Alexander the Great (356-323BC), king of Macedonia and conqueror of Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, Babylonia, and the Persian Empire, is not only one of my favourite commanders, but also one of my favourite historical figures. Alexander is considered to be one of the greatest military commanders in history, but he was also a skilled politician, and he possessed a strong personality, a human quality and a compassion which I find both appealing and fascinating.
In the following sections I will try to shed some light on his abilities as a military leader and politician, as well as his personality. This article is not supposed to portray Alexander objectively, on the contrary: I have only selected those aspects of Alexander and his life which are most interesting or appealing to me. Nonetheless, a section devoted to his misdeeds have been included, in order to draw a somewhat more balanced picture of Alexander.
Superlatives such as 'brilliant' and 'genius' are often used to characterize skilled commanders, perhaps too often, but when it comes to Alexander these terms are well-deserved. Major General J.F.C. Fuller, author of The Generalship of Alexander the Great, stresses the importance of genius and how genius "binds the Great Captains into a common brotherhood". Fuller also states that "it was Alexander's genius that gave soul to his army". Although the term 'genius' may seem a bit abstract and hard to define, there is no doubt that Alexander's strong presence, physical and moral courage, toughness, ambitions, determination, victories and achievements instilled an important sense of awe, admiration, security and affection in his troops.
Alexander, who was both supreme commander of the army and a political autocrat, understood that the military objective was only a means to an end, and that in the end his objective was to achieve a better peace. His understanding of the balance between military force and political means went beyond the idea of simply annihilating enemy armies, a widespread view which was influenced by Clausewitz during the 19th century. Alexander's aim was conquest (of the Persian empire) not plundering, he didn't want to ravage his future territories or antagonize his enemies more than necessary. Fuller writes that "the defeat of the army was his strategical aim; the winning over the peoples his political aim."
Fuller proceeds by comparing Alexander's achievements with the five strategical principles of Clausewitz, and points out that "the value of utmost energy, concentration at the decisive point, rapidity of movement, surprise and pursuit were as clearly apparent to Alexander as they were to Clausewitz." He also illustrates Alexander's understanding of other strategical and tactical factors such as the element of surprise, the principles of maintaining the aim, the offensive and the economy of force, and the establishment of secure bases and secure communications (1).
Alexander's ability to successfully adapt strategy and tactics to almost any kind of warfare, ranging from major battles, sieges, minor skirmishes, guerrilla opposition and revolts, sets him apart from other great commanders. Successful commanders were traditionally skilled in conventional, open warfare, but many of them never had to face an elusive hit-and-run enemy or besiege an enemy stronghold. He never lost a battle during his 10 year long campaign between 335 and 325 BC (2), and he conducted a major battle or siege at least once almost every year in this period. The highly trained, equipped and motivated combined-arms army which Alexander inherited from his father, was able to fit, adapt to and meet the challenges of any situation. Fuller describes the army as being "the most perfectly organized, trained, and equipped army of ancient times."
Many well-known and famous military leaders, such as field-marshal Sir B.Law Montgomery and general H. Norman Schwarzkopf, have stressed the importance of taking care of the soldiers to boost morale, motivation and unit cohesion. Alexander was a prime example of this sort of leader: He repeatedly demonstrated his bravery by leading his men into battle (3), he laboured with them, cared for them, showed a genuine concern for their welfare and he would not ask his men to do what he would not do or was incapable of doing himself.
Fuller mentions one insightful ritual: "Before battle, he would ride down the ranks, and call aloud by name, [those men] who in previous battles had performed conspicuous deeds of valor." Being praised before his comrades by the commander himself in this manner must have been a major morale booster for a soldier. After the battle he would care for his wounded men, give the fallen - both friend and foe alike - a splendid military funeral and praise those who had shown bravery in battle. Now and then he would arrange games and festivals to celebrate and further boost morale and keep the troops happy. Furthermore, the children of those who had lost their lives received their father's pay, and once he sent his newly married men home to spend the winter with their families. During the Indian campaign he also cancelled the soldier's debts.
