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The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
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125 of 131 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2004
In the light of the current world environment, you need to read this book. While Mr. Pressfield played on Sun Tzu's title in his 2002 take-control-of-your-life manual, The War of Art, he goes right to the heart of the matter in Virtues: this book is Alexander the Great's Art of War. Where previous Pressfield novels detailed what the individual combatant was thinking and feeling, Virtues focuses on the leader, the man in charge of it all, logistics, material, tactics, strategy, morale and every other aspect of war.

In six short years since the publication of his classic Gates of Fire, Steven Pressfield has set a new standard for historical fiction and sits firmly entrenched at the top of a list of talented writers in that genre. The master's attention to detail through diligent research is without equal. As importantly to his readers, Mr. Pressfield weaves a tale that keeps us hooked on his work from first to last page. His details do not detract or bog down the telling of the tale but serve it. Like it's predecessors, The Virtues of War left me satiated if not emotionally drained when I read its final words:

"The sarissa's song is a sad song

He pipes it soft and low.

I would ply a gentler trade, says he,

But war is all I know.

The wind rose in that moment, lifting the corner of Alexander's cloak. I saw his heel tap Corona's flank. He reined-about and started for the camp, surrounded by his officers."

All of the Pressfield Greek Histories as I've come to call them are narrated. In his previous work, Last of the Amazons, Mr. Pressfield took a big chance and told much of the story through the words of a woman, no small task for a man who did spend time in the U.S. Marine Corps. In Virtues, Pressfield walks the plank again; the risk: for the first time, his tale is told by a real historical figure -- not a fictitious one -- and by none other than the Great One himself, Alexander. Once again, Pressfield has re-invented himself, this time through Alexander the Great.

Not far into the book, I truly felt that I was not reading a novel, rather that I was privileged to sit in the King's own tent, just he and I while I listened to his recollections of things past, most notably his major victories: Chaeronea, Granicus, Issus, Gaugamela, the guerilla war in Afghanistan and Hydaspes. Alexander explained to me the complexities of leadership and I listened closely. The book is written from such a deep, personal level that I recalled the early scene in "Patton" where the General and Omar Bradley stand at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa as Patton recollects the details of the battle waged between the Carthaginians and the Roman Legions. "I was there," Patton comments. I can't help but think Steven Pressfield immersed himself so deeply into his narrator that in a very real sense, 'he was there!'

But this is not a book about the battles that often come to the forefront in the other Pressfield novels. Virtues rarely visits the hand-to-hand combat of Gates of Fire and Tides of War or the detailed massacres in Amazons. No, this book is about leadership. Alexander's first real taste of combat was at Chaeronea in 338 BC under the tutelage of his father, Philip of Macedon. Fifteen years later he when died at 32-years-old, he had conquered the known world. In Alexander's words, Mr. Pressfield explores the decision-making process all leaders confront, and he does not overlook the doubts that are certain to plague a leader and his army as they trek over 11,000 miles on foreign soil for over a decade.

The reader will find himself drawing comparisons between what happened on Alexander's campaign with what is currently happening in that part of the world. How could Alexander conquer Babylon and Baghdad and move on with the certainty that his rear position was in no danger from those he had vanquished? So often we believe that guerilla warfare is an invention of modern man, but Mr. Pressfield shows us how Alexander dealt with the guerilla war in Afghanistan. True, things are much different 2,000 years later, but if history does indeed repeat itself, there are lessons to be learned from the experiences of arguably the most successful General in the history of warfare.

You won't find 'blood and guts' in this story; you will not take the battlefield with GI Joe. You will enter the mind of a man who mastered generalship through all his doubts, trials and tribulations. You may complete this book with a new outlook on current affairs and you may pose many "What if?" questions by super-imposing Alexander the Great onto the world stage as it exists today. You'll enjoy Virtues of War just for the story; you'll appreciate it more for its relevancy.
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57 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on November 2, 2004
If you are looking for a historical novel of great psychological depth that explores the complexities of one of history's more enigmatic figures, look elsewhere. Alexander the Great was not a personality of more complexity than any one of us. The only subject he excelled at, the only one he showed any interest in, was war. Pressfield has no gripping passages describing an anguished Alexander locked in a moral debate with himself over the justness of his cause or the legitimacy of his methods, because there is no historical evidence that Alexander had any such doubts. "Since I was prepared to pay with my own life," Pressfield's Alexander tells his father early in the novel, "so I was sanctioned to take the life of the foe."

