Book Review: Glenn Barnett, ‘Emulating Alexander’ (2017).

Barnett, G, Emulating Alexander: How Alexander the Great’s Legacy Fuelled Rome’s Wars with Persia (Pen & Sword, 2017). £19.99

Glenn Barnett provides readers with an interesting book that focuses on how Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who conquered the Achaemenid Empire and ventured to Asia, fuelled Rome’s eastern ambitions. The book traces events from Sulla all the way down to Emperor Heraclius. The Romans faced numerous eastern foes during this long period, ranging from the Seleucids, the Pontic Empire, as well as, the Iranian dynasties, Parthia and the Sasanians. The latter two being the principal rivals of the Roman Empire and pushing them to their limit.

The extent to which each Roman emperor or general were impacted by Alexander’s legacy is measured by the scope of their proposed or physical campaigns and diplomacy in the Near East. It is the book’s focus to assess how and why these individuals attempted and perhaps felt obliged to emulate – with varied levels of success – Alexander’s eastern conquests. It is in the analysis that the reader will find the strengths and weaknesses of this book.

The author successfully provides an overview of Rome’s eastern policy, alongside the wars and on-going power struggles that ensued throughout the period. Some suitable comparisons are made with modern affairs, whilst others are relatively misplaced and founded upon superficial assessments. Comparisons, highlighted by another reviewer, such as those between the modern Ayatollahs and Sasanian mages are not suitable. With that said, the book certainly has a strength in its use as an introductory and overview of Rome’s eastern wars.

Moving to the main aim of the book, how Alexander fuelled Rome’s ambitions, and the extent to which they emulated his actions, is where the author’s work is slightly more hit and miss. Throughout the book, the author makes several sensible assessments of Roman motivations and actions that were suitably impacted by Alexander the Great. Generals operating during the Roman Republic were certainly more often the recipients of Alexander the Great’s influence, with some notable examples also found during the early principate. On the other hand, there are plenty of assessments that unfortunately come across as hollow.

This comes from the author’s tendency to overdo the attribution of Alexander to nearly every Roman action that could remotely be classed as similar or in the same vein/geographical region to which Alexander operated. Whilst this is fine during the research phase of the project, it needs to be refined when making his overall assessments. This is a problem that occurs throughout the book and therefore when reading it cover to cover it does become slightly tedious and repetitive towards the end. This accumulates in a book that comes across as a work-in-progress, and one that needed a little bit more research and honest judgments towards what actually could have been emulations of Alexander compared to events or actions that were merely similar, but at the same time not connected.

As an aside, the book could also have benefited from a series of maps which focused on the geography of the Near East. In several passages, the author makes statements to certain generals following Alexander’s movements and campaign route, and this could have been better portrayed to the reader through a visual medium/assistance. The provision of a couple of maps would have bolstered the strength of this book, and its usefulness to those interested in Alexander’s influence on Roman campaign movements, but also a better understanding the power struggle that took place in this region.

In conclusion, this book certainly has strengths and perhaps its greatest strength is that it outlines Rome’s eastern wars and conflicts. For that alone, the book is well worth investing in for those wanting an overview of events before deep diving into a specific region or time period. The book still has positive connotations to it regarding finding information about Alexander’s influence on Roman eastern policy, but the reader needs to be ready to assess for themselves what merely was a loose connection and what events/actions actually took imitation from Alexander the Great. Generally, I enjoyed reading this book and I found out about some interesting connections between Alexander and Roman policy. I would recommend this book to others, but at the discretion that they should not accept everything the author believes to be attributed between Alexander the Great and Rome’s interactions with her eastern rivals.


Published by Sean Strong

Sean is a doctoral researcher working on the reign of Maurice (582-602). He holds a further interest in understanding the ideology behind identity and the perception of rulership in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Sean's research interests vary throughout the Late Antique and Byzantine world, and span across the fields of military, political, and social history.

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