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Book Scene: How religion influenced Alexander's military campaigns

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soldier priest and god

It’s been said there is nothing new under the sun, and when it comes to some historical subjects, this appears to hold true.

Surely, what more can be written about figures like George Washington, Napoleon and Julius Caesar that has not been put to paper already? Yet occasionally, some clever historian finds a stone yet unturned, and sheds new light on well-worn subjects.

Thousands of books have been written about Alexander the Great, yet F.S. Naiden’s “Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great” is the first to analyze how the Macedonian king’s military victories came in step with his religious practices.

Alexander’s knowledge of Greek deities helped in his conquest of the Greek city-states. In the Levant, he won local peoples to his side by adopting their customs. In Egypt, he performed traditional rites and became a pharaoh, making him a living god in the eyes of the Egyptians. Alexander’s devotion to religion aided his conquests; it won him hearts and minds off the battlefield as he churned out victory after victory on it.

The further Alexander strayed from Macedonia, the less familiar he became with local religions and customs. This caused him to commit faux pas that angered the civilizations he conquered. He ran into some trouble with religious customs during his campaign against the Persian Empire, impeding his progress, though ultimately he was successful in conquering it.

Once Alexander reached India, his encounters with Buddhists, Hindus and Jains baffled him, and rather than attempt to understand them, he put thousands to the sword. It is no surprise then, Naiden argues, that Alexander’s push came to an end on the banks of the Indus. His indiscretions caused his troops to revolt against him and forced him to turn back.

In the end, no army stopped the march of Alexander the Great; he had defeated himself.

“Soldier, Priest, and God” tells the well-worn story of Alexander’s life, but does so through a unique lens. Though at first glance the book appears to be a product reserved for the ivory tower — it is written by an academic and published by Oxford University Press, after all — Naiden has done an excellent job writing for the lay reader. Not only is his prose easy to read, but he doesn’t assume too much prior knowledge of his reader.

If you’ve never read anything else about Alexander the Great, you’ll be just fine starting here. But Naiden’s original analysis of Alexander’s life ensures that even experts will learn something new.

• “Soldier, Priest, and God: A Life of Alexander the Great” by F.S. Naden was published by Oxford University Press in November 2018. It retails for $27.95.

• J.T. Menard recently graduated with his master of arts degree in history from Washington State University. Though he no longer works for Inklings, he still reviews books alongside current employees every week in this space.

Reach Tammy Ayer at or on Facebook.

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