It would be wrong, though, and Pressfield conveys this well, to conclude that Alexander lacked human feelings or emotion. Within his realm of war Alexander comes across as a believable human being, perhaps much like Patton or Guderian had they been absolute rulers of their countries instead of merely talented generals. Alexander, in the speech just quoted, is not justifying butchery, but explaining to a skeptical father how he can fraternize with members of the enemy's elite fighting units, even exchange gifts with them, and then slaughter them quickly and efficiently the next day.

Indeed, creating strong emotional bonds was and is the foundation of a unit's fighting power. So Alexander can trade barracks banter with sergeants one minute and bawl tears with his senior commanders the next. He sleeps on a rude campaign cot and shares all the privations of the march. At one point near the end of their 22,000 mile campaign, he bares his chest and asks if any of his now reluctant compatriots can show more battle scars than he. I know of no book that excels this one in drawing the portrait of leadership.

Alexander realizes that emotional bonds and the valor they inspire are not enough. There are no finer warriors, no better unit on the planet than the Theban Sacred Band, bringing Alexander to tears of admiration as he talks with them before Chaeronea. Yet he kills them all, with the exception of 20 or so who are too wounded even to commit suicide. As Alexander says to his page when recounting the battle years later, Thebes and its Sacred Band, for all their virtues, lost because they did not understand modern warfare.

Alexander does. Valor wins fights, but cold, clear intelligence wins battles. He commands a standing army whose officers and men have not just mastered the art of phalanx warfare, they have invented deceptive ways to turn the phalanx's strengths into exploitable weaknesses. Alexander leads a true combined arms team, perhaps the world's first, using both infantry and cavalry, each employed to play off of the strengths of the other. Except for its weapons, Alexander's is a thoroughly modern force. This is not Pressfield's imagination but historical fact--Alexander was perhaps the first practitioner of "maneuver warfare" in the West (Sun Tzu, by comparison, lived roughly 100 years before him) and one of the inspirations for today's US Marine Corps doctrine.

So join the expedition, and for a few moments you will feel what it would have been like to be dead tired, caught up in the heat, dust, din, and gore of Gaugamela, and suddenly hear the Persian commander call your name, "Iskander!" and think to yourself, "I love the man" as you exert every ounce of strength to strike him down.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on September 8, 2005
This novel is a worthwhile entertainment. Pressfield remains one of the more interesting writers dealing with ancient warfare. He has his strengths and weaknesses, but over all he's worth a reader's time. This is not a definitive treatment of Alexander. There are quite a few aspects of his life that Pressfield chooses not to deal with, probably because others have already done so, like Mary Renault and Valerio Massimo Manfredi. This is okay by me in that he gives you a pretty streamlined novel here. Pressfield is a writer that works with an audience in mind. I've heard him say that Tides of War was his favorite novel, but it was also one of his less successful. Readers seemed to tire of the slow pace of it, the back and forth of its political machinations and perhaps an unsatisfying resolution.

So Pressfield hasn't repeated that here. He starts the novel strongly and moves straight ahead with an even pace. I think his weaknesses are in terms of character complexity and development. Alexander is a confusing figure; this novel doesn't do anything to change that, although Pressfield seems to want to. Some of his speeches fell strangely flat to me, more like television bravura than the true words of the world's greatest general. And at times he does say and do things that seem to smack of twentieth century, romanticized ideology. Pressfield is no master of form. He chooses to tell the whole story in first person, creating the rather artificial proposal that we're actually hearing Alexander tell his story to a young man who's writing it all down. This doesn't really hold up to scrutiny - nobody tells a story like this, with exact dialogue, with careful authorial details and complete chronological order - but perhaps the point is that we're not supposed to scrutinize. We're just supposed to read and accept what's there. For the most part I was happy to do this.

Especially so because the author's strength makes up for these flaws - and that is that Pressfield knows how to write about battle. He does so marvelously. It's visual, visceral, gory and graphic. Yet he also lays out the big picture and convincingly details strategy. I read Gates of Fire and liked it well enough, but the battle scenes here show that Pressfield has honestly made himself a student a war and seeks to bring it across in his telling.

