The following is the first chapter of "Virtues of War." The heading preceding it is "Book One: The Will to Fight."
1. A SOLDIER
I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life. The calling of arms, I have followed from boyhood. I have never sought another.
I have known lovers, sired offspring, competed in games and committed outrages when drunk. I have vanquished empires, yoked continents, been crowned as an immortal before gods and men. But always I have been a soldier.
From the time I was a boy I fled my tutor to seek the company of the men in the barracks. The drill field and the stable, the smell of leather and sweat; these are congenial to me. The scrape of the whetstone on iron is to me what music is to poets. It has always been this way. I can remember no time when it was otherwise.
One such as myself must have learned much, a fellow might think, from campaign and experience. Yet I may state in candor: all that I know, I knew at thirteen and, truth to tell, at ten and younger. Nothing has come to me as a grown commander that I did not apprehend as a child.
As a boy I instinctively understood the ground, the march, the occasion, and the elements. I comprehended the crossing of rivers and the exploitation of terrain; how many units of what composition may traverse such-and-such a distance, how swiftly, bearing how much kit, arriving in what condition to fight. The drawing up of troops came as second nature to me; I simply looked; all showed itself clear. My father was the greatest general of his day, perhaps the greatest ever. Yet when I was ten I informed him that I would excel him. By twenty-three I had done so.
As a lad I was jealous of my father, fearing he would achieve glory on such a scale as would leave none for me. I have never truly feared anything, save that mischance that would prevent me from fulfilling my destiny.
The army it has been my privilege to lead has been invincible across Europe and Asia. It has united the states of Greece and the islands of the Aegean; liberated from the Persian yoke the Greek cities of Ionia and Aeolia. It has brought into subjection Armenia, Cappadocia, both Lesser and Greater Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Caria, Lydia, Pisidia, Lycia, Pamphylia, both Hollow and Mesopotamian Syria, and Cilicia. The great strongholds of Phoenicia--Byblus, Tyre, Sidon (and the Philistine city of Gaza)—have fallen before it. It has vanquished the central empire of Persia—Egypt and nearer Arabia, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Media, Susiana, the rugged land of Persia herself—and the eastern provinces of Hyrcania, Areia, Parthia, Bactria, Tapuria, Drangiana, Arachosia, and Sogdiana. It has crossed the Hindu Kush into India. It has never been beaten.
This force has been insuperable not for its numbers, for in every campaign it has entered the field outmounted and outmanned; nor for the brilliance of its generalship or tactics, though these have not been inconsiderable; nor for the proficiency of its supply train and logistical corps, without which no force in the field can survive, let alone prevail. Rather this army has succeeded because of qualities of warriorship in its individual soldiers, specifically that property expressed by the Greek word dynamis, the will to fight. No general of this or any age has been so favored by fortune as I, to lead such men, possessed of such warlike spirit, imbued with such resources of self-enterprise, committed so to their commanders and to their call.
Yet now what I have feared most has come to pass. The men themselves have grown weary of conquest. They draw up on the bank of this river of India, and they fail of passion to cross it. They have come too far, they believe. It is enough. They want to go home.
For the first time since I acceded to command, I have found it necessary to constitute a unit of the army as Atactoi—Malcontents—and to segregate them from the central divisions of the corps. Nor are these fellows renegades or habitual delinquents, but crack troops, decorated veterans, many trained under my father and his great general Parmenio, who have become so disaffected, from actions or words taken or omitted by me, that I can station them in the battle line only between units of unimpeachable loyalty, lest they prove false in the fatal hour. This day I have been compelled to execute five of their officers, homegrown Macedonians all, whose families are dear to me, for failure to promptly carry out an order. I hate this, not only for the barbarity of the measure, but for the deficiency of imagination it signalizes in me. Must I lead now by terror and compulsion? Is this the state to which my genius has been reduced?
When I was sixteen and rode for the first time at the head of my own corps of cavalry, I was so overcome that I could not stay myself from weeping. My adjutant grew alarmed and begged to know what discomfited me. But the horsemen in their squadrons understood. I was moved by the sight of them in such brilliant order, by their scars and their silence, the weathered creasing of their faces. When the men saw my state, they returned my devotion, for they knew I would burst my heart for them. In strategy and tactics, even in valor, other commanders may be my equal. But in this none surpasses me: the measure of my love for my comrades. I love even those who call themselves my enemies. Alone meanness and malice I despise. But the foe who stands with gallantry, him I draw to my breast, dear as a brother.