Military historian John Keegan believes that theatricality, ceremony and power of speech (oratory) was part of Alexander's leadership style, and he even states that "[Alexander] was in the strongest sense a brilliant theatrical performer in his own right". His dramatic appearances on the battlefield, the dramatization of his own behaviour in front of his men when necessary, and the opportunistic role of the prima donna, were in a sense a kind of conscious, psychological means to an end. Keegan also mentions several incidents which would later become a part of the Alexander legend, of which the two most well-known are perhaps Alexander's cutting of the Gordian Knot (4) and the taming of Bucephalus, the black stallion. Bucephalus would later become his faithful warhorse for almost 16 years until it was fatally wounded at the battle of Hydaspes (5).
Alexander's military deeds would be of no or limited use if his victories had not been paired with his deep understanding of statesmanship and the skillful use of political and diplomatic means. As a king and general, he possessed complete political and military power, and he was free to balance and mix these two factors the way he wanted into a grand strategy (6). His policy was based on conciliation and the idea that the goodwill of the population is the moral foundation for military power. The Asiatic Greeks looked upon him as a liberator rather than an invader, because he treated them as free allies and showed great respect for Hellenistic traditions by restoring and rebuilding their temples.
When he encountered the Iranians, who were loyal to the Persian monarchy, he decided to win over their leaders rather than the people by basing his policy on partnership. He appealed to their self-interest and took advantage of his reputation and the cowardice of Darius, ruler of the Persian empire, who had twice fled from the battlefield. Later, after Darius' death, he even extended his policy to include Persian court etiquette and the wearing of Persian apparel, in order to show respect for his new subjects, although these changes antagonized many of his veteran soldiers. A less friendly approach would have made the conquest of Persia much more difficult, perhaps impossible, because he would then have to leave a substantial part of his army behind to garrison the provinces.
In order to better understand Alexander's personality it is worthwhile to devote a few sections to his childhood and upbringing.
He was probably born in July 356 B.C. and was the son of Philip II, King of Macedonia, and Olympias, an Epirote princess. Olympias was passionate, headstrong, mystical but immodest and unpopular among Philip's Macedonian courtiers. She was superstitious and participated in orgiastic rites of the cult of Dionysus. It was during one of these sexual festivals that the 20 year old Greek princess met Philip. Philip was 25 at that time and had already married thrice and fathered three (legitimate) children. Soon after they married and one year after the festival Alexander was born (7).
One incident sheds some light on Philip's deteriorating relationship with Olympias, and Alexander's attitude towards his parents: In 337 B.C., 20 years after his marriage to Olympias, Philip married Eurydice (AKA Cleopatra), who was to be his seventh wife and bore his child. Philip's other wives were indifferent, but Olympias was upset: Eurydice was a noble Macedonian girl with powerful relations, not a foreign Epirote like herself, and she feared for her position as a Queen and her son's succession to the throne. At the wedding feast, Eurydice's drunken uncle insulted Alexander by implying that he was a bastard, there was a brawl, swords were drawn and Alexander collected his mother and fled to Epirus (before leaving for Illyria). Alexander would return shortly afterward, however, and he eventually made peace with Philip, although he probably never forgave him for divorcing Olympias.
Philip was too occupied with war and politics and Alexander consequently grew attached to his mother during his early childhood. It is believed that she expressed a possessive love for her son and that she had great influence in molding him (whether he felt an Oedipal attraction to his mother seems to be open for discussion).
As a prince, he received a royal upbringing: At the age of ten he was entrusted to the teacher and disciplinarian Leonides for physical training, self-control and discipline. At the age of thirteen he was tutored by Aristotle the philosopher, Plato's most acclaimed student. He was taught medicine, botany, zoology, politics and philosophy (8). Aristotle was an empiricist, and stressed the discipline of mind, an empirical approach to the world, logical analysis and rationalism. However, Alexander rejected his master's belief in the existence of master- and slave-races, but his vision of racial fusion during his later campaigns turned out to be unsuccessful mostly because many Greeks disapproved of the idea, and because of the inefficiency of the Iranian satraps.