I think this is one of the three best novels of distant war I've read in the last year. The others are The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwall, and Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham. Cornwall does an amazing job of narrating from the point of view of a ninth century century english warrior. Never does he feel out of character, and that's a remarkable achievement. Durham's novel is quite different. It's on a big scale, with lots and lots of characters from all throughout the spectrum that was engulfed in Hannibal's war with Rome. I highly recommend these two. Virtues of War isn't quite as good as either, but I recommend it also. They're each different, but all with particular strengths that are worth your time.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Steven Pressfield's novel is listed as historical fiction, and I suppose that it is. However, there is virtually no plot. The whole story is fight after fight- which to some may seem interesting, but I found it boring. Don't get me wrong, the descriptions are incredible, and it seems as if we are actually at the scene of the battle. Steven Pressfield is obviously a talented writer. I enjoy reading about battles, just not an entire book about them. But I didn't feel any emotions. I wasn't excited at the victory, and found myself skimming pages just to see if there would be anything of interest later on in the chapters.

Alexander the Great is undeniably one of the greatest generals who ever lived, and obviously war was a large part of his life. But this story- didn't make me go "Wow". If you're only interested in battles, then you'll probably like this book. But if you're like me, and you want a plot along with the battles, look elsewhere.

I'd recommend Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy: Fire from Heaven,The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games; or A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott; or Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr; or even A Murder in Macedon by Anna Apostolou aka P.C. Doherty. All of these books are historical fiction about Alexander the Great. They all have battles, but they also are about his life, his companions (friends/enemies), and his emotions.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on April 12, 2005
I find it rewarding that this ancient character is treated with a tone and vision suitable to his era. That he should be presented as a seeker of glory rather than as a tortured madman with pschological underpinnings and other politically correct rubbish is entirely refreshing and appropriate. Indeed, I have always felt that Pressefield's novels channel sources from beyond our time, and the lukewarm effect his works often have on reviewers will certainly subside with time. I have no doubt Pressefield will eventually be regarded as a master and a true artist, probably after he is gone. Such is the timeless appeal of his work. Like all great art, this work is most affecting when the reader allows himself to be swept into its world without thinking or reflecting on its virtues or meanings. Indeed the author does not waste his time this way when writing, as he has revealed in his masterpiece the non fictional "the War of Art" Pressefield is the Alexander of attacking artistic hurdles, and his affinity with the warrior-spirit is both the subject and the source of the substance of his art. If you like "Virtues of War", don't forget to check out the "War of Art" "Gates of Fire", and the vastly underated "Last of the Amazons" This is the kind of work that makes one want to meet the author so one can express one's thanks in person.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon May 31, 2006
The Virtues of War, while not quite on par with Pressfield's magnum opus, Gates of Fire, is a fantastic novel. Pressfield has really found his strengths as a writer and put them to good use here.
As always, the research is impeccable, and where he departs from history he acknowledges it (something the self-deluded Dan Brown could learn to do). He has also cut away a lot of the fat that tends to bog down stories about Alexander, making this a fast-moving, lean novel that, while not stylistically spare, doesn't waste time dwelling on pointless details. The pacing is very good, better than Gates of Fire, actually, and while the beginning is a tad slow, once Pressfield hits his stride at about page 50 it's impossible to put the book down.
The biggest improvement in Pressfield's writing that I noticed was in the ending. Gates of Fire, once the battle of Thermopylae ended, seemed to drag a bit as Xerxes's court stenographer tied up all the loose ends of the story. Even yet, the ending was powerful, and what Pressfield has done here is to pull together a concise, well-timed conclusion that doesn't take forever to pan out and yet doesn't feel hurried. The result is fantastic, moving, and very satisfying.
Historically speaking, this is the best fictional Alexander I've encountered. His pyschology makes sense, and it becomes clear later in the novel that Alexander is not entirely with it--he often feels he is in control of himself when everyone around him is cowering before his fits of rage. It also helps that Pressfield doesn't dwell on all the Freudian bull that most stories of Alexander are overflowing with these days. The supporting characters are very well drawn and, while there are certainly a lot of them, easy to keep track of (after a while).
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in ancient history but not patient enough for a scholarly book, or anyone who would like a good follow-up to Gates of Fire.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Alexander has inspired a lot of recent works lately, both in fiction and non-fiction. Here Pressman attempts to make Alexander speak for himself through his words of advice to a young Bactrian Royal Page. The artifice of the author is convincing, and I found this portrait of Alexander much more appealing than say Mary Renault's homeo-errotic inuendos in her earlier fictional work on the subject.