Those who do not understand war believe it contention between armies, friend against foe. No. Rather friend and foe duel as one against an unseen antagonist, whose name is Fear, and seek, even entwined in death, to mount to that promontory whose ensign is honor.
What drives the soldier is cardia, heart, and dynamis, the will to fight. Nothing else matters in war. Not weapons or tactics, philosophy or patriotism, not fear of the gods themselves. Only this love of glory, which is the seminal imperative of mortal blood, as ineradicable within man as in a wolf or a lion, and without which we are nothing.
When my father took Athens's surrender in my eighteenth year, he sent me, with his senior general Antipater, to address the Athenian Assembly. I stood upon the Hill of the Pnyx, with the Acropolis and the splendor of Athens before me, and my heart broke for that proud people, whose hour of greatness had so clearly come and gone. It was our time now, Macedon's time. That was little over ten years ago. Has my nation's glory failed so fast? Has mine?
When I was small a sergeant named Telamon befriended me. He was the first to set me, out of sight of my tutor, on the back of a full-grown horse. That sergeant is a general today; I have made him rich beyond emperors. Yet even he will not follow me across this river.
An interview conducted by author and journalist Printer Bowler of Missoula, Montana, with his old mate Steven Pressfield.
PB: I understand there are two movies in the works on Alexander, one from Oliver Stone and one from Baz Luhrmann, plus a recent literary trilogy from Italy, and now your book. Why has Alexander gotten so popular lately? And what prompted you to tackle this subject?
SP: The success of "Gladiator" certainly is the catalyst, movie-production-wise. I suspect, though, if you asked Oliver Stone or Baz Luhrmann, they'd say they've always been fascinated by Alexander and have always wanted to make a movie on his life; it's just that now the time seems finally right to actually get the picture made. But, you know, Alexander has been popular for twenty-three hundred years. There are two hundred "Alexander Romances," just from the Middle Ages. He's in the Bible; he's in the Koran. There've been hundreds of books just in the last century. Mary Renault wrote two novels that are still selling; there are excellent non-fiction books by Robin Lane Fox, Peter Green, N.G.L. Hammond; even Arrian's "Campaigns of Alexander" is still very popular in the Penguin Books paperback.
PB: So what is it about the guy?
SP: For me, it's the complexity of Alexander's character, combined with the superhuman scale of his accomplishments -- and the fact that he did it all at such an incredibly young age. Alexander's history combines all kinds of elements you might call "romantic" (his youth, his physical beauty, his devotion to his friends, his reckless courage; even the people around him were fascinating: his tutor Aristotle, his parents, Philip and Olympias; his bride Roxanne; his friend Hephaestion; his horse Bucephalus.)
At the same time Alexander's character absolutely defied classification. He was brave, generous, passionate, merciful, self-governed; his ideals were the noblest and loftiest. But he could also be absolutely brutal and ruthless, and his temper was notorious; he burned Thebes and Persepolis, murdered his friend Cleitus in a drunken rage, slaughtered tens of thousands across all Asia. And that only scratches the surface of his contradictions.
PB: Alexander sounds more like a demi-god than a mere mortal. That is, he seems to have had the power to create new worlds, rather than just live in the world he was born into like the rest of us. Where would you place him on the evolutionary ladder between Hades and Mount Olympus?
SP: Personally I'm from the school that forgives his crimes. How many Alexanders has the human race produced anyway? So he'd be on Mount Olympus with me. (You know, there's a movement to have Alexander's likeness carved into the face of Mount Athos in northern Greece, like we Yanks have done with Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore.) But here's what Arrian, the great second-century historian, said at the conclusion of his "Campaigns of Alexander" (translation by Aubrey de Selincourt):
Anyone who belittles Alexander has no right to do so on the evidence only of what merits censure in him; he must base his criticism on a comprehensive view of his whole life and career. But let such a person, if blackguard Alexander he must, first compare himself with the object of his abuse: himself, so mean and obscure, and, confronting him, the great King with his unparalleled worldly success, the undisputed monarch of two continents, who spread the power of his name over all the earth. Will he dare to abuse him then, when he knows his own littleness and the triviality of his own pursuits, which, even so, prove too much for his ability?
