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The art of the art of war

By Steven Martinovich
web posted November 15, 2004

After years of struggling as a writer -- of both novels and movies -- Steven Pressfield has quickly made a name for himself in the genre of the historical novel, most notably with Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, a recounting of the heroic stand by the Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., following that up with Tides of War, the story of Athenian soldier Alcibiades. Along the way he also penned a novel that later became the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life. Mr. Pressfield's latest novel, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, was recently released and hailed for both its study of Alexander the Great and his vivid depictions of ancient combat.

ESR: Why do you set your novels in ancient Greece? What do you find so fascinating about that place and period in history?

Steven PressfieldSP: Ancient Greece to me is almost like a laboratory for modern times. Because so many of the states were democracies, or at least governments with freedom for their citizens, we see reflections over and over of our own era. The notorious "affair of the herms" at Athens during the Peloponnesian War … that's McCarthyism, complete with stoolpigeons, stooges, and crooked D.A.'s. The Sicilian Expedition holds parallel after parallel to the U.S.'s current adventure in Iraq. The Melian Dialogue, Pericles' Funeral Oration, the trial of Socrates: it's like a petri dish prefiguring our own world. And because Greece was pre-Christian, pre-Freudian, pre-Marxist, pre-materialist, we get prose that's wonderfully free of cant.

ESR: Would you say ancient Greeks are similar to us today?

SP: Yes and no. Certainly in ancient democracies, we can see the same strengths, as well as pathologies, that play out in our own. There was no scandal we have that the Greeks didn't have first -- and with much more color. The tendency to elevate leaders and then gleefully tear them down; corruption of the courts; price-fixing, you name it. There was once a trial in Athens where 13 witnesses (a gang of what they called sycophantai) took the stand, swearing that Citizen X had murdered his female servant. X promptly sent some of his buddies to a hiding place where the 13 had taken the girl and produced her, living, in court. That's right off Fox News. On the other hand, Greeks then and now are not like Americans. They're Mediterranean, much more passionate and volatile. And, in my opinion, far more principled. Wave a dollar bill under the nose of a Yank and he'll follow you anywhere, but a Greek will only go where his heart takes him. At Sparta today, we could find 300 volunteers to go and die at Thermopylae in about five minutes … and the line to join them would lap around the whole town.

ESR: There seems to be a renewed popular interest in Alexander the Great these days with two movies hitting the theatres. Why is he such a hot topic right now?

SP: A very good question. Unlike some observers, I don't think it has anything to do with the changes his conquests wrought upon the world, because almost off of them have been effaced by time. I think it's the romance and mystery of Alexander's character itself. If you think about it, he and his career were absolutely superhuman. He conquered the world by the age of 29 and was dead by 32. He was young, beautiful, brave. Napoleon may have prowled the front lines and Caesar sent units into action in person, but Alexander rode into every battle at the point of the leading wedge of Companion cavalry; he was wounded again and again. No one ever led from the front like he did. And what a supporting cast: his tutor, Aristotle; his Dad, Philip of Macedon; his Mom, the half-wild Olympias; his bride, the gorgeous Roxane; his best friend, Hephaestion. Even his horse, Bucephalus, is a fascinating character. Then there are the contradictions of his character. His open-handed generosity set against absolute stone-hearted cruelty; his love for his men, yet his violence against officers who crossed him; the modesty and simplicity of his early days contrasted to the opulence of his end. He can never be fully grasped; that's why he's so fascinating.

ESR: When I first heard the title of your novel I immediately thought of the line from Lawrence of Arabia spoken by Prince Feisal, "Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution." Some might say you're glamorizing war with that title. Why did you choose that for a title?

SP: Alexander slept with a copy of Homer's Iliad beneath his pillow. His heroes were Achilles and the champions of that era a thousand years before his time; his code was the Homeric code of the hero. I believe that he saw war not as we do, in Clausewitzian or machtpolitik terms, but as an arena of glory; his ambition was to perform deeds of valor and conquest, such as the world would never forget. In the first chapter I have Alexander say this:

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.

In those ancient days, when all combat was hand-to-hand (so that a man could not kill his opponent except by risking his own life), it was more possible to view war as a crucible in which certain virtues -- courage, selflessness, fidelity, patience, love for one's comrades, even love for the enemy -- could be brought forward and made part of one's character. If you'll forgive another quote, here's a passage where Alexander and Hephaestion, aged ten, interrogate an older sergeant, Telamon, whom they admire as the supreme embodiment of the soldier. They ask Telamon if self-command has a place in "the soldier's kit." "Indeed," Telamon replies,

"for the self-control of the soldier, 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 for 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 he 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 his foe but also make him his willing friend and ally, and even, if he wishes, his slave." Our mentor turned toward us with a smile. "As I have done with you."

The Virtues of WarESR: You've stated in the past that Gates of Fire was about courage and Tides of War was about how a democracy brought itself down, what would you say is the theme of The Virtues of War?