Pressman provides a military view of Alexander's field battles. There is very little else here. He stays mostly with this aspect which some might find limiting. There is little about the other aspects of his career, and the book stays away from the long sieges of Tyre and Gaza, as well as Alexander's expereinces in Egypt. What the author is concorned with is providing a portrait of how Aleander lead and inspired in battle. To have tackled all the other aspects of his life would have made this book more a biograpgy than a work of historical fiction.

Pressman's Alexander is both crude and profound. The use of language is very contemporary at times, here Alexander hardly speaks with the elagance we might associate with his time and place. Pressman portrays him as a grunt almost, as he does the other Greek soldiers as well. Alexander was a curious mix between thinker and man of action. Pressman tries to show his thought process in regars to handling his army. For the most part he succeeds very well. Having read several bios of Alexander already it was interesting to see how this author made his subject come alive for the reader.

The battle scenes are terrific, and again attmept to show Alexander for the genius that he was on the battlefield. The atmosphere of the various campaigns leading up to final battle are very convincing and show what the fear and anticipation of battle might have been even for the stern Macedonians. Pressman shows us the four main battles that he fought. Cheronea is of great interest for its insights into the Theban Sacred Band and to show how Greeks and Macedonians might have felt fighting each other. Pressman does not dwell on the more controversial aspects of Alexander's life. The death of Philip he does not have his Alexander explain. Even the latter assassinations of Philotas, Parmenion, and Cletius are causes for regret, but are quickly explained away by this Alexander.

This is an Alexander for the most part of the heroic mold, the more traditional version that most of us know. It lacks the cyncial outlook of more recent biographical works. The enjoyment of this book will be greatly enhanced if the reader consults a biograpgy of Alexander either before or after reading it. The interest of this work is that it provides a means to understand Alexander on a more intimate level. Whether accurate or flawed, Pressman deserves credit for bringing his subject to life for all of us to enjoy. His impressive literary effort tries to make us better understand the mind of this amazing and controversial figure of history.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 22, 2004
I went through the entire book in one day. It was extremely fast reading, and I just could not put it down. The Battles of Issus and Gaugamela are depicted with such detail, you are there. You can see (or can't see) the confusion of the troops massing all over. Pressfield invites the reader into the head of Alexander, the confusion, the genius of his military profession. His boyhood friend, Hephaestion, his fathers veteran generals, Ptolemy and Parmenio, all are described with detail. With the upcoming release of Oliver Stone's cinematic view of ALexander, one must first read Pressfields "Virtues of War." Not up to historical accuracy as historical texts, this novel of historical fiction captures the imagination. Alexander tell the story of his life to Itanes, his brother-in-law. We begin with his birth, and move to his youth of 18, where he leads the Companions against the Sacred Band of Thebes, to his re-taking of the Greek city states after his father's assassination. He invades Persia, fights at Granicus, Issus, Guagamela, then enters Babylon. My only wish is that Pressfield took the time to see into ALexander's head during the siege of Tyre, and his comparison to Achilles when he dragged the King of Tyre at the back of his chariot. I may not be that educated on Alexander, but at the age of 20, I can see myself better than anyone who is an aged historian. I am at his age in the novel, I am there. I have become obsessed with Alexander with my father, reading to me at a young age, instead of Dr. Suess. I found this to be a novel greater than "Tides of War" and ranks with "Gates of Fire" as well as, "Killer Angels." No one does Ancient History better than Pressfield. This book is a must read.

Pressfield has put much historical accuracy into the novel (with the exception of minor things like the use of mile, foot, of which he makes a note) and places like Afghanistan (of which he makes a note). Pressfield has taken Alexander's tactics, and tranformed them into lecture notes coming straight from the man himself. I mean, you are there, listening to him beside a fire in the camp, you see his eyes, his blonde hair, his many years of experience in death, yet minimal years of age. He is a companion, a 'hetairoi,' a friend. Alexander is not depicted as an evil destroyer (illustrated in circle seven of Dante's 'Inferno'), but a young man observing the world as his, and learning faster than any pupil of any philosopher. In the end, he was searching for companionship, someone to show him how to rule, how to please the people. Alexander, depicted by Pressfield, is a character I have never read about. This is a genuine original piece, rising above Manfridi's 'Alexander Triology' (Best one is book II, 'Sands of Ammon'). Read Pressfield's "The Virtues of War" taste the blood in your mouth, and feel the dynamis (will ro fight) in your heart. Be in the corps, march beside him, fight with him, and share in his glory. After all, you are with the greatest military leader of all time, son of Philip, descendant of Heracles and Achilles, and favor of the gods.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Although "The Virtues of War" may not be the best novel from Steven Pressfield that I've read, it comes close to his "Gates of Fire" and "Tides of War" as splendid examples of historical fiction set during the Hellenistic age prior to Rome's ascendancy as the preeminent power of the ancient Mediterranean region. I found "The Virtues of War" to be a spellbinding, first person account of Alexander the Great, which Pressfield casts in a traditional, noble and heroic mode, in stark contrast to some more cynical portrayals of him that I've come across. Pressfield's Alexander is a man consumed by the attainment of further glory for himself and his Macedonian and Greek allied troops as they march across the entire expanse of the Persian Empire, from Asia Minor, into Egypt, Persia and the easternmost regions of Bactria and the Hindu Kush. Without a doubt, this is one of the best novels of historical fiction I've come across lately.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon March 13, 2012
Review first posted on Amazon.co.uk on 31 January 2012