Granted, there's a little bit of sophistry to that point of view. But here's how Arrian sums it up:
In the course of this book I have, admittedly, found fault with some of the things which Alexander did, but of the man himself I am not ashamed to express ungrudging admiration. Where I have criticized unfavourably, I have done so because I wished to tell the truth as I saw it, and to enable my readers to profit thereby.
I'll go along with Arrian. That's how I feel.
PB: What does "Virtues of War" bring us that we can't find in other biographies of Alexander?
SP: Of course it's not a biography, it's a novel. There's a big difference. A biography tries to give you the full measure of its subject from birth to death in all his contradictions and complexities. A novel just picks a theme (hopefully one that arises organically out of the true historical life of the central character) and then uses imagined versions of actual historical characters to address that theme.
PB: So who is the real historical Alexander?
SP: That's the question, isn't it? Robin Lane Fox will see Alexander one way; N.G.L. Hammond sees him another. Each writer gives us a different Alexander. The problem is we don't have a definitive biography of Alexander from the ancient sources. The closest chronicle of his campaigns--Arrian's--was written 400 years after his death. All the prior ones have been lost. And even the ones that are extant have to be taken with a grain of salt because the writers often had their own agendas that conflicted with impartial objective truth. In other words, the historical Alexander is elusive. He did X, which was great and noble; then he did Y, which was horrific. We don't even know if X and Y are true. The consequence of all this is that when a contemporary writer addresses the subject, he often winds up revealing more about himself and his own prejudices than he does about Alexander. Mary Renault practically deifies Alexander. Victor Davis Hanson compares him to Hitler. Who's right?
PB: Okay then, what's your take on Alexander?
SP: Like I say, it's gonna be my prejudice. It might be completely "wrong," if such a term can be employed in speaking of an imaginative reconstruction, which is what the process is. But for me, Alexander's defining preoccupation wasn't sex or power or subjecting other peoples to his will (as I've read in other books, and which are all legitimate approaches.)
I believe his life was about heroic ambition, and I use the word "heroic" in the Homeric sense, that is, derived from an era of legend and from characters like Achilles and Heracles, who were semi-divine and who lived their lives according to a code that transcends what we would call justice or morality. Alexander did that too, but not in an era of legend, in a real historical era. He's accessible to us. He's "modern." But he lived, I believe, according to that ancient heroic code. In the loftiest terms, I think, he sought to achieve undying glory, to set a mark for the ages. But justice, or at least the concept of conventional justice, took a back seat to glory.
PB: That's the contradiction with Alexander, isn't it? That we admire his feats at the same time we're appalled by them.
SP: Within the era that Alexander lived, undying glory meant military conquest. For Alexander, that meant the demonstrating of innate preeminence, like a lion or an eagle, by challenging and overcoming every other champion on the field. But it wasn't enough for him, in my view, just to conquer, just to roll over his enemies by superior might or generalship. His conception of virtue was heroic. Alexander sought great and glorious struggles against great and glorious foes. That's how I see Alexander's intention.
Now, beyond that, beyond Alexander's aims or ambitions, real-world reality enters. Now it gets interesting. Because a conquering warrior, however heroic his aspirations, must confront the grimy reality of success, of conquest, of rule; the reality of motivating an army; of keeping an enterprise going once you've started it; of altering it as necessity causes it to evolve; of maintaining a vision for it; of containing the jealousies and hatreds of enemies and friends. A dream achieved is never what it was when it was only a dream.
And a conqueror on the scale of Alexander must confront even more primal questions: What is the point of victory? Of endless expansion? What status can the conquered peoples claim? What is my obligation to them? What are the ends of war? When does heroic virtue become plain slaughter and madness?
PB: Incidentally, why the title "Virtues of War?" Is the book making the case that war is a virtuous occupation, are we looking for rose blossoms among the carnage ... ?
SP: One of the great historians of Alexander said, "If anyone has a right to be judged by the standards of his own time and not by those of ours, it's Alexander." I couldn't agree more. I don't think we can rightly apply 21st-century concepts of virtue to an era three centuries before Christ.
Virtue meant something different in Alexander's day. There was no such thing as an anti-war movement or anti-war thought. Such things would have been incomprehensible. War in Alexander's time was a simple fact of life. There had always been wars and there always would be. As instinctively as little boys picked up sticks and made them into make-believe swords, that was how innate and natural a part of life's order war seemed. Energies that in our day flow into a thousand different channels flowed, in Alexander's day, into war. War was the avenue of achievement. It was how you acquired wealth, how you advanced your station, how you made a name for yourself.
