Ben Douglass is an old grumpy white guy who writes poems, novels, reviews, essays, and short fictions, for his own amusement and the amusement of others.
Back to Blog
[Alexander the Great: The Invisible Enemy: A Biography. O'Brien, John Maxwell. New York: Routledge. 1992. 336 pages. Bibl. Index. ISBN: 0-415-07254-9]
What if I told you that the greatest military leader of all time was defeated by the simple grape? Well, that is the assertion of Professor emeritus of History, John O'Brien. Let me refresh the reader with a summary of Alexander's life before I move onto the task at hand: O'Brien's unorthodox approach to this great leader's downfall and eventual defeat.
Alexander III of Macedon, commonly known as Alexander the Great, was a king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon and a member of the Argead dynasty. He was born in Pella in 356 B.C. of his mother Olynpias and father, Phillip II. He went on to succeed his father to the throne at the age of 20. He died in Babylon. Alexander's spouses were Roxana (m. 327-323 B.C.), Stateira II (m. 324-323 B.C.), and Parysatis II (m. 324-323 B.C.). Polygamy was commonplace among royalty. After many successful military campaigns, Alexander established the largest empire the ancient world had ever seen. This empire stretched from the Balkans to modern-day Pakistan. During his life, Alexander served as King of Macedonia, from 336-323 B.C. During his time of leadership, he united Greece, reestablished the Corinthian League and conquered the Persian Empire.
The author's intent with this biography was with the general reader in mind and then, with an eye towards students of classical history and admirers of this great king. Military strategies and politics have been kept to a bare minimum while focusing on the inner life or mindset of Alexander. Those readers solely interested in the politics and military strategies need to look elsewhere. The ancient historian/general, Arrian, would be a good place. Also, the author has an extensive notes & bibliography section. The 43-page bibliography is one of the finest I've ever seen on Alexander. This book is not to be taken as a definitive study of the man because actual sources are at best, fragmentary and contradictory. The author is simply making an educated guess on his assertion based on the evidence.
Not only using the historical record at hand, but also relying on the modern concepts of behavioral sciences and depth psychology, the author concludes simply the why and how of Alexander's deterioration during the last years of his life: the pattern of drinking undiluted or uncut wine excessively as he grew older, turned him into a raging alcoholic. The king's obsession with everything Dionysus became his Achilles Heel. Dionysus was indeed the "Invisible Enemy" - the jealous man/god who drove mad all who did not properly worship him.
Most Greek tragedies tend to be family affairs and since alcoholism plays a significant character within these family groups, we can see how and why Alexander turned out the way he did. It is useful to acknowledge that Alexander's father, Phillip II, of Macedon (382-336 B.C.), was himself an alcoholic of the first order. So, in a sense, Alexander never had a chance because of behaviors learned and possible genetic markers.
As the author says in his Preface: "The most perplexing of all such considerations is Alexander's metamorphosis. Even as he performed one epic deed after another, this superb warrior began to exhibit a disturbing personal transformation. During the last seven years of his life Alexander became increasingly unpredictable, sporadically violent, megalomaniacal, and suspicious of friends as well as enemies. What could have caused such a lamentable transformation? This book explores that question in a way that requires the reader's forbearance until exposed threads begin to reveal patterns in Alexander's behavior."
Professor O'Brien is no historical revisionist attempting to make a name for himself but rather, his evidence is deeply rooted in many substantial and credible sources, classical as well as modern. I think his bibliography speaks volumes as proof of his deep readings and analysis on the subject. The reader is left to decide for themselves whether the grape was indeed the cause of Alexander's downfall, or merely a symptom of something else. The respect the author gives to the many factions of Alexander scholarship is what makes this book stand out from all the others in the field. He took a grave academic chance with his assertion and it paid off brilliantly.
During an email exchange with the author on 9/13/2020 he claimed: "I taught a course in Alexander the Great from an historiography point of view. Equally brilliant people could look at the same sources, one seeing a man who embodied the best in all mankind, the other seeing a rapacious narcissist who was a menace to the human race." Even after saying this, I think the good professor has stated his case in the most believable manner.
[About the Author: John Maxwell O'Brien is an emeritus professor of history (Queens College) who has written numerous articles and books on ancient history, medieval history, and the history of alcoholism. His celebrated biography of Alexander the Great has been translated into Greek and Italian. he also just recently completed a novel, Aloysius the Great (which parallels James Joyce's Ulysses). The author, who is 81 years young, currently resides in New Milford, Connecticut.]