A dark mist crossed the sky, and a bolt of lightning was seen to fall from heaven into the sea, and with it a great eagle. And the bronze statue of Arimazd in Babylon quivered; and the lightning ascended into heaven, and the eagle went with it, taking with it a radiant star. And when the star disappeared in the sky, Alexander too had shut his eyes
The Legend had begun.
~The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault~
Alexander – even today, 23 centuries after his death, his name still has the power to inspire. His achievements have stood the test of time and remain amongst the most remarkable in the whole annals of military history. With an army of typically only around 40,000 men, he conquered the largest, richest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen; and all of this in less than a decade.
When Alexander became king, his military career began when he launched a campaign against Macedonia’s northern neighbours. This is a campaign that we know little about, but we can assume that it was remarkably successful given that Antipater, his regent, never had any difficulty from that region. From there, Alexander marched in central Greece, and sent a terrible message with the destruction of the ancient city of Thebes.
In 334, Alexander crossed the Hellespont and invaded Asia. He soundly defeated the Persians in large set-piece battles at the Granicus River, Issus and finally Gaugamela in 331. During this period he also captured the great fortresses of Halicarnassus, Tyre and Gaza. After the death of Darius, Alexander spent several years campaigning in Afghanistan and India; a brutal period culminating in the defeat of the Indian king Porus at the battle of the Hydaspes.
In India, the army had finally had enough and refused to march further into the unknown. They turned back and made a disastrous march through the Gedrosian Desert. After a final siege during which Alexander was struck by an arrow that punctured his lung, he returned to Babylon where he died in 323.
Alexander’s incredible string of successes was not accidental; listed here are the 10 main reasons for them (in no particular order). You can find out more about Alexander as a military commander in my books, The Army of Alexander The Great and The Sieges of Alexander The Great, both published by Pen & Sword.
1. Philip of Macedon
Philip, Alexander’s father, was one of the finest military minds of the ancient world; but he is completely overshadowed by his son. Philip took a broken kingdom that was about to be overrun by foreign enemies, and turned it into the most powerful state in Greece. Shortly before his death he sent an expeditionary force to Asia Minor to conduct an initial campaign against the Persians whilst he prepared for a larger invasion.
Had Philip lived – he is believed to have been buried at Aigai – he clearly would have expanded upon this expeditionary campaign with a full scale invasion. It is always interesting (but ultimately fruitless) to speculate how Philip would have fared compared to Alexander.
Alexander had a first rate military education watching the successes of his father, and evidently was worried that there would be nothing left for him to conquer if his father continued too long; the assassin’s blade ensured that this would not be the case.
Could Alexander have achieved what he did without his father’s foundation? This is a difficult question to answer, but I would suggest that Alexander had the ability, but his character would likely have let him down. Alexander clearly had the ability to reorganise the army and to develop innovative strategies and tactics as required, as well as his natural military genius. We must recognise, however, that it would certainly have taken rather longer because the army would have needed to be trained and turned into the machine that Philip had already created, and the question also remains as to whether Alexander would have had the patience to delay his ambition; patience is not a trait that Alexander ever demonstrated to any great degree.
2. The Army
Alexander’s greatest inheritance was the Macedonian army. At the time of the invasion of Asia Minor, the historian Diodorus tells us that it consisted of 5,100 cavalry and 32,000 infantry. This was a respectable size by Greek standards, but tiny in comparison with the number of troops Darius could put in the field. Of the 37,100 troops, the Macedonian contingent was relatively small: 1,800 Companion Cavalry and 12,000 infantry. These were by far the most important troops Alexander commanded, and the main weapon with which he gained an empire.
This army was a very complex organisation of interlocking and mutually supportive parts. Alexander created what was probably the first combined arms force in world history: he developed a series of units that excelled at specific tasks, but retained tremendous operational flexibility. Individual units were highly trained and some were highly specialised: the hypaspists, for example, were employed to maintain a cohesive link with the Companion Cavalry during the set-piece battles; if they failed then a gap would have opened in Alexander’s line that the Persians could have exploited.