SP: To me the theme of Virtues is the limitations of the warrior archetype. Alexander in my view was the supreme example of the warrior/conqueror, but he could never (though he tried hard … and might have succeeded, had he lived longer) quite transcend that incarnation and get to the next level, which in my view would be something embodying true wisdom, something like the benevolent and people-empowering king.

ESR: The Virtues of War obviously follows fairly closely the actual events that occurred during Alexander's campaign but how much of the novel is the product of dramatic license?

SP: Not that much. Obviously a novel has a theme, which means everything that's not "on-theme" has to go, while material that might be interpreted in a number of ways must be interpreted to illuminate the theme. So there are numerous conversations that are absolutely invented (and may bear no resemblance to the historical truth; we'll never know) but that express the truth of the work, or try to.

ESR: One of the characters -- if you can refer to it as that -- is what Alexander calls his 'daimon', the thing that drives him forward. Can you explain what this daimon is and why you decided to employ it in your novel?

SP: The "daimon," in my view, is very close to what the Romans called, in Latin, the "genius." (I got this from Robert Hillman's Code of the Soul) That is, an inhering spirit, twinned with us at birth, that carries our destiny and guides us to become that which we were born to be. Alexander's daimon in my view was that gift for warfare that let him produce on instinct and without effort prodigies of strategic and tactical brilliance that lesser men couldn't duplicate with all the time and study in the world. The problem with the daimon, as I define it, is that it is in essence inhuman; it's an engine, like the Terminator or the Alien (or a modern corporation), that pursues its own fulfillment endlessly and ruthlessly. Alexander, as I'm imagining him, sensed that. He felt that on some level he -- that is, he in his full humanity -- was locked in a struggle with his daimon. He could not truly "become himself" without surrendering to it, and yet if he did, it could sweep him along into becoming a monster.

ESR: So who was the real Alexander?

SP: Who was the real Alexander? That's what my book (or any book on the subject) is trying to answer. There's a great quote from one of Alexander's most astute biographers, Ulrich Wilcken:

"The greatest difficulty of all lies in Alexander's own personality. Not only was his character very complex and contained apparently irreconcilable opposites, but there was in him a superhuman quality; and genius is never quite capable of explanation, and must remain to us miraculous. The riddle of his life cannot be solved by resort to reason alone, for alongside of a clear and sober intellect he had in him much that was non-rational. To regard him simply as a coolly calculating politician is to overlook the romantic and mystical traits to his nature."

ESR: Barry Strauss has argued that Alexander, though a great battlefield commander, lacked an overall vision, that he was more interested in conquest and power than creating a real empire. Would you agree?

SP: There's truth to that, as I touched on above in declaring the theme of Virtues the limitations of the warrior archetype. But I would disagree too, in that toward the end of his life, when he was seeking to implement the policy of "fusion," that is blending Macedonian and Persian societies (as with his mass marriage at Babylon of Macedonian Companions and Persian brides), I think Alexander had a truly noble and mind-bendingly ambitious vision. Of course his men wouldn't go for it. And I'm not sure the Persians were too convinced either. But it was a helluva vision, don't you think?

ESR: Alexander's conquests included what we know today as Afghanistan and Iraq. Though obviously there are differences, are there any similarities between his campaigns there and those of the United States?

In response Mr. Pressman referred readers to his essay "Alexander in Iraq" which recently ran on military.com.

ESR: Why did you decide to not address Alexander's romantic relationships with his wives Roxanne, Statiera, Parysatis and the alleged romantic relationship he had with his friend Hephaistion?

SP: In a biography of an historical personage, the writer has to include everything from cradle to grave. But a novel has a theme, and everything that is not on-theme has to be cut.

ESR: Every good novel has a message for the reader, what's the message The Virtues of War is trying to tell us, particularly in view of current events?

SP: Steve, if I could answer that in a few paragraphs, I wouldn't have had to write the book.

ESR: Fans of Gates of Fire have been waiting a long time for a movie version, especially since it was optioned quite a while ago. Is there ever going to be a movie based on that novel?

SP: I don't know. Factors of the marketplace and movie-biz politics will decide that eventually. A lot of it's luck. I know Universal is trying hard, but it ain't easy to put together script, stars, director, and financing. And to do it when the timing in the marketplace is right. We'll see.

ESR: What's your next project?

SP: I'm working on another story about Alexander. His three-year counter-guerrilla campaign in Afghanistan, which conflict I believe is remarkably similar to the ones the U.S. is engaged in today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm telling it not from Alexander's point of view but from that of several Macedonian "G.I.s"

ESR: Thanks very much for your time Mr. Pressman.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

Buy The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great at Amazon.com for only $16.97 (32% off)

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    The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
    could have been a simple hack and slash novel but Steve Martinovich says that Steven Pressfield instead outdid himself
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