He became an avid reader and was so fascinated by the heroic tales of mythical soldiers such as Achilles, that he always carried with him Homer's Illiad on his campaigns. During his childhood Alexander was also schooled in the rituals of hospitality and he learned to sing, play the lyre and hunt, and he received formal education in debate and epic poetry. By the age of sixteen he had already learnt how to ride a warhorse and fight, and when he was temporarily left in charge of Macedonia in 340 B.C., he went to war against the Thracian tribes and defeated them (9).
As for his looks, many historians believe, based on ancient paintings, sculptures and documents, that Alexander was very handsome. R.L. Fox describes him as having long, blond hair reaching down to his neck, a straight nose, a prominent forehead, a short, jutting chin, a clean shaven beard and an intense gaze. Keegan writes: "Looks favoured him.... His brow, the jut of his nose and the set of his lips were characteristically noble, his curling hair grew in a peak on his forehead, his skin was smooth and slightly florid." It is unclear, however, how tall he actually was, but there seems to be a consensus among historians that he was rather short but well-proportioned.
In The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian describes him as possessing "great personal beauty, invincible power of endurance, and a keen intellect; he was brave and adventurous, strict in the observance of his religious duties, and hungry for fame. Most temperate in the pleasures of the body, his passion was for glory only, and in that he was insatiable. He had an uncanny instinct for the right course in a difficult and complex situation, and was most happy in his deductions from observed facts. ... No cheat or liar ever caught him off his guard, and both his word and his bond were inviolable. Spending but little on his own pleasures, he poured out his money without stint for the benefit of his friends."
Fuller also believes he had "[brains], grace, charm, skill at arms, and more self-confidence than was usual even in one deliberately raised to believe in himself.", and stresses Alexander's compassion toward others, his sense of royalty and chivalrous attitude towards his enemies. He treated Porus, whom he had defeated at the banks of Hydaspes, as a king, and not only let him rule over his own Indian people, but he extended his borders as well. During the siege of Miletus he felt pity for the besieged people, and made a truce when he realized they were going to fight to the death. He also pardoned the starving soldiers who had stolen food during the march through the Gedrosian desert.
There were also several incidents in which Alexander demonstrated his compassion towards women: After the battle of Issus, the mother, wife and children of Darius were captured, and they grieved, believing that Darius had been killed in battle. Alexander, however, told them that Darius was still alive (he had fled the battle), and that they would be treated as queens. When Darius' soldiers came to rescue Darius' mother, she even refused to leave, and after Alexander died she mourned his demise and fasted to death. Alexander loathed the rape and abuse of women, a quite remarkable view at that time, when women were considered legitimate spoils of war (10). On one noteworthy occasion, he was offered 100 armed girls by the viceroy of Media, but he dismissed them from the army, fearing that they might get violated.
Alexander's sexual orientation has been subject to a lot of discussion in modern studies. Some sources portray him as homosexual (11), others deny it (12) Dr. Jeanne Reames-Zimmerman, in her dissertation about Hephaistion (Alexander's very best friend for over 19 years), believes that there is no indisputable evidence for a sexual relationship between him and Alexander. In the end, because of lack of indisputable evidence, it boils down to what we prefer to believe. I would not consider it a weakness of character if it turned out that Alexander actually was homoerotic.
Alexander respected women, but was he interested in them? This issue has also been heavily debated by modern historians (13). Alexander married thrice (Roxane, Stateira, Parysati), but primarily for political and sentimental reasons. His wives later gave birth to 3-4 children. However, it is believed that Alexander had two mistresses (Barsine, Pankaste) and occassional assignations as well.
Personally, I believe Alexander was simply 'bierotic', and there seems to be no substance or evidence to the claims that he was an impotent, raving alcoholic and sex monster. It seems that Alexander could get drunk now and then, but occasional drinking to excess was accepted as normal by the ancient Greeks. But more importantly, none of these claims, even if they turned out to be true, are relevant to his great achievements as a politician and military leader.