There was no such thing as "business" in those days. You couldn't go to Harvard or make your fortune on Wall Street. To be a tradesman or a merchant was despised. The only honorable occupation for a man (and doubly so for a prince or a king) was war. This was before Jesus, remember. No one had said "Turn the other cheek" or "Do good to those who harm you." The ideal in Alexander's time was to do as much good as possible to your friends and as much harm as possible to your enemies. That was what Plato wrote, what Pericles believed, and what Aristotle (who was Alexander's tutor) taught as well. Socrates was an infantryman long before he was a philosopher, and he saw no contradiction between the two.
The other thing to bear in mind about that era is that all killing in war was done hand-to-hand. There were no smart bombs or cruise missiles. If you were gonna take another man's life, you had to get so close to him that he had just as much chance of killing you as you did of killing him. In other words, there was a built-in integrity to the reality of warfare. There's the famous quote from the Spartan king who was shown a new bolt-firing catapult that could fling a missile a quarter of a mile. "Alas," he lamented, "valor is no more." What he meant was, if you can kill an enemy without risking your own life, it wasn't fair, it wasn't honorable.
I also think the title "Virtues of War" is particularly applicable to Alexander, much moreso than to, say, Caesar or Lysander or Alcibiades. For Alexander, I believe, the process was about virtue. Such virtues as selflessness, courage, loyalty, love of one's comrades, even love of a worthy enemy.
Alexander led from the front. He was always first to strike the foe. In doing this, he was emulating the heroes of the Iliad. He was practicing the virtues of the heroic code of warfare.
So that's what I mean by "virtues of war." But there are deeper levels of meaning (I hope), which the reader will get as he experiences the book from start to finish (I hope), because the sense of the phrase changes.
PB: Obviously I'm your friend; I've read the manuscript. So I know the story is told in the first person from Alexander's point of view. In your past books you've always used an intermediate character as a narrator. What made you do it differently this time? And was it daunting, to presume to speak in the voice of such a monumental figure as Alexander the Great?
SP: It was daunting as hell! I was scared to death. But you gotta go for it sometimes. I just felt like this was the time. Trust the Muse and follow your instincts.
PB: Some have called Alexander the "Mozart of Military Commanders". Both were magnificent geniuses, incomparable in their respective fields. Both died young at about the same age. Do you see any other connections between them, and between Alexander and history's other giant figures?
SP: You've hit the nail on the head, Printer. What made me want to put the book in Alexander's own voice was that quality of genius. I mean, most of us contemporary specimens are so riddled with self-doubt we can barely get out of bed in the morning. I wondered, what would it be like to never doubt at all. I'm convinced that Alexander, from the minute he realized who he was and what his birth and station had gifted him with (which is probably from the time he was five or six), knew exactly what he wanted to do and never wavered for a minute in pursuing it. I think he believed absolutely in his own destiny and felt his personal gifts to be supreme. I think the only thing he feared was some perverse mischance that would somehow rob him of the chance to achieve what he knew he could.
PB: A significant chunk of Alexander's thrust went into his campaign to conquer Persia, an empire that contained what we now call Iraq. This is screaming for some comparison of the motives and objectives of Alexander's conquests with America's Iraqi wars under the two Bush presidents. Do you see any parallels here?
SP: I see more differences than parallels. First, Islam didn't exist in Alexander's day, and certainly not militant Islam as it is today--a powerful religious/military/political force. Alexander didn't have to contend with that. Second, the place we call Iraq (which was then the province of Babylonia within the empire of Persia) was not a nation with its own pride and autonomy; it was a subject state that had been under the thumb of Persia for two hundred years.
For centuries, the region of Mesopotamia had passed from the hands of one overlord to another. It had been the kingdoms of Ur, Sumer, Akkad; the empires of Chaldea, Assyria, Babylonia; its rulers had included Semiramis, Sargon, Sennacherib, Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar, Ashurbanipal. The populace was so accustomed to being subjected to foreign rule that it meant very little to them when one alien monarch, in this case Darius of Persia, was kicked out and another, Alexander of Macedon, came in. It was "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Except Alexander was canny enough not to be the old boss.