The Virtues of War is almost, but not quite, as good as Gates of Fire or Tides of War. First of all, I must admit that I sometimes surprised when reading previous comments from other readers. I appreciate, of course, that we all might have very different views about the same book. However, criticizing the author because he made "the character of Alexander come across as vain, childish, aloof and self obsessed" seems to be somehow missing the point: this is EXACTLY what the author wanted to do, and, to these elements should also be added a (growing) tendancy to be paranoïd and magalomaniac.

These features go together with the traditional qualities that you can find in all of the sources. Pressfield clearly shows Alexander as almost insanely brave, leading from the front but "overdoing it", as he always tended to do. He also shows his military genius, Although here I may have wished for a few more qualifications because, when you look closely, you will realize that Alexander came very close to losing almost ALL of his battles, given the huge risks that he systematically took. By and large, this is the MODERN view of Alexander. He is portrayed as a high stakes gambler taking huge risks and putting everyone's life on the line, starting with his own, in the hope of huge rewards (at least while the Empire was being conquered).

Other commentators have complained about the book being written in the first person and of being dull because it was all about troop strengths, deployments and fighting. I can understand why they might have disliked this although I absolutly do NOT share their view. However, once the author had decided that he would write in the first person, then the consequence was that this would be essentially about WAR, campaigns and fighting. What was Alexander, if not the ultimate warrior and general, or, to paraphrase the title of Christian Cameron's book, the "God of War"? He would have been seen as such, knowingthat Ares, for the Ancient Greeks, was the god of war, but also a blood lust, carnage and insane violence.

As for a number of features, such as Alexander's role in the assassination of Philip II his father, Steven Pressfield does not show Alexander as having had a hand in it. It is very likely that both father and son loved each other. Whether this was enough to avoid to hyper-competitive alpha male Macedonians of fighting and possibly killing each other for the highest prize of all - the Kingdom - might be another story. I do have doubts about whether Alexander was part of the assassination plot. However, he might have know or heard about it, and done little or next to nothing to prevent it. Anyway, it's hardly surprising for Pressfield to have portrayed Alexander as not guilty, since he is telling the story. You simply cannot conceive Alexander admitting in front of a secretary to the murder of his father.

This is, in fact, probably one of the book's main weak points: having Alexander dictating a kind of diary to Itanes, Roxane's brother, striked me as rather implausible in several respects. First, there is the language in which this is supposed to be written. Alexander knew no Persian and no Bactrian or Sogdian. Itanes, as the brother of Roxane and son of a mountain warlord may have known Greek, altghough this is somewhat unlikely. Second, why would Alexander confide in Itanes? Since this occurred in India, you may consider that he had lost confidence by then in Kallisthenes, the "official" historian of the expedition, who would be put to death. However, the real confident was Hephaïstion. Another constraint that derives from having Alexander tell the story is that Philotas is presented as guilty of ploting against the king. The case for this is far from obvious and the plot against Alaxander, assuming there really was own, may have just been a good excuse to get rid of both Philotas and Parmenion.

However, the main strongpoint of this book is that, while showing all of Alexander's flaws and passions, it essentially shows him "as a human, even too human" as Pressfield has Itanes saying in his conclusion. It also gives and idea of how charismatic he could be and how much his soldiers loved, worshiped and hated him, perhaps simultaneously.

So, a very good book, will all of Steven Pressfiled usual features and wonderful descriptions of fighting and battles, but also a book which is somewhat constrained by the choice of Alexander as the narrator confiding with his brother in law in a somewhat unrealistic way...
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