Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 5

How Great a General was Alexander?

JAMES ROMM Paul, our topic this week is whether Alexander was as great a general as he's cracked up to be. No one can deny his success rate in major battles — 100% — and his enormous skill in matters of logistics, strategy, even military technology. I suppose the nub of the question, for me, is how great a challenge he faced in his enemies. He fought first the Theban Greeks, then the Persians, then the Bactrians and other Central Asian peoples, and finally the Indian peoples of the Punjab. Could any of these opponents have been expected to pose difficulties for him, given the size, experience and equipment of his army? Or were his victories more or less predetermined (as his own officer Cleitus grumbled) by the innovations and training methods devised by his father, Philip?

PAUL CARTLEDGE Gosh, Jamie. that's a tall order of a question… but it does indeed go to the heart of Alexander's 'great'-ness. I'm on record as putting Alexander right up there in the premier league of all time – with Genghis Khan, John Churchill, Napoleon, and very very few others…., so why do I think that? Three reasons: 1. Napoleon allegedly said that the morale factor in warfare is three times as important as all the other factors put together – Alexander, despite a couple of very serious mutinies, the first of which occurred only after a whole 8 years of massively draining nonstop campaigning over ferocious and alien terrain and huge distances, maintained most of his troops' morale at a very high level through a combination of success and charisma 2. successful generalship requires a synergistic combination of successful strategy and successful tactics – conquering an entity of the type and size of the Persian empire in 334 demanded devising a completely new type of strategy (not to take anything away from father Philip's army reforms and generalship, he'd never had to face such a challenge) and winning three major set-piece encounters each in very different circumstances 3. one of Alexander's 'Successors' earned the monicker 'the Besieger', but actually if anyone deserved that title it was Alexander himself. Philip had suffered only two defeats – both failed sieges against Greek opponents. Alexander never failed in a siege against Greeks or nonGreeks, except (partially) at Halicarnassus in 334, and won two absolutely extraordinary and crucial siege victories – Tyre in 334 (an offshore island-city with formidable walls), and the (nearly naturally impregnable) Rock of Aornos in 327.

JR Well, I have a footnote to your point #1, but there is lots more to be said about point #2. First, the footnote regarding morale. I have just been researching the current theory that the mutiny at the Hyphasis river in India, the point at which the army rejected Alexander's order to advance, was not in fact a mutiny but a staged event designed to give Alexander a good pretext for doing what he already wanted to do, i.e. stop advancing and head back toward the middle of his empire. I don't find this theory convincing (do you?), but if there's anything to it at all, it would cause our measurement of Alexander's charisma to go even higher than it already does. Now, as to point #2, the quality of the armies Alexander faced, which principally means the Persians. I'm reminded of a speech in Thucydides where the Corinthians, speaking of the war against Xerxes in 480 B.C., say that the Greeks did not win that engagement so much as the Persians lost. We also have the campaigns of Xenophon's 10,000 mercenaries in 401, and of Agesilaus the Spartan in the 390's, as evidence that phalanxes of Greek hoplites could beat Persian armies that greatly outnumbered them. It seems possible to me that the Persians were a paper tiger, capable of putting huge numbers together but relatively ineffective, even incompetent, in using them.  What do you think were the odds in the matchup between Alexander and Darius, at the outset of the invasion of Asia?

PC 'Paper tiger', eh? Well, at least the tiger did flourish in a part of the then Persian empire, so I'll go along with you to that extent… Point 1: The Hyphasis mutiny – the modern interpretation of it as purely stage-managed has, I think, no solid basis in any surviving ancient source, but I'm prepared to accept that elements of it were indeed staged – Alexander could be very theatrical when he thought it appropriate, as it certainly was here and was to be again later, for example, when still in what's today Pakistan he miraculously recovered from a death's door combination of a near-fatal wound and serious fever, possibly aggravated by excess alcohol intake, and made a stagey appearance in public to convince the army that he really was still alive. His troops, mostly Macedonians by then, went crazy with joy and relief. But their earlier mutiny had had a solid basis, not so much in a collapse of their morale (in the sense of a critical loss of confidence in Alexander's powers of leadership) as in their perception that Alexander's strategic objectives were by no means confined to conquering and holding an enlarged Persian Empire, whereas they felt that enough was enough, and many indeed were straightforwardly homesick (not an affliction from which Alexander seems ever to have suffered much).

But to get to your main point, point number 2: just how good were the opposition? Frankly they performed well below capacity, and partly – crucially – through lack of a leadership in anything like Alexander's class. Had the Greek from Rhodes called Memnon, who served Persia as a mercenary general (as the Spartan Clearchus had served Cyrus the Younger in his failed attempt to seize the throne from his older brother in 401) not died from illness early on in the campaign, Alexander might have been given a much tougher ride. But then we must allow a great deal for chance and luck throughout, must we not – for example, had Cleitus the Black not intercepted the blow, Alexander might well have been killed at the Granicus River Battle in 334, so that the campaign – his campaign – would have been over almost as soon as it started. As it was, Alexander was able to capitalise on a structural feature of the Persian army's military organisation and capacity, that any army raised by any Great King was almost a 'scratch', pick-up force of a multifarious, multi-ethnic composition, lacking the cohesion that came from a common, strongly identified Macedonian and/or Greek military and political culture. And it has also to be said that no general on the Persian side – the Great King Darius III very much included – was anything like as competent as Alexander – or even Alexander's much older number 2, Parmenion (no 2, that is, until Alexander had him put to death for alleged treason, but only well after the final decisive pitched land battle of Gaugamela in 331).

JR Gaugamela was indeed the consummate expression of Alexander's art of warcraft, if we can call warcraft an art. His use of various stratagems to deal with the threat of encirclement — a very potent threat considering he was outnumbered perhaps three to one, even by conservative estimates — are rather remarkable. I'm thinking especially of the way the battle began, with Alexander sending cavalry units to his far right, as though trying to outflank Darius, when by all rights Darius should have been the one doing the outflanking. Darius reacted to this effrontery by stretching his li
ne thin in an effort to counter Alexander's move, and that, ultimately, created the opening through which Alexander charged — thus inflicting the decisive blow. I suspect — though I can't prove this — that Alexander foresaw that whole chain of events when he ordered the initial move to the right. So he really was thinking several moves ahead, was he not?

PC  He surely was, Jamie – though I suppose we should add that any reconstruction of how the Gaugamela battle went has to be a bit tentative and speculative, given the nature of the evidence available and the nature of battle (any battle). The image I'm left with, finally, is of Alexander himself leading in person the decisive Macedonian Companion Cavalry charge, mounted on his faithful Thessalian Greek stallion Bucephalas ('Ox-head'), and scything through the opposition straight at Darius III who fled the field.

10. January 2011 by calanus2
Categories: Arrian-Alexander, Lecture | Comments Off on Alexander the Great Discussion Series Part 5