Light infantry, specifically the Agrianians, were assigned specialised tasks, and even fought alongside the cavalry units at Gaugamela. Later the Dahae horse archers were deployed with devastating effect against the Indians at the Hydaspes. The heavy infantry could operate together, or as individual taxis (battalions). Each of the individual units of Alexander’s army were dangerous if engaged independently, but when combined formed an army that was one of the finest the world had yet seen; when this was coupled with the tactical genius of an Alexander, the results are there to see. Each element of the army was highly trained and supported every other element. This was a true combined arms force as described The Army of Alexander The Great.
Another, perhaps more accurate word, would be stubbornness. Alexander was remarkably stubborn and never let any obstacle, be it natural or manmade, stand in his way. When faced with the city of Tyre, he refused to allow it to remain a “free city” offering safe harbour to both Greek and Persian fleets. He did not possess any significant navy at the time so he set about constructing a mole to join the island fortress to the land. Later in his career, we see a string of similar sieges on the north-east frontier and in India where he had to build a series of wooden bridges over deep ravines. He repeatedly captured seemingly impregnable fortresses, like Aornus, and never accepted any obstacle as being insurmountable.
This is a much over-used word in today’s society, but by whatever measure we employ, Alexander was without question a military genius, perhaps the greatest the world has ever seen. Alexander was the finest strategist and tactician the ancient world had yet seen. He repeatedly demonstrated an ability to successfully fight campaigns in every theatre of war the ancient world had to offer (although his naval experience was limited to the later stages of the siege of Tyre), and to continuously adapt his strategies and tactics to every emerging circumstance.
Alexander also demonstrated an ability to analyse the evolving circumstances that the Afghanistan region presented, and changed the organisation of the army to deal with the new threat of guerrilla warfare. Alexander’s sense of timing during his set-piece battles was also remarkable. The timing of his decisive cavalry charge was always immaculate, and the result devastating. He had a genius for analysing a situation and instantly making a judgement of what was needed. His set-piece battles are analysed in my forthcoming book The Field Campaigns of Alexander the Great. Continue Reading
‘All those who write about Alexander,” grumbled the Roman geographer Strabo, “prefer the marvelous to the true.” Such a criticism was not entirely accurate even when he made it 2,000 years ago, and it is certainly not fair now. We live in an age of groundbreaking classical scholar ship, when historians of the ancient world have only to get the sniff of a myth to set about busting it. Yet Alexander, more even than Cleopatra or Julius Caesar, has stood insouciant proof against every attempt at revisionism. No amount of cheese-paring by classicists can dim the brilliance of his luster. He remains what he has ever been: the epitome of youthful, world-conquering, terrifying glamour.
We are, perhaps, more squeamish about the collateral damage inflicted by his ascent to greatness, and less prone to celebrate it, than earlier ages. “Is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?” Christopher Marlowe demanded in “Tamburlaine,” his blood-sodden drama about a megalomaniacal one-time shepherd who had swaggered and slaughtered his way to a vast Asiatic empire in the 14th century. In point of boring historical fact, the mention of Persepolis in his hero’s vaunt is a serious anachronism. The city had been burnt to the ground long before the time of Tamburlaine, all the way back in 330 B.C. Marlowe, however, was a playwright, not a historian—and he could recognize a poetic truth when he saw one.
The man responsible for destroying Persepolis had been none other than Alexander: the feat that broadcast his triumph more blazingly than all his many others, since the city had served, for almost two centuries, as the capital of Asia. The Achaemenids, a Persian dynasty whose rule had stretched from the Aegean to the Hindu Kush, had demonstrated in unprecedented fashion just how vast an empire might be. Alexander, by defeating them, had wrested from them their claim to global rule. Such was the heritage—of looting, bloodshed and unabashed imperialism—to which Tamburlaine in turn had laid devastating claim. No wonder, then, in Marlowe’s rendering of his protagonist’s career, that he should instinctively have alluded to the greatest conqueror of them all.