FREDERICK THE GREAT: The Magnificent Enigma by Robert B. Asprey

FREDERICK THE GREAT: The Magnificent Enigma

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A solid, glamorous biography of the fascinating Frederick. Asprey, a military historian (The Panther's Feast), has formidable predecessors in the bibliography (including Voltaire), yet his skillfully written tome has a fair shot at being called definitive. It deals frankly with the single most important fact of Frederick's private life, his homosexuality. Part of the ""enigma"" of the title is that a flute-playing esthete like Frederick could also be a vitally active military genius. As a young prince, Frederick was known for his ""effeminate, lascivious, and womanly activities."" He pranced about in brocaded gowns, enjoying the favors of his pages, but all ended unhappily when he was jailed at 18 and witnessed the beheading of one of his male lovers, on the order of his father. Frederick grew to love the military life, as the Prussian Army was full of ""beautiful big men."" While enjoying these social benefits, the Prince also began what would be a 42-year correspondence with Voltaire, pitched on the highest intellecual note. Frederick was soon found to be a brilliant military commander whose adult life was an almost uninterrupted series of battles. He did manage to amass a notable art collection, comprising Watteau and other ""moderns"" in his palace, Sans Souci. A prematurely aged invalid, Frederick never came to care for women, apart from a Neapolitan dancer who attracted him, Voltaire claimed, because her legs resembled ""those of a boy."" Asprey takes up to the King's last words in this vivid historical reconstruction. Although the tale is lengthy, the prose is brisk and no-nonsense, with a lucid grasp of events; it's particularly good on military details as heavy doses of battle tactics are delivered with clarity and force. An impressive historical popularization.

Pub Date: Oct. 31st, 1986
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin