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  • Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire
  • James Doyne Dawson
Alexander the Great Failure: The Collapse of the Macedonian Empire. By John D. Grainger. New York: Hambledon Continuum Books, 2007. ISBN 978-18472-5188-6. Maps. Genaeologies. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xix, 236. $24.95.

John D. Grainger is a prolific and wide-ranging British military historian who specializes in the Hellenistic period. The present book offers an original perspective on the career of Alexander the Great. Most who have written on Alexander have focused on the meteoric career of the conqueror himself; Grainger has shifted the focus to the Macedonian empire that Alexander founded and which barely outlived him. Grainger places this empire in a global context, reminding us that the fourth century BC was a period of centralizing tendencies not only in the Greek world but also in Italy, India, and China. But [End Page 928] the Roman, Mauryan, and Ch’in empires were so much more successful that the contrast makes Alexander’s empire seem a conspicuous failure. The unified Macedonian empire actually lasted for only six years, 325-319 BC. After Alexander III, the Great, died in 323 the empire was held together by regents acting for the infant Alexander IV, first Perdikkas (assassinated 321), then Antipater (died 319). Over the next forty years there were repeated efforts by Macedonian generals to reunite the empire, but all failed.

Grainger’s attempt to explain the failure is not entirely successful. It suffers from overdetermination: too many causes are listed with too little effort to prioritize. The author’s conclusion suggests that Alexander failed to give proper thought to Macedon and Greece, which should have been his primary responsibility (p. 190). He never returned to Macedon after he invaded Persia in 334, and he intended to make Mesopotamia the center of his empire. This left Macedon open to the invasions of the Gauls in 279. But Grainger also thinks that Macedon could never have been the base of a world empire; the last sentence of the book tells us that by the 270s the Macedonians had “effectively wrecked their own empire” (p. 193). If so, then Alexander showed good judgment in leaving Macedon as quickly as he could. Was Alexander or were the Macedonians responsible for the failure? Grainger never seems quite to decide.

The trouble with Macedon was that it was not so much a state as an unusually anarchic chiefdom with no administrative infrastructure. It imploded in a succession crisis about once a generation; the Wars of the Successors that followed Alexander were just the usual succession crisis on a continental scale. The empire might have had a chance if it could have linked the military resources of Macedon to the economic resources of the eastern provinces, as Alexander had done. But the two families most interested in restoring the empire were the Antipatrids and the Antigonids; neither had gone east with Alexander and both had a narrowly Macedonian frame of reference. Alexander did marry and produce heirs at about the usual age, but he could not foresee that he would be dead at 32, nor that his trusted vizier Hephaistion would die shortly before him at about the same age. Grainger’s intriguing book may not make due allowance for the fact that both Alexander and the Macedonians were cursed with bad luck.

James Doyne Dawson
Sejong University
Seoul, South Korea


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pp. 928-929
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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