Alexander the Great is is a historical icon celebrated for his courage, leadership and limitless ambition. He is an embodiment of the competitive spirit, a true archetype of the qualities needed to win and "become great". Admired by Hannibal, Caesar, Augustus and Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander gained a renowned legacy among humans.
But beyond these flattering praises and fame, who was Alexander? What were the factors that produced such an enigmatic personality and untamed mind?
"You shall, I question not, find a way to the top if you diligently seek for it; for nature hath placed nothing so high that is out of the reach of industry and valor." - Alexander the Great
A student of Aristotle at 14 years old. A military general at 16, King at 21. By 25, he had conquered Babylon and achieved more than any other Greek - or military leader - before him. By 30, he had taken his Greek army to modern-day Afghanistan and even pushed into India, beyond the Indus river. By 32, he lay on his deathbed.
Alexander exceeded the wildest dreams of the ancient Greeks. It was unthinkable - unimaginable - for them to one day march triumphantly into Babylon, or voyage into India. Such fantasies existed only in the myths of Heracles and Dionysus, and even then, they were laughably far-fetched.
Alexander took the Greeks further than they could ever dream of, always with the odds stacked against him. At the battle of Granicus (334 B.C), he was outnumbered by at least 20,000 men. At Issus (333 B.C), by more than 50,000 - and at Gaugamela (331 B.C), the most fateful battle, by perhaps as much as 200,000 men.
But Alexander was a complex personality. Experiencing the horrors of war, coupled with the enormous responsibility of leading a 35,000 strong army deep into enemy territory, weighed heavily on his psyche. He put it all at stake.
"I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. What frightens me is an army of sheep led by a lion" - Alexander the Great
Plenty of times, Alexander had the chance to retreat when seeing superior strength of his enemy. But he never did. Instead, he figured a way to maximize his chances of victory, and then all-in. Plenty of times, he had the chance to relax and stop the campaign, having already achieved more than anyone before him - but, again, he never stopped.
He kept going further and further, until his own army mutinied to get him to stop.
The young King was also relentless and brutal. When the city state of Thebes revolted against him, he burned the city to the ground, slaughtered all the civilians and sold the survivors into slavery. Tyre in Palestine got the same treatment. When he reached Persepolis - the cultural treasure of ancient Persia - he burned it all to the ground to avenge the burning of Athens by the Persians a century before.
But he was also exceptionally intelligent and tenacious. His deep understanding of logistics, psychology, geography, speed and flexibility, gained him countless victories. He knew that every enemy - no matter how intimidating - had at least one fatal weakness. All that's needed is to identify it, and attack it. This requires, of course, a masterful understanding of military science, but also courage. To be able to look past the overwhelming odds, and focus on the key elements, is a very daunting thing.
Alexander is adored for fighting alongside his men, imitating his hero, Achilles. With his famous lion-shaped helmet, he rode recklessly into the fray of battle, being wounded up to 20 times, sometimes severely. His men, of course, loved him for it. By sharing their hardships and wounds, he won their everlasting loyalty.
"[My father] found you wandering about without resources, many of you clothed in sheepskins and pasturing small flocks in the mountains, defending them with difficulty against the Illyrians...[And now] All the wealth of Egypt and Cyrene...are now yours! Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia are your possession, Babylonia and Bactria and Elam belong to you! You own the wealth of Lydia, the treasures of Persia, the riches of India, and the outer ocean. You are Satraps, you are Generals, you are Captains. As for me, what do I have left from all these labors? Merely this purple cloak and a diadem." - Alexander the Great in a speech to his army, as reported by Arrian of Nicomedia.
The Macedonian War Machine
But none of this would be possible if Alexander did not have such an outstanding military machine to begin with. The Macedonian army was perhaps the most effective military force of its time.
Its defining feature was the Phalanx, an innovative formation devised by Alexander's father, Philip. The Phalangites carried 6-metre long spears, called Sarissae, which enabled them to fight the enemy at a distance. Any assaulting infantry would be pinned by a wall of spears, piercing its way forward. Meanwhile, skirmishers would stand behind the Phalanx to throw javelins, arrows and stones at the trapped enemy.
