With Oliver Stone's upcoming film ""Alexander'' likely taking creative liberty with the facts, a Greek-history expert at the University of South Florida says that if the movie gets students excited, that's a good thing.
""If it means that my students will get all worked up about it and send them to the books where they will learn more, then that's what pop culture is all about,'' said Professor William M. Murray, a leading scholar on Alexander the Great.
Murray is featured on ""Alexander the Great,'' a three- hour documentary airing Sunday on the History Channel.
Murray, who has taught at USF since 1982, is one of three historians who offer insights into the history and character of Alexander. The professor is chairman of the history department and executive director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies.
The TV special ties into Stone's $150 million film, which opens in theaters Nov. 24. The movie stars Colin Farrell as Alexander, Angelina Jolie as his exotic mother, Olympias, and Val Kilmer as his father, King Philip II.
The Discovery Channel will offer three other related documentaries this month.
""Battleground, The Art of War: Alexander the Great'' and ""Becoming Alexander'' (about Colin Farrell) debut Nov. 21.
""Alexander the Great: Murder Unsolved,'' on Nov. 24, gathers forensic pathologists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, archaeologists and historians to speculate on what killed him at age 32.
He Became King At 20
Alexander was a military genius who, at 20, became king of Macedonia in Greece. He led 300,000 men more than 20,000 miles, defeating every army in his path and creating an empire that stretched to what is now Afghanistan. Included in his conquests were much of the Middle East and part of North Africa. Alexandria in Egypt was named for him.
""Because we have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan now, that might drive some people to the History Channel documentary,'' Murray said.
Some of what we know about Alexander is fact, and some of it is legend, he said.
"What is known is that he was one of the greatest military strategists in history,'' Murray said. ""I think every major general compares himself to Alexander, and most every major general feels that he somehow falls short.''
Alexander was a cunning and ruthless fighter who inspired tremendous loyalty among his troops.
He would visit his men after battle, examining their wounds and praising them for their valiant efforts. He arranged extravagant funerals for the fallen. He also was a heavy drinker and party animal when it came to celebrating victories with his men.
He may have been gay or bisexual. He had a longtime male companion, his childhood friend Hephaiston, plus many female sexual partners and a wife, Roxanna, the Persian princess who had his child.
""Military schools study how he moved the blocks of his armies around,'' Murray said. ""He planned battles using the army like pieces in a chess game, with the battlefield as his chess board.''
Battles, Scenes Re-Created
The documentary uses unknown actors to play Alexander and key figures from his life in re-creations. There also are re-creations of battle scenes using computer graphics. Actors portray ancient historians such as Plutarch.
The program is narrated by actor-historian Peter Woodward, the son of British actor Edward Woodward (""The Equalizer''). Peter Woodward's career includes diverse film and TV roles such as ""Charmed,'' ""Babylon 5'' and the movie ""The Patriot.''
The documentary explains how the phalanx formation, created by Alexander's father, made his army so formidable in its day.
The phalanx was a box formation of infantry soldiers from eight to 36 men deep that marched shoulder to shoulder behind shields. The front line carried spears up to 18 feet long. When held horizontally, the spears were deadly weapons against charging forces.
Alexander also used mounted cavalry and troops with shorter spears that were thrown like javelins at their enemies.
It was so effective that in a battle with the army of Persian king Darius III, Alexander's forces were outnumbered 13 to 1 and managed to rout the Persians.
Murray said much of what we know about Alexander is based on ancient writings, some of which may have been embellished.
"I have a problem with some of the speculation about his childhood,'' he said. ""It's just my opinion, but with these cultures, people at that time did not think it was important to write down everything about what he did when he was a child, so some stories about him may or may not be true. They seem like stories that you tell about great men after they have become great men.''
Also unknown and subject to speculation is what motivated Alexander to conquer.
""We do know that his mother was a very domineering character,'' Murray said. ""She was ruthless.
""He seemed more interested in fighting than ruling.''
He Became King At 20
Born in Macedonia in 356 B.C., Alexander was groomed for leadership from an early age. His mother may have told him that he was a descendant of the Greek god Zeus.
In his teens, Alexander became a student of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, who taught him philosophy, medicine and science. By 16, Alexander had put down a rebellion while his father was away and founded his first colony, naming it Alexandroupolis.
When Philip was assassinated, the 20-year-old Alexander took the throne of Macedonia. Within two years, he had embarked on his campaign of conquest, taking on the Persian empire.
After conquering Persia, he set his sights on India but was wounded and headed back to Greece. He died on his way home of an unknown illness.
Let's hope other newspapers seek out the local Classicists for their opinions rather than relying just on Cartledge and Fox (not that they're not good or anything like that, but it would be nice to see a pile of Classicists get a pile of exposure from this).