He went out of his way to pacify the population by making gestures, some extremely significant, that would improve their lot. For instance, the Persians when they ruled Babylon had destroyed the great temple of Baal, the heart and soul of the Babylonian and Chaldean religion. Alexander, almost as soon as he entered the city, ordered the temple rebuilt, and on an even grander scale (it didn't actually get rebuilt, but that was for other reasons). He restored the ancient religion, and went out of his way to show respect for it. Thus he could pronounce with some legitimacy that he was "liberating" Babylon from the Persian yoke. He was smart. He disarmed the potential animosity of the people, who feared that he would turn their world upside-down, by not only not doing that, but by restoring ancient customs and laws that had been taken away by previous conquerors.
Of course Alexander didn't do it because he was a nice guy. He wanted to pacify the place quickly, so he could move on. Because his objective was not Iraq/Babylon but Persia and its capital Persepolis (and of course he had objectives beyond that.) To do this, he left in place many of the same governors and magistrates who had ruled under Darius, so that the continuity of daily life for the people was not upset. Clearly this was not an option for our own American commanders. They couldn't leave Saddam or the Baathists in power; the whole purpose of the invasion was to unseat them. In other words, Alexander had it a lot easier politically.
PB: What about the styles of generalship that each commander-in-chief (Alexander and the George Bushes) employs to motivate and lead his respective troops into battle?
SP: Another thing that Alexander had going for him that America's contemporary leaders don't, in terms of ability to affect events and influence the responses of the vanquished people, was that he was a legitimate conqueror, present on-site in the flesh. To get to Iraq/Babylon, Alexander had fought three monumental battles (not to mention two major sieges and innumerable lesser scrapes), battles in which he rode himself at the head of his Companion Cavalry, leading in person from the front. He bled; he risked his life. Here's a passage from Arrian, History of Alexander, translated by P.A. Brunt.
Come then," [Alexander confronts the soldiers of his own army, on an occasion when victory had made them arrogant and unruly] "let any of you strip and display his own wounds, and I will display mine in turn. In my case, there is no part of my body, or none in front [where wounds of honor were received], that has been left unwounded, and there is no weapon of close combat, no missile whose scars I do not bear on my person, but I have been wounded by the sword hand to hand, shot by arrows and struck by a catapult, [all] for your interest, your glory, and your riches ... "
In other words, Alexander was the Man and everybody knew it. His enemies might have hated him and wished not to find themselves under his thumb, but they had to admit that he had won the day fair and square and had hazarded his own life over and over to do so. He possessed immense prestige because of this and could convert it to political capital.
Then there's God and Fate. In those simpler ancient (and extremely religious) times, it was not difficult for a population, observing his victories, to believe that the Divine Will had anointed Alexander. Otherwise why did he keep winning? And, believing that it was heaven's will that Alexander conquer, such populations might be more ready to accept his rule. Alexander's presence appeared so superhuman in those days that he wound up in the Bible for Pete's sake! (The Book of Daniel, where he's the apocalyptic "third Beast"). He's in the Koran too, as the "Two-Horned One," which meant, to Greek and Egyptian hearers, the son of Ammon, i.e. Zeus. This is something George W. Bush doesn't have going for him.
Remember, too, the conquered people in those days didn't have AK-47s under their mattresses. They didn't have militant clerics to fire them up or Al Jazeera to provide news and propaganda. They were unarmed and untrained. They just wanted normalcy to return so they could raise their kids and bring in the harvest. Alexander understood this. And he had his own agenda, which was to move on. Winning hearts and minds was on his list, but it wasn't priority Number One, nor was exploiting the subjugated region's natural resources. He just wanted the gold in the Royal Treasury and whatever tribute the province had formerly delivered to Persia, so he could pay his army and keep moving east.
PB: What you're saying is that Alexander possessed a legitimacy that our contemporary coalition in Iraq doesn't?
SP: Legitimacy, as it was understood in those days. There's a very interesting quote from Xenophon's Education of Cyrus. Xenophon says it of his imagined version of Cyrus the Great, the original founder of the Persian empire (whom Xenophon admired) but it might apply equally to Alexander:
He ruled over these nations, even though they did not speak the same language as he, nor one nation the same as another; for all that, he was able to cover so vast a region with the fear which he inspired, that he struck all men with terror and no one tried to withstand him; and he was able to awaken in all so lively a desire to please him, that they always wished to be guided by his will. (Translated by Walter Miller.)
What's interesting, I think, is the direct correlation between "being able to inspire fear" and "awakening a desire to please him ... to be guided by his will." In other words, the conqueror possessed legitimacy simply because he had conquered. In those days, conquest was legitimate. The vanquished people accepted it. They accepted that that was the way kings did things.
