rival cities and kingdoms fighting for supremacy over centuries. The book makes clear that the mythical twelve Olympians of Mount Olympus were woven into the everyday fabric of life for everyone within the Greek world. Thus, although Alexander was the product of the marriage between King Philip of Macedonia and one of his wives, Olympias, he believed his mother’s story that he was actually the son of Zeus.
It appears that this belief in his immortality drove him to follow his dreams and ruthlessly pursue the conquest of the Persian empire. The compelling narrative explains how the vast wealth of Persia under the reign of King Darius III paid for a fearsome military strength, and how Alexander’s small but highly disciplined army fought their way from the Mediterranean to eventually gain control of the entire empire over the span of a decade. In between the descriptions of battles and military tactics there is a wealth of knowledge imparted about the structure of society, the architecture and the bureaucracy of the greatest single empire in history.
I like the way that throughout the book the historical facts are presented in the context of modern comparisons, making it relatable for its proposed readership. Many youngsters are likely to be surprised by the discovery that the greatest city of the time was Babylon as they have probably been exposed to a mostly euro-centric view of history and civilisation. The scale of Alexander the Great’s achievements, in leading his conquering army on horseback and on foot across Asia is brought starkly to life when the modern day names of the lands that he amassed are mentioned. We learn that Greek coins have been found in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India! Of course as a librarian, my favourite part of the book was the brief mention of Alexander’s loyal commander Ptolemy’s eventual reign over Egypt where he laid the plans for the Great Library of Alexandria.
This book will appeal to confident readers of 10+ who have enjoyed the fictional portrayal of the ancient world in books such as Who Let the Gods Out by Maz Evans, The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence or the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Dominic Sandbrook lists his sources in an Author’s Note so that readers can pursue further research if their appetites for classical history have been whetted. I would highly recommend this book for non-fiction collections in Key Stage 2 or Secondary School libraries.
I am grateful to Penguin Random House and NetGalley for allowing me access to an electronic version of Time Travellers Alexander the Great before publication on 4th November 2021 in exchange for an honest review.