Although the life of Alexander is filled with military victories, deeds and other achievements, his wrong-doings and less glorious exploits are also worth mentioning. I think the following passage from The Great Battles of Antiquity neatly sums up the kind of misdeeds I am talking about: "... if circumstances demanded it he could (and did) order the slaughter of the enemy and even of its prisoners, destroy an entire city and sell its population into slavery (Thebes and Tyre), or order the murder of those who had turned against him, even if they were his lifelong friends."
Some of the incidents, such as the massacre of the Thebans and the slaughter of the Malli, would be labelled atrocities by today's standards, while the killing of, for example, Cleitus, Parmenion and Eurydice's infant son, would be considered personal crimes. However, I believe it is important to keep in mind that these misdeeds were not committed without some sort of rationale or underlying reason, although the killing and slaughter may seem hard to justify.
For example, prior to the massacre of the Theban town (14), the inhabitants had been asked to submit and honor their oath to the League, but instead they sent him an insulting reply. Besides, his Greek assistants voted for the city's full destruction as a 'repayment' for what the Thebans had done to them in the past. The slaughter of the Malli was an act of revenge because Alexander had been seriously injured during the assault.
Parmenion, one of Alexander's leading generals, was assassinated because Alexander believed he was involved in a conspiracy against him. Officer Cleitus the Black, angry and drunk, was killed by a drunken Alexander at a banquet after he had insulted the king (15). Eurydice's infant son was killed because Alexander was surrounded by enemies at home, and the child represented a threat to Alexander's succession during the unstable political situation which unfolded immediately after Philip's death (16). Several other people were killed based on the evidence or suspicion (without a fair trial) that they conspired or planned to kill Alexander.
Alexander's anger grew more pronounced in his later years, when the strains of his long campaigns and the increasing dissent among his men started to take its toll on his temper and confidence towards his own men. The authors of The Great Battles of Antiquity believes that "Alexander was one of those 'most dangerous of men' that Goethe spoke of, and idealist armed with a sense of ruthlessness that only emerged when the ideal was threatened."
However, I would do Alexander a great injustice if I only considered his misdeeds from today's perspective. Besides, war and political powerplay have never been a clean business. In my opinion, Alexander's achievements easily overshadows his misdeeds. I believe Fuller is right when he writes "When the moral standards of the fourth century are borne in mind, as well as Alexander's youth and the immensity of his task, its dangers and difficulties, his misdeeds, when compared with those of other great conquerors, are remarkably few." Arrian has also expressed his views on this issue: "I think Alexander deserves great praise... that he did not obstinately persevere in evil, or still worse become a defender and advocate of the wrong which had been done, but confessed that he had committed a crime, being a man (and therefore liable to err)."
"History is written by victors." There is a lot of truth to this statement, because we lack a contemporary Persian view of the events, and historical writings are more or less biased. Modern historians try to correlate this information by performing cross-checks across various kinds of sources, and then apply 'common sense' based on empirical, general knowledge in order to 'solve' the riddle. Therefore, even when the thick layers of pure legend and myth have been peeled away, and whenever we lack evidence through direct verification or observation, our evolving knowledge about Alexander is still, more or less, based on assumptions.
Arrian. Campaigns of Alexander, The (~90-172 A.D.)
J.F.C. Fuller. Generalship of Alexander the Great (1958).
J. Keegan. Mask of Command, The (1987).
P. Grabsky. Great Commanders, The (1993).
R.A. Gabriel & D.W. Boose, Jr. Great Battles of Antiquity, The: A Strategic And Tactical Guide to Great Battles that Shaped the Development of War (1994)
R. L. Fox. Alexander the Great (1973).
(1) According to Fuller, Alexander lost contact with his home-base only once ("... for only 24 hours before the battle of Issus."), and only once did his supply system break down ("during his march across Gedrosia ... Due largely to Apollophanes, who failed to forward supplies.")
(2) Phil Grabsky ("The Great Commanders") believes that Alexander might have journeyed as far as 15.000-20.000 miles (24.000-32.000 km) during his campaigns. For comparison's sake, it should be noted that the equatorial circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles (40,076 km).
