The Virtues of War
by Stephen Pressfield


The Virtues of War by Stephen Pressfield
reviewed by Jay Spears

Mr. Steffen White
Chris Fallon, Publicist, Doubleday

Thanks for the opportunity to preview The Virtues of War.  Though I am unfamiliar with Mr. Pressfield's other works, I found the book to be a great read.

Nothing could be more illuminating about the incredible saga of conquering the world than to have Alexander himself talk you through it.  The great vernacular of Alexander's voice is very readable; when Philip falls on his "cheesehole" I laughed out loud.  Even complex lists of military units and their splendid leaders, Alexander's friends, reward patient reading and invite re-reading as the immense battles envelop the reader.  I followed Mr. Pressfield's Alexander through the book as eagerly as his men had followed him to the ends of the world.

The back cover blurb reads in part, referring to Alexander, "Yet in the end his noble qualities were subsumed by his insatiable lust for glory."  Ironically, The Virtues of War, despite its merits, also succumbs to a frustrating failure on the part of its author.

Like the Macedonians who couldn't imagine that Persian "barbarians" could serve alongside them, Mr. Pressfield can't imagine that such a great man as Alexander the Great was gay.  Alexander seized the opportunity to change his men's hearts, and the world, showing them by his leadership and example that the Persians, and all men, were brothers.  A similar opportunity for greatness eluded Mr. Pressfield, who, as a commercial artist of his times, seems in perfect step with the huge movie studios whose products spare no detail of battle and blood, savagery and slaughter, but to whom true love sexually expressed between men as equals remains an obscenity.

It is especially disappointing, and even a little vexing, that Mr. Pressfield appears to have no problems with portraying Cleitus as a former lover of Philip of Macedon, or that he acknowledges customary sexual relationships between teenaged Pages and older officers who serve as mentors.  Mr. Pressfield has Alexander and Hephaestion weeping, trembling, holding hands -- why may they behave as schoolgirls but not as sexual men?  Does the author refer to me when he chides those with a "depraved cast of mind" from inferring a sexual relationship between them?  He even has Hephaestion react furiously when he thinks Parmenio is calling him a homo.

The knowledge of Alexander's homosexuality is not controversial among historians:

At the age of thirty Alexander was still Hephaestion's lover although most young Greeks would have grown out of the fashion by then and an older man would have given up or turned to a younger attraction. (Robin Lane Fox: Alexander the Great p. 57)

In fact, it may be deemed "common knowledge" among the educated, since even encyclopedias,

A more immediate project was the marriage of Alexander and Hephaestion, his closest friend and lover, to two of the daughters of Darius, while another 80 Macedonian officers married daughters of Persian nobles. (The Random House Encyclopedia, New Revised Edition, 1983 p. 1005)

and periodicals,

Diagnosis: Maryland doctors and a historian develop an explanation for what felled a mighty warrior.
by Diana K. Sugg, The Baltimore Sun

At first glance, the case seemed routine: fever, chills and abdominal pain. The illness was fatal and many conditions could be to blame. But the patient was extraordinary: a 32-year-old man with prior battle wounds, a male lover who'd died months earlier and a body that didn't decay for several days. (June 11, 1998 © The Baltimore Sun)

acknowledge it.

To pretend that Alexander is a heterosexual is as eccentric as to portray him as an Italian.  Anyone who did so would, once the laughter subsided, be grilled as to what in the world his "agenda" might be to come up with such a premise.  It mars, deforms, and perverts the character of the man portrayed, not because Italians are perverse, but because some semblance of the truth must reside at the core of any legitimate portrait, even in a novel.  Alexander's nationality, complex religiosity, and race are never an issue, and while a person's sexuality is just as important as any of these characteristics, Alexander's sexuality is completely irrelevant to the scope of his achievement unless you lie about it.  20th-century biographers such as Robin Lane Fox, cited by the author, don't fear Alexander's sexuality.  That Mr.Pressfield does is a huge disappointment.  I'm afraid that subsequent 21st-century biographies and novels of Alexander will render The Virtues of War irrelevant.

