Mary Renault wrote a series of historical novels based on the legends and history of ancient Greece. They include The King Must Die, the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, and The Last of the Wine, set in the era of Socrates. Her novels devoted to Alexander the Great — Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy — take us into the life (lives, really) of an extraordinary man. What was fact and what was fiction? In her biography, The Nature of Alexander, Mary Renault sorts out the known history and the legends.
Her biography lacks the drama of the novels, but it is compelling just the same. Renault tells us what sources we have in the ancient writers and, when the stories conflict or seem unlikely, she tries to see her way into the probabilities of Alexander’s world. That world was one with tribal customs, many of which Alexander tried to surmount as he built his empire. The book is well titled The Nature of Alexander, because it is that nature she is concerned to understand. Again and again, she shows us his actions in the context of his time. After a great victory over the Persians,
He buried the Persian generals with the honours of war, and gave the dead Greek mercenaries [who fought for the Persians] a proper Greek funeral. To fourth-century men there was much more in this than a gesture; it was the rite of peaceful passage to the land of shades. What to modern man may seem synical seemed to contemporaries generous and unusual; his effect on them will be better understood if this is borne in mind.