Alexander the Great throughout the Ages

By Paige Vincent

            Alexander the Great was the ‘undefeated’ Greek ruler who swiftly conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and the Persian Empire. In just the short span of 11 years, from 335-324 B.C.E., he continued what his father had started and brought vast swaths of land under his control. What many people do not know is exactly how Alexander was able to achieve what he did. Scholars have been trying to answer this question out for centuries. Does Alexander deserve all the credit, is there someone else who deserves this praise or some external factor to blame? More interestingly, why have these theories about Alexander’s success changed over time and continue to do so?

            Many of the first theories regarding Alexander emphasized his military genius and honored him for his “divine” talent. An example of this type of opinion is that of Arrian in his Campaigns of Alexander[1].Although he may have written his account 400 years after Alexander’s death, he based it off of three eyewitness accounts (Ptolemy, Nearkos, and Aristoboulos).The Campaigns goes through each battle chronologically, detailing their main events and outcomes. Arrian doesn’t specifically delve into why Alexander was so successful, but in his description it is clearly implied that he succeeded because he was naturally gifted. One instance of this sort of rhetoric is in his description of Alexander: “…he was unsurpassed in his love of honor, his zest for danger… He was extremely adept at seeing immediately what had to be done when it was not yet obvious, and was exceptionally good at guessing what was likely to happen.”[2] Many modern scholars criticize Arrian and other ancient historians for idealizing Alexander and not looking at the big picture. Many still accept the military details he gives as true, but look elsewhere to see what was at the root of Alexander’s success.[3]

            Then what do today’s historians believe led to the Macedonian Empire’s rise? David J. Lonsdale uses an approach called strategic studies[4] to look at the context of Alexander’s success. Lonsdale finds that much of the technology attributed to Alexander’s army had been developing long before even his father, Phillip II’s, reign.[5] He claims that the main changes that led to Macedonian success were “political motivation,organization, and doctrine,”[6] all of which were begun by Phillip. For example, the unique structure and organization of the Macedonian army is attributed to the foundation that Phillip laid out during his rule; his army was one of the first to be practicing year round.[7] He does not forget to mention Alexander in his work, as he details the importance of the companion cavalry that Alexander led as well as his ability to decisively end battles.However, Lonsdale ultimately attributes most of the factors of Macedonian success to Phillip and processes that were occurring before the rise of Macedon.

Land conquered by Phillip II.

            Another approach was that of Frank Holt in Into the Land of Bones[8],which focuses on Alexander’s conquests in Afghanistan and finds reasons for Alexander’s success unrelated to his ‘military genius.’ He points out how effective Alexander was at rallying his army by igniting his warriors’ hatred to unite them against the enemy and push them to fight with fervor; “Alexander denounced [the Bactrian people] as lawless savages, the enemies of civilization… these resourceful criminals would continue to exploit differences of religion, language, and culture to rouse attacks.”[9] Similarly, Holt notes that Alexander found a balance between showing mercy and ruthless violence to his enemies. Showing mercy would allow Alexander to gain the favor of his conquered people while violence, like that which he used in Bactra, imposed the strength and authority of his rule.[10] Similar to Lonsdale, Holt notes the extreme dedication of Alexander’s army, who continued to fight with him as though the mission was their own, despite harsh conditions and casualties throughout the Alexandrian conquests.[11]

            By the Spear, by Ian Worthington, is focused on Alexander’s strengths as a military commander. According to Worthington, Alexander was able to my’s weaknesses in comparison to his enemy, as exemplified by the battle at Tarsus; Alexander knew that his cavalry was outmatched by the Persians’, and chose a narrow plain as the site for the battle so the cavalry could not flank his forces.[12] By the Spear also makes it clear that Alexander was not afraid to take risks, which added to his success because his enemies could not predict what he(or his army) would do. For example, during the siege of Tyre in 332 B.C.E., Alexander instructed his team of engineers to build a causeway across to the island city over which to carry his army.[13] This example and others like it make it clear that Alexander also had intelligent advisors on his team,and undoubtedly helped lead him to make good strategic decisions.

Artist depiction of siege of Tyre

            After being presented with such different arguments, many would wonder why historians have transitioned from the original idea of Alexander the ‘military genius’ to an array of external factors. First, it is clear that all sources still emphasize that Alexander must have had some talent to achieve what he did. However, the modern sources suggest that while Alexander himself took risks that ended in his favor, he was surrounded by smart engineers and a dedicated army. Additionally, modern scholars use a variety of resources, like archaeological evidence and written accounts from both sides, which allow them to make conclusions that are generally unbiased. On the other hand, Arrian was stuck in a time during which historians’ jobs were to tell tales of Greek Homeric heroes, rather than tell history how it happened. Historians have changed significantly since the 4th century B.C.E.

Suggested Reading:

Lerner, Brenda Wilmoth. “Alexander the Great.” In Science and Its Times, edited by Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer, 30-35. Vol. 1,2,000 B.C. to A.D. 699. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2001. Gale Virtual Reference Library

“Greek Empire: Creation of the Hellenistic World, 327 B.C.E.–600 C.E.” In Global History: Cultural Encounters from Antiquity to the Present, edited by David W. Del Testa, Florence Lemoine, and John Strickland, 274-279. Armonk, NY: Sharpe Reference, 2013. Gale Virtual Reference Library

Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. University of California Press, 1980.

[1] Arrian, The Landmark Arrian: the Campaigns of Alexander; Anabasis Alexandrous, trans. by Pamela Mensch, ed. by James Romm (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010).

Arrian was an early 2nd century historian and military commander.

[2] Arrian, Campaigns, 313.

[3] Arrian, Campaigns, xxiii-xxiv, xxvii.

[4] David J. Lonsdale,  Alexander the Great, Killer of Men: history’s greatest conqueror and the Macedonian art of war (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 10.

[5] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 37-39.

[6] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 52.

[7] Lonsdale, Killer of Men, 40-41.

[8] Frank Lee Holt, Into the Land of bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[9] Holt, Into the Land, 15.

[10] Holt, Into the Land, 26, 41.

[11] Holt, Into the Land, 37-38.

[12] Ian Worthington, By the Spear:Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the rise and fall of the Macedonian empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 164.

[13] Worthington, By the Spear, 173-178.