Despite being rendered a eunuch by Mr. Pressfield, Alexander remains "the Great", and The Virtues of War remains, as I said above, a great read.  It is, sadly, a great read spoiled.

Jay Spears
© 2004


Here's the correspondence between me and Steffen White, the publicist who sent me the book.

On Friday, July 9, 2004, at 05:41 PM, wrote:

Dear Mr. Spears:
Thank you for sending the book review.  Will you make any mention of "Virtues" on your website?
Sincerely, Steffen White

Hey, Steffen!
I don't know.  Mr. Pressfield hardly portrays Alexander as the Gay Hero I do on my website. What do you think?

Dear Jay,

      Steven Pressfield wrote the book, so he's certainly better able than I to state how he sought to portray Alexander.  As his publicist--and someone who has read the entire book--I suspect that he wanted to portray Alexander in a wide array of roles: As soldier, king, companion, liberator, conqueror.  

      I don't think he sought to portray Alexander as a gay hero, per se, because there is no evidence that Alexander saw HIMSELF as one.  He saw himself--insofar as the available evidence shows--as a Greek liberator and champion against the despotism of the Persian empire.  

      Homosexuality was an undeniable aspect of his life, but only one among many others.  In "Alexander the Great," Robin Lane Fox says that homosexuality in ancient Greece was felt to be entirely normal, so long as it was not indulged in to excess.  Alexander apparently kept his desires under the controls expected by the ancient Greeks, because while his relationship with Hephastion was well-known, it was not thought to be excessive and negatively affecting Alexander's conduct as a general or king.

      "Virtues" accurately and movingly depicts the intimate relationship that existed between Alexander and Hephastion.  There are no graphic, erotic scenes of their lovemaking, but, if you look at the ancient sources (such as Plutarch) you won't find any such descriptions there, either.  

      If you choose to not showcase Mr. Pressfield's book, that is entirely your own decision.  But I believe many of those who regularly visit your website will be greatly moved by his portrayal of the charimatic and brilliant man who dared the utmost to win the utmost.

      Certainly you will not lose anything by spotlighting Mr. Pressfield's book, and you will, in fact, greatly increase interest in Alexander.  With the Athens Olympics coming up shortly, and with the release of Oliver Stone's film on Alexander in the fall, I think there are fewer subjects more timely for your website than this one.

      Finally: Speaking entirely for myself, I believe that, by the end of "Virtues," the reader comes to fully understand the dangers of bestowing absolute power on anyone--even someone so gifted and at times benevolent as Alexander.  That Alexander was gay dictator does not diminish the status of gays generally; that he was often murderous toward his enemies and even his friends diminishes his own status.

      Thus, "The Virtues of War," in its portrayal of the corruptions of power--and coming out in a year when "Farenheit 9/11" and its own portrait of power-abuses is all the rage--stands as a timely warning of the evils that exist in all of us, gay and straight alike.

                                                                             Sincerely, Steffen White

Hey Steffen!

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am inclined to put a mention of this new book on my Alexander page.

In your response, you said about Alexander:

Homosexuality was an undeniable aspect of his life, but only one among many

I didn't get that Mr. Pressfield felt that way about him. He said it about Philip, he said it about the Page Boys, but he was never able to "go there" about Alexander. You say

"Virtues" accurately and movingly depicts the intimate relationship that existed between Alexander and Hephastion.

...EXCEPT for the sexual part of it. I'm sure you've read the book more often than I; please refer me to page number and line where Mr. Pressfield says that Alex and Heph had a sexual relationship.

I completely agree with you and Mr. Fox that Alexander had his sexuality under control; nor am I at all interested in reading some hot & sweaty depiction of Alexander getting laid. Neither of these is the issue. All I'm saying is that Mr. P. never said anywhere in the book that Alex & Heph were lovers. Please prove me wrong by citing the text.

I agree that Alexander is important, especially now. So, as I said, I'm inclined to mention TVOW on my web page.

Cheers, bro!



No further response was had from Mr. White.