That's not true today. Today U.S. forces may hold the power in Iraq, but the population cedes them no legitimacy. The Americans are there, in the Iraqi view, in violation of international law (and probably, in their view, of divine law as well). The fact that the Yanks possess power cuts no ice in Iraqi eyes; it just means they're usurpers and illegitimate invaders.
Such a concept was inconceivable in Alexander's day. If Alexander was in your backyard with his army, that was it. He was the boss. There was no appeal to "world opinion" or "international law." Alexander was world opinion; he was international law.
Actually world opinion did exist in Alexander's day (and Alexander did cater to it, particularly to Athenian opinion) but it was so weak and so distant as to be effectively negligible. No CNN, no satellite phones, no Jacques Chirac. It took months for people in Athens even to learn of the fall of Babylon, let alone to be able to do anything about it, which they couldn't because Alexander had conquered them too and held them, gently but firmly, beneath a garrison force in Greece equal in size to the army he had with him in Persia.
PB: Another comparison that won't be lost on readers is how Afghanistan seems to be an impossible country to defeat or occupy, except by its own people. Alexander found that out after three years of slogging and dogfighting with them. The Russians found it out more than two millennia later. Lately it's been America's turn. Doesn't anybody read their history anymore?
SP: Again, Alexander wasn't trying to "nation-build." His object wasn't to convert Hyrcania, Areia, Drangiana, Sogdiana, Bactria, Parthia into western liberal democracies. Macedonia itself was not a democracy; it was a monarchy. Alexander's aim was to make the region yield to his will. He preferred that foes willingly become his ally. But when a tribe or people defied him by, say, massacring a garrison or ambushing and slaughtering a column, Alexander responded without mercy. He drew no distinction between "civilian" and "combatant." If a village had assisted native fighters in killing his men, Alexander routinely wiped it off the map. The word in Greek is andropodismos, which means putting all males to death and selling into slavery all women and children.
But the Afghans prized their freedom just as much in those days as they do today, and they were just as stubborn, resourceful and tough. In the end Alexander accomplished his aims less by military means and more by generosity at the right time (sparing valiant foes) and, more than that, by "marrying into the family." His bride Roxanne was a Bactrian princess, from the heart of what today is Afghanistan. In other words, he made friends and moved on.
It makes a great romantic story, that Alexander was smitten by Roxanne at first sight and that the union was a true love match. I'd like to think that was true. But certainly, as well, it was a political marriage, like the seven marriages Alexander's father Philip made and like kings and princes made all the time in those days. Roxanne's father was Oxyartes, a powerful Bactrian lord. By becoming Oxyartes' son-in-law, Alexander was able to bring to a felicitous close hostilities that neither side was winning. He could move on to India without fear that his lines of supply and communication would be harrassed by bandits or cut off by tribal armies. As for what Oxyartes gained, he got to end a costly war, acquire a powerful new ally -- and you can bet that Alexander made it worth his while, just like our American special ops guys did in Afghanistan, passing out Land Rovers and mounds of greenbacks to the various warlords we needed to win to our side.
PB: It's evident that you're fascinated by ancient Greece -- especially its politics and seemingly endless warring, among themselves or with outside forces. We see this in your earlier books: "Gates of Fire," "Tides of War," "Last of the Amazons." Where does this fascination with war come from? What does it do for you as a writer, as a person?
SP: I'll give you my real answer, even though you might think I'm crazy. Have you ever noticed how both writers and readers of historical fiction are usually drawn to one era and one era only? Someone will be fascinated by the Civil War but couldn't care less about ancient Egypt. For me I love ancient Greece, but Rome leaves me cold. Why? I don't know. My best guess is previous lives. I don't know why but something draws me to that era. I suspect that the fascination for me is not so much war as it is ancient Greece. War is just a side effect, because that's all they did back then was fight each other. The other thing is I'm not drawn to tales of modern warfare. What seems to hook me is warfare in an era of honor or chivalry. I don't think I'm alone. Look at the audience for "Lord of the Rings." What is LOTR, except a fanciful amalgam of Arthurian/Celtic/Crusader saga, with gallant knights and cunning wizards and gentle but noble ladies? I'll quote myself again if you'll permit me. This is Alexander, recalling a moment in his childhood instruction, with his dear mate Hephaestion:
Another time when we were youths, Hephaestion and I asked Telamon [a mercenary soldier and sort of mentor to Alexander] if self-command had a place in the soldier's kit. "Indeed," he replied, continuing to stitch his overcloak, which chore our query had interrupted. "For the self-control of the warrior, which we observe and admire in his comportment, is but the outward manifestation of the inner perfection of the man. Such virtues as patience, courage, selflessness, which the soldier seems to have acquired to the purpose of defeating the foe, are in truth for use against enemies within himself--the eternal antagonists of inattention, greed, sloth, self-conceit and so on. When each of us recognizes, as we must, that we too are engaged in this struggle, we find ourselves drawn to the warrior, as the acolyte to the seer. The true man-at-arms, in fact, can overcome his enemy without even striking a blow, simply by the example of his virtue. In fact he can not only defeat this foe but make him his willing friend and ally, and even, if he wishes, his slave." Our mentor turned to us with a smile. "As I have done with you."