(3) The storming of the chief Mallian town in 326 B.C. is perhaps one of Alexander's most well-known feats of valor, an act of courage which almost cost him his life: Macedonian morale was wavering and Alexander thus seized a ladder and started scaling the walls himself, followed by his shield-bearer and bodyguard. Other men followed, but the ladder collapsed under their weight and Alexander was left alone inside the citadel, facing the Malli. An arrow pierced his chest and his bodyguard and shield-bearer, both of whom were wounded, managed to protect him until the rest of the storming party arrived. Alexander was seriously ill for several days, but to quench the rumours that he was dead, he let himself be carried aboard a ship and rowed down a riverbank in front of his men, demonstrating in a dramatic manner that he was still alive. Alexander was wounded 8 times, according to Plutarch, the most serious wound was inflicted by the Mallian arrow.
(4) In Gordium, there was a complicated knot which held a chariot together, and the knot had no exposed ends. It is believed that Alexander did one of two things: He pulled a pin out of the chariot-link and drew the yoke out sideways through the knot, or he simply cut the knot in half with his sword. Whether or not the story of the Gordian Knot is pure myth seems to be a bit unclear.
(5) The old horse was reported dead within a few hours of the battle. On the eastern bank, near the site of Bucephala's last river-crossing, he founded a city named Bucephala, in memory of his loyal horse. Alexander led a state funeral and the horse's remains were probably buried in his town. Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor, would later request that his equestrian statue was to be sculpted along the features of Bucephalus.
(6) Grand strategy is the highest level of strategy, and involves both politics and military operations. War policy or grand strategy is the orchestration of all available political means (that is, economical, diplomatic, psychological and military means) by a state (in some cases, the state is represented by a handful of persons or an individual).
(7) They later parented Cleopatra (Queen of Epirus). Not to be confused with Eurydice, Philip's seventh wife, who was also known as Cleopatra.
(8) In 332 B.C., during his campaigns, he founded the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt, where Alexander established a university and a great library. The famous Greek mathematician Euclid was one of the many scholars who taught there.
(9) Two years later, under command of his father at the battle of Chaeronea, he led a cavalry charge against the elite Sacred Band of Thebes, and annihilated them.
(10) During ancient and medieval times, the sack of cities and rape of women were often considered a legitimate 'bonus' prize for the soldiers, as a kind of repayment for their efforts and victories. The inhabitants were at the mercy of the commander, who could, if he wanted to, refuse his men their 'privileges'. Today, the rape, torture and killing of innocent civilians and prisoners of war is considered atrocities, or war crimes. Such atrocities are still widespread in low-intensity conflicts all over the world, but they are no longer considered legitimate, and atrocities are, from a legal standpoint, prohibited by international laws (for example, the Geneva Conventions). Offenders may risk getting prosecuted.
(11) Strictly speaking, the ancient Greeks had no word which corresponds to the modern definition of 'homosexual', and perhaps 'homoerotic' is a better term (as suggested by Zimmerman). It is also worth keeping in mind that the 'homoerotic' standards and social structure of ancient Greece differed from those of the modern western world.
(12) R. L. Fox supports this claim, while Fuller outright denies it: "... nor was he impotent or a homosexual as his detractors put about in order to defame him."
(13) Fuller simply writes that "[Alexander] never had a mistress ... This subordination of his bodily instincts to his task set him apart from the common ruck of men ..." According to Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle, Philip and Olympias had hired an expensive prostitute from Thessaly and told her to 'entertain' him, but Alexander refused her. R.L. Fox, on the other hand, writes that "From a man who was to sleep with a least one man, four mistresses, three wives, an eunuch and, so gossip believed, an Amazon, ..."
(14) It is believed that 6.000 were killed, and 30.000 men, women and children were enslaved.
(15) He deeply regretted his outburst, and lamented for three days on his bed, refusing to eat and drink.
(16) Although Eurydice and her baby daughter were spared, they were later executed by a vengeful Olympias.