This week we examined the brief and turbulent life of Alexander the Great, a man who has enthralled people for centuries. No one conquered more people quicker than he. Of course, his early death immortalized him and helps us tend to see his successes.
I offered the students four different ways of thinking about Alexander, adopted by different historians in different times and places.
- Historian J.F.C. Fuller sees in Alexander one the great men of the ancient world. In him we see statesman, philosopher, and man of action all rolled into one. He at times sunk to the morals of his time, but often rose above them.
- Some see Alexander as the embodiment of a romantic ideal, a young boy out to change the world, an idealist visionary. A variation of this view would be one that does not see Alexander in primarily moral terms, but views him as a “force of nature.” We do not call a tornado good or bad, but we cannot help but stand and stare, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.
- Some see him as a great military leader, but a failed statesman. Great generals win battles, but great statesman get men to transform their view of the world. Regardless of how we view Alexander’s desire to unite East and West, he failed to sell this to his men and his dream collapsed.
- Still others, like Victor Davis Hanson, see in Alexander a common thug, a man who lived to kill. He massacred Thebans and most in Tyre after their defeats. Like Stalin, most of those close to him ended up dead. He demanded practices like prostration, and may have believed what his mother told him, that he was the Son of Zeus. Hanson sees admiration for Alexander as dangerous, a symptom of boredom and our will to escape this boredom through death.
This image of Alexander, though made long after his death, captures something of his madness, focus, brilliance, and lust for conquest:
The battle that defined Alexander’s life and career was Guagemela in 331 B.C.
He had already beaten the Persians decisively twice, but this time Darius III, king of Persia, seemed to have learned his lesson. He choose a wide open plain for battle, which could maximize his numeric advantage which was probably at least 5-1. He brought with him chariots, one of the fearsome weapons of the ancient world. He gave more heavy weaponry to his infantry.
Many of Alexander’s advisors urged him to wait, to go around, or perhaps fight Darius at night. Alexander would have none of it. He would not, he argued, “steal his victory.”
How did an army of around 45,000 defeat an army at least 5x its size?
Part of understanding Alexander’s victory is to see that many problems that most generals traditionally worried about Alexander felt he could ignore. For example, most generals would take troops to protect supplies, but Alexander didn’t mind if the Persians raided his supplies. If he won the battle, he could march straight to Babylon and have all the supplies he needed.
Alexander also believed that he make up for his lack of numbers by speed. In fact, he probably hoped that the deficiency in his own numbers might provoke the Persians to over-commit themselves in a certain area, leaving a gap in their lines. By a lightning quick cavalry thrust from what may have been the best cavalry in the known world at the time, Alexander could cause panic and confusion in the ranks, and once that set in, Persia’s numbers would work against them. Imagine a horrible accident on the interstate that forces people to turn around and redirect their route. In that case, this redirection would be much more easily accomplished with fewer numbers. The large amount of cars, or people in our case at Guagemela, would make for nightmarish confusion.
Here are a couple of depictions of how things went.
It was the gap in the Persians indicated by the map directly above, that gave Alexander the opening he needed. He plunged through and rode right at Darius, who lost his nerve and fled.
I confess that I am cheating a bit with the image above, because most think that this mosaic depicted Darius’s flight at the Battle of Issus two years earlier. But accurate or not, Darius fled the scene in both battles, and this, just as much as Alexander’s cavalry charge, cost the Persians the battle.
Guagemela stands for all time as Alexander’s most impressive victory and crowning achievement. It also may have marked a turning point in his character. Darker elements always latent in him rose to the surface much more often than before. I will send some more Alexander texts to the students over our hiatus.