PB: It seems, in your view, that Alexander's "daimon" was a huge part of his persona. From your story, one might conclude that "it" actually took him over and fought the battles, inspired the troops and all the rest. Give us a little history and insight on this idea of the daimon, would you?
SP: Of couse I'm not really sure what the "daimon" was, in the understanding of the ancient Greeks. I don't think anyone is. I'm bending it to my own purposes for the story. But as I understand it, the daimon is very similar to the Latin genius, which meant a kind of inhering spirit, with which a person is born. The daimon carries that person's destiny and is an active, if invisible, force in bringing it into manifestation.
It's mysterious. Genius is mysterious. What let Beethoven hear da-da-da-DUM? What made Picasso put two eyes on the same side of his subject's face?
For me, in my conception of Alexander, the daimon was a sword that cut two ways. It was his "gift," that let him "see the field" as no other commander. But it had a life of its own. It sought supremacy within Alexander's psyche; it would not be subjugated to other, gentler urges. So that Alexander the man, in my conception, found himself in a war his whole life between "himself," his human self, and his "daimon," the imperatives of his genius.
PB: And what about today? Might each of us have a resident daimon? Or do they come, if at all, only to those marked for greatness? Sorry to throw these daimonic inquiries at you, SP, but it's your own fault: Your book raises these questions and we're not letting you off the hook.
SP: I'll wriggle off the hook, PB, by answering truly: I don't know. But here's my guess. I think we all have inhering geniuses; we all have our roles to play, our personal destinies -- that which we were put on this planet to do and to be. But only, I suspect, in spirits of monumental capacity -- like Alexander or Gandhi or Socrates or Mozart -- does the daimon or genius really become a paramount factor. Perhaps these great ones simply surrender to their daimon more than the rest of us. They aren't afraid to embrace it and let it rip. That's my guess, anyway.
PB: Let's get personal here for a minute. You spent at least two years researching this book, saturating your mind with histories and tales of this great warrior. Then you take on his voice as you write the book. Tell me, how did this intense focus on this character affect you personally? For instance, did you ever find yourself thinking like Alexander in your daily affairs? Did you ever "feel" his daimon, for example, influencing your own thoughts and behavior?
SP: Sorry to disappoint you, but no. The one thing was that sometimes, when I'd find myself obsessing about some petty B.S. in my life, I'll pull back and think, "Come on, would Alexander have wasted two seconds with this crap?" And that would snap me out of it.
PB: In your recent book "The War of Art," you talk a lot about overcoming resistance in the creative process. How about a couple examples of the resistance that rose up as you were planning and writing "Virtues of War?" And how you did you deal with it?
SP: Resistance was intense all the way through. Which is a good sign. I just did what I always do, which is enlist that mighty ally, Habit. Just hit the pages every day and don't stop. This was a tough one, Printer. This book kicked my ass.
PB: I know you believe that historical novels should do more than tell history. Their themes should have relevance to something in the contemporary world. At the risk of getting too blatant, what contemporary issues does Alexander's story, as you see it, illuminate?
SP: I don't want to be too blatant either. Let's just say that we Americans are, in my view, the spiritual and military heirs of Alexander. We believe, like he did, that we can go from conquest to conquest. "Growth" is our mantra. More is always better, that's what we believe. America is great, in my opinion, in the same way that Alexander was great. And America is running head-on, in its greatness and because of its greatness, into the same issues of justice and legitimacy (not to mention sanity) that Alexander ran into. Death overtook Alexander before he could address those issues. Would he have conquered them, as he conquered everything else? Will we?