The Phalanx was supported by allied infantry units, hypaspists or lighter Greek Hoplites. These were much more mobile and could be used to stop the enemy if they breached through the Phalanx, or to outflank the enemy.
Either sides of the Phalanx stood the cavalry. Of these, the "Companions" - "knights" of the Ancient world - were the most effective. While the Phalanx would pin down the enemy army, the Companions would ride around the battlefield to outflank the enemy. They would also strike at the weakest point in the enemy line. These Companions were always led by Alexander himself, who rode with them and led the charges.
All this was devised by Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon. Macedonia used to be a place for poor shepherds and farmers, but Philip had transformed it into a martial hegemony. When Alexander turned 18, Philip had conquered and united all of Greece under the Macedonian state. Alexander simply inherited this resourceful, enormous power.
Likewise, he inherited his father's military staff. These generals were very experienced in Philip's new style of warfare, and knew how to run the army efficiently and effectively. This gave Alexander a competent set of generals by his side who advised him, and executed his strategies to perfection.
More importantly, the old generals balanced Alexander. Alexander was the young, wild, ambitious warrior-King who's dreams knew no bounds and whose conception of reality was blurred. This was good, for it pushed the Greeks further and further. But Alexander also needed the wisdom of the older generations. Provinces needed to be managed, not just conquered. Finances, logistics, culture management and politics - all these domains are sensitive, and require experienced management.
Towards the end of his career, Alexander's behavior became stranger. He seemed to have a genuine belief of himself as a god. He began dressing in Persian clothes, and inviting Bactrian, Indian and Persian nobles to his court, a controversial move in the eyes of his suspicious Greek staff. Then, when he married a tribal princess from Bactria, the generals began to openly criticize his multicultural policy. To them, Alexander was abandoning the Macedonian culture - an insult to his father and all Greeks. The situation was made no better by Alexander's increasingly wild drinking parties. At a drunken banquet, he killed general Cleitus the Black in a fit of rage after a heated argument. Sensing distrust, he allegedly uncovered a plot to kill him and had general Filotas executed for it. Then, he had Filotas' father, Parmenion, assassinated (Parmenion was the most experienced general in the army).
In the aftermath of these dramatic episodes, Alexander began his campaign to conquer all of India - but here, his army mutinied. The soldiers demanded to go home and see their families. Sobbing bitterly in his tent, Alexander had no choice than to return to Babylon.
In 323 B.C, he was back in Babylon, now with plans of conquering Carthage, and then, Rome and all of Italy. But fate denied him. After a night of heavy drinking, he suddenly collapsed. The reason for his fatal sickness is unknown. He lay on his deathbed barely able to speak. When his generals asked who would inherit his throne, Alexander simply replied "the strongest." He was 32 years old.
What we can learn from Alexander the Great
"Nothing is impossible to him who tries." - Alexander the Great
Alexander was not afraid of taking responsibility. This is something we can all learn from. From a very early age he had the courage to lead men into great danger. Then, a little older, lead them into the boldest campaign in ancient history. His tenacity, energy and drive ensured that it was accomplished.
"I am indebted to my father for living, and to my teacher for living well." - Alexander the Great
But we also see the importance of wisdom. An innovative, new vision is good - but it needs to be in balance with reality. One has to ask oneself: how far can I go with the existing competencies and resources I have? Alexander would've hardly achieved anything without the highly trained and sophisticated army, and their experienced generals. When Alexander clashed with the generals, the balance in his court became lopsided, causing an increasingly unstable government.
“For my own part, I would rather excel knowledge of the highest secrets of philosophy than in arms.” - Alexander the Great
Another thought it is worth reflection on is this: at the end of it all - was it worth it? Alexander's empire broke apart as soon as he died. Tens of thousands of people had died, and for what? For the glory of one man? Perhaps this was the tormenting trauma of the young man himself. No matter how much he conquered, he never reached fulfilment.
“A tomb now suffices him for whom the whole world was not sufficient.” - Alexander the Great